Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The final push

We left Valance on the morning of Tuesday 26th June 2012. It was more of a ‘suck-it-and-see’ departure, as the Rhone rates were still around 2½ knots and not likely to fall less than that until the late Summer/Autumn months. Our good friends Mike and Ann, who have motored the area for some years, were trying to push us to go but I was reluctant about Mikes advice that ‘it looks worse that it really is – you’ll be ok’. Anyway, we thought we’d give it a try and if too stressful we’d linger at one of the ports downstream.  Shortly after 0900 hours we motored around the marina and made for the entrance to the Rhone.  A bridge is not far downstream so it is a dash out of the marina to cross to the opposite side of the river and make between the lateral posts leading to the channel under the bridge. I wasn’t looking forward to it, particularly as some friends had left a few weeks previously, in similar conditions, and mis-judged the current, side-swiping the port-hand lateral mark as they made across river.  I knew all eyes would be watching, and was feeling quite confident when Sno’ Rush behaved perfectly going astern out of the berth – even Hil commented as it was a faultless manoeuvre. Luckily, Sno’ Rush carried on behaving and we headed out and slightly up into the stream until I’d got the strength right to turn and enter the channel smack-on in the middle. Perfect – one up for the sailors!
I should have listened to Mike’s advice without question as he was perfectly right. We were travelling at almost 3 knots, in the centre of the channel, with hardly any rolling or ‘lumpiness’ to cause worry. It was a beautiful sunny day, in the mid-twenties, with a following f3 or so wind. I knew the wind would be strengthening and was waiting to see what would happen at the next lock, Ecluse Beauchastel, some 11 km downstream. The entrances to these locks are beside the main river and therefore suffer little of the main tidal stream, so slowing to tie up to the waiting pontoon shouldn’t be a problem.  When we got to Beauchastel, it was the strengthening wind that caused the problem.  Since there was no activity at the lock, and the inevitable silence to our radio announcement, we decided to tie up to the waiting pontoon. The second attempt saw us with our bowline, and Hil, on the pontoon when a particularly strong blow caught our stern and swung the boat around. As luck would have it, Sno’ Rush just carried on round and, with a bit of throttle, lay alongside as if it were our intention all along! It’s a strange thing though, at these locks, the wind seems to funnel and get stronger whenever we are near or in them!
These lower Rhone locks are big, deep and quite awe-inspiring. Beauchastel is of the same ilk but a mere baby in regards to depth – only 13½ metres drop. They have never caused much of a problem as all have floating bollards which make life so easy. The wind gusting about the lock is about the only problem and it doesn’t recede the lower you fall. We left the lock pretty darn’ happy with ourselves that the first part of the last leg had gone so well.
The plan as to travel down to Viviers, which is a port du plaisance some 55km downriver and the only available port open to us. The next stop at Cruas will only take 1m (apparently) draught vessels. So, on we plodded downriver, in the warmth of the mid-day sun, through Ecluse Logis Neuf (13.75m drop) and Ecluse Chateauneuf (18.5m drop – no waiting here, the eclusiere let us straight in the lock) and then round the corner to Viviers which is set slightly upriver on the old Rhone. At 1500hrs we tied up, a days’ total of 54km and 3 locks. We had no problems at all; in fact I sent an email to our friends at Valence declaring the Rhone a ‘pussy’, not really thinking that we had a fair few miles to go. Hil said I was tempting fate or ‘karma’ as she puts it!
Viviers was certainly not as plush as we had got used to at Valence! A lovely spot, right on the junction of the Old Rhone where it meets the canal leading from the ecluse. It’s protected by a spit so is tucked away from the main river flow. Unfortunately when we got there it was full, literally, with ribs and day boats, some sort of rally or something so we were told. Anyway we barged through and tied up to the pontoons.  Strange these pontoons, a cantilever arrangement around 8m long, pivoting from the high bankside. Quite high as well, but perfect for us even though they had clearly seen better years. Electricity was from a communal distribution box further up the bank which wasn’t a problem as we have a long extension lead. Showers were around a ¼mile away and adequate. There is no security at all, but then that’s what makes the place so enchanting.  The local bistro is welcoming and ½mile away is the town – a superb example of French rural architecture. We liked it at Viviers, even though the constant to-ing and fro-ing of large river cruisers mooring close-by disturbed our tranquillity. We stayed two nights at €15 per night all in.

Viviers – Hil grabs a coffee.

Our next port of call was a small marina at l’Ardoise, officially known as Port 2, approx. 5km back up the old Rhone, close by the Ecluse de Caderousse. This caused me a bit of concern, as I didn’t want to push the old girl to hard trying to fight the stream up towards the marina. But then, there is always the next downstream lock for the night! We left Viviers at around 0900 hours and motored down the Rhone towards Donzere where the old Rhone meanders away from the 30km long canal section containing the deepest lock in Europe at Bollene, some 23m deep. This section of canal is often referred to as a ‘chute’, as it is long, narrow and often picks up speed during its length. We did pick up speed, up to around 4kn, but it was sheer joy riding with the tide along the trouble-free lengths of the canal. Not as scenic as the old Rhone, but stress-free. Bollene was a sight to behold when we approached it, a large complex striding the canal with the ecluse to the one side, typically austere power-generation buildings. Entering the lock and beginning the descent was familiar, but as we went further and further down it suddenly dawned on us that this was a cavernous place, surpassing all that we had seen before.

Ecluse Bollene – 23m deep

Passing through, we continued to the next lock at Caderousse (a mere 9.5 metre drop), and prepared for the jaunt upstream to Port2. As we made to turn at the junction, I could feel the Rhone tentively release its grip as we headed further into the mouth. The river in front of us was narrow and quiet, with tree’s lining the banksides. We slowed quite a bit through the mouth and I chanced increasing the throttle. As we headed into the reaches we gradually began to pick up speed and I was chuffed to be doing over 2kn. We continued along the winding river with good depth and no significant loss in speed.
Port 2 was a bit of a let-down at first sight – a little rundown and I suppose typical of a backwater ‘marina’ that had seen better days. We moored up at 1430hrs (a days’ total of 55km and 2 locks) to the angle-iron pontoon with the help of a friendly resident, then had a wander around the place. An out-of-the-way place – yes, but everyone was really friendly. It was a hot day and we got talking to quite a few people who were sheltering in the shade of various places. The Capitaniere was really good; she not only looks after the marina but provides food in a very pleasant bistro-type veranda.  She made an instant hit with Hil, who couldn’t find anything on the menu to cater for her quirky tastes (not unusual). When she popped to her nearby house and returned to serve up ham, chips and melon, Hil was over the moon! You can guess that we liked this place, and at €16 per night all in (plus €2 for Wi-Fi), we would have no hesitation in returning.
Since time stands still for no man, the following day we set forth for the bright lights of the old papal city of Avignon. At 0930 hours, we left the mooring and wandered down the old Rhone to join the main stream for the short journey to Avignon Lock (10m fall), and then down and back up the old Rhone to the great city. We only know Avignon from the river charts and the description given by those who had been there before, and of course the Google maps satellite view. About 3km back up the river is a long quay that serves as the ‘boat park’ for the city. It did have a splendid modern marina, by all accounts, but this got washed away in floods a few years back and was never replaced. Some friends let us know that when they arrived there a few weeks previously, the quay was choc-a-bloc with boats, with many rafted and few electricity points available. I must admit to a small degree of trepidation as we made our way down the Rhone towards the outskirts of the city. Was the old river going to be kind to us and allow us up, and was there going to be space when we got there? Well, as we made our way past the spit of land between the two rivers, negotiated under the SNCF Viaduct, turned and went under the viaduct again to motor up-river to the city, we got our answer.  Kind was the word – our down-river speed of 4½knots dropped to 2kn up-river which was about the speed most craft were travelling at. Had to be careful at the old Pont d’Avignon (the one in the song that fell down), as the remaining part is still in-situ on the river causing a restriction of two-way traffic. Around the bend the public quay came into sight – plenty of space to moor up, hurrah!
At 1230hrs on a sunny and hot day, we moored against the concrete quay having travelled 29km and 1 lock from Port2. A kindly Englishman helped us tie up the mooring rings as they were set back from the edge of the high quay, in fact it was a bit of a struggle having to climb onto the coach roof to disembark, but you take want your given. We were intending to stay a while at Avignon to explore the city, but a weather front was due in the coming days and I didn’t want to get stuck waiting for the river levels to fall. We decided to spend that afternoon and following day doing the ‘tourist’ thing. Since the weather held, it was a pleasure walking around the walled city, following the narrow streets, back against the walls as the buses pass! A very grand old place and I’m glad we spent the time to explore it. In typical French fashion, no-one came around to the boat to collect mooring fees. I did see some man looking at the boats as he walked past on the first evening but, after a simple ‘bon soir’, nothing else was said. He was the Capitaniere, who we had to find the following day, very lackadaisical but good humoured. €36 for two nights all-in – no Wi-Fi, but free to customers at the café/bar over the road from the boat (pure heaven!).

