We had arrived in Buzet-sur-Baïse mid-afternoon on Saturday, 17 May. The organized moorage along the canal was completely filled, mostly with what appeared to be permanent or long-term moored boats. We secured on a wild bank just downstream of the junction with la Baïse. A hundred metres upstream and two hundred metres downstream of us were marinas, but we needed neither water nor electricity nor moorage fees.
After a late lunch I harvested some topsoil from the bank and Edi reorganized the garden into larger pots. The flowers we had planted a few weeks previously were becoming root-bound and some were transferred to a larger hanging basket and others to a saddle planter on the gunwale.
On Sunday there was a street market in town, so we walked across the bridge to take a look. Spread along the street through the commercial centre was a mix of garage sale and flea market. Most of the tables were loaded with things the hopeful vendors no longer wanted, and it appeared from the lack of interest that nobody else wanted the stuff either.
We had enjoyed a few days without rain, so I assumed that the current in la Garonne would be down to a reasonable mid-spring speed and navigation on it downstream to le Lot would be open. Sunday afternoon I talked with l’éclusier at the lock leading down into la Baïse about our heading down the following morning. He said there was a car in the lock at St-Leger at the junction of la Baïse and la Garonne, but that it was being removed and there shouldn’t be any problem for our going through on Monday. He then told us that we needed a pilot for the five kilometre descent of la Garonne to the entrance to le Lot.
At 0950 on Monday we slipped and headed down canal 200 metres to wear around in the widening at the marina and head back up to the entrance to the double lock leading down to la Baïse.
In the first chamber was Oxford Blue, a narrowboat with a Yorkshire couple aboard. We had first met them when they moored astern of us the previous week in Valence d’Agen and we had seen them three times since.
After they had locked through, we followed and caught up with them at the waiting wharves above Écluse St-Leger. It was 1130 and les éclusiers were not around. This lock and the ones along le Lot are not run by Voies Navigables de France, the VNF who run about 7500 kilometres of navigable waterways in France. Instead, navigation on le Lot is run by le Conseil général du département de Lot et Garonne. There are about a hundred départements in France, each much smaller than a County in a Canadian province, but they are incredibly more convoluted and burdened with bureaucratic overload. We were not expecting an efficient and smooth operation.
While we were waiting for the appearance of les éclusiers, we walked up to the lock chamber to see what we faced. The first thing we saw was a car just beyond the cill at the entrance to the chamber.
It appeared to be nose down and laying back on its hood and roof. The rear tires and hints of the bumper were visible, one tire just breaking the muddy water’s surface. The story we heard was that the car had arrived on Friday and was to be removed over the weekend. However; the weekend occurred on a weekend, so being France, nothing was done to remove the car. It was now Monday, so we could expect the continuation of the inactivity. Fortunately, this first of two linked locks fills about three metres, so there is ample clearance over the submerged car. At 1215 les éclusiers arrived with an up-bound boat and told us it was lunch time and that they would begin locking us through at 1300.
The lock door was open, so at 1300 we motored into the chamber and secured to await the return of les éclusiers. They arrived at 1315 and we descended to la Garonne. With rental boats, a pilot comes aboard here and for a €16 fee, drives the boat the five kilometres downstream through a buoyed channel that winds between isolated rocks, reefs and gravel bars. Private boats follow a pilot boat down the race.
The current appeared to be about six or seven kilometres per hour, except in Passage Monluc, where it was closer to ten. Peter and Barbara in Oxford Blue had asked us to precede then into the lock so that they could secure astern of us with spring and engine. They followed us out of the set at St-Leger and motored in our wake as we followed the pilot.
The entrance to le Lot is through a lock at Nicole and it is a tad tricky. The swift current and the back eddies make the sharp turn back upstream complex, and I required two full asterns and two full aheads to make it into the lock without any bounces.
