The Saone, Rhone and onto the Canal du Midi, (Sept/Oct 2008)

Tuesday 30th September

Well, this was the journey we’ve been anticipating with mixed feelings, heading south down the Rhone. We’d spent a lot of time studying the navigation charts, listing the locks and possible moorings along the route, and revising the navigation signs we had learned over a year ago for our International Certificates of Competence.  We’d also studied the weather forecast, but how reliable would that be?

It rained on and off during our journey through France but the traffic was relatively light and we arrived at St Jean-de-Losne going up to four o’clock.  The boat was now back in the water having had its bottom shot-blasted, painted, and the new invertor fitted.  And we were quite a bit out of pocket!   We were both quite tired after our early start, and were in bed by 9.00pm.

Wednesday 1st October


Amazingly, though we woke up at 6.00am, we ended up going back to sleep until almost eight o’clock – almost 11 hours sleep.  Definitely not like us – although we do tend to go to bed early we are generally up with the lark.  The weather was again grey and windy and later became showery, unlike the weather forecast which Neville had been studying whilst we were in England!  He had told me that we were due fine weather for most of our journey down to Lyon and beyond.

There was much cleaning to be done.  Sandblasting the boat had created a huge amount of grey dust, and despite the fact that we had closed all windows on leaving the boat, and had covered the furniture and bedding with sheets, plus the fact that the boatyard had employed cleaners to clean the interior afterwards, there was still a fine layer of dust everywhere.  I guessed it was probably hanging in the atmosphere and would take several “dustings” before it would eventually be and remain clean.  I did the tops of the doors, the ornaments, ledges and other areas, which had been missed by the boatyard cleaners, but despite that we were still finding thick grey dust inside the cupboards and in various nooks and crannies for months to come.

Fortunately, the sandblasting seemed to have thoroughly tee’d off the existing spiders, and now that autumn was under way I was armed with a big bag of conkers gathered by friends from the horse chestnut trees in Huntingdon.  We’d read that spiders hate conkers, so would see just how effective they are.  I made up some little netting bags from the onion and garlic containers that we’d  bought and having filled them with conkers, hung them from the windows (a favourite nesting/spinning place for spiders).

We did a bit of shopping for journey provisions, and a lot of general jobs but were undecided about whether to set off and take the boat down the one lock to the diesel boat moored just below on the Saone.  There was a chance that we could have over-nighted down on the quay in the centre, but ultimately it started raining heavily and we decided not to bother and to set off next morning as soon as the lock-keeper arrived.

Thursday 2nd October


Off we went at 9.00am, and having re-fuelled down in the town, we were underway by about 9.45am. We filled the tank full, paying top price because it was on the river, around 300 euros.  As we were filling the tank, Jazz, a boat very similar to ours from the same builder, went by and we followed them all the way down the Saone throughout the day.  The river was busier than we had thought and we shared the two locks of the day with four other boats.  Because we were towards the end of the convoy of the boats, I didn’t have to speak to the lock-keepers in French, this having been taken care of by the first boat.  That was a relief.  I don’t have a problem being able to say what I need to say, it’s the response that generally foxes me, particularly when it’s over VHF radio!

At one point we were overtaken by a great hotel boat, an enormous great thing with a very ugly rounded back, and a pair of red lips painted on the bow (ugh!).  It was a German cruiseliner that we were later to encounter quite regularly on our travels.

We cruised non-stop, and moored at Gigny in a disused lock at around 5.30pm.  Good facilities, water and electricity plus a baker calling at 08.30 in the morning.  Jazz carried on, aiming for Tournus where they knew of a good restaurant.  During the evening another great hotel boat passed by whilst we were eating, with a restaurant full of people.  Not my idea of spending an evening, cruising down a river in the dark – seems a bit pointless really.

So that was day 1 over with, a bit uneventful, 2 locks and 92  kilometres.  A further 119 kilometres to Lyon where we join the Rhone.   It’s amazing how much ground you can cover when you are travelling downstream.

Friday 3rd October


The weather was better for most of our cruising this day, lots of clouds but plenty of bright sunny intervals.  We did 63 kilometres and moored at Belleville, where we were about 50 kilometres away from Lyon. It’s a floating pontoon with electricity and water. Nobody arrived to ask us for mooring fees, and there were no signs to indicate where we should go to pay.

River cruising is quite boring, and this day we didn’t even have the company of other boats.  We passed another Sagar boat (Ilovan) and had a brief chat over the VHF.  They were on their way up to the Nivernais after spending 4 years down near Carcassonne.  They said that Jazz was about half an hour ahead of us.  It would be nice to cruise down close to another boat so we thought that  maybe tomorrow we would get away earlier and try and make up some of the ground between us and Jazz.  Though I set the alarm clock for 7.15 we still weren’t away from Gigny until 9.15, having waited a white for the baker to arrive at the moorings, and then filling up with the water.