The town quay at Avignon

Since the wind and rain hadn’t materialised, we slipped the mooring at 0900 hours on Sunday 1st July and took our leave of the fabled city. This next journey was to be the turning point in our travels, since we were headed down river to the junction of the Petit Rhone which we would follow to the Canal du Midi. Although a long day was coming, by the end we would be off the mighty Rhone and onto the quiet canal at Gallician. This lower part of the Rhone is, from what I can see, the widest part, some ½km wide for most parts as it meanders southward. The last lock on the whole river is at Beaucaire, 15½m fall, some 24km downstream from Avignon. For a short length after the lock the river narrows to around 150m before widening slightly. This is another of those ‘chutes’ where the current increases and, so I’ve been told, becomes very lumpy. As we made our way out of the lock, we prepared for this chute at Tarascon. There are two bridges close together, both have particularly large piers supporting the bridge, causing turbulence in the river flow. The latter bridge has a shorter span, making the turbulence even worse. We must have had a good day, as although we did pick up speed, and there was turbulence, passing under the bridges dead-centre proved no more challenging than any other bridge. I will say however, that had we not been set up correctly, it would have been another matter.  The ‘bow’ wave from the front of the piers and the swirling eddies behind them looked really nasty.
A short time later, we spotted the fork in the river where the Petit Rhone starts.  It really seemed such a milestone – that long-awaited marker for leaving the Rhone and following the route to the Mediterranean. Shame it clouded over and started to drizzle as we left the mighty river behind us. No more wide-open and fast flowing rivers to negotiate - the change was dramatic. All of a sudden we were back onto a narrow, winding, tree-overgrown tributary, more like the canals than a fully-fledged river. Twenty kilometres further on and we came to the turn for the St Giles lock and the start of the Canal du Midi. Can’t think of much to say about the Petit Rhone, it’s a nice river but I think everyone regards is as merely a connection between the Rhone and the canal – certainly it must have some delightful points but, late in the afternoon on a grey, drizzly day, it holds no highlights for us. St Giles lock is a grand affair for a canal lock, large but hardly any fall at all. I suspect it is more of a water-gate between river and canal than a lock as we appeared to drop only a few centimetres. It is not even the start of the canal, but joins it some 29km from its start at Beaucaire.  Beaucaire was the original junction with the Rhone before the days of the hydro-electric power plants and large locks. For some reason the access was blocked. Gallician is only 10km away from Ecluse St Giles and it was here that we were to stay for the night. At 1600 hours, we finally moored after two miserable attempts trying to turn Sno’ Rush in the canal to berth stern-to. Even in the rain, the previously deserted Halte Nautique filled with spectators to watch the silly Englishman try to turn his boat where she didn’t want to go. They saw us moor up alongside a large, old stink boat, technically bow first, but with the rain now chucking down, we didn’t really care.  Days’ total – 72km and 2 locks.
We awoke late the following day, I guess we would have slept later but the sun was shining bright and it was warm. Gallician seemed ok, but I can’t say much about it as we only got off the boat for a short time the previous evening and that was to pay two elderly ladies who had helped to moor up. I think they were sort of standby Capitanieres' as no-one else was around.  Berthing cost €15.40 per night, all-in, I didn’t ask about Wi-Fi as I think the technical age had passed these people by.  The facilities appeared ok and consisted of a newish building set back behind a line of trees close to the bankside. All was quiet the following day but it did seem quite pleasant in the warm sunshine. We were starting to get a tad excited, knowing that journeys end was not far away, and had decided to do short hops to enjoy our remaining time on the canal. I had studied this canal on the fluviacarte for such a long time it was going to be fun comparing the reality to those pictures you conjure up in your mind. We left Gallician at 1200 hours that day and motored along a straight stretch towards our next stop at Carnon some 29km away. We by-passed Aigues Mortes, an old and interesting garrison town the guides say, in favour of using a newer section of canal designed for that use.  A short distance ahead, the canal crosses the Vidourle river and the fluviacarte notes two ‘portes de garde a guillotine’. I couldn’t quite picture what these were and presumed they were some flood protection for the canal, as the river joins a canal from Aigues Mortes and empties into the Mediterranean at Le Grau du Roi. What I saw was exactly as the book says, two giant guillotines high up over the canal and mounted between two concrete pillars on either bank. Passing through was no problem other than a slight sea-ward current. It suddenly dawned on me then that the canal was at sea level and fed/drained by the Med itself. I hadn’t really given it a thought until then. The land was opening up to show flat lands either side and as we went further along, a wide-open lagoon to our right came into view. This is one of those famous salt-water etangs I’d read so much about, the Etang de Mauguio or de l’Or. It seemed quite strange at times, as only a narrow bank separated us from the etang. We knew the Med was close, perhaps ½km to our left but no way could we clearly see it. The main road follows the canal quite closely here and it was mainly this that restricted the view. We carried on down the straight section of canal towards Carnon where a halte was noted in the fluviacarte. When we arrived it was packed with rafted boats so we took the last un-rafted spot and settled in. Good job really as several boats arrived after us and had to find somewhere else.  I thought they could have double-rafted but when a fully loaded péniche slid by a couple of hours later it was clear that they had no chance - there was barely room for it between the bank and the existing boats!
When we had a look around the place, I saw that the boat I’d rafted against, and in fact the rest of the boats around me were unoccupied. It was then I realised that the long bankside pontoon was in fact, in two sections. We were on a hire boat pontoon and the halte was at the other end. The man we paid didn’t say anything to us about it, but probably explains why it was cheap, €10 per night all in. The halte pontoon was in a poor state of repair with few electricity/water pods. The only toilet/shower block in the area was near here and frankly it was disgusting – old and unclean. I think I would list this as a ‘last resort’ stop, even though we had a better pontoon. Nevertheless, it was quiet and had a well-stocked ‘Spar’ shop at the garage 5 minutes’ walk away.
We left the following day at 1130hrs and, a short distance away, approached the junction of a tributary from the etang leading to Carnon harbour. Loads of boats moored everywhere along this little river from the harbour (where I’m told there is a proper marina), up to the etang where we could see what appeared to be a decent halte de plaisance. Wouldn’t you know it! Anyway, we carried on down the canal hoping at some stage we would be able to get our first sight of the Med. Passing Palavas-Les-Flots was another pair of  ‘guillotines’ which protect the canal from River Lez. This little river goes all the way up to Montpellier, but boat traffic is restricted a few kilometres up-river. This river is another place where little boats are moored in every available space. As we moved further along the canal, the etang was on both sides, again only narrow banks separating us, like a boat ‘highway’ through the etang. Odd breaks in the bank allowed the water to flow between us, with a moderate flow from across the canal from one etang to the other. Along this stretch we came upon an oddity at la Maguellone, the carte calls for boats to ‘sound horn’ on the approach to a floating foot-bridge crossing the canal. It came as a surprise when a young man at the end of the bridge waved in reply to our ‘toot’, started an outboard engine on the bridge and pushed it out and into the canal to swing it open. I would hate to have his job on a busy day!

