Friday, September 13, 2013

Locks or landscape - Two different approaches to boating books

Just recently, I mentioned I'd ordered a book by the name of Betty's Barge, which claimed to be a charming account of one couple's journeys through France on a historic Dutch barge.

I was very excited when the book arrived and started reading it almost immediately. In fairness, it kept me reading it to the end, but I have to say I was generally disappointed. On the plus side (let's start with the good stuff), Bill Hezlep writes in a friendly and accessible style. It is easy to read in that respect, and it reflects what the author was in his former life: a cartographer and engineer. His companion, Betty, is also an engineer, and the barge is hers. She is the skipper, she makes the decisions and she commissions the work. The book is very factual and if you're interested in technical information about barges, geographic information about canals, their routes and their history, and gastronomic information about the best restaurants and wines, then you will love it. The history accounts of the places they visit are very interesting and well researched.

The story begins with an outline of why Bill and Betty decided that the life of cruising in a historic (please, not antique) Dutch barge was what they wanted. They are both sailors and before buying the barge, they'd spent six years continuously sailing the coastal waters of the US. They wanted a change and a break from the sometimes risky and uncomfortable life of small boat ocean sailing. They spent some time investigating and viewing barges and when they chose the Nova Cura (Betty's barge), they had all the proper surveys done (unlike me) and paid quite a price for their dream boat. All the same, it seems to me they were, unlucky souls, totally ripped off as the barge proved to be a disaster from day one.

They had endless trouble with it and it needed far more work and money spent on it than they'd anticipated. Sadly, the book focuses quite a bit on these problems and the descriptions of their cruising are very much coloured by their disappointments in many areas. It has also left me with an impression of totalling up countless locks, enduring dreadful weather (either too wet or too hot) and an almost single minded mission to find the best food and wine France can offer. To my regret, there was little about the beauty of the countryside, the experience of boating for its own sake, or even about meeting any French people. In truth, it could have been a travel guide for a bus tour. The cruising takes us along certain canals in France, whose routes are described in great detail, and on which they stop at every town. We are regaled with a history of these towns and their attractions, which they explore by bike, and then we move on. The only descriptions of the cruising itself are the number of locks they go through and the amenities at each of the places where they moor up for the night. A pity when you are travelling through some of the loveliest scenery in France.

In contrast, then, a book I have enjoyed immensely is another boating travelogue, this one by Anne Husar, someone I met through my interest in boat blogs. I came across the Wandering Snails Wanderings through another narrowboat blogger who'd been to the Ostend boat festival and had seen their NB there. He'd given a link to their blog, and I started following it, being fascinated by the idea of a narrowboat cruising the Belgian canals. The story of how we met the Snails (as we call them) is documented in my blog archives, but I won't bore you with that again here. Suffice to say they have become friends and I was privileged to read Anne's book, A Cigar in Belgium, at the proofing stage.

This account really makes you feel you are travelling with the Snails and experiencing their cruising life with them. From the first shock of seeing the huge ships on the great sea canal from the Dutch coast to Ghent to the excitement of going up the seventy-three metre boat lift at Strèpy Thieu in Wallonia, you follow it with them, see the lovely country and meet some wonderful people. For me, A Cigar in Belgium is what a barging travelogue should be. Yes, they had their problems and breakdowns too, but these are part of the fun and experience rather than being a litany of disasters. The book has also been professionally edited (which I fear Betty's Barge hasn't) and is laid out with plenty of photos to add to the appeal and imagery of the stories.

For some, maybe many, the informative nature of Betty's Barge is what they are looking for in a watery travel book. But, for sheer reading pleasure, when you want to enjoy boat travel vicariously and dream about it from the comfort of your armchair (or moored up barge), I would personally rather read about the Wandering Snail's wanderings. The great thing about this book too is that it's just the first of what I know is going to be a series, and I'm already looking forward to the next one!

