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!