The etangs either side of the Canal du Midi

Our next stop was at Frontignon where the bridge only opens twice a day, so it was easy to make this an overnight stop-over, especially when the first night is free. The idea was to stay here and back-track a short way to take the commercial waterway to the sea and enter Sète marina directly from the Med. The other way is to continue along the Canal into the Etang de Thau, enter Sète and then through the various bridges in the city to make our way to the marina. Always being one to take the easy way, the choice seemed obvious, although there is little information about the waterway in the carte which marks the end as ‘fishing port prohibited to pleasure boats’, I’m sure this wouldn’t apply to an obvious sailing boat. As we passed the open ‘T’ junction of the waterway, all seemed clear for our forthcoming passage to the sea, however taking the canal-to-canal course is not possible. The buoyage is unclear and shallows if you take the direct course. It only becomes clear when you make for the seaway then turn back towards Frontignon.  It’s a bit confusing but we managed it and only a short distance away is Frontignon where we moored against the concrete quay with 6 inches under the port bilge keel.  The bridge is in fact a very low lift bridge that completely blocks access. The set times of lifting are 0830 and 1600 each day. The carte says that downstream traffic has right of way but when we watched the afternoon lift it was absolute chaos. As soon as the bridge was lifting, boats began to jockey for position, ok on our side I thought, but then I could see the other side and they were doing the same.  One boat on our side clearly wanted to go through first and was hovering feet away from the bridge. I think he was trying to show the other side that we had right of way but when the ‘clear to pass’ signal sounded he ‘gunned’ it only to ground on the port side. Boats behind him took no notice and passed around him but he did stop the oncoming traffic. When he got free and had barged his way into the line of boats, the other side started coming through. Two lines of boats, big and small, were passing in a small gap with smallest of clearances. We sat and watched thoroughly amazed!
There is supposed to be electricity on the quayside but I could find any, and no-one else could tell me why not. No Capitaniere's appeared either. I went for a walk to the other side of the bridge and found a few English-speaking people. Apparently all the electricity was off, and that was the end of it! I also asked about the seaway access and was told, without doubt by others that had tried, that no boats other than commercial boats were allowed access – oh, well, we’ll have to carry on the Etang de Thau. It was a beautiful evening, idling on deck in the evening warmth, topped only by a practice session of the local ‘Jouteurs’ (water jousting) club practising on the canal beside us for the August event in Sète – perfect!
I must admit to a faux pas at this point. I had completely forgotten about the rise and fall in the water level. We had started to list during the late evening and I realised that my port keel had grounded. But the Med has no tide, I hear you say – I say yes it does, as does the canal that feed from it, so much so that by the middle of the night I was almost falling out of bed and resorted to tying more straps on the mast! As with all things however, by breakfast time we were level and free, and the panic was over. The canal must have risen around a foot (0.3m) while we were there.
We were up bright and early that day to ready ourselves for the 0830hrs bridge. I’d already telephoned the girls at Sète marina and been told to be at the first bridge to enter the city at 0945 hours. Since it was only a distance of around 7km, we reckoned, without mishaps, that we’d make the distance comfortably. A melee of boats had appeared and were all shuffling to position themselves in readiness for the opening of the bridge. A large number of hire boats, or ‘bumper-boats’ as we call them, were in amongst the mass. They easily stood out as the ones without any boat-handling skills. One caused quite a stir as he was unable to stop the stern of his boat ‘touching’ a large, posh French motorboat moored a few boats back from us. The Frenchman came running out, arms flailing, shouting what I can only assume were obscenities at the young German wannabee’s.  I expected to see some gaping hole in his bow from the way he was going on, but I couldn’t see a mark. The man made it worse when he got back onto his boat, revved his monster engines, pulled away from the quay and stormed off downstream. A short time later I saw him lurking at the end of the queue. I’d already decided to wait until last to avoid any problems.
Finally the bridge rose and the inevitable two rows of boats attempted to pass the narrow channel, fortunately all behaving themselves. On the other side, most of the boats travelling in our direction were jostling about trying to moor. We were lucky to be able to thread our way through and into the canal without mishap. The last part of the canal comprised of a short length of open grassland and then the rear of a large commercial/industrial area. Once through this we entered the wide open lagoon of the Etang de Thau. The day was warm and bright but we were unprepared for the gusty wind blowing across the etang as we entered.  Although 5 or 6 metres deep at its centre, the lagoon is shallow at its edges and we were to follow a marked channel to the entrance to Sète along its edge. Between the channel and the land the area was strewn with nets and poles and other devices to, I guess, feed the local population – the carte states ‘fond dangeruex’, which clearly they were. We made the bridge on time and with 15 minutes to spare.  Just after 0945hrs, the railway bridge and road bridge opened up and we trundled through with another boat. Turning to port, we headed towards a swinging road bridge, already open, passing the pontoons of the Halte Nautique to our right and the Gare set back from the road to our left. At this point we joined about six boats, all sail I might add, which were waiting for the two remaining road bridges to lift. I’d been forewarned of a 20min wait so was prepared, and joined the ‘fleet’ attempting to check the drift. As it happens, we waited about half an hour until the bridges, one lift and one swing, opened for us. At around 1100hrs we were moored, stern-to in the marina at Sète. At long last!

Journey’s end

Total journey length (Calais – Sète)         1302km
Total number of locks                             232
Total journey time                                  226.75 hrs.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Over-wintering in Valence

Well it’s now mid-June and we’re still in Valance, bobbing around on a pontoon berth, enjoying the extremes of the Rhone-Alps climate. Extremes they are, as in May, some days were 30°C during the afternoon while the nights fell as low as 8°C. No wonder we were both suffering from sniffles. The torrential rain and stormy weather in England appeared to be a long way away! Until the turn of the month, that is. The days remain the same with nights now in the mid-teens, but it has brought glorious thunderstorms and torrential downpours. We’re waiting to move down the Rhone but each time it slows to around 2-2½ knots, it pours down and pushes it up to 4 -5 knots or more. Do I risk a 5 knot tide pushing us downstream? Sorry, but that is break-neck speed for Sno’ Rush on a river (and me!).

One of those glorious sunsets.

