22 August 2014

To the Camargue

On Bastille Day we had a visit from Wychard and Falco from Scheepsbouw & Reparatie Friesland in Harlingen. They had driven fourteen hours from Harlingen to Capestang, spent eleven hours troubleshooting and replacing our house battery and they had rectified a few arisings from our first year of cruising Zonder Zorg. On Tuesday, 15 July, as they headed out on the fourteen hour drive back to Friesland, we prepared to continue down Canal du Midi.

At noon, after having paid our moorage account with le Capitain du Port, we slipped and continued along the fifty-four kilometre pound between locks, timing our departure to put us at the seven-lock staircase at Béziers toward the end of its afternoon down-bound opening. We figured this should have cleared the long line of boats waiting to head down. Along the way we passed a very creative use of hundred litre drums, seconded to serve as fenders sufficiently large for a boat ten times the size.

As we approached Tunnel de Malpas, we sounded our horn, hoping any up-bound rental boat understood the meaning of the signal and that we, as a down-bound vessel had priority. 

Fortunately, there was no opposing traffic as we passed unscathed through the tunnel, which had been completed in 1680 as the first canal tunnel in Europe.

Further along we did see some very creative maneuvering by the rental boat skippers as they banged from bank to bank on their first day out.

Our calculations and assumptions proved correct as we arrived at l’échelle de Fonserannes with the traffic light green and no line-up. We were joined in the staircase by a rental boat crowded with South Africans, so Edi had another opportunity to keep her Afrikaans in practice.

After a very quick descent of the seven locks, we motored out the bottom and past a long line of rental boats waiting for the up-bound cycle to begin at 1600. We counted sixteen boats waiting.

As we were nearing the end of the line-up, we met two commercial boats, which have priority in the locks, and would delay the line-up by nearly an hour. We saw that many of the boats would not make it up the flight of locks until late the following morning.

We continued along across the 198 metre aqueduct over l’Orb with its views across the river at Béziers and Cathédrale St-Nazaire. 

From Béziers we worked our way down through four more locks and along another eleven kilometres. We passed through more of the wonderful hump-back bridges across the canal that were built in the late 1670s and early 1680s. At 1920 we secured to bollards for the night in a peaceful spot just short of Écluse Portiragnes. 

The following morning we waited in the lock as an old dory crewed by seven senior citizens rowed into the chamber. Rowboats, canoes and kayaks are not allowed in the locks, but this one was given an exemption because of its historic aspect and the difficulty of portaging it around the lock, as other paddlers must.

As we continued down the canal, we began seeing Camargue horses along the banks.

Also along the banks, we saw Pastis, one of the tjalken we had looked at online in our early search for a barge. We had gone as far as contacting the broker to get further information and to discuss price. Seeing her now in the flesh, we were delighted that we had decided to pass on her and look further.

As we motored we passed many boats that were even less attractive, including a number that were sinking or sunk at their moorings.

We passed under the graceful Pont des Trois Yeux, the Three Eyed Bridge and soon arrived in Agde.

Le Bassin Ronde d’Agde was built in 1680 with three exits to allow barges to go from le Canal du Midi to l’Hérault either above or below the weir. Below the weir leads to the Mediterranean, while above the weir leads after a kilometre to the continuation down Canal du Midi.

When we arrived, l’éclusier informed us there was traffic heading down to the lower Hérault, then traffic coming up and out to the upper Hérault, then traffic coming up le Canal du Midi before it was our turn in the lock. We secured alongside and watched the action for more than an hour as the bangy boats bumbled into and out of the lock.

Once we made it through the lock and into the upper Hérault and then the continuation of le Midi, we began seeing an increasing number of derelict boats.

As we approached the end of the canal, the abandoned derelicts were in the majority, with many of these sunk to the bottom.

With the French love of liberty, there are no regulations against this freedom to moor and the authorities can do nothing to remove the abandoned boats, which in many places line the banks in unbroken rows, preventing passing boaters from mooring.

