The Journey -
On 28 May 2007 we cast off from St Vallier, and, during a fairly windy day pootled down the Rhône for about 20 km. We turned into the little backwater by the town of Glun, to a rather nice mooring that has recently been set up there. There is a weak, wooden platform used by the local rowers and dinghy sailors, a longer pontoon mooring that accommodated us, and some finger moorings suitable for cruisers. It is all free. Water is not available. Free electricity is there, if you explore the nearby ditches. I set off to explore the little town of Glun, but as I started out, the heavens opened and it rained. I took cover in the porch of the Post Office. The office of the Mairie is the only obvious modern building. Many buildings and walls are built from massively oversized pebbles set neatly and regularly into mortar. Most of the streets are cobbled, and everything is neat and tidy. I eventually braved the rain, and one soggy chap (moi) and his faithful soggy hound (Fanny) ran back to Rosy. One of them revived themselves on a large slug of best West Indian rum, and the other thanked her master for towelling her down by licking his ears.
The night proved to be somewhat sleepless. The wind howled outside, and whipped up waves that bounced Rosy about most un-rhythmically, making sleep a fitful experience.
The following day the wind continued, though not quite as strongly. We moored just below Le Pouzin. There is a wall mooring in the town, but the big cruise liners have commandeered it. We were on a 'public quay'. It is an old, commercial, high quay, some two or three metres high, with a bollard and a ring mooring on it. Further secure mooring points are provided by the Armco barrier that separates the mooring from the old hauling way, and by the dilapidated (but still strong) inset steel ladder (that also gives convenient access to the quayside).
The next day was Wednesday 30 May 2007. The current running by the mooring was quite considerable, so casting off was tricky. We invariably moor pointing upstream. Casting off involves loosing all the mooring ropes except the bow and stern lines. In normal conditions, I cast off the bow line, stow it, nip back to the stern as the current swings the bow out, take in the stern line and motor away. In this case, the current was so fast that I doubted my ability to stow the bow line and get back to the stern before the boat had swung through 180 degrees. Mike helped me out. I stayed aft, cast off the stern line and ran the motor to hold position. Mike stayed on the bank, but loosed off up front, and stowed the rope, allowing me to motor away as the current forced the bows out. Mike and June soon followed on Temujin.
As we passed by the town of Cruas, we looked at the town quay wall as a possible future mooring. It looks possible but very tricky. It is a gently sloping wall, so that our boats' square bottoms mean that there is a leap to be made to get ashore, and endless difficulties in mooring comfortably. However, just below the town, a new marina is being constructed. We decided to investigate.
Mike winded, and headed towards the marina. This involved going onto the bank-side of the channel markers - i.e. leaving the main navigation channel. He got Temujin into the marina where he was told to bugger off, and that they were still building it. He enquired as to when it might be finished, and thought that the reply was something like 'Not today, so bugger off' (or words to that effect). So he started to leave.
Meanwhile I had winded Rosy, and was heading - slowly - into the strong current when 'crunch crunch' and Rosy was very firmly aground.
I have to say that I was nearly petrified. I was concerned that, even should we get off whatever we were on, we could be swept sideways onto other underwater obstructions, and that the current on our upstream side could turn us over. I had a life jacket on, but in cold water and a strong current....
Initially, I was pretty much frozen to where I was, and was feared to move about the boat. There was a slight tilt to port, though even slight tilts bother me on narrowboats. I tried lots of stern welly to get off, and wiggled the tiller, and then did the same with lots of forward welly. Nothing.
I then forced myself off the stern deck, and got a long pole out, to probe the murky depths. I found lots of depth at the stern and down each side, hardly any up front.
What to do?
Mike, meanwhile, had regained mid-channel, but I didn't want him coming over to help, in case he got grounded as well. June, meanwhile, had taken the 'Phone a Friend' option, and was talking to Helen (of George and Helen, the English ex-narrowboaters who run the commercial péniche (spitz, to be more precise) 'Floan'. She had two suggestions. One was to do nothing and wait. The levels on these stretches vary a great deal, and eventually, higher water will come down and flush us off. OR. Hail a passing barge, and get it run by really fast, in the hope that its waves will wash us off. Just then a suitable barge appeared upstream, called, appropriately, Désiré.