Talking about our conveyance, Sno’ Rush was lifted back into the water on 15th November 2011, after a long haul in repairing the starboard keel. Claude (our French GRP guru) was helping out me, and a myriad of other needy boat owners, in his spare time. The plan was to fill the hole with polyester and layer a couple of coats of impregnated matting on top to form a base for a top, barrier coat of epoxy and matting. The drying with a blow-drier seemed to have worked so Claude began to infill with polyester. All was going well up to the stage of fairing the polyester to receive the barrier coat. I was watching the clouds of white dust as he sanded the surface. Then I saw grey streaks appearing. Claude stopped and gave me a real sad look. It was clear that there was still more water in the keel and this had percolated down and through the new polyester. He cut a gash through his new work and water started to seep through. We both realised that it was not a simple repair as the keel hadn’t dried out after two weeks in the hot sunshine. We had a long chat about it, whether to seal it as-is and carry on, or start drilling holes in the keel to aerate and dry it. Really, how could I think about patching the old girl? I have a West System manual which gives the correct method to dry a keel out. Claude obviously had the French equivalent as he suggested the same method, and I know he hadn’t tackled this job before. So, drill in hand, I punctured my baby’s skin with six 10mm holes along a mid- keel line. Claude had tapped the keel and heard the hollow sound of cavities which we were hoping were connected. He cut-back his infill to sound material and fitted the nozzle from his hot-air blower to the open gash. We were as pleased as punch to feel hot air blowing out of the holes - somehow they were connected. Drying like this went on for almost a week, after which a thorough dousing with acetone, then further drying, and we had warm dry, sweet air puffing from the holes. At long last the inner keel was dry. After more filling with polyester and matting, Claude started the sanding down for the barrier coat. I wasn’t really prepared for the shock of seeing a 12-to-1 bevel for the epoxy barrier coat. It has to be done, but watching Claude chamfer the little 10mm holes into saucer-size bevels really did bring home what we were doing.

Watch out birds, somebody else wants the bread!

All holes and gash filled with polyester, it was now time for me to start the epoxy barrier coat. Claude has an ailment common to glass-fibre workers in that he suffers a raging skin rash from being anywhere near epoxy. Anyway, along he came covered from head-to-foot, wearing a breathing mask and carrying tins, bottles, digital scales and other paraphernalia. Work went well, with the first coat of thickened epoxy, and then ever-increasing sizes of matting bonded with thinner epoxy layers. After a couple of sequences of setting, sanding down and epoxy layers, the surface was faired and completed, only the odd ripple showing where our repair had taken place. Since the epoxy layer is a barrier to water, a sealing coat of paint is not required. Three coats of good quality antifouling, shipped from the UK as it is twice the price over here, and Sno’ Rush was finished. Hurrah!


Repaired, washed and polished, and waiting for the lift-in.

I arranged the lift-in with the Capitaine and he offered me a couple of berths. I chose the one with the easiest access, not knowing that the pontoon was nick-named ‘The English Pontoon’. Almost a third of the 30 boats on it are English-owned, and a good few spend most of their time aboard. The reason for their choice is clear, excellent weather, good facilities, closeness to the canals both North and South and an annual berthing fee of only €1664 (£1330) plus electricity (up to 32 Amps) at €0.175 (£0.14) per kWH. Trust the English to know where the bargains are!

 The weather held fine until the last week in November. It was then that temperatures deteriorated and out came the trusty butane heater. Here’s a thing. For years, we’ve clung on to the Camping Gaz cylinders in the certain knowledge that they are the easiest to replace when visiting French Ports. Not so when in travelling through France. There are loads of LPG suppliers on offer, as in the UK, and all far cheaper than Camping Gaz which is only available in the BBQ sections of the major supermarkets or at ‘bricolage’ stores (B&Q type places). Our type 907, holding 2.75 kg of gas costs around €25 to replace. A ‘Casino’ gas bottle, one of many brands on sale at the petrol pumps, holds 10kg of gas and costs €20 with a contract fee of just €1. No comparison really.

 Through December the sun came out regularly in the mornings, but the temperatures kept dropping, bringing the ever-present condensation problems. Wind, rain, a couple of sleet flurries, it was just like back home. On the 20th of December, the day we were due to fly home for Christmas, we woke up to 2 inches of snow on the ground. So much for winter sun!

We were due to return early in January but had to cancel the flights. My father was going through a bad health patch which was also having a knock-on effect on my mother, so both were in need of a bit of support. We didn’t get back until 6th April and we were wondering what kind of state Sno’ Rush would be in. I’d been monitoring the weather and saw that a few times snow and freezing temperatures had been forecast. On one occasion, -10°C had been forecast, so I was a bit concerned to say the least. When we got back, the on-board weather machine showed -8°C outside over winter; whilst in the cabin it reached -2°C. Fortunately, everything was ok, unlike a few of my neighbours, one of whom had a cracked heat exchanger. Others had a cracked exhaust tube and a split freshwater pipe. Good job I emptied all the water tanks and filled the engine with fresh antifreeze.

Idling in the sun!

We were hoping to set off quite quickly for Sète when we arrived back, but soon realised it was impossible with the speed that the Rhone flows during April. The rains and Alpine snow-melt cause the river to rise, and speed-up. The French publish up-to-the-minute flow rates on the CNR website (in m³/s) – for May/June the average is around 1550 m³/s (3kn) at Valance. The lowest flow rates are in August/September and October, at around 1050 m³/s (2kn). At the moment, the rains just won’t let the Rhone fall to a level that I am happy with. So, at the moment we are idling around, fixing little jobs and enjoying the sun until the flow rate reduces. And then the final push to Sète.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

So near yet so far!

As I write this we are on the hard in the marina at Valence. A slight miscalculation in a narrow stretch of the Rhone, trying to avoid an on-coming giant péniche, and we grounded the starboard keel on something hard. Although bouncing off, the rudder skeg also caught it on the turn. After cursing the péniche (it made me feel better), I made a quick check throughout the boat and, finding no obvious signs of water ingress, the panic soon died away. The engine was merrily throbbing along and there were no outward signs resulting from the contact. It was only Hil and I that were suffering the after-affects. Shame, because the journey down from Lyon, with the overnight stop at Les Roches de Condrieu, had been superb. Hot sunny days with a balmy breeze to keep us cool, industrial size locks gently dropping us 10 –15 metres and the goal of Seté only 8 days away – it couldn’t have been better.

A couple of kilometres north of Tournon-sur-Rhone, at PK89, lies a visible rock in the middle of the Rhone. It is marked by a starboard lateral post and is clearly visible. The river at that point is around 150m wide and all the advice is to keep 100m from the (downstream) left bank. Plenty of room in normal conditions, but as I rounded the bend to the rock we were met with a rather large péniche steaming towards us, both of us in the middle of the deep channel, about 200m from the rock. He slowed and I turned to starboard.  I thought to turn and run upstream but would have only put Sno’ Rush in his path – not the thing to do! So I moved over to avoid the inevitable wash from his bow wave, watching the depth constantly. I’d got 6m under the keels but was forced into shallower water by the heavily laden péniche who was keeping to the middle ground. I went to 2m (I read under-keel depth) to keep out of his way. Since we were travelling by trees and bushes on the bank around 15m away, and the depth remained constant I felt sure we’d pass by safely. Then I noticed the depth flash to 0.3 then 1.5m again. Taking no chances on a false reading, I turned toward deeper water and prepared for the approaching bow wave. And then….BANG!

How – I don’t know. Why – God only knows, but we hit and ran over what felt like concrete lying on the river bed.

The boat seemed none the worse for its ordeal, which can’t be said for Hil and me. Sno’ Rush just carried on undaunted. We did carry on, but I had that nagging doubt about how much underwater damage had been caused, the extent growing as each hour passed! We reached our over night stop at Port l’Eperviere in Valence. Fortunately, this is an all-singing, all dancing marina/boat yard and when I found a small inboard leak coming from around the rudder stock the decision was made to haul Sno’ Rush out and see what had happened.

