What Happens If You Drive With Your Caravan Brake On (in France)?
In one picture, this:
As we have done on many occasions, we took our summer holiday in Brittany this year, this time just outside Douarnanez. Like all caravan drivers, I apply the caravan's brakes when on board the ferry and release it just before disembarking at the other end. That's what I did this year. I know I checked the brake was off before we disembarked because I fret about it and usually check, double check and triple check it's off. As I did this time. However… there are lots of bumps as you drive off the ferry and on one of these the brake must have snapped on.
I carried on driving.
After we'd cleared the port at Roscoff and set off south there were a couple of times when I felt the caravan was a little sluggish pulling away. Mental check – did I release the brake? Yes, I know I did. Do I need to stop? When I get a minute but for now all seems well.
I carried on driving.
Big mistake. After a while I noticed that the white van behind me was flashing me and beeping his horn. Better stop… I am very grateful to that driver for stopping me. He stopped too and pointed to my caravan wheels, although he barely needed to by now. 'You know you've got sparks coming off the back of your wheels mate?' When I looked at the wheel I was horrified to see that the brakes were literally red hot. Another few kilometres and surely the tyres would have burst and we'd have had a very serious incident. Perhaps the caravan would have caught fire? Skidded across the road? Who knows…
So what to do?
We're in France at 7 o'clock on a Monday morning outside a house that may or may not have friendly occupants with a caravan that needs someone who knows what they're talking about to look at it. At first we just waited for the wheel to cool down. There was a breeze but even so, it took at least 15 minutes until we dared trying to move it. Reversing seemed OK but going forwards produced a very audible crunching noise.
Bear in mind that our command of French, whilst not zero, is far from adequate for explaining the situation, should we:
- drive on slowly and hope all is well?
- unhitch the caravan, drive to the nearest town and find help?
- call someone for help?
We did c. We've been RAC members for years but to be honest couldn't recall whether we were covered for outside the UK or not. And we certainly didn't know whether any cover we may have included the caravan or not.
Bottom line, our RAC membership did cover us and this must be the best investment we could possibly have made. We had to poke around a bit to find the number (thank goodness for the mobile Web and a usable signal) but for future reference, the RAC number in France is +33 (0)4 72 43 52 44. That gets you a bilingual French operator, able to locate you on the map and call up the local rescue service. The RAC in France were terrific that day and would continue to be so for the following two weeks – more below, but to cut a long story short:
- the breakdown service (dépannage) that helped us gave only the minimum of support. Yes, they picked us up and took the caravan to their garage but couldn't actually help us with a repair and made no real effort to do so.
- It became clear that we weren't going to get the 'van fixed easily and probably not that day.
- The RAC would look for a garage who could help us but that might take a few days.
This is where our second big help came in. Like a lot of the bigger French camp sites, the one we were heading to, Domain de Kervel, has a lot of chalets and, to our relief, one was available for a few nights so we knew we had accommodation even if we couldn't get the caravan fixed. So we left it on its flatbed truck in Pleyber-Christ, headed for Kervel and got ourselves semi-settled in.
The next day we rang the RAC again who were having no luck finding a garage to help. So I asked the staff at the Domaine de Kervel who they would turn to for help. The immediate answer was Garage Moreau. Why? Because the manager of the camp site was a good friend of the woman who worked for her father at the garage, That's the kind of local help and network you need. They made it clear that there was no promise that they could fix the caravan, but they could look at it and probably do at least a temporary repair — but be warned, this is France in August. Garage Moreau was closing at the end of the week.
By that afternoon, the caravan had been brought from Pleyber-Christ to Garage Moreau in Plonévez-Porzay and… they couldn't fix it. Well we ummed and ahhed, did some online searching and between us found a local agent for Al-Ko trailers (the chassis on which our caravan is built). The Al-Ko agent didn't actually keep any parts so they couldn't help directly, but they could order parts in — which would probably arrive when Al-Ko France got back from holiday in September. Was that soon enough?
Garage Moreau were exceptionally helpful and did everything they could. The brakes were now useless on one wheel and had to be removed and probably had to be removed from the other wheel too. They can do that so that the caravan will move – but avec pas des freins (with no brakes). OK, well that's helpful thank you. I can tow it the 5 km from the garage to the caravan site and we can have our holiday.
But we needed a longer term solution. We could drive the caravan a short distance carefully but could we drive back to Roscoff? Not safely. Could we drive a caravan without any brakes from Plymouth back to Ipswich? No way.
Cut to the chase… the RAC came to our rescue again. They organised another flatbed truck to come and pick us up from the campsite at exactly the time we wanted and we then followed along behind all the way to the ferry port in Roscoff. There we took over, driving on and off the ferry as normal. The RAC service was absolutely superb and we are very grateful indeed. Cost to us? Zero — our membership covered it.
What we needed then was someone who could fix the caravan as near to the Plymouth ferry terminal as possible. Step forward Tamar Towing Centre. If there's something like it in Brittany we couldn't find it. Actually, there's nowhere like it near Ipswich either to our knowledge. It's a specialist garage that can replace things like Al-Ko brakes easily from stock. Except we didn't just need new brakes, we needed new drums — something that doesn't ever need replacing normally. Again, as they were a standard size, thankfully, this was possible from stock. We'd booked our 'van in for the morning of our return to the UK, we arrived as planned, they fixed it that morning and by lunch time we were on our way home.
And so we have many people to thank:
- RAC France for being helpful when we first broke down and when we needed help to get back to Roscoff.
- Domain de Kervel for allowing us to stay in a chalet for a couple of nights and not charging us for our caravan emplacement while we did so. They couldn't have been more helpful.
- Garage Moreau for the temporary repair and the help in working out what we needed to do.
- Tamar Towing Centre for being able to effect the permanent repair exactly as planned, even though it was a bigger job than expected.
Apart from that it was an entirely relaxing holiday …