22 October 2013

From Avignon to the Midi

At 1008 on Saturday the 5th of October we slipped our lines from the rings on the wall of Quai de la Ligne in Avignon, turned in the current and headed back down river. The skies were clearing from an overnight shower as we glided past les Roches du Dom and headed around the stub of Pont St-Bénezet.

Le Pont d’Avignon posed gracefully for us in the midmorning sun as we approached.

It then took on an ominous appearance as we passed round its end and fell under the eye of le Palais des Papes and ghosts of popes past. They probably sensed our thoughts on their impoverishing the guilt-ridden people so that they and their vast court could live in sumptuous splendour, gaiety and decadence.

Just downstream we began passing the long line of hotel barges that lined the quais. As we passed we wondered whether the German couple had found their barge before it had left. They had stopped us to ask where the boats were. We told them to head out through the gate and follow the river downstream. They asked what is downstream. When we told them it was the direction the water is flowing, they wanted to know how to tell. We gave up. As we passed the barges, the current swept us along, adding about six kilometres per hour to our speed.

We rejoined the main branch of the Rhône and continued downstream, having no problem determining which way it was. We passed under the impressive Pont TGV Méditerranée, the twin bridges that carry the high speed train to and from the Mediterranean coast.

Below the mouth of the Durance we met an upbound laden barge pushing a huge wall of water as it bucked the current.

Because of our radio call, l’éclusier had prepared the lock for us by the time we arrived at Écluse Vallabrègues. This was our last Rhône lock, and as with all the previous ones, the ride down was easy.

After a descent of 11.7 metres we emerged and waved a farewell to l’éclusier. Except for the rude and aggressive CNR launch operator at Écluse Châteauneuf, all the staff at the locks had been very professional, polite and friendly.

Almost immediately out of the lock, we began seeing Château de Beaucaire ahead on the Right Bank, and across the river from it in Tarascon, Château du Roi René.

Château du Roi René is a superb fifteenth century structure built by Louis II d’Anjou to replace the fort built earlier by Charles I d’Anjou on the site of an ancient Roman castrum.

In the early afternoon a southerly wind picked-up, and blowing upstream against the swift current, it kicked-up a short, steep chop. We butted into the chop, making tall spouts of spray. 

We met what appeared to be a low-budget hotel barge, likely one of the earlier ones from a couple or more decades ago, from a time before huge and garish became the fashion.

Further downstream we passed a dredge and barge. It was working at a necessarily ongoing operation along the channels of the river. The changing currents constantly move banks and shoals and even add new ones.

As we approached the junction with le Petit Rhône, we were making about nine kilometres per hour through the water. The current was moving us along over the bottom at above sixteen, adding over seven kilometres per hour to our speed. In a current like this it is important to be aware of drift in the river bends. As we neared the junction I made sure we were properly lined-up well in advance.

There was no problem; we easily made it into the small branch of the river. We had left the domaine of La Compagnie Nationale du Rhône, La CNR, and had again entered waterways run by Voies Navigables de France, VNF.

As we left the main stream of the Rhône and entered le Petit Rhône, our speed began dropping. Within a few hundred metres we were down to about ten kilometres per hour and into considerably easier steering.

Our intention was to stop on a quai that is marked on the charts in both the FluviaCarte and the Guide Fluvial. It is shown just downstream of le Pont suspendu de Fourques in the Arles suburb of la Corrèze. For us it was an ideal place to stop overnight and visit Arles, a town which dates to Greek settlements in the sixth century BC.

I slowed as we approached the bridge in preparation for manoeuvring alongside the quai.

As we passed under the bridge, the only thing that looked like a moorage was a two-metre-long stage on two pilings with another piling three metres further along. The current from the bridge abutments was swirling in eddies in front of the tiny landing. We decided to visit Arles another time.

We continued down le Petit Rhône, paying close attention to the channel beacons. Some marked clearly visible rocks or patches of crud, others marked shoals made obvious only by the dead trees lodged on them, but most marked unseen shallows.

Instead of our thoughts of pausing for lunch on the quai, Edi brought up a platter of open-face sandwiches for me to enjoy at the tiller, while she ate hers in her lounge chair on the foredeck.