I nipped below and grabbed the mobile phone and the Palm Pilot, wrapping them both in cling film, and stuffing them into a zipped pocket along with my wallet (containing money and credit/debit cards).
The barge master agreed to the plan, and his barge came creaming along in fine style, with a good sized bone in her teeth. As the bow wave approached I gave Rosy full astern. This, plus the current, plus the handsome 18-inch bow wave, all worked in unison to whisk her off whatever she was on. I kept going full astern until we were back in the marked channel, and, by luck, no more shallows were in the way.
Here ended a 45-minute episode that I have absolutely no wish to repeat.
In retrospect, it was my bloody things that I was concerned about. I keep on board Rosy my entire photographic slide collection, and my diaries and all sorts of other things that help me to define myself as 'me'. It is said that one can only be 'free' if one can get rid of all these things. But I like them, and the wonderful times, friendships and memories that they conjure up. They help me to define me, and I don't want to lose them.
Fanny tried to snooze through the entire drama, but I insisted that she left her bed and came out onto her perch on the roof, so that HAD we turned over, she wouldn't have been trapped inside the boat.
No damage seems to have been done. There is no extra water on board, and we are not suddenly lower in the water.
After all that, we pootled down to Viviers. The little port is none too easy to get into if a northerly wind is blowing - fortunately it was calm when we entered. There are high finger pontoons to tie onto. The first night costs 13 Euros - subsequent nights are 9 - and this includes water and electricity. The town itself is well worth walking up to.
The next day was interesting. In simple terms, we cruised 38 km, and passed through two locks in about four hours, to arrive at a pontoon mooring at St Étienne-des-Sorts. This is, for us, very fast cruising. The speed was caused by the current running through the long Montdragon cutting. BUT there are no mooring points in between Viviers and St Étienne-des-Sorts. So that, next year, on the way up against the current, we have to cover those 38 km in one go. This could well take in excess of ten or twelve hours. Our only 'plan' is to try to do the trip on a Saturday or Sunday, when industry is not working, so that the hydro-electric plants are not working, and hence the flow could be very much lower. Also, we plan to do the trip in late Aug/early Sep, when the Rhône ceases carrying so much Swiss alpine melt-water and, hence, eases a bit.
The day started fine, but after a while a wind blew up, that made life a little tricky, but not too much so.
The mooring at St Étienne-des-Sorts is a 30m long pontoon, and it was filled with a cruiser and a sailing boat. There are many of these latter on the Rhône, with their masts down, as the yachty-ho types from northern Europe use it as the quick way to and from the Mediterranean. We entered into consultation with them. They breasted up and we dropped in behind them.
Towards evening the wind dropped away, and shortly after Fanny had had her evening walk, the sky darkened and it rained. At about 1930 hours, I heard noises outside. It was an up-coming yacht seeking a mooring. I naturally readily agreed, and went out to help them moor - them in their yachty type oilies, (yachty shorthand for 'oilskins' even though they are all now made out of plastics), me in 'cabin' dress, and hence drenched to the skin in the five minutes I was outside.
The rain eased off overnight, and the morning dawned bright and peaceful - except that lots of large lumps of weed were coming down with the current. I went out to get some bread at a 'depot de pain' (where bread is brought to them for them to sell - the bread is not made on the premises).
We considered the weed problem. Getting the stuff wrapped around the prop(eller) can cause the steerer to loose all power, so it's a problem. Our theory was that, as the mooring is on the outside of the bend, it would be clearer in mid-steam. This turned out to be true. BUT, as the river meandered a bit, the weed crossed from one side of the river to the other, so we inevitably had to wend our way through it. I caught some as we approached a lock. I could tell, as the wake was a bit more turbulent than usual, and the tiller vibrated a bit. In the lock I got the weed hatch up, and after a lot of fishing about, I managed to find five short shreds of weed! (And one of those I caught as it was drifting by!!)
During the morning a strong breeze built up. Indeed, come lunchtime when our mooring on the old quay at Roquemaure hove into view, the wind was most helpful in blowing us gently onto it.
At this point there are two ruined towers, one on either side of the river. This was the spot where tolls were taken from passing boats. Also in sight was another tower at Château Neuf - a name that gets the wine buffs all excited.