We noticed that we had a bit of a water leak down in the engine room, not much, but Neville emailed Sagars to ask where it could be coming from.  No reply before we set off.

Saturday 4th October


We were up early, around 6.30am and left just before eight.  While en route Neville went down to the engine room to check the leak and decided that he can see where it is coming from – the cooling system for the engine.  It’s a miniscule drip from a jubilee clip on the hose, so he tightened it later when we moored up.

The Confluence

Pretty soon the Saone became wider and wider, something that had worried me about the Rhone, but eventually I became used to the prospect of long stretches of water on either side (way beyond my swimming capabilities) and so it was not too much of a shock when we finally came to the confluence of the Saone and the Rhone at Lyon.

We carried on down the Rhone until we reached Les Roches de Condruire, a terrific

Les Roches de Condruire

mooring in the bend of the river.  There was just enough space for us on the outside of the outer pontoon, and we soon saw why when a few huge barges went past and the boat rocked wildly at its moorings when the wash hit the pontoon.  Not much of a problem, except when you were standing in the bath having a shower.  Not a lot of purchase there, even when you curl your toes up!

The capitainerie was only open Monday to Friday, so unless he were to make a special visit to the boat to collect the charge, we would have saved ourselves 23 euros.  This is an expensive mooring, but well worth it and much better than Chalon sur Saone where we paid 28 euros.

We’d eventually caught up with Jazz at this mooring and he took our lines when we came in to moor.  They had been rushing to get to Lyon for Friday night where they wanted to eat at a favourite restaurant.  Later I had a chat with one of the women (there are 2 couples on board) and found out that they usually winter in Spain too.

We were very tired, and once again were in bed quite early.  You don’t do anything physical whilst cruising rivers (and locking down stream is not taxing at all)  but your concentration is at maximum throughout the day.  I had been particularly apprehensive about joining the Rhone, which has a reputation for being a difficult river in bad weather.  Fortunately the day was fine, with long periods of sunshine, though a cold wind.  The commercial traffic is a bit over-facing at first, but after a while you become accustomed to it.  We had our blue flag all laid out ready to display if the oncoming barges signalled for us to pass on their starboard side, but none did.

Sunday October 5th


A barge went past in the middle of the night, sending the boat rocking like crazy once again, but we soon went back to sleep.  Up at 7.15 am to find the river covered in a thick mist.  We had planned to set off at 8.30 but decided we would wait until the sun had a chance to burn the mist off.  You don’t want one of these huge barges looming up out of the mist without warning.

Suddenly around 10.45am the mist lifted to reveal a cloudless blue sky and we followed Jazz out of the marina, closely followed by the red Swiss yacht moored on the opposite side of our pontoon.

The wind got up around lunchtime, and we were scudding into the waves, spray from which sometimes showered over the top of the wheelhouse.  I certainly wouldn’t want to tackle this river in any kind of bad weather!

We went through a couple of deep locks in a convoy of three, and then had to wait at the final one to let a heavily laden 85 metre barge take precedence.  We all managed to get in behind him quite easily.   Then we reached Valance, a city where we have stayed many times on our journey down by car, and moored up in the Port de Plaisance.  No one at the capitainerie again –like another night’s free mooring..  A yacht came in just after us and moored up alongside on the opposite side of the pontoon.  English people making their way up the Rhone..And in a hurry too, as they want to get across the English Channel before the weather gets too wintry.  Rather them than me.

Monday 6th October


We were up at 7.15am and away just before 8.00am.  Even so, as we rounded the bend in the river we could see that Jazz was already well ahead of us.  They had carried on for a couple of kilometres after we pulled into the Port de Plaisance last night and had moored up at the first lock where we caught up with them and had to wait the best part of an hour as there was a problem with the gates on the lock.  Eventually we got through and we followed them down all day.

La Bollene

We went through the second deepest lock in Europe (Bollene) at 23 metres.  I thought this might be intimidating, but to be honest the locks have been getting deeper and deeper as we have navigated down the Rhone, and it was nothing special, though extremely cold when you’re down at the bottom there.

