The Journey -
A GUIDE TO VOYAGING DOWN THE RHÔNE-SAÔNE
I've been wondering about putting together a 'cruising' guide to the Rhône-Saône, and have finally decided to do it. It will draw together bits from several of the last witterings, plus a bit.
This is not a tourist guide. Serious readers will consult with separate tourist guides, with the appropriate published cruising guides, and with as many other sources of information as possible. The journey is a serious one for any boat to make, and there are many imponderables.
Nor is this a definitive guide. It is based on a single downstream voyage, plus background reading plus talks with people VERY much more knowledgeable and experienced than myself. During this single voyage I was anxious ALL of the time, seriously worried for 25% of the time and totally petrified for about five minutes. If you rely on this as your sole source of information, then you must surely have suicidal tendencies, as you will be giving yourself a good chance of experiencing your own, personal wrecking.
WHEN TO GO?
This is tricky. The Rhone carries flood water from places up-stream of Lyon, and it also carries melted snow and ice from the Swiss Alps. Most authorities suggest that winter (from late September, when flooding is not unusual, until early May) should be avoided, leaving a window between early May and late September for the voyage. In May the current will still be strong, but the theory is that this will merely speed up the downhill voyage. Thus the voyage down could be considered at any time during this 5 month window. The voyage up is rather different. The current will slow the passage down considerably, so it is best to go up-stream to arrive at Lyon before about mid September as it is in late August to mid/late September the current is generally at its lowest (but see above about flooding!!)
All this is complicated by several other facts:
To help you:
a. Navicarte No. 16, The Rhone (ISBN 2 7416 0163 1) gives a brief introduction to the 'flow' problem.
b. The Rhone authorities have a helpline. It's a French phone number: 08 20 10 10 20 (our French friends tend to write their phone numbers in pairs, like that). There is a long preamble in French disclaiming all responsibility, and then an invitation to press 1 to continue in French, or 2 to switch to English. There are other choices after that, but you should be able to track down the choice that gives the flow rates at a series of measuring stations. Of course, it gives the flow historically (7am or 8am on the day in question) and does not attempt a forecast. Sudden hot weather in Switzerland (melting the alpine snow), or heavy rain in Switzerland, both increase the flows on the Rhone.
The Rhone is subject to two strong winds.
The Mistral comes down from Switzerland. It appears at all seasons of the year. It can blow for many days, or it can blow during the day and calm down at night, only to reappear the next day. It can blow very strongly (70 plus kph). A well found vessel should be able to cope with it, but us humans find it very debilitating. The mooring at Viviers (for example) is said to be very difficult to get into when the Mistral is blowing.
The other main wind is a Southerly one, often carrying red dust. It is especially difficult below the last lock. It is a strong wind, blowing against the current. This causes short, steep waves. I've seen a photo of dense spray, from the bows of a peniche punching through these waves, landing on the back cabin.
There are not many moorings on the Rhone. Those that exist are often not very long - many are 30 metres long or less. Breasting up is to be expected. Stand no truck from a skipper objecting to you mooring alongside - unless, of course, he wishes to swap places and to moor outside you. Similarly, when you are moored, lend a hand to the boat that arrives on the outside. Other folks say that if you arrive at a lock after about 7pm, the keeper will normally allow you to moor on the lock mooring (that are normally reserved for pleasure craft awaiting the lock). The probability of such agreement may be increased if a woman on the boat can put in the call to the keeper - preferably a tired, beseechingly weepy woman. Earlier this year, two deck hands, on a barge heading downstream on this pound, were lost overboard and have not yet been recovered.
HOURS AT THE HELM
Cruising the Rhone is not like cruising a canal. The channel markers, the wind and the currents mean that steering is both physically and mentally tiring. We had a reasonably easy ride down, with most days not exceeding six hours' cruising time. It still took us two or three days to recover from the voyage. As I was single handed, we kept the days short.
From Chalon to Lyon we did some side excursions, and had some days off, so the 11 days it took us could easily be reduced to five days, and even then it would be a pleasant, relaxing cruise. (On still waters we do 5 or 6 km per hour)
From Lyon to the first lock on the Petite Rhone it is pretty much 300 km.
We left Lyon on 24 May, and arrived at the first lock on the Petite Rhone on 3 June. We cruised on 10 of those days, with one 'rest' day. (a Sunday). The voyage took some 42 hours of cruising including some 16 locks.
We started at Chalon. Those who don't want to use the facilities or see the sights of Chalon and/or find the well equipped Port du Plaisance too expensive can turn up the Canal du Centre, pass through the first (rather deep) lock (taking care to rest on the right-hand side of the lock, as the water swishes in on the left hand side). Then cruise for about 5 km through very pretty countryside to Fragnes, where mooring is 5 Euro per night (incl water and elec) and which has showers, loos, a restaurant-cum-bar, a boulangerie and a helpful Tourist office.
The first stop below Chalon is at Tournous, on a quay above the bridge. There are no facilities and no charge is made.
A few km downstream, on the left hand side, there is the River Seille which makes a very pleasant side excursion. The first lock is staffed, the remaining three are d-i-y. The village near the first lock is bread-shop-less. The Seille is a delightful river to cruise. Try to be at Louhans (at the limit of navigation) for the Monday morning market. The town is famed for its chickens.
Back on the main river, the next downstream mooring is at Macon. They want you to moor in their Port du Plaisance which is on a branch off at the northern approaches. However, just before the wonderful old bridge, on the left hand bank, there is a free pontoon (careful boaters will shoot the bridge, wind, and then come back up through the bridge to the mooring). Pleasure craft are now banned from all the other previous, quay side moorings.