The following afternoon, Sno’ Rush was lifted and held while we had a look around. What we saw amazed us! Apart from an 18” long chamfer on the starboard keel and scuffing to the underside of the skeg block holding the bottom of the rudder, the hull was untouched. At its maximum, the chamfer was around 1” deep, was black and had red brick dust in it. I presumed this was from a rock. The rudder block was still fixed firm with no signs of cracks in the antifouling around its edges. I was still concerned about the leak, and not knowing the exact configuration of the inboard rudder bearing block we decided to have her in the yard for a week to find the cause. Since we bought Sno’ Rush 13 years ago, I’d never been able to examine the rudder bearing as is completely covered by the steering quadrant. In a confined space, a torch and mirror are not very helpful. I could only ever see deep incrustations of salt that over the years I’d gradually removed. It was almost clear before we started our trek. When I got to grips with it, I found a common or garden stuffing box that, to my embarrassment, I have never tightened to keep the seal on the rudder shaft. The impact must have broken the seal formed by the greased packing. All that was required to make the seal again was to re-tighten the collar.

While Sno’ Rush was on the hard, I noticed that the wooden bearers supporting the damaged part of the keel were still wet when all others were dry. That didn’t seem right. I also realised that a small repair by the previous owner had been completely removed by the chamfer. After cleaning up the area it was clear what the problem was. The ‘so-called’ repair had not sealed the keel and, over many years, had allowed water to seep inside. The black I had seen earlier was the rot between the fibreglass layers within the outer edges of the keel. Shock and horror!

So that is where you find me now. The keel had been cut back to solid GRP exposing the solid ballast and it is drying out in the hot sunshine. Luckily, the repair isn’t that deep and, drawing on my previous epoxy experience, I should be able to repair it properly. I also have a mentor a few boats down – Claude is the resident guru on all matters fibreglass. He is currently rebuilding a French GRP hire boat, so I think I’m in safe hands.

Here is a thing – I always thought my ballast was lead shot encased in resin, but clearly it is not. It’s a humongous steel casting covered by a thin sheet of foam encased within ¾” of GRP. I wonder if this was special, as I’m sure it was a Seaforth owner who told me about the shot.

Anyway, we’re here for the winter. It’s not Seté but, being only 200km away, has the same weather (perhaps 1-2°C cooler). To be fair we were having trouble finding a winter berth so it has fitted in quite nicely. Seté is fully booked for winter berths but I am on a reserve list. I am “sure to be fitted in” at Cap d’Agde after 15th November, so the nice lady Capitan told me, but nothing is concrete. I’d begun the search in late August, and rung all eight marinas in the Seté area – each one was a “non” to a winter berth. Staying in the canals was an option, but one I didn’t relish. According to most of the stink-boat owners we have spoken to on the way down, all the better places on the Canal du Midi are reserved by the Spring. So Valence is our winter home. To be honest, after 1031km and 224 locks, we’re both looking forward to the long lie-ins!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Auxonne to Lyon

 What a find – a ‘normal’ marina at a beautiful old French town! Made even better by the fact that it only opened 4 months earlier and is managed by an English couple. Roy and Carole are a very knowledgeable couple. They not only hauled goods up and down the Saône/Rhone for many years, but they live on one in the marina. Port Royal, as the marina is called, is part of the ever-increasing H2O company who have a few other ‘marina’s’, including the one at the centre of the French boaters world at St Jean-de-Losne. Port Royal has all the amenities together with toilets/showers on a small barge. Auxonne is a lovely riverside town, complete with Army barracks, and has a large superstore and DIY store (Intermarché & Bricomarché) the other side of town (15 minutes walk).

Auxonne public quay with the marina further along.

On Thursday 11th August, we moved on to St Jean-de-Losne passing through Auxonne lock. The upper Saône locks are larger than those on the canal we had just left, probably four-times larger, but the drop was only 2metres or so. They operate on the same pushrod system but are manned by a dedicated lock-keeper. The passage to St Jean was 19km with one lock. I had been expecting some assistance with tide and found it was running at about 2km/hr (1 knot). Our 8km/hr in the flat water of the canals became 10km/hr on the river at the same engine revs. 15km/hr (8kn) is the speed limit in this upper section, but I am more than happy travelling at 10km/hr (5.4kn) over the ground.

The arrival at St Jean’s was greeted with a public quay lined with bars and café’s, all sporting colourful umbrellas to shade the open-air tables above the quayside. The quay was full of all types of boats but we were intending to go into the marina behind the main town. We finally found a berth in amongst the hoard of boats and tied up. 19km and 1 lock.
The H2O marina at St Jean-de-Losne

Many of the boaters we had spoken too had told us about St Jean’s, and indeed, most of them had winter berths there. It is central for the canal system and up and down the Saône making it the ideal location. The town itself has a history of being the ‘bargeman’s capital’, serving as a centre for the commercial péniches in times gone by. It is located on the junction of the Saône and Canal de Bourgogne. The entrance to the marina is off the canal and opens out into a large basin. The canal side of the basin is dominated by Blanquarts which is still a thriving péniche/boat repair business. Boats of all kinds, all sizes, in all states of repair in and out of the water. H2O have their massive marina on the town-side and a large hire-boat company ‘Le Boat’ have the northern end of the basin.

We stayed six days at St Jean, the weather was glorious (30’s again), the people friendly and helpful (many speaking English), and it was just nice to bask in the atmosphere of French working-boat history.

On Wednesday 17th August. We left St Jean and made our way downstream to a small halte at Suerre (28km and 1 lock), located a short way past the Suerre Lock. This lock marked the change not only in the increasing size but the regulation to wear life-jackets to be worn The days were continuing to be hot and as a result, that night we were treated to a wonderful thunderstorm overhead and heavy rain. Pity it didn’t clear the air as it remained hot and humid. We moved on the following day to travel the 45km (and 1 lock) to the port du plaisance at Chalon-sur-Saône. Another fascinating place as the port is situated behind a large island in the middle of the river. Beside the port was a large retail park with everything at hand, and Carrefour. Again, hot days with thunderstorms at night.

Saturday 20th August saw us travel the 30km, and 1 lock, to Tournus. The guide says there is a new 160m pontoon, so we were hoping for an easy berth, but we found it choc-a-bloc with hire boats. The alternative was the public quay, which was also full, but a kindly Dutch holiday péniche allowed us to raft alongside for the night. We moved on the following day to travel the 29km (no locks) to Macon. After the gusty and wet entrance to Auxonne, the weather for the past fortnight had been glorious but getting hotter during the day. The 30°C or so was generally bearable with the slight breeze caused by our movement, but now the temperatures were on the way up. The forecast was for 38°C for the next few days so we decided to sit it out at the large port du plaisance at Mâcon. Lucky for us we did, as the sweltering heat with no cooling wind was overbearing. It was a relief to be told that the temperatures were not normal, as the locals were suffering just as much in the heat wave. Macon was notable for another reason – our very first stern-to berth. I must admit it was not expected when we turned into the port and I had that colly-wobble you get when you have to try something for the first time. Yes, I’d read up about it and in my mind knew exactly what to do but, having to do first-hand…..mmmm! As it happens these were the type that you tie onto a buoy and go astern to the pontoon. Somehow, it went problem-free -  Sno’ Rush behaved like a perfect lady, not once but twice, as the Capitan wanted us to move berths. He took our stern lines on the second occasion and even remarked how well we moored up. A proud moment for us all, particularly when we watched the locals make complete hashes of their attempts at mooring.

On Wednesday 24th August we slipped the mooring and headed back out onto the Saône. After 43km and 1 lock we found a solitary riverside pontoon that was the halte at Jassans-Riottier. A holiday péniche and small motorboat were already moored leaving plenty of room for us to tie up. A pleasant surprise was the free electricity and water. Strange how some of the French rural areas do that, I presume it’s to attract customers to spend at the local shops. Jassans is a small town in the shadow of its neighbour on the opposite bank, the much larger Villefranch-sur-Saone. We didn’t venture over the bridge, just being content having a meal, wandering around and finding a Carrefour close-by.