We finally arrived at St Etiennes les Roches where the occupants of Jazz had moored before.  With a bit of jiggling around of the existing boats we both got in there, and were late joined by a smaller German craft.  We

The Mooring at Etienne es Rochers

were roped three abreast, with us as the anchor boat attached to the floating pontoon, and hanging over the end of it quite substantially.  We didn’t realise it until later, but there was electricity available on the other side of the river wall.  Went to the little corner shop which sold practically nothing.  Came back with a packet of milk and a packet of biscuits.  There was apparently a good wine cellar which opened at 8.00am, and Jazz were going there first thing so we said we probably would too and then carry on following them down.  It’s great following someone who has done it before, and best of all the woman, Gill, is quite good at French and she is radio-ing the locks ahead so that we stand the best chance of them being ready for us.

A rainy morning but still bright, and then later on the clouds disappeared and we had a cloud free blue sky and warm sunshine.

We didn’t have a great deal further to go on the Rhone now, and then we would branch off onto the Canal du Rhone.  The next big obstacle would be L’Etang de Thau, which is a wide lake (an inland sea)  right by the sea, full of oyster beds on one side, and sandbanks on the other, and with a narrowish unmarked channel which we need to follow.  There are strong winds around this area, and we read of a couple in a wide beam narrowboat who set off in calm clear sunny weather and then a strong wind developed which blew them onto the sandbanks.  They had to call out the rescue services to help.  The first question the rescue service asked was “do you want us to take you off the boat” or “do you want us to get your boat off the sandbanks”.  Hmmm!  Neville and I might pose different answers to that question.

As usual to bed early, and were awoken about 4.00am by the steady droning of the engine of a large boat coming up the river. Some of the working boats are enormous and create quite violent wakes, and this one was no different.

Typical of commercial traffic on the Rhone

The boat went past and the engine noise began to fade away but a minute or so later the wake hit our raft of boats and we were all tossed around like crazy, with cupboard doors flying opening and banging shut and the sound of things falling down in the cupboards.  The motion went on for ages, steadily decreasing and I was worried about the ropes holding us fast, having images of the three of us, rafted up and drifting off down the Rhone.  Eventually we went back to sleep again, only to have the same thing happen again around 6.00am.

Tuesday 7th October

After our early morning wakening by the wash, we were up at just before 7.00am, having heard footsteps crossing our bow from the third boat rafted out from us.  Probably going to the bakers.  Then I went up to the little shop for some bread, and after breakfast we went with Ian from Jazz to the wine cave in the village.  Stocked up with boxes of wine.

The distant Alps

We then set off on the last leg of our journey down the Rhone, which was reasonably uneventful.  We went through two locks on the Rhone itself, then one leading onto the Petit Rhone, and a further one which put us on the Canal du Rhone a Sete.  It feels good to be off the river – for me anyway.  More relaxing, more in touch with nature…. And closer to the bank!

The journey had taken less than time than I had anticipated – two and a half days on the Saone, and three and a half days on the Rhone, but that of course was going downstream and in very good weather, apart from a couple of stretches with strong winds against us.  It would be a different story going upstream, and even a strong wind behind us might not help as it would probably just cause more turbulence against the current.

Le Petit Rhone

We followed Jazz all the way down, but left them at the junction with the branch that goes to Beaucaire, where they decided to “wild moor” and we went on along the branch in search of two pontoons which were about half a kilometre further up.  These were taken, so we ourselves “wild moored”.  But the verges seem fairly vertical here (unlike where Jazz moored) and quite firm.  A guy on the next boat took our lines and gave us a lot of advice about where (or rather where we would not be able) to moor in Sete, should we choose to go there.

Hope there are other boaters going through to the Etang at the same time, as we are losing Jazz’s company while they spend a day or two in Aigues Mort.

The little French computer is on the blink again – what a waste of money it has been.  No doubt we will have to find an SFR place in Carcassonne and get the whole thing rebooted again, with the consequent loss of emails and data.

Wednesday 8th October


We were awakened at 4.30am by a violent thunderstorm which circled around for over an hour, with torrential downpours and strong winds.  How lucky it was that we were finished with our river navigation!   When we awoke it was raining quite steadily, but was not forecast to last the whole day so maybe we could get some cruising in later on.

As it happened, it rained most of the day, but towards 4.30pm the sky seemed to lighten somewhat and the rain lessened, so we decided to get a couple of hours cruising in before nightfall.  Our friend on the next mooring came out to offer advice on the route ahead and we said goodbye to him.  We had to go a good way up the canal to turn round and come back down onto the Canal Rhone a Sete, but soon we were back on the wider canal where we carried on until Franquevaux and moored up there, just a bit upstream from another

Mooring near Franquevaux

boat.  There was a beautiful sunset beneath the leaden sky which reflected onto the canal and we got a couple of good shots.

