31 May 2014

Continuing up the Lot

At 1120 on Wednesday 21 May we slipped our lines and continued upstream from Clairac. The weather continued with the glum overcast and the showers that we had been under with few breaks for several weeks. This must be one of the coolest and wettest Mays on record in this region.

The river banks are mostly wild, with occasional buildings along them. Some appear to be agricultural warehouses; this is a famous apple and prune plum growing area. There are a few chateaux, many shuttered and appearing abandoned. 

Occasionally we passed more modern residences that appeared occupied and well cared for.

The most common structures along the river banks are the fishing shelters, many of them furnished with tables and chairs.

Seven kilometres along the river we passed a modern mooring float with a ramp leading to le musée du Pruneau, the Prune Museum. It was noontime as we passed and it was likely closed, so we didn’t stop. 

We had thought of stopping in Granges-sur-Lot, which the guide shows as having moorings with water and electricity and indicates a bakery and grocery store in the village. As we approached we saw that the floats were missing. The pylons were there, as were the orientation signs and the electrical and water bourne, but without the floats, all this was redundant. 

We continued along, passing a barge that appears to have had its last voyage.

Shortly upstream of this wreck we began weaving our way through a narrow channel marked with beacons and we wondered whether the demise of the barge was related to the rocky channel.

Two kilometres further along we arrived in Castelmoron and at 1300 we secured to the solid concrete wharf on the right bank, directly below the château. We were intrigued by the Moorish appearance to the château and we walked up to find out its background. The building is now la Mairie, the town hall, and inside we were offered a surly greeting and service by the woman behind the reception counter. She was the only person around and we likely interrupted her daydreaming. From the brochures she thrust at us, we unravelled some of the history of the building and of the town. The town and the château date to the thirteenth century and are named after the nearby marshes: Château des Marais or Mauron, later corrupted to Castelmoron.

Throughout the town are old buildings, some appearing to date to the fourteenth or fifteenth century. The church is relatively new, having been built to replace a thirteenth century one that had been demolished in 1845 to give access to a new bridge across the river. The château received its moorish embellishments around the same time. The new owner, born locally from an immigrant Portuguese family, had apparently been inspired by a visit to Spain’s Alhambra and converted the Romanesque architecture into Moorish.

Just upstream of the town is the next lock, a ten metre high one to surmount the dam for the hydro-electric plant. The decline of the mining industry up the river, combined by the increasing use of rail transportation, caused le Lot to be removed from the list of navigable waterways in 1926. Through the following decade large electric generating stations were built, with their dams flooding the old locks and weirs. In 1991 an isolated section of the river up and downstream of Cahors was reopened. In 1995 the bottom 50 kilometres from Aiguillon to Villeneuve-sur-Lot was restored to navigation. In 2001 a further 15 kilometres upstream of Villeneuve was put back in service and in 2010 this was extended to kilometre 75 at Lamothe. Work is in progress on linking the downstream 75 kilometres to the upstream section. We walked up the river bank to take a look at Écluse Castelmoron.

We followed along the top of a concrete retaining wall for about half a kilometre to the waiting wharf below the lock. The gate giving access off the wharf was locked, so leaving Edi on the wharf, I climbed over the fencing and sidled along to the stairs leading up to the dam’s control house. I spoke with the watchkeeper about locking through and was told that we would be seen as we approached, stay aboard and wait for the green light. The floating bollards in the chamber meant there was no need to disembark. I told him that would likely lock through the next day.

We headed back to Zonder Zorg, making it aboard shortly before the start of a torrential downpour. The rain continued heavily for nearly three hours, during which time the current in the river increased to about 1.5 metres per second past our windows.

There was a strong turbulence in the water as it passed, but with our spud pole down we remained stable. 

I lowered some more slack on the spud pole line and monitored our mooring lines as the level of the river rapidly rose. When we had moored, the top of the leeboard was below the level of the wharf, and we had used the leeboard as a ramp to disembark. When the rain stopped, the leeboard was nearly 30 centimetres higher up the face of the wharf. I then understood why the wharf is so high.

On Thursday morning the sun was breaking through the clouds and the current in the river was down to a more gentle flow.

The river was back down toward its normal level

At 1020 we slipped and headed up the short distance to Écluse Castelmoron. By this time the clouds had mostly dissipated and we enjoyed a rare sunny day.

The lock was ready for us as we arrived. 

Although at 10 metres height, it is much lower than the high locks on la Rhône, such as Bollène at 22.5 metres. However; it is only 5 metres wide, compared to the 11.4 metres of Bollène, so there is a feeling of being confined when at the bottom of the chamber looking up.

