30 September 2014

Down the Nivernais to Auxerre

On Tuesday, 19 August we had crossed the deep trench and three tunnels of the summit pound of Canal du Nivernais and arrived at the beginning of a steep descent. Ahead of us were eleven locks in the next two kilometres before the slope began to ease.

At the first lock we were received by a young couple that obviously had the hots for each other. As they efficiently worked the gates and sluices, their body language was a mutual seduction and we watched in fascination as they shared a telepathic foreplay.

They opened the gates for us and indicated they would see us at the next lock. The romancing continued through the next two locks. Not only did they give excellent service, but they were also a joy to watch. We left them warmed by memories of our own unfettered youth.

We continued down the series of locks with a new éclusier, who was very efficient, though not anywhere near as entertaining. I assisted him by closing the second upstream gate and opening the second downstream one so he didn’t need to walk around the lock to do them. This sped the locking procedure by four or five minutes and we moved through quickly. However, because the next lock was empty, we had to wait as l’éclusier prepared it for us. 

Our luck turned with the following lock; an up-bound barge was coming out as we arrived, so it and the subsequent locks would be in our favour.

We waved at Rival as she passed and we happily slipped into the prepared lock as she equally happily headed to the waiting one we had just left. 

With each lock now ready for us, we made very good time down through the series.

The lock houses along this section are rather small, but very pleasingly designed. Many are well maintained and tastefully decorated.

The residents of some have extended their maintenance and decoration to the locks, often with gate railings matching the paint scheme of the house.

We arrived at a section where the lock gates were the original style with large oak beams as operating levers. Many of these basic levers have now been replaced with rack-and-pinion, chain windlass or bell-crank lever. Operating the beam was akin to handling Zonder Zorg with the massive oak tiller. I continued to close a door behind us to assist l’éclusier and help speed our passage.

As each of the chambers drained, I climbed up onto the wall to open a downstream door, often closely supervised by passing tourists. 

Closing the sluice on the door also eased the load of the lock keeper.

At 1455 we secured to bollards on a low wall in a basin near Sardy-les-Épiry. There are no facilities at the moorage, nor in the village a kilometre away. Although we had come only 8.3 kilometres, we had passed through three tunnels, sixteen locks and one lift bridge and it was good place to stop for the day.

Shortly before 1000 on Wednesday we slipped and continued along the canal. Though we were in the Burgundy, we were had left its Charolais region. The Charolais cattle did not seem to pay heed to the boundaries; they grazed all along the canal. This is the another of the Burgundy beef areas. Boeuf Bourgignon à la pied.

A couple of locks along we were picked-up by another hot couple. Though not as hot as the couple near the canal summit, they still exuded a rather fluent erotic body language. As we locked down, an up-bound boat approached the locks, so again, we would have prepared locks ahead. 

A few locks further along we met two more up-bound boats, bringing the count to four in two days in what is one of the most popular canals in France in the middle of its high season. Besides the moving boats, we had seen only five moored boats. We wondered where everyone was.

Some of the lock houses along this section are too simple to lease out, so they have been restored to a basic waiting station for the roving lock keepers.

We were greeted into one lock by a very curious dog, which watched our every move. With a pan face, it continued to monitor us as we left.

Shortly before 1400 we secured to bollards on a wood-faced quai in Citry-les-Mines. We had come another 8.8 kilometres and had passed through twelve more locks. Our fuel gauge was down to about 65 litres. When le Capitain came by, I asked about the fuel pump beside the quai. He said it was no longer in use; the next canal-side fueling facility is in Auxerre, 86 kilometres and 52 locks along. We had a little over fifteen hours of motoring remaining before we ran out of fuel, so I eagerly paid the mooring fees and plugged into the port’s shore power so we didn’t need to run the generator to top up the house bank.

Three kilometres east of the canal is the town of Corbigny, which the guide shows as having a supermarket. I asked the port captain about it and he said it is uphill both ways, across a ridge and down into the next valley. We were out of bread and our fresh supplies were near gone, so I unlocked my bike and ground up the hill. I found the supermarket on the far side of the town. Fortunately, the return hill with the loaded pannier is slightly less steep. 

At 1040 on Thursday we slipped and continued down the canal. Just around the first bend is the first of a series of lift bridges. We secured to the short quai and I got off to crank open the span. We were fortunate to be followed by the first down-bound boat we had seen this side of the summit. After we had both passed through, they stopped to close the bridge.

The first lock was not ready when we arrived and we had to wait for l’éclusier to prepare it for us.

In the next pound, the water was covered with freshly cut grass, which clogged our cooling water intake. It appears that the only canal maintenance that is done is grass and weed cutting, and the clippings are dumped into the canal to foul lock gates and sluices and clog boat engines. The rotting mass that sinks to the bottom accelerates the pace of lessening the depth of the canals.

We were fortunate a couple of locks later to meet an up-bound boat in the chamber, which meant the following locks should be in our favour. 

We came to a pair of lift bridges in quick succession, and since the boat that had been following us had stopped, Edi got off to crank open the bridge and close it after I had passed. Instead of picking her up at the landing, I continued along while she walked the 300 metres to the next bridge.

Both these bridges have electrical winches operated by push buttons, so other than the walk, it took little effort.

By the time she had lowered the bridge, I was waiting on the landing downstream. 

We continued through locks and lift bridges and past cute little lock houses.

Along the canal banks were herds of Charolais cattle grazing and watering.

The next lift bridge spans what appears to be an old lock. There is no landing upstream of it and the water along the banks is shallow and foul. There is no ladder in the chamber and its walls are high. This presents no problem for most boats, but for me to climb up from our very low skütsje, I need my to draw on mountaineering background. It was too much for Edi to do.

