07 July 2014

Onward to Bordeaux

After nearly three weeks of explorations on the rivers Lot and Baïse, on Friday the 6th of June we re-entered le Canal de Garonne. We headed downstream through Buzet-sur-Baïse, pleased to see all the idle rental boats in both the ports. This meant that fewer would be out jeopardizing our safe and peaceful navigation.

Five kilometres further along we paused for the night on a quiet wilderness bank downstream of Damazan.

On Saturday we continued down the canal, working our way through the locks. Edi got back into the swing of twisting the dangling wand to initiate the automatic cycle.

After three locks and fourteen kilometres, we arrived in Mas d’Agenais shortly before noon. As Edi prepared lunch, I trotted up the steep hill and through the old wall to the village to buy bread and fresh produce from the épicerie that was mentioned in the guide. 

Also mentioned in the guide is the eleventh century Église Saint-Vincent, in which is a depiction of the dying Christ painted in 1631 by Rembrandt. After lunch we climbed up to the village and walked along to the church. We arrived to learn that the church is open only on weekdays and closed weekends.

Not wanting to wait in the tiny three shop community until Monday, we decided to take a quick look around and schedule a weekday stop on our way back from Bordeaux. There is a splendid view over the canal and la Garonne from the cliff top.

We followed the switchback path and stairs down the escarpment with a fine view of Zonder Zorg just up the canal.

We continued down the canal for another dozen kilometres and two locks, passing along the way several teams of rowers out practicing.

We also passed some less successful navigators. At 1540 we secured for the day on a wilderness bank two kilometres downstream of the village of la Grande Route.

We slipped shortly before 1000 on Sunday and worked our way down another six locks and 27.4 kilometres to the basin in Castets-en-Dourthe. The water in the basin is rather shallow and it is very overgrown with underwater plants. There was no clear path through the weeds, so we had to cut our own route through, and in the process, the propeller became entangled and progress was very slow.

Mid-afternoon we slowly plowed our way backwards through the dense weeds and secured on a wharf, the bow held by the spud pole. The mooring balls are set-up for boats half Zonder Zorg’s length and simply got in the way of our maneuvering. We had chosen a spot next to the wifi antenna, from which we received a very strong signal. Unfortunately, like many other places in France, the wifi is not 
connected to the internet.

We were at kilometre 192.5 on the canal, half a kilometre from its end. At the end of the basin is Écluse les Gares and just beyond it is Écluse Castets, the lock down into la Garonne. On the wall of the Castets lock house is a flood gauge, which measures the level of the river above normal. The lip of the lock chamber is 7 metres above the river and the gauge goes up to 13 metres. Notations of floods border the scale, with dates recorded at more severe floods. Of note are the 12.5 metres in 1875 and the 13.0 metres in 1900, both floods just below the top floor landing of the double staircase. 

We walked over to la Capitainerie to get information on descending to the river. We learned that access to the final two locks of the canal is scheduled to coincide with high water on la Garonne, as long as it falls within the working hours of les éclusiers. High water at Castets is two hours after the high tide at Bordeaux and the next high water was at 0815 the following day, but the lock keepers would be off duty then. Vive la France! The next locking through wouldn’t be until the following high water Monday evening. We would have to wait overnight Monday on the float in the river below the lock until Tuesday morning’s ebb gave us the four hours daylight needed for the passage to Bordeaux. There are no safe stops on the river until Bordeaux. We booked an appointment for Monday at 1830 and after ordering bread and croissants for delivery in the morning, we went back to Zonder Zorg to relax.

Le Capitain had told us there was an épicerie and a boucherie in the village, so after breakfast on Monday we walked up to buy some fresh things for dinner. Our fresh supplies were near exhausted, since we had anticipated being able to replenish in Bordeaux. We arrived at the grocery shop to find a crude note taped to the roll-down. It translated to: Store Closed Saturday 7 June to Monday 9 June inclusive. Reopening Tuesday 10/6 at 0700. 

We rethought the evening’s dinner; we had end bits of a variety of vegetables, so a stir-fry made sense. We walked along to the butcher to select a piece of pork or turkey breast to add to the wok. The sign on its door told us it was closed Mondays. Vive la France! 

We continued along to the twelfth century Église St-Romain for a look. I was intrigued that the church is oriented North-South rather than East-West and that it has its bell tower at the back, rather than at the front. We walked around it looking for an open door; there was none; it was closed. Vive la France! 

On Monday evening we descended through the two final locks to the river, taking an inordinate amount of time waiting for a fiberglass boat to bounce its way into the two locks and pass their lines. We later found out the owners had just bought it and were still uneasy with its handling.

We entered la Garonne, swept downstream under the Eiffel bridge in the building current, turned and stemmed the current back up to secure on the dilapidated float, which had only two unbroken bollards and one ring for the two boats. With the current overnight expected to be up to ten km/h with the ebb and six or seven in the opposite direction with the flood, we had to be very creative with our mooring lines.

Not long after we had settled in, a heavy thunderstorm rolled through. I dug some baby scallops out of the freezer and cleaned-out the fridge’s vegetable drawer; we enjoyed a splendid stir-fry.

We had been told by le Capitain to leave the float at 0800 with the strengthening ebb. He said the passage to Bordeaux should take about four hours, and this timing would put us at Pont de Pierre at slack water just before noon. I looked at the 54 kilometre distance and saw we would need to average 13.5 kilometres per hour in an increasing and then a slowing current. We left the float at 0730 to give us half an hour in hand.

Two kilometres along, the first buoys on the river showed that the current was already rather swift.

Running at 1400 rpm, which in still water gives Zonder Zorg 9 km/h, we were already making 13.8.

Four kilometres further along we passed Port Airbus, the terminal for the barges that bring upstream from Bordeaux huge fuselage and wing sections for the Airbus assembly plants. 

As we passed the port we were making over 15 km/h, the river current kicking our speed up over 6 kilometres per hour.

The beacons in the river had lengthening current trails. 

Twelve kilometres further along we were hitting 16 km/h.

With increasing frequency we passed bank-side fishing installations. Typical of the lower Garonne and estuary of the Gironde, these employ drop nets. Many of the installations are shacks on poles above the river, but some are on floats on pilings. 

Also along the banks we passed an increasing number of chateaux.

Many of these were wine properties as we passed the dessert wine regions of Ste-Croix-du-Mont, Loupiac, Barsac and Sauternes.

There are very few riverside communities, most being built back in away from the banks and above the historic flood levels. Langorian is an exception to this, being built at river’s edge on a bank only about four metres above the river. Its only moorings are the overgrown sloping stone walls. There are few safe mooring possibilities in the more than 50 kilometres between Castets and Bordeaux and a power failure or steering gear problem would place a boat at risk over much of the passage.

At 1110 we arrived in Bordeaux. 

Five minutes later we passed through a heavy ebb current under Pont de Pierre and washed downstream as we turned to stem the current back up to our reserved spot on Ponton d’Honneur. We secured at 1123, having made the 54 kilometre passage in seven minutes short of four hours. We were alone on the float until the arrival an hour later of the plastic boat, with which we had shared the lock and float in Castets.

Up the ramp and across the street from us was Port St-Caihau, through which begins the heart of the old city. I had been to Bordeaux dozens of times in the 1970s, 80s and 90s conducting wine tours and searching for wines to import. My last trip was in 2000 just before I shut down the wine company and bought my first Dutch canal boat. I was looking forward to seeing the city again.

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