Shortly before 1400 we came to the end of le Canal du Midi and nosed out into Étang de Thau, relieved that the winds were still light. Ahead of us was a 17.5 kilometre crossing of a very shallow brackish lagoon that is notorious for its steep chop in anything but light winds. Navigation is strongly discouraged in winds above Force 2. We were out of the 8 km/h speed limit of the canal, which is imposed to prevent bank erosion, but is near universally ignored by the rental boaters who are apparently not informed of the speed limit. Once on the étang I upped the engine to 1800 and we moved along at 12 km/h. 

The wind gradually rose to light Force 4 as we made our way across, but as they rose we increasingly gained protection of land to windward and the waves had little fetch. Within an hour and a half we left the étang and entered Canal du Rhône à Sète. At 1635 we secured to the wall on solid bollards just short of the lift bridge in Frontignan. It is a peaceful setting except for the fishermen who all run through the mooring at full speed in their outboard skiffs, pulling huge wakes, seeming to make a sport of disrupting the moored boats.

The town fathers long ago invented a story that the lift bridge mechanism is delicate and should be operated a maximum of twice daily to prevent premature failure. It opens for ten minutes at 0830 and 1600 during high season and once per day at 1600 during the low season. To add to the reason to stop in Frontignan, the first three days of moorage with water and electricity are free. At 0830 the following morning we watched the boats scramble to change sides with the bridge. The services are below the bridge, so we stayed put.

We visited the weekly Thursday market, which spreads through the town centre and we restocked our fresh supplies. In the afternoon we spoke with a British couple aboard Quo Vadis, a nicely converted tjalk. They told us that they had been in Frontignan for two weeks waiting for proper conditions on the Rhône for their ascent. They told us it still looked bad, so I began digging up information online to assess it for ourselves. We enjoyed the peacefulness of the mooring in the lulls between the high-speed passings of the belligerent fishermen.

On Friday morning we joined the 0830 parade of boats passing under the raised bridge, but instead of continuing with the herd, we stopped on the wharf just beyond the bridge. I walked across to the boulangerie for fresh croissants for breakfast, which we enjoyed before continuing along in peace. The route onward was in a canal built through a chain of shallow, brackish lagoons just in beyond the low dunes from the Mediterranean coast. The banks of the canal are low, narrow and fragile and there are prominently posted speed limit signs all along the canal to reduce wake and help prevent bank erosion. The local fishermen are the main users of this stretch of canal, and it is in their interest to keep the banks intact.

In many places the narrow bank between the canal and the étangs had collapsed and much of the remainder was close to doing the same. We ensured that our gentle wake was doing no damage.

Less vigilant were the many fishermen we met who all pulled huge wakes as they sped along the canal. It seemed as if they were in a big rush to get in all the fishing possible before their canal was destroyed.

Midday we passed the British couple in Quo Vadis. They had gone through the bridge the previous evening to move a bit closer to the start of the Rhône and had stopped for the night after a couple of hours. We continued along.

We left the chain of étangs and entered the Camargue, the delta lands of the Rhône. Frequently along the banks were grazing Camargue horses.

Shortly before 1400 we arrived in Aigues-Mortes, a fortified town built in the thirteenth century by King Louis to serve as a Mediterranean port for France. Prominent in the town is la tour de Constance, which once was used to hold political prisoners.

Below the tower is a railway swing bridge, which is normally open, but it closes ten minutes before a scheduled train. It was closed when we arrived, we didn’t know how long, so we put our starboard flank along a concrete wall with no mooring bollards, pins or rings and dropped the spud pole to wait.

After fifteen minutes, we knew the train was following the normal French local train schedule and was late. After nearly thirty minutes, the train rolled across the bridge. After it had passed, it took a further eight minutes for the bridge keeper to start slowly opening the bridge. 

At 1455 we secured to a rubble bank with our bow held off by the spud pole and our stern fender held against a large rock by a line to a pin pounded in the bank. We were a kilometre along from the centre of Aigues-Mortes and within a hundred metres of a large supermarket. The Rhone was only twenty-five kilometres away and this was our last chance to stock up before starting up the river.

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