Les éclusiers said both Zonder Zorg and Oxford Blue could fit into Écluse Nicole together. The lock is a four metre rise and they told us they would handle our lines from the top; there are no mooring arrangements in the chamber. With both barges in diagonally, our fokijser jabbing into the upstream door and our quarter fenders removed, the downstream doors just grazed past the narrowboat’s rudder. When the doors closed, we were both able to move back a metre or so and clear our jib sprit from under the ribs of the door. I asked les éclusiers to pass our line ends down to us so we could control the boat during the ascent. They said they must control from the top. The back eddy of the flooding chamber pushed us forward and our sprit was again under a rib on the door. I told les éclusiers to haul us back and to properly tend the lines by using the bollards. They didn’t understand what was needed nor how to do it. The eye at the end of our fokijser was now hooked behind the cross beam of the door and we couldn’t be backed out. I asked that the flooding be stopped. By the time the flooding stopped, our fokijser was just about to gain a new angle. We needed the water level lowered so we could be pulled back. Finally, after some line tending explanation, we completed the locking process. I think we had just been served by some départemental office workers playing éclusiers on a rotating day outing. Either that, or it was their first day on the job and they hadn’t yet done the training.
From the lock we headed up a narrow and very overgrown canal leading about three kilometres to the next lock, which would lift us to the river.
Écluse Aiguillon is fortunately automatic, so we wouldn’t have to endure the services of the départemental éclusiers. I dropped Edi off at the tiny landing quai immediately through a bridge hole, so she could walk up to the control pylon at the lock chamber.
I then moved forward to come to rest along the pilings between which water spilled from the draining lock chamber. I needed no mooring lines; the water pressure held Zonder Zorg on the wooden beam on the pilings. I watched Oxford Blue maneuver through the hole astern of us.
After we had locked through, we secured to a dilapidated wooden wharf immediately upstream of the lock. Included in the free moorage is water and electricity, so we plugged-in and then went off to explore the area.
The old mills at either end of the weir are abandoned and derelict. In many areas of the world, these would have long since been transformed into upscale lofts and shops, but this is France. We walked across Pont Napoleon to the village of Aiguillon and among other things, visited the bakery and supermarket for fresh supplies.
A strangely arranged pedestrian sign at the crosswalk in town had me trying to figure out how to use the system.
After a leisurely morning and a late breakfast, on Tuesday we slipped and continued upstream. We were now on the river, which is about a hundred metres wide at this point. There was little current because of no recent heavy rains, but the river is subject to strong currents and rapid level rises with heavy rains.
I dropped Edi off at the waiting quai, which appears to have been designed for a five or six metre boat. I dropped the spud pole to stabilize Zonder Zorg against the turbulent current coming from the draining lock chamber as it cycled down for us.
We decided to have Edi handle the bow line from the top and I would do the stern with one of the dangling lines. This put Zonder Zorg too close to the downstream doors for them to close, so I opted to motor forward on springs from fore and aft and watch that I didn’t pull the dangling line on the other wall into the propeller. Edi shouted a warning that the bow line was running over the sharp edge of the dangerous “safety” fence. This is another example of a lock designed by theoretical engineers with no knowledge of nor concern for the needs of the boaters.
We made it up without a rope wrapped around the screw, passed under the eastern arch of the bridge, turned in the stream, passed back under the bridge through its central arch and came to solid bollards on the concrete wharf in Clairac. On the wharf with us were Oxford Blue and Felix, a British cruiser.
We walked across the bridge to Longueville to locate the supermarket that is marked in the guidebook. We found a large Intermarché and having replenished our fresh stock, we made it back to the boat just before the skies opened up in a cloudburst.
Late afternoon, after the series of thunderstorms had finished rolling through, we took a walking tour through the medieval centre of the town.
Also like many towns and villages we had visited the past while, most of the businesses were closed and the streets were deserted.
Wednesday continued the spell of glum weather. By mid-morning three of the other boats had already moved across to the lock to head down river. Vertrouwen was preparing to do the same.