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!