According to the navigation books, we have about 68 kilometres to do to get to the Frontignan Bridge, which only has three opening times a day.  That’s also the place to wait if the winds are too strong to cross the Etang.  For the moment, strong winds are forecast for tomorrow but the outlook changes from day to day.  Once we have crossed the Etang, which will take maybe a couple of hours, we would then be on the Canal du Midi.  Our journey to Carcassonne would  then be about 135 kilometres – more than two days as we would not have the benefit of currents and would have to slow down for moored boats.  So with fine weather, (so far only forecast for Friday) we could be in Carcassonne by Tuesday of next week.

We had discovered that there was a direct train from Carcassonne to Dijon, and then our plan was to drive back to the UK, staying overnight at Rheims.  We would then stay there for a few days to prepare the house for winter and say goodbye to friends for the winter, before driving  down again through France to the boat at Carcassonne and then on to Spain.

Thursday 9th October


Canal Rhone a Sete

We carried on from around 8.40am, along a fairly boring stretch of the Canal Rhone au Sete which in turn led to an even more boring stretch, along man made waterways with funny little concrete cabins lining either side of the route.  We think these were the homes of the fishermen who probably work the Etang du Thau, as each one had its own rickety little mooring with a small motor boat outside.  The scenery began to look very much more like Spain.  As we continued we were in a channel on either side of which were huge etangs, or salt lakes.  You could see the occasional clutch of pink flamingos standing out in the lakes, and the sides of the waterway were crunchy with hordes of black mussel shells.

Eventually we arrived at Frontignan, where the bridge only opens three times a day to let boats through, so we moored up at 3.00pm and canvassed the moorers on the other side of the bridge to see whether any were coming through so that we could take their mooring if they did.  One guy was, so we shot through quickly when the bridge opened and Neville manoeuvered us into a space with maybe just a metre at front and rear to spare.  We had got chatting to another British couple in a hire boat, and had helped them to moor upstream of the bridge, so we offered them the opportunity to breast up with us once we’d gone through the bridge, which they did.

We had a nice relaxing evening, lighting candles in the wheelhouse to avoid attracting mosquitoes through the open windows – it is much warmer down here.

Friday 10th October


Leaving Frontignan

We were up early in readiness for tackling the Etang.  The weather really couldn’t have been better, clear blue skies, no wind and the lake like a mill pond, except for when a few speedboats went past.  I don’t know whether our mooring companions bottled out, but they turned into the first harbour on the etang.  I’d heard them say they were planning to go on to the Midi.

The Etang is like an inland sea, there is a sandbank and a reinforced structure separating it from the Mediterranean, but to all intents and purposes it looks like the sea.  All the red marker buoys signalling our route and destination, that we had been led to believe would be visible right from the moment we left the canal, were nowhere to be

Our destination across L’Etang.

seen.  Neville took readings from the GPS system to maintain our heading, and eventually we seemed to get into the corridor that we had anticipated, slightly to the left of the oyster beds.  The crossing took about an hour and a half, and then we were onto the Canal du Midi.

Boats moored close to the mouth of the Midi

Immediately you could see that the light was different down here in the southwest of France – it’s a kind of golden glow, everything seems to be perceived in shades of gold, brown and dark green.  The canal was much busier than we had anticipated for this time of the year, and all the locks were full of hireboat craft, mostly Germans.  We were now into the second week of October, so it was really strange to see so much activity, probably more than we saw during the peak weeks when we on the northern canals.  Probably because the weather is better down here, and also because it can be quite expensive to hire during peak season down on the Midi, and people tend to take later holidays.

We did two or three locks, which are quite strange, sort of oval shaped, and the one at Agde, which is a junction lock was in fact completely circular.  So you can imagine what bedlam it is inside with small pleasure craft of every description crowding in at once, each taking a different way out of the lock.  Weird.

The Circular Lock at Agde

We cruised on until Villeneuve, where we decided to stop as we were short of water.  Water had been free everywhere else we stopped in France, but down here we had to pay 1 euro for 120 litres. Five euros left us with only a three quarter full tank.  In this particular town there were moorings on opposite sides of the canal.  One, where we got the water, was fee paying, whilst the other, with no services, is free.  So we pushed the boat across once we had filled with water, as there is no way we were paying to stay somewhere where it had just cost us 5 euros for water!

Saturday 11 October



In the end we decided we were too tired to bother showering and changing to go out, and we ate on the boat.  Villeneuve is an attractive town at night, with illuminated quay-side shops.  However, the benches alongside the opposite side of the canal, which had accommodated at least a dozen old chattering men and women during the course of the afternoon and early evening, turned into a meeting point for noisy youths on their way home in the early hours, and we heard lots of shouting and banging.  When we got up a rubbish bin had been pushed into the canal on the opposite side, and we were glad that we had decided to move across to the opposite bank once we had filled up with water.