Mid-afternoon we came to the junction of le Petit Rhône and le Canal du Rhône à Sète. We took the righthand fork and left the river for the canal.

Barely a hundred metres down the canal we came to Écluse St-Gilles, which was ready for us because of my earlier radio contact. The lock is large, 80 metres long by 12 metres wide, but the guides give no height. When I asked l’éclusier, he told me it was a drop of 44 centimetres. This is a long way from the 22.5 metre drop we had at Bolène. 

Immediately out of the lock we began seeing derelict boats hauled-out onto the canal banks. It appears that the VNF have been doing some clean-up of sunken, derelict and abandoned boats.

As we progressed along the edge of the Camargue, the vast delta formed over the ages by the various river courses at mouth of the Rhône, we began seeing chevaux camarguais, the famous Camargue horses. 

Today, most of the wild horses in the delta have been captured, and in the area bordering the 85,000 hectare parc naturel régional de Camargue, breeding Camargue horses has become an important industry.

As we continued along the canal, we saw so many derelict boats and barges that we thought we were going through a boat graveyard. 

We could not believe that so many had been allowed to deteriorate to such a degree without intervention of the authorities. 

The canals seemed lined with derelicts, both afloat, sunk and appearing ready to sink. The slicks of oil on the water marked the recent sinkings; around the long sunk, the slicks had mostly dissipated. 

We continued along the canal, taking in the late afternoon the branch leading into Aigues-Mortes. At 1800 we came to the spud pole and a pounded pin on a grassy bank about 700 metres short of the centre of town. We had passed a supermarket next to the canal and we had stopped about a hundred metres beyond it, in the first available place. From Avignon, we had come 83.7 kilometres and had passed through two locks. While Edi straightened-up Zonder Zorg, I walked back to the supermarket for fresh provisions for dinner.

At 1000 on Sunday morning we raised the spud pole, recovered our pin and continued along the canal into Aigues-Mortes. The town had been built by King Louis IX in the thirteenth century to give France a Mediterranean port. In the main square is a statue of the King, later canonised as Saint Louis, setting out on the Crusades.

Dominating the town is tour de Constance. Its six metre thick walls were once used to imprison religious and political dissidents. It now houses the tourist office. Around the corner to starboard is a low railway bridge, with a clearance of only a metre beneath it. It is normally open, unless there is a train scheduled, when it closes ten minutes before the scheduled time. With French trains running up to an hour late, we hoped there were none scheduled as we approached.

We were in luck, and we passed through the open bridge and headed up the branch leading back to le Canal du Rhône à Sète. Since it was Sunday, the most common change-over day for the bangy boats, we met a mix of wildly zigzagging novices having just picked-up their boats and more stable skippers with a week of practice.

After about nine kilometres we began a section of the canal that runs along a narrow sandbar with the Mediterranean on one side and the étangs on the other. The étangs here are slightly salty ponds isolated from the sea by bars and low dunes generally rimmed with salt marshes. Pink flamingos are a common sight here, as are, unfortunately, derelict campers, huts and hovels.

As we passed the rental base in Carnon, we were relieved to see so many bangy boats moored. They were rafted two deep all the way along, meaning that only a small portion of their fleet were out jeopardising other boat traffic.

Five kilometres further along, at 1250 we secured with spud pole and a stern line to a bollard in le halte nautique les Quatre Canaux. We pedalled the kilometre into Palavas-les-Flots, a Mediterranean beach resort. We found it a dead post-season community that likely would not have enthused us even in high season, so we pedalled back to relax aboard Zonder Zorg.  

Shortly after 1000 on Monday we raised the spud pole, slipped and continued along the canal. We passed a long line of outboard skiffs, mostly 5 to 6 metres in length, which were moored in front of small houses on the thin bank between canal and étang. This was the étang fishing fleet.

A short distance along the bank separating the canal from the étang narrowed to a metre or less, and in some places had disappeared altogether. 

Over its top we could see nets hung on pilings and frames, and here and there, a fisherman in a skiff working trapped fish out of the nets.

Herons dot the banks using a more basic method of fishing. 

Across the canal, on the Mediterranean side is a towpath. This is well used by hikers and cyclists, including some that pause to try their luck at catching any fish that had escaped the nets and birds.

