Grounded on the Saone (April 2012)

Grounded on the Saone

Sunday 1st April, 2012

We were approaching PK103, in sight of the Uchizy bridge, heading north from Pont de Vaux to Tournus for a quick overnighter to check everything on the boat was working fine.  Neville had just handed over the steering to me to go below, but had barely taken half a dozen paces towards the bathroom when suddenly there was this dreadful grating noise, the bow rose up high and the boat tilted savagely to port, spun round, and there we were, high and dry – grounded just slightly to the right of the centre of the river.  At the point where this incident happened we were within the ‘balisage’ though closer to the green markers than the red.  (Note to self:  cut engine at first impact, don’t stand there shrieking “it wasn’t me, honest”. It probably wouldn’t have changed anything, except perhaps the way I felt about myself. ) 😦

We rang the VNF navigation offices at Macon – no reply, but of course it was a Sunday.  Nothing for it but to ring 112.  The Sapeurs arrived on the right bank, spent a long time looking at us from there, changed position to further up the river, and then launched an outboard motor to reach us and come aboard.  They were pleasant enough (as I struggled with the language) but the upshot of it all was that they were prepared to take us to safety off the boat but nothing more.  We elected to stay.

They rang the ‘responsables’ which turned out to be VNF, who sent a van out to join the emergency vehicles on the bank and they all looked at us again for a while.  Then the emergency services launch came back again and using the services of a voluntary interpreter over a mobile phone, told us that VNF had said it was our responsibility to get ourselves off, and we would simply have to find someone to help us!  Tomorrow of course, as today was Sunday.

The Sapeurs were apologetic, (lots of gallic shrugs) but that was it.  And off everyone went, after about two and a half hours, and we were left to deal with the situation.  We tried again to free ourselves, the engine and prop working fine, as was the bow thruster, but nothing doing. We discovered later that we were wedged midships, so the bow was out of the water, and the prop was over deep water but still too high to be effective in getting us off the obstruction.

We bent the pole trying to lever ourselves off the rocks, and then tried using the ladders as a lever, with no luck.  And then as the sun began to set, we settled down for a night on the river, with me getting more nervous as it got progressively darker.

We’d been told that shipping in the area had been advised of our location and our plight, but I was worried that if a commercial went past, the wash might either push us further onto the rocks, or else free us up whilst we were asleep.  We’d put the anchor down and it seemed to have some grip, but as we couldn’t move, we couldn’t test it to see if it would hold or not.

It was going to be a long night.  Neville, much more relaxed than I about this, went off to catch a few hours sleep down below.  As I’m a light sleeper, I grabbed a quilt/pillows and stayed in the wheelhouse where I might hear the sound of an approaching commercial and be able to wake him so we could deal with whatever transpired from any wash.

There wasn’t much moonlight, and we didn’t want to waste the batteries so I stayed up playing Sudoku on the ipad by candlelight, listening to the wind howling, the waves slapping and the occasional train in the distance, causing concern that it might be an approaching commercial.  When the wind dropped and the water stilled, it became even spookier, particularly when the moon set behind the trees and it became darker still.

My love affair with France was at a very low ebb this night.

Never a good sleeper even at the best of times, I stayed awake right through the night, and Neville went on watch around 5.30 whilst I grabbed an hour or so.  As it happened, no commercials went past throughout the night;  we’d both had the impression last time we were on this stretch four years ago that it had been much busier than this.

More efforts to free ourselves in the morning, throwing the anchor out as far away from the boat as we could (which wasn’t far) and then trying to crank it back to haul the boat off the rocks.  No success.  A hotel boat went past heading downstream but slowly, so not sufficient wash to alter our position, and then a tanker came upstream, but again slowly.  There obviously was a warning out, as promised yesterday, since both gave us a wide berth and went dead slow.

We spoke again to the interpreter who’d helped during yesterday’s dialogue with the emergency services and asked her to ring VNF to see if they could give us the name of a company to help.  She came back with a company called Pavillon-Saone (0385 40 5550) based at Chardonnay (Mr Talmard).

We’d emailed Philippe, the capitaine at Pont de Vaux, to ask if he knew anyone who could pull us off, so we followed it up with a phone call.  Philippe doesn’t speak English (in fact Philippe doesn’t speak very much at all) so more trauma.  He said to call back in half an hour, but then one of our neighbouring boaters at Pont de Vaux, we think a Belgian couple, rang to offer assistance, as Philippe had told them of our plight.  They were leaving to head off in the opposite direction down towards the Rhone, but offered to come to try to tow us off.  How nice was that!

They said they’d be setting off when they were ready in a couple of hours, but shortly after that we had a call from Pavillon-Saone, the company recommended by VNF.  He spoke English and said VNF had rung him. So at last VNF had taken some initiative in the matter!  He would charge 350 euros, but could be with us in 35 minutes he said.  We agreed.  Our Belgian friends might not have been able to get us off, and we knew we were inconveniencing them, not to mention the possibility of them damaging their boat in the recovery process.  So very kind of them though, and we wished them a safe journey south to the Midi.

Pavillon-Saone is the name of the company that runs the hire boats from Tournus – we’d noticed them earlier in the week.  The man was very efficient, and obviously does a lot of this work.  He said we’d been stuck on building foundations – looked like rocks to us.  There had apparently been an attempt long ago to build walls to narrow the Saone at this point to speed up the flow, but after the locks had been constructed along the Saone, they knocked them down.  The locks raised the level of the water, thus hiding the rubble.