Both books are available on, and A Cigar in Belgium will also be available on Kindle at some juncture, but I don't think it is yet.


  1. Great to read some balanced reviews. And you make it clear why 'one book is not for me' rather than dismissing it, and being clear about why you likes the other.

  2. A fascinating contrast between two ostensibly similar books. A pity about the first, which sounds as if it misses most of the tricks; the second you have encouraged me to read. Thank you, though it will have to stand comparison with another watery journey that will take some beating...

  3. Thanks Jo. There are quite a number of popular books written in the same style as BB, so it is definitely an approach many people like, but I would personally rather have a straight guide book for that. Each to his own!

    Thank you too, Christina, and thank you very much for the implied compliment. That is generous of you! Yes, for me BB does miss the mark, but I know a number of people who would probably choose BB over WW :-) As for our Belgian Cigar, do let me know if you try it!

  4. I think I'd prefer the second book too. I love the sound of travelling with snails (not the slimy variety as I get quite wobbly kneed when confronted with those) I love the slow life on the canal. It's the only time I can truly unwind.

  5. Dear Val, thank you for an interesting review of two contrasting books about boating. We have never done a trip of this type, but are considering a short trip in France as our first. For me the beautiful countryside would be key, so I think the second book is the one I would enjoy.

  6. Ros, I'm very much looking forward to visiting a friend of mine in England next month. She lives on a Narrowboat and we are hoping the weather will permit a trip to Braunston. It would be my first time on an English canal!

    Patricia, thank you for coming by! I'm glad these books have given you something to think about for your trip.You must let me know when and where you are going! Maybe I can help with information?

  7. I greatly appreciated your reviews Val and if I may make a simile.
    Whenever I make a trip to any place it is the journey that I enjoy as much as the holiday.

  8. Mel, may I also say how much I appreciate that sentiment, for I too feel exactly the same! Thank you!

  9. Liked how you posted your review so honestly.


  10. Thank you, Nas. In the end it's all a matter of personal opinion isn't it?

  11. Hey Val, I loved these reviews. I'm with you re Bill Hezlep's book. If they are boating the canals of France I want to hear setting details. Sounds a little disappointing. Yet the other books sounds good.

    The other night we watched a Mighty Structures program on tv. It was about flood-proofing The Netherlands then they moved onto Rotterdam, showing a lot of the watery ways - I was looking out for your boat, lol! It was about building those 2 big floodproofing gates which will close if high seas threaten this busy port.

    Also have been making progress with your Watery Ways and I'm wondering why you can't post a little excerpt or some photos for the WEP MOVING ON prompt. I'd love to see it and you would expose yourself to more readers. I love the way you incorporate Dutch words. I'm a sucker for foreign words in books. I'm dying to see what happens next.

    Happy Sails!


  12. Just to say my publisher has said the Kindle version should be out in one more week. I look forward to comments on the book as I won't get to see it before November when we moor up for the winter and go back to the UK where copies await at our friend's house who takes our post for us!

  13. Hi Val - interesting to hear about both books - I'd quite like the data detail of the first book, but can understand the predilection for the second ..

    Books to peruse before one sets off on a watery journey .. and of course there is yours ..

    I saw quite a few narrowboats and canal boats as I traversed around the Severn recently - on roads above!

    Cheers Hilary

  14. Denise, thank you so much! I will try an post something on your WEP from my new book (yet to be finished :-) It's the sequel to Watery Ways!

    Anne, that's great to know! Hope the word is spreading about the book!

    Thanks Hilary. Yes, you would probably enjoy the factual book as well as a more personal view :-) As I mentioned, it depends on your tastes, so many would definitely like Betty's Barge!

  15. Stop! My Amazon wish list is growing by the day, thankfully birthday and Christmas coming up! Xxx

  16. Great reviews Val. It must be interesting for you to read other accounts of life on a boat.

  17. Oh Fran and Anne, I missed these comments. Thank you! I love reading other boaty books :)


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