Went to the bakers in the morning and a quick visit to the market where we bought some potatoes.  Then we set off up the lock, initially with another foreign couple in a pleasure cruiser.  Again the lock are oval shaped, and the bollards, set back from the edge of the lock, are not really conveniently placed for a heavy boat like ours which needs two ropes up when we are going up the lock.  The other couple dropped back after the second lock, and then we caught up with another bunch of foreigners, Scandinavian I think, in another plastic pleasure craft.  It was with this crew that we negotiated the six-lock staircase at Fonsérans, and what an experience that was.

Six rise at Fonserannes

The locks were almost dog-bone shaped, two oval chambers with a narrower neck between them.  When we approached the first chamber the other crew were in and started shrieking at us , apparently wanting us not to enter.  Why, we could not imagine, and they just kept shrieking in foreign tongue at us.  I pointed out (equally shriekingly) that there was no point them doing this as I hadn’t the foggiest idea what they were saying.  It seems (we think) they thought that we were too big to share the lock with them.  Fat chance!  So we went in and sure enough the chamber would comfortably accommodate two boats of our size side by side.  They had the grace then to look uncomfortable.

Then the lockie’s assistant (a young girl) came along.  In French she explained that when she opened the gates to the other half of the “dog bone” we were to stay in place, and that one of us should at all times be on the quayside holding a rope.  We could see why!  After the gates opened and we saw the rest of the double chamber, the water came gushing from high out of gate paddles in a torrential flow that would swamp any boat which was in that chamber.  We watched in some alarm as all this water forced its way through the narrow neck into our half of the chamber, and for a few minutes it was quite turbulent.  It put me in mind of white water rafting as the thundering waters covered the cill between the two chambers, thus enabling the passage of boats to the next. Once it became calmer, the lockie signalled for us to move into the next half of the chamber, which we did, with me on the bank, climbing steps and holding the rope so that I could secure it in this chamber and go back to take the middle rope from Neville.  In this way we proceeded up the six staircases until we got to the last chamber which was a single one, thus putting both boats closer to the gates.  Here the other crew got into some bother when the paddles opened and the force of water threw their boat away from the wall, diagonally across the lock.  Their rope (well, on plastic craft the rope seems to be nothing more than a thin blue polypropylene fibre) raced through the female crew member’s ungloved hands. No doubt this would inflict a severe burn or two (which is why we always wear gloves for rope handling), and the impact of the boat hitting the other lock wall almost threw her off.  She was very lucky.

The whole procedure had attracted a barrel load of sightseers, (gongoozlers in boating language) and they certainly had their money’s worth throughout this procedure.  Many of them were boats who were waiting at the top to lock down, and I think the whole spectacle filled them with horror.  It wouldn’t be anywhere near so bad going down though, far less turbulence.

The rest of the day was quite uneventful, apart from a low bridge at Capestang which Neville successfully negotiated without us having to drop the wheelhouse, and then we moored up around 4.30pm in a more open stretch where we hoped we could get a satellite signal to watch the Formula 1 motor racing on TV early next morning.  It was quite a peaceful place, but with boats going past too quickly we were in danger of losing our mooring pins, and there were lots of flies around, one of which inflicted a nasty bite on my arm which soon became a big angry lump.

About Sandra

I used to cruise the French waterways with my husband four or five months a year, and wrote fiction and poetry. Now I live on the beautiful Dorset coast, enjoying the luxury of being able to have a cat, cultivating an extensive garden and getting involved in the community. I still write fiction, but only when the spirit moves me - which isn't as often as before. I love animals, F1 motor racing, French bread and my husband, though not necessarily in that order.
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3 Responses to The Saone, Rhone and onto the Canal du Midi, (Sept/Oct 2008)

  1. Paul Kent says:

    I found this most interesting. I did the same trip in 1984 in my Seamaster 30 Hot Potato and this certainly broght back memories.
    I now own a Narrow Boat which is moored in Brittany.



    • Sandra says:

      Thanks for commenting Paul. Yes, it was an interesting trip. We did the return trip last year, but it was a lot slower! And there were a lot more mooring places by this time, which made the trip more interesting. Looking forward now to exploring central France this year. We used to have narrowboats, mainly moored along the Grand Union near Weltonfield.
      I’ve heard Brittany is really lovely, hope you’re enjoying it.


  2. Pingback: A Quick Trip South, September 2014 | castelsarrasin

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