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.

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