The sun sets over the pontoon at Jassans-Riottier

We left the following morning to travel down the Saône and to the big city of Lyon. I must admit we enjoyed the travelling on fresh flowing water, watching the riverbank scenery and riverside life pass by, all under a warming sun and cooling breeze. I can’t think of a better way to enjoy the day. The Saône seems to have worked its magic on us both.

The widening Saône stretches out before us.

The approach to Lyon is spectacular. The Saône, which has its path blocked by Massif Central, meanders below the foothills until it finally merges with the Rhone. Lyon grew around this point way back in history and now spreads down the slopes of the hills, over the land between the two rivers and then over the plain that leads towards the Alps. The approach along the river reminded me of Paris, with its twists and turns and innumerable bridges between firstly, the residential part and then the commercial town centre. What it didn’t have was the hustle and bustle of Paris - far more enjoyable, even though we still had to dodge the odd péniche and passenger boat. In the past, there has been no official mooring places at Lyon, boaters having to risk a dubious mooring somewhere on the quayside that runs through the city, or stopping at halte’s before or after it. In recent years, Lyon have invested heavily in the Confluence, or spit where the Saône joins the Rhone, and within the water sports area is a small, but well equipped marina. After a journey of 39km and 1 lock we tied up in the midst of ultra-modern architecture, apartments one side and conference centres on the other.
The new halte at Lyon

We stayed more than a week at Lyon exploring the city. An absolutely fascinating place with its mix of historic and modern buildings. Its transport systems are incredible – a railway, tramway, metro, trolley bus and normal bus system all interlinking at various points throughout the city. I could go on and on…. But I must just add that the views are stunning, on a clear day the view from the Basilica on the hill overlooking the city is awe-inspiring – our first view of Mont Blanc and the Alps.
Lyon, with the Alps in the distance.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Chaumont to Auxonne

This last section of canal before the Saône comprises of travelling up the remaining part of the hill, through the Bellesme Tunnel, then down the other side, a total of 128km and 70 locks – we’re not really to look forward to it but at least we will exchange stagnant canals for flowing river water, a sort of milestone that is keeping our spirits up.

Chaumont Port

Chaumont was one of France’s big defensive cities built on a hill overlooking the surrounding land. It is only around 5km from the halte but all up-hill to walk. We took a bus to have a look around and when there, was pleasantly surprised at the views it gave. The halte itself is not expensive at €7 per night and provides all the services needed. But all these services come at a price extra to the bill. Water, electricity, showers, washing and drying machines are all separately billed and our three night stay cost us €45.30. Still it was pleasant enough, and with LeClerc’s a twenty-minute walk away, we couldn’t complain. Wifi was a problem, I could connect but it kept dropping out every few seconds – no one knows why.

We left Chaumont on Monday 1st August 2011, and travelled the 10km to the first lock at Luzy to be met by our friendly VNF lads. Apparently another boat was some distance behind and they wanted us to wait for it to catch up. The VNF are very reluctant to allow single boats through the locks for the obvious reason of water shortages. I’d heard from a fellow boatie that the Bourgogne Canal had been closed a few weeks earlier due to low water levels on the canal - he had to change his route to along our canal. Anyway, the second boat was going to take an hour or so to catch us up so we entered the lock, tied up and took lunch. A lovely moment, the sun just peering over the lock wall onto us and a waterfall cascading over the top of the up-lock gates providing a cooling back-drop, very feng shui!

Lunch in Luzy Lock

We continued in convoy throughout the day and stopped at Rolamport for the night, 29km done with 15 locks. The following day we set off at 0900 hrs to make our way to the last up-hill halte at Langrés. Only 10km and 7 locks but it was another hot and sunny day. Langres is another hill-fort similar to Chaumont. Another bus ride took us to the walled city and the spectacular views of the surrounding land. From the ramparts a noticeboard pointed the way to the Bellesme Tunnel way off in the distance (at the foot of the hills, below the pylon). Langres, or Champigny-Langres as the halte is called, is the last halte on the up-side – only one more up-lock to go, whoopee!

The view from Langres ramparts – Bellesme Tunnel is at the foothills, centre.

At 1000 hours the following morning, we left Langres to tackle the last up-lock then follow the reach to the tunnel and start the long downward wind. However, the last lock turned out to be more memorable than we thought as we had a bit of trouble getting out of it. The lock cycled through to fill but failed to open the gates to let us out. We waited, and waited, and waited until it was obvious something was wrong. After all the days with the VNF lads with us, today, at an automatic lock, not a sole around! I rang the VNF mobile but no one answered. I went to the lock-keepers hut and used the intercom but no one answered. I pressed the fill button on the remote again but nothing happened. I tried the mechanical lift rods, just in case one was stuck, but nothing happened. I was running out of ideas to contact the VNF – and then I saw the alarm button on the remote. This is a situation for the alarm surely, so I pressed it. A loud clunk came from the two lock gates and the alarm light flashed on the indicator poles – at last something worked. I then went back to the intercom and someone answered. I told the woman of the problem which she seemed to understand and she told me to wait until for someone to arrive. Lo and behold, ten minutes later, a VNF lady that we met the previous day arrived. She tried various things but seemed dumbfound at being unable to open the gates. Then, out of the blue three vans arrived together in a screech of tyres on the dirt path. One of them, obviously the boss man from the noise he was making, came to us and, I think, began telling me off about something, certainly he wasn’t happy with me, waving his arms and talking loudly. I was now getting the impression that I should not have pressed the alarm button, as this clearly brought in the life brigade. After much, finger-pointing, moaning, cable-checking, walking to and fro, handle-turning etc., the ‘response team’ (I guess) got the gates to open. The boss man had calmed down by then, I think he realised that I had caught his drift and accepted his admonishment. We parted cheerfully, but I left the lock far quicker than I usually do!

Bellesme Tunnel was a few kilometres down the canal. It is 4.82km long, lit throughout and operates on a traffic-light system. We saw a péniche exit the tunnel and a boat enter as we rounded the bend towards it. Unfortunately the lights turned to red before we got near and we had to wait an hour until another péniche came out of the tunnel. We were then allowed to enter. I remember this tunnel as, about half-way through, Hil suddenly burst into song. I thought she’d hurt herself on something but apparently she was singing a love song to me. The Dutchman’s insanity had finally worked its miracle on Hil!

We were aiming to stop at one of two halte’s on the down-side before the myriad of locks, but found them both full. Rather than enter the sequence of six automatic locks, we tied up on a bank side somewhere in the middle of nowhere (well actually at PK 175 but no one would know).Another 26km and 17 locks done.

When we woke up on Thursday 4th, both Hil and I felt done in. Although this down stretch was shorter and had fewer locks, they were a metre or two deeper and after all the up-locks we’d gone through we decided to have a break for a day or two. We travelled the first series of locks to Cusey Halte and settled in to chill out. Only 7km but 7 locks today.

Cusey Halte

Cusey was a nice place, once again miles from any serious inhabitation but it did have its own chip shop. Yes, a real, live, on-site static caravan fitted out to serve a range of meals based on chicken kebab and chips. What I didn’t know was that on Friday nights this was THE place to be, as the place was heaving with locals – all good fun though.

On Saturday 6th August we left Cusey and trundled our way down the canal. After the past few days of good weather, the heavens opened after lunch so we moored up at a one-boat quay to sit it out. Saint Seinne/Vingeante was supposed to be a picnic halte but obviously the locals didn’t pursue their plans. Only the short concrete quay was there. The rain persisted so we stayed there overnight.