Our next stop was on the pontoon mooring at Belleville on the left hand side. This is a lovely small town, with bars in the main square, shops, banks, a post office and all other conveniences. The pontoon got quite busy, with folks mooring three abreast. A HUGE caravan site is nearby. I seem to recall having to pay, and that water and elec was available.
A mere 19 km downstream, on the right hand side, there is another (apparently) little used pontoon at St Bernard. It is free. There is no electricity. Water is available, but only from a big spout. You can drink it, or collect it in containers, but there is no obvious way of attaching a hose to it. The pontoon is beside a slip way, used by 'speed boats' and jet skiers, and there is a rather nice restaurant there.
And so to Lyon. The width of the river seems to decrease as one approaches Lyon. Moorings are on the left hand side, on a high quay wall, opposite some VNF offices. The moorings are free. There is a water tap on the wall on the other side of the river. There is a second VNF office on the left hand side of the river immediately below the pleasure craft moorings. It isn't open all the time. Its main task is to sell licences to craft coming up from the Med.
I can confirm that the small pontoon at Givors (Pk 18) is there, though we did not stop on it.
Instead we headed on towards Vienne. Just after Pk 26 there is a big road bridge. The mooring is on a backwater, on the right hand bank immediately after the bridge. So, shoot the bridge, wind and head up the backwater. The current in the backwater is negligible. The bridge and the nearby railway track mean that the mooring is not exactly peaceful, but it is there and it is free.
There is a large (and I guess, expensive) marina at Condrieu that we passed by. We continued to Pk 47 at Chavanay. The mooring is on the right hand side of the river, opposite a nuclear power station. It is a pontoon set amongst the huge pilings of a barge mooring. No facilities and no charges.
At Andance, above the bridge, there appeared to be a small mooring. The public quay below the bridge at Andance Pk 69 is there, but it is steeply inclined and was almost impossible for us to moor at. Hence we went on to St Vallier. The town has a long, low quay, protected by 'No Mooring' signs. Just after the town, and round the corner on the left hand side, at Pk 78, there is nasty looking public quay, with a big slipway into the water. This is the mooring. One needs to moor such that one can get on and off the boat at the water-end of the slipway, otherwise one has to brave a high ladder. No water, no electricity, no charges.
Tournon has a Port de Plaisance, but only for boats drawing one metre or less. It looked expensive.
So, on down to Glun, on a backwater at Pk 98 on the right-hand side. There is a longish pontoon, and some finger pontoons. No water, but free electricity is available in a ditch on the other side of the road. And one is close to the pretty village with a good bread shop.
Near Pk 112 at Valensol there a fully equipped Port de Plaisance. Channel markers lead one into it from (of course) downstream. We went on to Pk 134, just beyond Pouzin. At first sight, one might not recognize it as a mooring. It is a high wall with a steel ladder set into it, set in dilapidated surroundings. There is a hunky-chunky bollard, a big ring (hidden in the undergrowth) the steel ladder and some Armco Barrier (separating the mooring from the old haling way) to moor to. Four of us moored there overnight.
The next possible mooring is at Viviers at Pk 166. Take notice of the channel markers on the way in. The Port is tricky to get into if there are northerly winds. It has an excellent Port Captain. The charge is 13 Euro for the first night and 9 Euro per subsequent night. They seem not to expect boats longer than 15 metres, but no objections were raised about Rosy (16 m) or Temujin (18 m).
The next leg is THE tricky one on the way back up. 38 Km to the next mooring, including the long (and fairly un-interesting) passage through the Montdragon cutting, and with no moorings on the way (except, possibly, at the lock lay-by).
Further, the mooring at St-Etienne-des-Sorts is a single 30m pontoon. We were all three deep on it during our night there, as both down-going and up-coming boats want to use it.
Next stop was at 20km further on at Roquemaure where there is a low, stone quay on the right hand bank. This is an ancient quay. The dilapidated towers on either side of the river, and the quay, were all built to extract tolls form passing traffic. There are no 'facilities' there, nor is there any charge. It is very uncomfortable when a Mistral is blowing
The next hop was the 24 km down to Avignon. The moorings there are up the backwater, and there are not many of them. We managed to tie onto a friendly barge. Not very comfortable, but free. People on the proper moorings pay. I believe that one can phone ahead to book a mooring.
The next day is/was a pain. Leaving Avignon, one sweeps down the river for some 42 km, before branching off right onto the Petite Rhone.
Just before the last lock on the Rhone, at Pk 261, is the Port de Vallabrégues which offers overnight moorings, and which we plan to use on the way up.
Anyway, once on the Petite Rhone, the current immediately drops to approximately zero. There is then a long, 19 km flog (for us that is three or four hours) along a frankly not very attractive river, to the first lock, and then another km or two to a bankside mooring. (After passing through the lock to get off the Petite Soane, continue for about a kilometre to a junction. Turning right gets you off a route used by commercial boats. Moor to the bank immediately, or around the next bend there are three seven-metre long wooden stagings, or a few more kilometres on there is the port of St Gilles with all facilities (at a price). Personally, I loved the bank side mooring. Quiet except for birdsong during the day and frogs croaking at night (and, it being the Camargue) the buzz of mosquitoes. This last day's journey for us was a 61 km journey including the 19 km merely plonking along the Petite Rhone.
And that's about it. HTH!!!