14 June 2014

Up the Baïse

All of France had shut down on Thursday, 29 May as we celebrated Edi’s birthday. Not only were all the shops closed, but also taking the day off were the operators of the lock that would take us down to la Garonne, the pilots that would guide us up the river and the operators of the lock out of la Garonne and into la Baïse. While we waited and celebrated, it rained and the river rose. On Wednesday afternoon we had organized to do the transit to la Baïse at 1000 on Friday, when the lock operators and pilots weren’t joining the many in France taking the day off to bridge to the weekend.

We were just beginning our first cup of espresso on Friday morning when there was a knock on the hull. The pilots told us la Garonne was rising rapidly and is being closed to navigation. They could take us through if we left immediately. We quickly dressed and headed down through Écluse Aiguillon. 

We followed the narrow winding canal that bypasses the final rapids on le Lot, passing along the way an interesting assortment of fishing spots.

With all the urgency that had been expressed by the pilots, we were surprised to see that the lock had not been prepared for our arrival. We sat in the approaches for nearly a quarter hour as the lock chamber was slowly filled.

Our first glimpse of la Garonne through the opening gates showed a swirl of turbulence near the exit from the lock, and beyond that the river was moving rather uniformly past. When the pilot came aboard, he said the river was running about twelve kilometres per hour with a swifter section through le Passage de Monluc. Zonder Zorg’s theoretical hull speed is 17.5 kilometres per hour and I doubt that her 64 kilowatts of power could get her much past 17. This meant that at full power, the 4.8 kilometre passage up to the entrance to la Baïse could take an hour or more.

We headed out into the river and turned upstream to follow the pilot boat through the chocolate-brown water.

At 2500 rpm we were making a big wake in the water, but the river bank seemed to be barely moving past. We ground past buoys tugging at their mooring chains and in le Passage de Monluc, they seemed to pause beside us as we worked over the ledges. 

We watched as Pont St-Léger slowly grew and we finally reached the turbulent “lee” at the entrance to la Baïse at Écluse St-Léger. It had taken us an hour and eleven minutes; we had averaged 4.06 kilometres per hour at 2500 rpm. We could see much of the brown in the river was coming from la Baïse.

We locked through into la Baïse and started up a more placid river. The water here was even more muddy than in la Garonne, indicating a heavy runoff upstream.

The placidity of the river gradually changed as we approached Écluse Buzet, four and a half kilometres upstream. During the last kilometre before the lock we ran through increasing foam and turbulence and as we approached the weir we saw water flowing high over it. The wall beneath the weir that separates the spillway current from the lock entrance was nearly awash.

From the top of the lock chamber we had a good look at the turbulence and the source of the foam through which we had been motoring.

At 1240 we paused on the stone quai a short distance upstream of the weir, just below Pont de Buzet. We were hungry, having had our breakfast plans cancelled by the early arrival of the pilots. 

After enjoying a late brunch, we continued up la Baïse, passing the lock that leads up to le Canal de Garonne.

Four kilometres further along we passed under the canal as the skies attempted to clear.

The speed and turbulence of the river increased as we approached Écluse Vianne. The river was up with water flowing over the separating wall between the weir outflow and the lock entrance. The top of an abutment, a directional sign and some navigation beacons were all that slowed the water in the approaches to the lock.

I dropped Edi off on the finger below the closed lock gates and then sat in the turbulence on the bollards as she set the mechanism in motion to cycle the lock down for us. The back eddy below the lock doors made it a tad tricky entering the chamber, but our fenders were well placed and up to their assigned tasks. 

From below the lock we had seen open mooring spaces along the quai in Vianne, so once we had locked through, we secured to the solid concrete wharf and called it a  day. We had left the fast-moving Lot, ascended the faster moving Garonne and started our way up the raging Baïse. It was 1440, so we walked up into the town for fresh provisions. The only thing the town has going for itself is that its thirteenth century bastide walls are still standing. Inside it is nearly dead with most of the businesses closed. Of the two groceries, one was closed and the other may as well have been. Its shelves were near bare and its sparse produce selection was approaching compost. We selected an overpriced basket of strawberries with the fewest culls.

At 0850 on Saturday we slipped our lines and continued up the river. The level had risen overnight and the current was noticeably stronger.

Three kilometres along and around two sharp bends, we approached Écluse Lavardac, where there was a large churn of turbulence and spume the few hundred metres leading to the lock. I dropped Edi off on a two-metre wooden wharf sited in the middle of the eddies below the weir.

I dropped the spud pole and sat in the churn with a stern line to a bollard on the tiny quai, while Edi activated the lock.

Edi’s view from the lock made the conditions on the water appear much more sever than they seemed from onboard.

In the lock we found a continuation of the broken and dysfunctional systems. Missing bollards, badly placed bollards, broken bollards and other shortcomings do not allow a relaxation in the chambers, but force a constant adaptation and improvisation. The only predictable thing with the systems is that each lock will be differently setup and different things will be broken.

At the next lock, the landing wharf was nearly awash, its upstream end covered in foam. I stemmed the current and juggled with the eddies to land Edi so she could head up to the lock to activate the cycle.

The turbulence at the lock entrance made threading Zonder Zorg into the chamber a bit more exacting than normal. This was further complicated by the locks above Lavardac being only 4.15 metres wide, rather than the 5 metres on le Lot and the 6 metres on Canal de Garonne. This narrower width left us with just a couple of centimetres clearance on each side of our leeboard fenders.

We continued working our way upstream against the heavy current and erratic turbulence.

We arrived at Écluse Nérac after nearly three hours of very hard slogging against adverse conditions. We decided to stop for the day once we had cleared through the lock.