After I opened the bridge, climbed back down to Zonder Zorg and motored her through the bridge hole, we saw the landing is across the canal from the bridge operating mechanism. We had to pick our way onto a rubble-strewn bank, drop the spud pole and land the boarding plank for Edi to get ashore to close the bridge. 

We came to our last lift bridge of the day to see it being opened for us. We thanked the man who had opened it and seeing that he remained at the crank, we continued the last 300 metres to our intended mooring for the night in Flez-Cuzy. We secured at 1615, having come 13.7 kilometres through eight locks and six lift bridges. 

In the small basin is a Le Boat hire base — they call it Tannay, likely because Flez-Cuzy doesn’t market well. I spotted a fuel pump on their wharf, so the next morning I walked across the bridge to the office to inquire about fueling. I was told it is for the rental boats only. Shortly past 1100 we slipped and continued down canal and were delighted to see the next series of locks ready for us.

We worked our way down past attractive lock houses, one using nothing but overgrown ivy as its decor.

We passed under many bridges and had only two that we needed to open and close.

A few minutes before 1700, after 18.1 kilometres and nine locks, we secured along a masonry wall at the edge of Clamecy. The last three locks were operated by a friendly éclusier. When I had asked him about fuel had said there were two supermarket filling stations about two kilometres from the moorage in Clamecy and he immediately offered to drive me to one after he finished his shift at 1900. He arrived at Zonder Zorg shortly before 1900 and we took our two gerry cans across town for filling. The forty litres took our fuel gauge from below the sight glass to about the 75 litre level. We had been down to about ten hours remaining.

With twenty hours of engine time now in the tank, we were able to relax. We spent two days in Clemacy wandering the winding, narrow streets.

Many thirteen to sixteenth century buildings still stand on the slopes leading up to the church and the market hall and the entire area is a French protected historical sector.

Église Saint Martin dominates the town from the hilltop. It dates to the thirteenth century and after years of neglect following the Revolution, it was named an historic monument in 1840 and restored. We searched in vain for attractive fresh produce in the weekly market that fills the square and streets around the church on Saturdays. Finally, we pedaled the two kilometres to the supermarket for a wonderful selection. 

At 1000 we slipped and motored the 100 metres into the next lock, which we had arranged to have ready for us.

It was a wonderfully warm and clear Sunday morning as we headed down a section of the Yonne between locks. Sharing the water with us were a few rowers. 

Along the river and canal banks were imposing old châteaux, many of them more like tiny fortified farming communities from an era when such protection was needed.

Effectively there were home, farm buildings, staff quarters and stables for an extended family; a centuries-old beginning of a village.

As we worked our way down the locks, we increasingly came to rock outcrops along the canal, which here follows the course of the Yonne River, mostly beside it, but sometimes in it. As we progressed, the size of the river increased and we were into the beginnings of its meander through a limestone cap.

After twenty-three kilometres we passed through our thirteenth lock of the day and entered a stretch of the Yonne. This led us for two kilometres and around a sharp bend with sheer limestone cliffs soaring from the banks.

At 1600 we secured to a new float beneath the centre of the escarpment. Edi prepared a nibbling tray as a late lunch and we enjoyed it with a bottle of Rebmann Crémant d’Alsace. We stuffed our faces as we watched the climbers working-out routes on the faces above us.

We had a leisurely breakfast on Monday and it was nearly 1030 by the time we slipped and continued down the river. Within a kilometre and a half we were back in the canal and working our way down the locks. It was an absolutely calm day with a low overcast, which rendered wonderful reflections in the water.

At 1634, after 23.4 kilometres and thirteen locks, we secured to large iron rings set into a concrete wall along the banks of l’Yonne in Vincelles.

We were greeted by a cat, which after an appropriate pause, hopped aboard to do a mouse inspection. 

As Edi prepared a tray for our late lunch, I headed off to the bakery for a baguette. I followed the quayside sign to the bakery and was pleased to see on its placard that its closing day is Wednesday, so I tried the door. It was locked. I again checked the sign for its afternoon hours: 16h00 à 19h00. It was 16h45. 

I tried the door again and noticed a small note indicating the bakery was taking a break and would close on Monday at 13h00 and remain closed this week from Tuesday to Saturday.

I walked along to the other bakery to find the sign on its door indicating it was closed Mondays. I then walked along to where I had remembered the guidebook indicated there is a supermarket. Because it had the only bread in town, it was nearly out of stock, but I did manage to score a baguette.

In my wanderings through the small town, I spotted a BP sign in a courtyard and a sign indicating heating and motor fuel delivery. On Tuesday I went to their office to ask whether they delivered to boats. I was delighted with the positive response, and even more delighted with the quoted price; it was 4 cents lower than at the supermarkets. The office clerk said the earliest possible delivery was late afternoon on Thursday and I quickly agreed. It was barely past lunch break on Wednesday that the fuel truck rolled-up astern of Zonder Zorg.

We filled our tanks to the bottoms of their fill pipes.

At 1015 on Thursday, 28 August we slipped and continued downstream. From Vincelles, much of the remainder of the Canal du Nivernais is actually in the course of the Yonne, with short canals leading to and from locks bypassing the weirs.

In some places, the canal runs along beside the weir, the other side of which runs the river two or so metres below.

Shortly before 1400 we were in the 116th and final lock of Canal du Nivernais, looking at the skyline of Auxerre.

We motored past the congested marina and spotted an empty mooring space at the extreme downstream end of the left bank quai. We turned and stemmed the current back up to it and secured. We were directly below Cathédrale St-Étienne, the heart of the ancient city. In two weeks we had worked our way up 35 locks and down 81 as we navigated along 175 kilometres of spectacular river and canal scenery. We were ready for a break.