A few days before, I had come into contact with Bill Bowen. He and I met in our late teens at Welbeck College (a Sixth Form college run by the Army) and went through Sandhurst together. I hadn't met or heard of him since, so thanks to Joe and Molly for getting us in contact. He appeared at the mooring with a car, and whisked Fanny and me away to his château. It is in a walled estate, complete with an occupied gatehouse. The house itself is pretty ancient. It is stone-built with some glorious arches and curvy ceilings. Naturally, it has its own well. It is occupied by Bill, his wonderful wife Dominique, a cat of Siamese origins who hissed at Fanny and an enormous Great Dane whose voluminous, swinging scrotum gave Fanny cross-eyes. They didn't bark at each other, neither did they play - they quietly tolerated each other.
Dominique, meanwhile produced some lunch. A ratatouille to die for, followed by THE best steak I have ever had. It was tasty AND it melted in the mouth, with absolutely zero gristle. It was offered as 'raw, rare or medium'. I can't abide well done steaks, and the rare and raw ones I've had, have been too gristly So it was the medium one that I had, creamy browny grey on the outside, pink in the middle and served with sauté potatoes. Absolutely glorious. All washed down with Côtes du Rhône reds, of course, and with some really black coffee to settle it all down.
Bill, the dogs and I then went on a stroll around the vineyards and reminisced about the last 40-plus years. Such discussions can drift into character assassinations of non-present third parties, but ours stayed very positive. In the course of the afternoon, we agreed that Bill would join us the next day for the cruise down to Avignon.
I got back to the boat in the late afternoon as the wind died down, and settled down for a comfortable night.
At 6am the next day I was awakened by some banging. The wind was back and was blowing from 30 to 60 degrees off the bows, hence pushing us onto the quay. By 7am the wind was stronger. We were rocking more, and there was a lot of noise. The wind had built up the waves to about 12 to 18 inches high, and these were crashing into the side of the boat, and sweeping water across Rosy's front deck. We were in a quandary. Leaving would be difficult, as the wind was pinning us to the quay wall, but staying was really only an option if we could be sure that the wind was not going to increase much more - and, of course, we could NOT be sure of that. Fortunately, at 8am the wind dropped a bit, making getting away very much more easy, and Bill arrived. I gave Dominique a quick tour of Rosy's traditional back cabin, and we were away.
The current was still flowing strongly, but it was the wind that was debilitating. It seemed to exaggerate every manoeuvre. It shifted a bit every now and then, and the tiller was difficult to turn. It took so much concentration just to steer the boat that scenery viewing was difficult. We had a lock to work through, and after that the wind seemed to drop a bit, so Bill steered for a while.
I took the tiller back as we approached Avignon. These days Avignon is on a backwater, so we had to drop below the confluence (and a bridge), turn back upstream, and then head up back under the bridge, and hence up the backwater to the moorings at Avignon.
Bridges are especial hazards when rivers are flowing fast. Going downstream one needs to shoot the arch accurately, otherwise collision with a pier could occur. Going upstream, the piers cause a restriction in the channel, and hence the speed of the water increases.
Needless to say, the wind increased as the turning manoeuvres started, and when it was complete we were heading into wind and current. At quite high engine revs (I like to keep a bit in reserve) we were making about three or four kph and we had about three km to go to get to the mooring. Under the arches we were barely making two kph.
I'm afraid that the town walls of Avignon were lost to me, as steering Rosy against wind and tide was tricky. A movement off course would very quickly move her sideways. THE bridge at Avignon (of 'Sur le pont d'Avignon' fame) was merely an obstruction that forced us to the clear channel on the outside of a bend where the current flows faster.
The moorings were above the bridge, and Temujin, who was leading, made straight for a convenient mooring space on the quay wall. As she moored, the Port Captain hove into view, saying that the mooring was booked by a péniche due in a couple of hours time, that no other port moorings were available, but that we might find somewhere further along.
Mike left Temujin on the quay, and then walked along it. I brought Rosy along outside the boats moored there, and eventually Mike found a gent on a barge who agreed for us to moor alongside. Mike helped me to moor Rosy, then he brought Temujin up to moor behind Rosy.