We wanted to finish with the canals, so the following day we put a spurt on to get to the Saône. We left at 1000 hours and 16 locks later at 1700, passed out of the canals onto the Saône at Hueilley sur Saône. We’d hardly seen a boat since Cusey so wondered what it would be like. We soon found out as we waited in the first Saône lock, a motor boat, speedboat and hire boat joined us to drop down into the river Saône proper. The short distance to Pontailler opened our eyes to the Sunday evening pandemonium on the river. Pontailler is the only marina in the vicinity so everyone heads towards it. It is also the tourist hot spot and attracts fast boats and water skiers - a bit of a shock from the desolate canals! After queuing to get into the marina, we rapidly lost water inside and skimmed the bottom. The second ‘skim’ was on something solid so we backed out the entrance channel and rafted against an empty boat. It wasn’t empty for long – the owner quickly arrived and gave us the big heave-ho! Back outside on the river the only other mooring place was the public quay which we found was not much deeper than our draft. This became clear when a speedboat passed us and we dropped onto something solid. Luckily, we managed to keep a metre or so away from the quay with a ‘fenders/fender board/fenders’ concoction that gave us a bit more depth. As evening was drawing in, the traffic on the river went quiet so we had an uneventful, but nevertheless worrying night. 31km travelled with 17 locks.
The public quay at Pontailler-sur-Saone

It was clear that we could stay alongside the quay so we left the following morning to find a berth further downriver. I had seen in the Fluviacarte Guide that there was a public quay at Auxonne but whether it was better than that at Pontailler, I couldn’t find out. As it happens, we rounded the bend into Auxonne to find a brand, spanking new marina just waiting for us. Blow the high winds and rain, this place is where we are to spend the next few days!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Vitry-le-François to Chaumont

Vitry-le-Francois is at the crossroads of three canals, predominantly the commercial one connecting Paris to the Rhine and Germany, but also connecting two centres to the Saône, Rhone and the southern French seaports. These days, the route south has lost most of its commercial importance although some péniches do make the journey. It is this route that we shall be following.

We arrived at Vitry on Saturday evening and decided to stay an extra day, continuing the journey on Monday. I can’t work out whether Vitry is a small city or large town. Certainly it has a large conurbation, but its centre-ville is only small, and on Sunday there are few shops open. The glamorous Capitainieré, in good English, had pointed out a number of shops local to the port, a Supermarché, a LeClerc’s, a MacDonald’s for wifi etc, but failed to say they were all closed on Sundays. Sunday morning saw us walking aimlessly around the local area looking at closed shops. There were few people about, but those who were carried baguettes so a boulangerie was open somewhere close. A darling old lady took pity on us and led us across town to the only shops open, a bakers, a butchers, a SuperU supermarket and café/bars. Both Hil and I were puffed at the speed she walked – what a remarkable old lady.

Vitry-le-François centre-ville.

We returned to the boat and spent a lazy Sunday afternoon doing nothing much more exciting than reading, sudoku and generally enjoying the day.

The following morning, we warped out Sno’ Rush’s stern into the open area of the unused pontoons and easily made out of the port. We were now going over the last hill before the Saône. This final canal is not only the longest on our route, but the most heavily locked. It is 224km long with 71 locks up to the central plateau at 340m above sea-level, a 4.8km tunnel and 43  locks going down to Heuilley-sur-Soane where it joins the upper Saône. The facts are a bit daunting, especially when we had not yet found an easy way to tackle the locks. Still, it is the last canal and that is was drove us forward. There aren’t many stopping places marked on our guide, in fact only two for its entire length, St. Dizier and Chaumont. Luckily, the lock-keeper at Châlons-sur-Marne had given us a booklet detailing the canal and its stopping places. This canal was formerly known as the Canal de la Marne a la Saône but has recently been renamed as the Canal Entre Champagne et Bourgogne (the canal between Champagne and Bourgogne). I guess there has been an advertising campaign to promote the regions wine producing areas as the pamphlet was subtitled ‘the enchanted canal’. We found this guide particularly useful to plan our day-to-day travel.

On Monday 1st August, we travelled the 30km and 14 locks to St Dizier. The Châlons lock-keeper had also given us a ‘télécommande’ (remote control) to operate the locks and this was particularly useful as now filling the lock was a button-press on the remote. No jostling for position near the push/pull bars made life much easier as we could chose the best position in the lock and just sit tight while she was lifted up. St. Dizier was a disappointment though. We motored straight past it at first, but, not finding any bollards or mooring place up to the next lock, had to return. It is long quay, with bollards, next to a large car park in the town, and nothing like the picture in the pamphlet. I get the feeling that in typical French fashion, all is not as it seems. Failing it’s scenic beauty, it was quiet night and, as we found the following morning, only five minutes walk to the centre of the town and supermarkets.

St. Dizier (couldn’t resist a picture of that cloud).

On Tuesday 26th July we left St. Dizier and travelled 32km and 13 locks to Joinville. We were now encountering swing-bridges across the canal that automatically sensed our presence and lifted to allow us through. It was usually a short wait for us, longer for the cars waiting to use the bridges. The canal itself was much cleaner and we could actually see the mud on the bed either side of the boat. Whether this was the recent rain or not I have no idea but it was distinctly different to the usual muddy-brown stuff we’d been travelling through up until now. We were certainly back into the farmland area with cereals and sunflowers growing behind the tree-lined canal. The land was also becoming more undulating. We hadn’t noticed this gradual change in landscape until we rounded a bend before Bussy Lock. What confronted us was something we had not envisaged. I had to take a picture.

Bussy Lock

Now we knew that we were really heading away from suburbia.

Joinville lock was not much further away from Bussy, after which was a lovely, wooden quay nautical stopping point as described in the pamphlet. As we left the lock, we saw a boat moored and, on drawing closer, saw the halte was much shorter than its photograph depicted. A British couple were already berthed there and enjoying the early evening sunshine. They helped by taking our lines and after settling in we chatted for some times. There were no charges for berthing, only for electricity usage (by kilowatt) and a small charge for a wifi connection. It was a beautiful spot and we had an excellent overnight stay. Before turning in, we had a visit from a VNF official. He wanted to know when and what time we were leaving. It appears that from this point onward, some of the locks and low-level bridges were manually operated and he wanted to arrange our passage. We told him we were making for Froncles the following day and he said that he would arrange for someone to travel with us to operate the locks and bridges. Our twenty-year-old Fluviacarte mentions this but I didn’t believe it was still current practice.

The following morning we were charged €2 for the electricity and €1 for the wifi. As we pulled away, we wondered whether we should stay an extra day with Angus and Pamela. Strangely, as we rounded the bend to the next lock another mooring quay came into view. This one however, had a large VNF sign showing ‘Joinville Halte Nautique’. It appears that our ‘Joinville’, was an enterprising individual cashing in on local demand. Good for him, as we were well pleased with our nights’ stay and the official halte was ominously empty of boats. It took us five hours to travel the 23km and 9 locks to Froncles, a very picturesque Nautical Halte. It also doubled-up as a motor home ‘halte’. Electricity and water pods were on the quayside with showers and toilets in the Capitainieré.

The Halte Nautique at Froncles.

The VNF man paid us a visit late in the afternoon. In our pigeon-English conversation, we understood that a number of locks and bridges ahead of us were manually operated. In order to save water, we had to follow a holiday péniche into the locks that would be operated by VNF staff. We had to give a time of departure so that he could plan the passage of all the boats using the locks that day. We went to bed that night wondering what was in store for us.