He took Neville onto his boat, and had him throw a rope to me to tie on the stern port side bit.  Then he gunned the engines and spun us off, rather than pulling us straight off, which was the quickest way of getting the back end into deep water, though a little disorientating for me, stuck on my own, pivotting round.

There was very little sound as we spun off the rocks, a much quieter process than when we had gone on them, and took less than a minute to free us.

Then he towed us to the centre of the river and breasted up whilst we checked for water in the boat,  and that  our prop and  rudder were functioning.  Everything seemed fine. In the midst of all this, a huge peniche came upriver (of course) and after much horn signalling between him and our rescuer, had to deviate around us which made for interesting times.

Our rescuer, moored at Tournus.

Although by now I just wanted to go back to Pont de Vaux and return home, we had to carry on to Tournus where he had come from,  so that we could draw money out of the bank to pay him.  In the meantime,  he rather trustingly (!) asked for Neville’s passport.

I must say we were dismayed at the attitude of VNF, particularly since we were travelling well within the marked channel.  The fire service, who were much more helpful, just shrugged and said this happened to lots of boats and VNF’s attitude was always the same.  Strangers in a foreign country with no local knowledge (and a limited grasp of the language) deserve better, I think.  OK they came through in the end by giving a company our telephone number, but pretty late in the whole episode, mid morning next day.

And yes, I think 350 euros is a bit of a rip off, but isn’t that just the way it goes when you’re in trouble?

Everything’s working OK on the boat, and at the next dry-dock opportunity, we’ll inspect the bottom to re-paint if necessary.

So, hopefully the nightmare has ended, and from now on you’ll find us ploughing the dead centre of the channel wherever we go!   We’ve since heard from friends moored at Pont de Vaux that they’ve grounded three times on this stretch.

So be wary around PK 103, fellow boaters, and stay well over to the middle in the balisage.

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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17 Responses to Grounded on the Saone (April 2012)

  1. dmmacilroy says:

    Dear Sandra,

    Thank you for a lovely couple of days in France. I read both posts and throughly enjoyed them, being a captain and all. You seem to have gotten off lightly in the damage to vessel department and as for 350 euros, well, it is what it is. That’s two nights in a good hotel and you have another great story to tell. I’m thinking you got off (no pun intended) at about the right price.

    Looking forward to more posts. Sounds like a great life.

    Aloha from the summit. -3C up here tonight. Can’t wait for Summer.



    • Sandra says:

      Hi Doug, thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, we got a bit more than we bargained for there. That was one very long night.

      Wow, -3 C – now that’s cold. We’ve had some lovely warm days in France, early to mid twenties. Keep warm and roll on summer.


  2. Robert Philippe says:

    j’ai lu avec intérêt votre article concernant votre échouage sur la Saône. Vous n’êtes en effet pas les premiers à qui cela arrive, il y a effectivement un problème de balisage à cet endroit. Je vous suggère de faire parvenir votre article directement à la Direction centrale de VNF à Béthunes. Le nouveau directeur Monsieur Papanutti est un un homme efficace et je pense qu’il pourra faire quelque chose.Quant au prix de 350 euros, c’est la norme pour une intervention de ce genre et Monsieur Talmard est un homme sérieux et efficace.


  3. Sandra says:

    Thank you for responding Philippe. As you say, we are not the first, nor will we be the last to run aground here. I’m surprised just how many people have told us since this incident that they too have been grounded there, or have had a very near miss. I will refer M. Papanutti to this article, though I’m not skilled enough to translate it into French for him. As for the 350 euros, if we’d been rescued that afternoon I think we might have been more relaxed about the cost. 🙂 Certainly if VNF had been more helpful and given us contact details that afternoon, we could probably have been off the river before nightfall. We certainly found Mr Talmand to be very efficient and speedy, and we know of other boaters who have been satisfied with his services. Thanks again for commenting, and we hope you have a good season at St Leger.


  4. Sandra says:

    When we returned to Pont de Vaux last week the crew on our neighbouring boat told us that in the last few weeks they’d attempted to pull another boat off the rocks at the very same spot. They weren’t able to, even though they’ve got a big old barge, and didn’t know what happened to them after that.


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  7. Michael says:

    I have just read this. A month ago as we cruised down river past the site, I reminisced in my blog about rescuing a couple off their grounded sailboat there in 1984. Seems the problem has been there quite a while.


    • Sandra says:

      Since we went through this experience Michael, we’ve met lots of people who grounded there. Unfortunately, we never met any of them before we grounded there. 🙂 Off to have a look at your blog now.
      Sandra & Neville


  8. Thanks for taking the time to write (very nicely) about your plight. We are heading that way, and really appreciated the heads up. We traversed these waterways 13 years ago and only ran aground when moving over for the large ‘hotels’. The lock keepers then were fabulous at letting out water to help us out! We’ll be sure to take note and be cautious in that stretch – thanks again – by the by – what’s your draft?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Our first thoughts as sailors was to kedge off with your anchor but you tried that to the best of your ability. I suppose these things can be considered part of voyaging but unnecessary if that obstruction was well marked


    • Sandra says:

      You reminded me there of a yachtsman we once overtook on the way up the ‘chute’ below St Pierre Benite lock on the Rhone. The current is notoriously strong there, and when he finally caught up with us at the port in Lyon he joked that he might have made quicker progress battling against the current if he’d done that. 🙂


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  11. Ellespeth says:

    Well this was a happy detour for me….not you sounds like. Oh the boat is lovely, Sandra. I’ll check back again.
    Now, back to your FF story.


  12. Popeye says:

    Hi. I grounded on the Saone a few weeks ago. If you give me your email address, I will send you a complete report and how things went in the following.


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