A few minutes before noon we secured to rings on the stone wall in Nérac. We were greeted with information that because of the flood conditions, the river had been closed to navigation for two days and would likely remain closed for another couple. We hadn't been informed of the closure because that happens on the way upstream only at the lock descending into la Baïse from Buzet. We decided to pause a bit longer.

09 June 2014

Back Down the Lot

On Tuesday, 27 May we turned in the increasing current and began our descent of the Lot. We had come to the final narrow buoyed channel below the weir at Saint-Vite, seventy-five kilometres up the river from la Garonne. The lock at the weir has not yet been restored and this is the end of navigation on the lower Lot.

It was still heavily overcast, cool and threatening to rain as we retraced our way down through Écluse les Ondes and Lustrac. We were once again in down locks, so the process was simpler. There having been no traffic since our ascent, the locks were in our favour and we didn’t have to stop to drop Edi off on the quai before the locks. 

The air was still and offered wonderful reflections of the passing scene, here Château Rogé midway between St-Sylvestre and Villeneuve-sur-Lot.

A short distance downstream of Rogé we were challenged by a swan. 

As we approached, it swam across toward us with raised wings and lowered head and then turned parallel to our track and beat the water.

It then turned and did the same in the opposite direction, moving quickly astern of us.

We thought it had quit, buy shortly it began a low level kamikaze run toward our stern, veering at the last moment, just as I was ducking. 

Edi shot a beautiful photo of it slowing to veer off.

It did another challenging run, this time making foot stomps in the water on its approach.

Just to make sure, it did a similar run down our other side.

Satisfied that he had scared us off, he headed back up river while we continued down. We shortly came to the waiting wharf for Écluse Villeneuve and secured to wait for the chamber to fill.

In the embankment above the wharf is a planting of wild flowers, including roses

and poppies

and some pretty yellow blossoms. We didn’t need to be reminded to take the time to smell the roses.

Within twenty minutes we had cycled down the thirteen metre lock and were heading out to continue down the river.

By the time we reached Villeneuve-sur-Lot, the clouds had cleared to the southwest and it looked like we might have a rare sunny afternoon. We hadn’t felt good with stopping on our way upriver and we thought we would give it another look on our way back down. As we passed under the old bridge, we still felt uneasy about the place. The stories of rocks thrown at visiting barges and of mooring lines being cut certainly influenced our thinking, but in the end, it was our gut feeling that told us to continue on past.

As we passed through the gap in the weir at the old lock, the current in the river seemed a bit quicker than it had been on our ascent.

We arrived in St-Sylvestre at 1225, just five minutes before most of the supermarkets, grocery stores, butchers and bakeries close for lunch throughout France. We stopped anyway, just to check incase this town had some liberated shopkeepers that allow reason to defy tradition. It doesn’t, so after watching all the hoardings come down and shutters close, we continued downriver. Along the way we passed the thirteenth century Château Favols.

At 1540 we secured to one of the two fifteen-metre wooden wharves in Casseneuil. The €5 moorage includes water and electricity.

The moorage is at the junction of la Lède, a tributary to the Lot. We strolled along the track that follows la Lède past the bases of ancient fortification walls. Among its early history, the town was a Roman settlement called Cassinogilum, from which it derives its present name. Because of its strategic location, the town was a frequent target, having been sacked and partly destroyed by the Normans in 848 and repeatedly during the Cathar crusades, the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Religion. The walls look a patchwork of frequent repairs.

In the town are many medieval buildings along the narrow, winding streets and hanging over the banks of la Lède. 

Église Saint-Pierre was destroyed in 1214 and was soon rebuilt as église Saint-Pierre et Saint-Paul, which still stands. It is reputed for its fine fifteenth and sixteenth century frescoes; however, the church was not open when we were there, so we didn’t see them. 

At 1015 on Wednesday morning we slipped and continued downstream. Along the banks we saw many pigeonniers, some restored and others converted to feature towers on homes.

We descended the ten metre lock above Castelmoron…

… and swept past the town on the rising current as rain came and went in frequent showers.

We continue to be amazed by the French fashion of shutting everything down for lunch. They even close the river to waterskiing at noon. We saw many signs along the river marking the start and end of watersport zones and giving the hours: 10H to 12H30 and 16H to 20H. Why they need to shut down waterskiing and fast motorboating for lunch makes as much sense to us as does shutting down nearly the entire country for a lunch break.

We motored past Clairac and into the narrow canal bypassing its weir.

The ‘lock-from-hell’ at the mill in Clairac was easier on the descent, but it still spoke loudly of having been designed by someone with absolutely no knowledge of boating.

At 1448 we secured to the dilapidated wooden wharf above Écluse Aiguillon. After we had settled-in, I phoned the listed number to arrange for lock keepers and pilot to lower us to la Garonne, guide us up the river and lift us into la Baïse on Thursday morning. The person who answered the phone said: “C’est impossible, demain est un jour férié”, Eet ees impossabeel, tomorreau ees a oliday”. I further learned that it is the day when everyone in France is supposed to sit around assuming that Mary is in heaven. We quickly changed plans and organized the Lot-Garonne-Baïse transit for Friday.

With everything closed on Thursday, and many others closed on Friday to ‘make the bridge’ to the weekend and the some continuing the closure through the weekend to keep the momentum going, we scrambled to restock our fresh provisions. We walked across Pont Napoleon and through town to the Intermarché, returning in a heavy rain that increased to a downpour by the time we made it back to Zonder Zorg. Fortunately, the free moorage includes water and electricity, so we took long hot showers and enjoyed the dry cabin warmed by our electrical heater as the level and current of the river slowly rose.

On Thursday everything was closed as we walked through the town between rain showers. It was Edi’s birthday and we thought it nice for all of France to take the day off to celebrate with her. We added to the festivities at dinner with a bottle of Champagne Veuve Clicquot, a birthday gift from elder daughter, Amy.