At 1100 hours the following day, the péniche ambled past us right on queue. We recognised it as the one we had seen at Vitry. I call it a holiday péniche as is was similar in construction but I guess it is correctly called a Dutch barge, particularly as it was flying a Dutch ensign. He was dawdling at around 6km/hr, which is a little above our tick-over speed, making slow progress. The first lock was already open for us and we both entered – carefully, but with sufficient room between us. The VNF chap was there with a couple of lads and mopeds. We had seen moped-riding teenagers buzzing up and down the towpaths on previous days and not really took any notice. A we later found out, these are the ‘Vacancieres’ – kids employed by The VNF during their summer holidays to do all the ‘dirty work’, and this meant winding the lock gates open and closed and cranking the paddles (to allow the water in or out) up and down. Not a good job on a hot summers day. Two lads accompanied us on their mopeds for the whole day. From what I could see, the locks on this section were only now being automated.

We carried on for a few locks, meeting pairs of oncoming boats, and all seemed to be going according to plan. But then we started waiting at locks - for a working péniche travelling in front of us to lift and clear the lock and then oncoming boats to enter and fall to our side. Having to wait more than an hour was becoming tiresome. Our objective was the port at Chaumont, which should have been easily achievable but as the day drew on, it seemed more than likely that we wouldn’t make it. Later on in the day, the Dutch barge moored up and we waited for a posh French motorboat to join us in the locks. We were following the péniche by this stage and he was travelling no faster than 4km/hr. It becomes very weary travelling on tick-over then coasting to avoid getting too close to the boat ahead, and péniches really churn the water up. Two locks before Chaumont, the Vacancieres announced that we wouldn’t make the port as they finish at 1800 hours. The lock we were in would be the last they operated that day. The French couple were not impressed as they wanted to go further, and pointed out that the locks should close at 1900 hours. They were met with dumb silence, which, in any language means ‘tough’! Fortunately, Hil had spotted a disused silo quay on our fluviacarte so we knew we had a berth for the night. As we left the lock the boys arranged to meet us the following morning at the next lock. We motored out and up the reach towards the silo a few bends away. As we rounded the second bend, I looked back to see the French couple in the distance attempting to moor up on the canal side – not a place I’d have chose, but there you are. We moored against the silo quay and bedded down for the night. In nearly eight hours we had passed through 9 locks and travelled 24km only to run out of time. Chaumont was only 1km away on the other side of the lock. To make matters worse, the péniche ahead of us was allowed to pass through the lock  – what a day!

We woke up the following morning to a thick mist surrounding us. The lock was barely visible at ½ km away. The French couple came alongside shortly before our pre-arranged 0900 meeting time and, as the gates to the lock were opening for us, began to moor up on the quay ahead of us. The impeccably dressed pair from the day before now looked rather dishevelled as they left their boat and walked towards the lock. We carried on down and entered the lock which closed behind us. The boys told us the French couple were walking to a supermarket behind a short distance away. Obviously they had changed their minds about going through the lock – or was it just a case of bloody-mindedness. Anyway, that was the last we saw of them as when we got to Chaumont port we went straight back to bed.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Reims to Vitry-le-François.

We didn’t spend too long at Reims for two reasons. The first being that we had promised our grand-children that we would have them for a couple of weeks in August. We had promised this when our initial plan was to blast down to Seté but our slow speed made that arrangement a non-starter. The new plan was to have them when we got to the Saône and spend a few weeks with them there. To do that we needed to step up a gear, or two, as we hadn’t really got out of first gear. The second reason was that a cheaper and far nicer port was only a short distance down the canal. Friends had recommended Sillery to us and we wanted to see if it lived up to its reputation. At 1030 hours on Thursday 21st July we left Reims to travel the 10km and 4 locks to the Port du Pleasance at Sillery. 2½ hours later, tied up to British-style pontoons, we weren’t disappointed. Although the rain on the way down had dampened our spirits, the sight of Sillery, located in a wide bend of the canal, and its long pontoons jutting out from the bank and boats tied up beam-on to the bank soon raised them. Although crowded (with many British boats), a berth loomed out in front of us and we just drifted into it. Sillery was up to expectation, with all the facilities of Reims but at €8.40 per night. And then the sun came out to make it a very pleasant afternoon. A short stroll around the area found shops offering all the basic needs.

With our new-found vigour, we left Sillery the following morning to travel through three locks up to the summit (at 96m), pass through the Mont-de-Billy tunnel (2.3km long) and then down a series of eight locks to Condé-sur-Marne (a total distance of 24km). Condé is a Port du Pleasance formed from a widening in the canal near to its junction with the Canal lateral a la Marne and is comprised of finger pontoons very tightly packed together with electric/water pods at the head of each berth. Typically designed for shorter, shallower and more manoeuvrable pleasure boats, we found it difficult to take one of the inside berths between the live-aboards already moored there. We were greeted by one of the British residents there who gave us the ‘low down’ about the place. He and his wife had been at Condé for eight years and used it as a base to tour the canal system. They were very informative and above all, a very pleasant couple. The village is a 10-minute walk away and has the usual bread/cake shop and bar/tabac. We popped in the bar/tabac for a coffee and found that it was also a hotel and restaurant of, lets say, meagre means. It was run by a middle-aged woman and two young girls that followed her around wherever she went. Indian-file springs to mind. By here appearance they were grand-children or nieces helping out in their summer holidays as she took time to show them what she was doing. The only patrons of the place were a group of Australians who we recognised from Sillery. As we chatted they told us they were moored near to us at the port. We spent the rest of the sunny afternoon chatting with them. As we were leaving, Hil noticed that the lady was offering evening meals and, since it was too hot to cook (as Hilary said) we booked a ‘plate de jour’ for the evening. As it happens, the Ozzies had done the same so that when we returned at seven o’clock, the small restaurant was soon bristling with eight people. This was a meal we shall not forget. A starter of home-made quiche lorraine, a main course of boiled chicken in butter sauce with two veg and couscous, bread and cheese, a sweet comprising of a chunk of possibly chocolate brownie with another chunk of soft meringue on a custard base, all followed by coffee and a large flute of the local sweet champagne. Superb value at €18 each. All eaten on one knife, fork and spoon and served by very polite children. And of course there was the banter, started by the Ozzies but soon to spread throughout the room. By the end of the evening, everyone was laughing and joking and strangely being able to understand each others’ language – I blame the champagne! As I say, a night to remember.

The following morning when we went to pay our €7 berthing fee, we were told, quite politely, that the book was full and we didn’t have to pay. A full receipt book was produced and it appears that without a receipt, no money could be paid. The man had a large grin on his face as he told us so I’m not sure really what was going on. But, as the man says, no receipt, no pay. We didn’t argue, and gingerly manoeuvred out off the berth.

A short distance away was the Canal lateral a Marne where we again turned east and headed towards Vitry-le-François where our last canal before the Saône started. This was a lovely warm sunny day and the trip, although not scenic was enjoyable. This canal is the direct link between Paris and the upper Saône and follows the River Marne where, in its upper reaches, has been widened into a canal. The ‘canalised’ section is the one we were travelling and its long straight stretches between locks soon identified it as being constructed later in the networks history. It took us 7½ hours that day to travel the 48km and 11 locks to Vitry.
 The Port du Pleasance at Vitry-le-François

The port du pleasance at Vitry is another designed for the smaller craft. Located in an un-used section of the old canal, the finger pontoons are on one side, leaving access from the main branch down the side of the cut to moor bows-to in the berths. It’s a bit tight and a it short of water but, as we found, accessible if took cautiously. My only concern was that there would be enough room to warp the stern round to get back out – we’ll see!