Tue 9th September – the van strikes back

We’re STILL in Saintes Maries de la Mer, leading the simple life. And today, it looked like we might be stuck here for a while longer.

This morning, we needed to drive the 2km or so back to the entrance of the aire to empty the holding tank & the loo and take on fresh water. The van wouldn’t start. Ignition, foot on brake, turn key, wimpy cough from starter motor and… nothing. Bugger.

Had a chat with our Belgian neighbours who did have a set of jump leads with them, but for them to move their van round to face ours would have been a massive undertaking (they’ve been here for  4 weeks and have 2 weeks to go). I flagged down a couple of young German windsurfers we’d become well-acquainted with, just as they were leaving in their VW Touran. They were quite happy to oblige as a charging point so we connected the jump leads from their car to our van and – with their engine running… absolutely nothing. Our engine still refused to turn over. So we left it for ten minutes with their engine still running to (hopefully) put some charge into our battery.

During this time, the German guys asked if I could help them separate the two halves of each of their two masts which had become completely jammed together – presumably with sand. This is the bane of a windsurfer’s life, meaning that – instead of having two, 2,2m lengths of easily car-toppable and transportable sections of mast, there’s just one long (4.3m’ish) length sticking out at both ends of the car, picking up the odd pedestrian along the way (anyone remember Eric Sykes’ silent film: “The Plank”?). Unfortunately, although we did managed to get one of the masts apart, we managed to split the top section in the process; always a possible outcome of stuck masts. Bye, bye £170.

By now, there must be enough charge in our battery to start the van, right? Wrong. Not a peep. With our Belgian neighbours, the German guys and another Frenchman all firing useful suggestions – all of which were tried – we had to admit defeat. It doesn’t help that the engine’s battery is fitted underneath the driver’s seat – which has to be removed to gain access to the battery. And I mean ANY kind of access. You can’t even see the battery with the seat in place. You need a decent set of open-ended spanners to be able to remove the seat, in addition to a Torx driver to remove the seatbelt fixing point. Oddly enough, I completely failed to bring such tools with me.

The really worrying thing is that this set of symptoms was an exact copy of the problems that occurred at the dealers when I went to collect the van from them: they couldn’t get it started despite having it on charge from another vehicle’s running engine for an hour or so. They kept the van for a further 3 days (ok, it was over a weekend), eventually announcing they’d fixed it by  “removing a piece of silver foil from around one of the battery terminals”. Whilst it is unconventional to have silver foil on a battery terminal post, it’s a fairly routine means of ensuring a tight fit of the cables to the terminal posts. I told them then that the problem wasn’t fixed and would return. It took it almost 3 months, but it certainly returned.

In the end, I had to call on our European breakdown insurance (delivered by AA-Europe). They took all the details including – seemingly – my inside leg measurement, during a very long international mobile phone call. Fair play to them, their customer service is great. They called back within 15 mins to say that a breakdown truck would reach us by 2pm; two hours hence.

2 ½ hours later, I got a call from the breakdown team. My French is not great, and their English was non-existent. Fair enough. The gist of it, via a very uneasy conversation, was that they couldn’t find us. I tried giving them directions using the Tourist Info map we have of the town, and explaining that we were 2km down the beach from the aire. They couldn’t find the aire. They couldn’t find the road the aire was on. In fact, they were over 100 miles away at Saint Marie Plage by Perpignan. I suspect they were probably hacked-off too at being given a duff call out.

AA called me back about 5 mins after this to ask if the breakdown crew had arrived and that everything was now fixed. Ah yes, they’d called out the dépannage (breakdown service) in the wrong Département of France. Oops! Ten minutes later they called back to say that a different dépannage would be with us within 45 minutes. And it was. They arrived with a huge truck big enough to get our 7.3m long van onto the back of. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that!

The very pleasant young man diagnosed a dead/weak battery within about 3 minutes of arriving; got out his “PowerBoost” battery pack, and got us started first time. Just to be certain, he checked the alternator was working fine (it was). Interesting that his battery pack got us going where the jump leads/borrowed running engine didn’t. Possibly the jump leads weren’t man enough for the task, but they would normally just melt if that were the case.

He advised replacement of the battery and gave us the location of another dépannage on the road towards Auiges-Mortes – about 12km away. It was now getting late in the afternoon, and we had to call in at the service point to do the water/loo stuff first.

We got there just before 5pm. It was closed. There was a bloke sitting on a tractor just outside the gates who turned-out to be the proprietor. He’d decided to have an early day and I should come back at 08:30 the next morning, when he’d look at it with furrowed brows, take a note of the physical size, capacity and the terminal post arrangement, and – possibly – order up a replacement that might or might not arrive within a few days at which point we’d discover it’s probably the wrong type anyway.

Back at the aire, we hatched-up a different plan: Having been given a good run for an hour or so, there was a good chance that a decent charge had been put back into the battery. So… in the morning (now Wed. morning), we would try to start it. If it starts, we’ll let it run for 15 mins for the poor thing to overcome the shock of having started the engine. We’d then leave it until we get home and either have a winge at the dealer’s (it’s still under warranty), or just give up and buy a new battery myself, where I can dismantle the driver’s seat, remove the battery, stick it in the car and drive down to the car parts place in Patchway, and get a replacement from there. It would also mean I’d have a useful warranty on the new battery, rather than one that would require me to return the battery to the South of France in case of a problem.

Let’s hope the plan works…

In the meantime, we watched a fabulous full moon rising at about 8:20pm. Beautiful.

Full moon rising.

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