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.