The channel leading past the weir to the lock is well protected with stout concrete pylons.

We emerged into a broad river valley.

After a couple of kilometres and an abandoned lock house, we began passing stately homes and châteaux gracefully set on the river banks. 

For the first time in a long while we saw homes utilizing their waterfront, rather than hiding it. There were even private mooring facilities in front of some.

Near St-Livrade-sur-Lot we passed a major renovation in progress. An old two-storey house was being expanded tenfold or more with huge wings and rooms. This ten kilometre section of the river upstream of Écluse Castelmoron is the most active we have seen along the two thousand kilometres of French waterways we have travelled in the past year. Here we saw fine homes new and old, yacht clubs, sailing schools riverside restaurants and resorts. During my six years on the canals a decade ago in northern and eastern France I recall nothing near similar.

Above St-Livrade the fine riverfront properties diminished in frequency, then stopped. There are a few isolated châteaux, such as Château de Favols, but mostly the riverbanks are wild with occasional crude fishing shelters.

Twenty-five kilometres upstream of Écluse Castelmoron we negotiated a buoyed channel through a gap in the weir at a decommissioned lock. Instead of remaining abandoned, the lock house  has been transformed into an upscale restaurant with a covered patio on a deck laid across the old lock chamber. As we went past we could see it was crowded with diners; it is only two kilometres from the city of Villeneuve-sur-Lot.

Villeneuve appears very attractive when approached from the river. It is called New Town because it received its charter in 1264 to be built as a replacement for the chateau and buildings destroyed earlier in the century as a punishment for the residents’ heresy.  

The bridge is a seventeenth century rebuild of a 1282 fortified bridge that was washed away in floods. The original bridge had five arches, but the replacement was built with only four, one substantially larger to make it easier for the barges to negotiate in the currents. 

We had planned on stopping here to explore the historic old city, but we were told of visiting boats being stoned and of mooring lines being cut. We had an uneasy feeling as we motored past the moorages, and we decided to continue upriver. 

Two kilometres upstream is Écluse Villeneuve, where I secured to the concrete wharf to await its preparation for us.

I walked along the wharf and up the steps to take a look at what lay ahead. This lock is thirteen metres high and was completed in 2001 to bypass the large hydro-electrical dam that had decades earlier been built across the river. The lock chamber was full when we arrived and it took a long time to drain the 2.6 million litres of water from it. 

Inside the chamber are eight floating bollards, four on each side, so securing Zonder Zorg for the ascent was easily and quickly done.

L’éclusier told us that Écluse Lustrac, the next lock sixteen kilometres up river was closed until Monday. Fortunately, we had already decided to stop for a day or two in St-Sylvestre just seven kilometres up. At 1516 we secured to floats on the right bank in St-Sylvestre, just downstream of Pont de Penne. About a hundred metres up the slope from the moorage is an Intermarché, just before it is a fuel station with diesel and a large selection of gaz tanks and across the street is a hardware store. An artisan bakery is half a block away and on a hilltop across the river is a medieval village to explore. St-Sylvestre was well suited to our waiting four days for the lock to reopen.

27 May 2014

Heading Up the Lot

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.

Seven kilometres along the river we arrived at Écluse Clairac.

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.

The old mill building sits very close to the edge of the lock chamber, and from an ascending boat, there is access to only the downstream third of the chamber top. There are lines dangling down the walls of the chamber to assist on stabilizing the boat; however, unlike similar arrangements in the Netherlands, these are not fastened at the bottom, so they cannot serve as a sliding mooring, like a floating bollard. These need to be tended individually as the boat rises, but with Edi on the chamber top, it would be awkward to do this. 

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.

Through the series of thunderstorms and heavy showers, three more boats arrived on the wharf, all of them from upstream: Aquarelle, a steel cruiser from Ireland; Vertrouwen, a US-flagged klipper and Fennavera, a British-flagged steel cruiser. There are four service pylons on the wharf with a total of twelve electrical outlets rated at 16 amps each. When the fifth boat plugged in, the entire system blew. A town employee came to try to sort-out the problem. It looks as if someone in town is hooked into the circuit and is drawing much of the current. They hadn’t anticipated six boats at once wanting electricity.

Late afternoon, after the series of thunderstorms had finished rolling through, we took a walking tour through the medieval centre of the town. 

The narrow, winding streets are lined with old buildings, many rather attractive, but none outstanding, much like many we had already seen through the region.

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. 

Mike and Barbara in Oxford Blue had decided to turn back and follow the others down, so we bade them farewell as we slipped to continue heading up the River Lot.