We continued to pass derelict boats moored along the canal banks. This one had not been abandoned; it is the home of someone that has fallen behind on his maintenance and has an obviously strange sense of tidiness.

We passed another tiny fishing community, a few houses on a fattening of the bank. These communities are on narrow islands of canal bank, and their only transportation is by boat. The canal banks are eroding and gradually disappearing. 

The speed limit is 8 km/h and this is prominently posted all along the canal. The local fishermen, whose homes and livelihoods depend on the banks, speed by in their runabouts at 20, 25 and more km/h, putting up huge wakes. They all seem to be in a great rush to get to and from their nets.

At 1200 we secured to bollards on the quai just downstream of the lift bridge in Frontignan. The mechanism of the lift bridge is in deteriorated condition, so it is opened only twice a day, ten minutes each at 0830 and at 1600. We had decided to arrive early, do some provisioning and top off our water tanks. Under a hinged cover in the quai, I found the water tap shown in the guides. It was dusty and covered in cobwebs, and when I put a wrench to the seized faucet, nothing came out.

We walked across the bridge and along to the moorings on its upstream side. There we found modern electrical and water pylons along the quay. A minute before 1600, nearly all the boats on both sides of the bridge had engines running in anticipation of the opening. Not far behind schedule, the bridge opened and the boats swapped sides. We secured to the quai and found the modern pylons not working. The water and electrical outlets worked on tokens, and the token machine was out of order. A phone call to the Capitainerie in the commercial port brought a man who switched on the pylons, bypassing the need for tokens, and we all enjoyed free water and shore power.

At 1000 on Tuesday the 8th of October we slipped our lines and continued up canal. The sky was completely clear, there was not a breath of wind and the temperature was already approaching 25º.

On our way out of Frontignan, we motored slowly past several more boats threatening to sink. One wooden one was so nail sick that I was expecting planks to fall off as we passed.

We came to the end of le Canal du Rhône à Sète and entered le Bassin des Eaux Blanches, a lobe of l’Étang de Thau. Thau is a shallow lake of brackish water about seventeen kilometres long. Filling nearly half its area are oyster farms. These are on the northern side of the lake and a buoyed navigational channel runs across their southern edge. As well, there are navigational channels through the oyster farms to the three towns on the north shore: Bouzigues, Mèze and Marseillan.

I headed on a course to take us between the cardinal buoys at the narrows.

Once we had put them in our stern, I steered on a lump of land that was just rising over the horizon. From the chartlet in the Guide Fluvial and the chart on the Navionics app on my iPad, I determined this was the hill behind Pointe des Onglous, which is at the entrance to le Canal du Midi. We cut across the lake, ignoring the dogleg of the buoyed channel and saving a bit of time exposed to the building wind.

About an hour and three-quarters into the crossing our course brought us to the channel along the edge of the oyster farms. The annual harvest from these is around 20,000 tonnes. 

Shortly thereafter, we passed the entrance to the fishing port of Marsiellan. The exorbitant moorage fees listed in the guide made our decision not to stop an easy one.

As we approached the lighthouse on the breakwater at Point des Onglous, the steep wind chop gradually abated.

At 1225 we entered le Canal du Midi and immediately began motoring past a long line of derelict boats. Many of then appeared to have been abandoned and many of those were sunk at their moorings.

The majority of the sunken vessels were sailboats, mostly small sloops under eight metres in length.

With the proximity to the sailing waters of Étang de Thau and the Mediterranean, these boats were likely seeking the free and nearly unregulated moorage of the canal.

None of the sinkings appeared to have been recent occurrences. We were amazed that they remained untouched by the VNF, with seemingly no concern for the pollution of the water nor of the view.

Not all the derelict, abandoned and sunk craft were sailboats. As we moved beyond the easy reach of the sea and étang, the sailboats had left space for power boats to be abandoned.

Among the derelicts were also cheap and graceless liveaboard conversions that are prime candidates for future dereliction. 

Four and a half kilometres along the canal from Étang de Thau, we came to the first lock. It was closed for lunch until 1330, so we paused for a bite to eat ourselves, hoping that beyond the lock we would see a more pristine Canal du Midi.

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