To be moored, and to turn the engine off, was a great relief, even though the current was still hurtling along.
The gent on the boat spoke good English with an eastern European accent I think, though he had a strange manner of speaking, as if he had extra throat parts. He said he was Australian. He was fitting the boat out for sale, but he and his family were living on it. Oh! And those two holes in the side of the péniche just above Rosy's roof? One was the kitchen sink drain and the other was the toilet drain. We moved a bit!!! He opined that we needed to be well tied up, as it had rained in Switzerland, so the flood waters would reach us at about 1800 hrs, and continue for several days. The wind, on the other hand (which was still blowing a hooley) would cease at 5ish, and wouldn't return.
I cannot recall when the word 'Mistral' was first associated with the bloody wind. Bill may have mentioned it the previous day, or it may have been our new found Oz friend. In the evening the news certainly mentioned that wind speeds of up to 70 kph had been recorded during the day. I thought they had been a bit strong!!!
Dominique came to collect Bill, and they took Mike with them for him to get his car, parked back at Roquemaure. I took Fanny for a brief walk, but the current was so strong that I didn't fancy leaving Rosy for too long.
I discovered that Mr Oz next door had other talents - he made mosaics - big ones, like you see on Roman floors. Some of his on show were 'classical' but others were a bit more flowing and modern. He made his own tesserae, though they were bigger than the ones used in the later (and finer) phases of Roman mosaics. He complained that the French didn't appreciate his work.
During the evening the current did, indeed increase - Rosy had three ropes out up front, and two at the stern. Temujin similarly.
I spent a sleepless night, worrying about the morning, and wondering about staying put until currents and winds died down. In the early morning the current calmed down, but when I finally got up, it had increased again to about the level it was when we first arrived.
Mike had agreed to start at 0800. We usually start at 0900. Personally I would rather be off at 0700, so that one can be moored by mid-day, avoiding steering the boat under the heat of the mid-day sun. Mike and June stay up late.
Anyway, at 0800 the current was still as it was when I first got up, so off we went. I went first, and merely stemmed the current with the engine until Temujin was ready. Then we swung round and whooshed off down stream. On the way down, I had time to take some photos of Avignon and its famous bridge, but I have still not walked the streets!
The wind did NOT pick up during the day, so Mr Oz had been right about that, and the current appeared no worse that the previous day. And so we swept on down the Rhône, our first Sunday cruise for quite some time. At one point we met a barge coming upstream. To make the best way against the current, not only was he on the 'wrong' side of the river, but he was travelling close in to the bank - INSIDE the channel markers!! Only to be approved of if you really know the river.
Eventually we turned off right (westish) at the point where the Petit Rhône leaves the main river, and headed along the Petit Rhône. As soon as the we left the main river the current ceased, and we plodded along at normal 'canal' speed. The river looked very tatty, with dead trees overhanging the banks, and lying in the shallows at the sides, and branches stemmed up against the channel markers. There are no moorings before St Gilles lock, and even getting in to the side to tie to a tree would be tricky. The woods and banks give no views over the countryside which, on the southish side of the river, is the Camargue. The only evidence of this is in the myriad of bird life that we saw. The trip to St Gilles lock went on for hours, and as soon as we were through we left the main canal and turned northish up the (now) dead-end Canal de Rhône a Sète, and moored. Leastways I did, Mike and June went on to look for a better mooring - I didn't want a better mooring, I just wanted a mooring - though they eventually returned to within a hundred metres of Rosy.
As we left St Gilles lock, the warm, but rather overcast day transformed itself into a sunny one. The wind was non-existent and the current virtually so (although the canal travelling south from us enters the sea with no locks between us and the bouncy briny). As I banged the mooring pins into the bank, and turned the engine off, I could hear nothing but some bird song and a croaking frog. After all the bustle of the river and the current and the wind, we were now in a calm, quiet, warm, tranquil world. Fanny, Rosy and I, and the good ship Temujin and her crew, had arrived on the canal system in the South of France, as we had planned and dreamed we would for a good few years. And after all the hustle and bustle of the journey, we were now at peace.
Except Fanny the Woof, who expected someone to throw a stick for her.
That's it for now - I'm off for a long sleep.