Although we’ve navigated the Rhone on two occasions, (more detailed reports at The Saone Rhone and onto the Canal du Midi September 2008 and Crossing L’Etang and Navigating the Rhone to Lyon, September 2011 ) we were looking forward to this trip, particularly after encountering some very grumpy eclusiers on the Nivernais and Bourgogne, who’d cast a damper on our canal cruising earlier in the year. We just wanted to cruise this time, and decided to incorporate some maintenance work at Allemand down at Grau d’Agde at the same time.
We set off down the Saone a couple of days after arriving at the boat, and made our first overnight stop at Jassons-Riottier, a free serviced mooring near PK 40. Prior to that, after passing Belville where we’ve moored in the past, we’d encountered Ailsa at Montmerle. Ailsa is another Sagar, with Mike and Sally on board, who were making their way upstream and we were able to have a brief chat with Mike over the radio as we passed, carefully avoiding a hotel boat which was just leaving the moorings. Montmerle looks to be a very attractive mooring, with lots of facilities, flower-baskets etc. We’ve heard they rather rigorously adhere to the 16m limit, but we’d be fine at that. We passed several alternative moorings, the lovely Trevoux, where we’ve moored before, and Port St Germain d’Or, which also has a single pontoon just before it.
There is a mooring at Neuville, (four rings, concrete quay) where we moored on our return journey. More of that later, with a cautionary note. (Pass your cursor over the photos for details of locations)
We always seem to cruise through Lyon when there are few, if any, boats on the water, and there’s always plenty of weird architecture to admire … or at least to pass an opinion on.
On arrival early afternoon at Pierre Benite lock, we were met by an English speaking lockie who popped up on the quayside behind me. (I nearly leapt out of my skin… you don’t expect to come face to face with lockies on the river.) He handed us a booklet about navigating the Rhone, which would be really useful for a first time Rhone navigator. One interesting thing we read in the booklet confirmed what we’d already heard, that few if any of the locks on the Rhone are actually manned. So your cheery wave is probably, if at all, being observed from a control room several miles away! This remote-handling works quite well, but it does mean you have to make vocal contact rather than just turn up expecting to be noticed, and we have heard of someone who had moored up in the lock behind a commercial and only during the ascent noticed that they were in danger of having their stern trapped on an overhang on the lock gate. Much speedy re-positioning of ropes ensued! I’m not sure just how much the lock operators can see from their control rooms, but I think someone perched above the lock might have stood a better chance of noticing this dangerous positioning.
As we left the lock, a cheery voice wished us a pleasant journey in three languages. CNR are really taking customer services seriously these days!
Passing through Givors we noticed that the only available mooring of any useful length for barge owners is still perpetually occupied by a Pompiers boat. Around this point we passed David Rothery in L’Escapade, on his journey up the Rhone and we exchanged a few words on the radio whilst we remained within radio distance.
Just after the lock at Vaugris we moored at Ampuis which is a pleasant but unserviced mooring right next to a picturesque chateau. There’s a pretty little village there, and the mooring is also used for rowing, occasional jousting and gentle water sports. A railway line runs along the opposite bank, so it’s not particularly quiet.
Slow progress the next day as we were held up at Sablons, Girvans and Valence locks. We passed lots of potential mooring spots along the way.
We’d contemplated mooring at Roche du Glun but on a Saturday there were lots of yachts circling and small craft already moored on the pontoon, so we continued down through Valence lock and moored in the Port de Plaisance. Strong winds were building which blew us fortuitously onto the second hammerhead.
As darkness fell, the winds dropped and the swans could be seen gliding around the boats in the dusk.
The next few days were horrendously wild as the Mistral put in an unseasonal appearance. Someone later told us the Mistral lasts either 3, 6 or 9 days. We were lucky as it lasted only three days during which time winds reached 50kmh with gusts up to 90. The day started off with gentle breezes which increased as the day wore on. We’d locked down two locks with a beautiful old boat (Sireo) in mint condition, but at Chateaneuf a day-boat sneaked in the lock before we could enter, taking the last available floating bollard. The lockie instructed us to reverse out of the lock, and after taking several side-swipes against the duc d’Albes whilst trying to manoeuvre ourselves in strong winds against the waiting quay above the lock at Chateaneuf, we decided to take shelter at Viviers.
Despite the wind, a crowd of gongoozlers gathered under the trees as we tried to reverse into our mooring, and a roar of approval erupted as we snapped our stern flagpole when a gust shoved us unceremoniously against the back of the mooring.
Don’t be put off by the appearance of the pontoons at Viviers – they look to have been vandalised, hanging at drunken angles – but in reality they’re quite stable. The depth here is variable and though it says 2.0m, it can be considerably less depending on river levels. Certainly one yacht had grounded there, but at 0.85m we were fine. As the Mistral raged we had to get up in the night to shorten the six ropes we’d secured. A very pretty little town, well worth a visit, especially the cathedral at the top of the hill.
And whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of mooring on the long quay outside the harbour area at Viviers, even if it appears to be empty. Hotel boats arrive at all hours of the day or night, either for overnighting, dropping off passengers or for short watering stops.
Sunday was our 18th wedding anniversary, and at one point it had looked as though we might spend that evening, and the following two nights, lashed to a bollard at the foot of Bollene lock, so we were doubly grateful when we managed to secure a mooring here for the duration of the Mistral, and we celebrated in style.
Finally, when the wind abated after three days, we continued our journey. The Rhone just didn’t look like the same river without all the white tops! We made good progress through Bollene and continued on past St Etienne les Roches. We’d overnighted here the first time we came down the Rhone, but the pontoon was removed three or four years ago and shows no sign of being replaced.
Around this stretch we were entertained by the antics of several red and yellow amphibian planes practicing formation landing on the water. Quite spooky as they powered towards us, and we were glad this was a fairly wide stretch of the river.
The following locks were plagued with delays, and at Avignon we were delayed when the passenger boat behind was prioritised, then a gas boat came (no other boats allowed in the lock) and then a slow commercial came up.
We began to despair of making Aramon in time, but Olivier (really helpful friendly English speaking capitaine) had saved a place for us. This is a new mooring with limited space for barges of our length so it’s as well to ring ahead. There’s also a fuel quay about 50metres upstream, though it’s not operational just yet.
Next morning, after passing the moorings at Valbrueges, we sailed through Beaucaire, the last lock of the Rhone and after speeding through the fast section near Tarascon we were onto the Petit Rhone by 10.40am. We’d been carried along at 13/14 kmh that morning, but slowed to around 10 on entering Le Petit Rhone around 10.30am.
Arrived St Gilles around lunchtime. You can’t (or at least we never have) raise the lock-keeper by VHF here. I rang on the mobile. Very minimal rise/fall here, about 18 inches today. Pleasure craft moor to the left in the lock as you enter from the Petit Rhone.
And so onto the Canal Rhone a Sete where we moored just below Galician at 2.30pm. The Halte Nautique is always full of long term moorers so if overnighting, moor up on the right before you get to the bridge. At our draught, we have no problem, and the banks along here have been pretty well vertically straightened to accommodate the commercial traffic that goes along here.
Some work continues along here, particularly at the bridges, but nowadays it’s a comfortable canal to navigate. Watch out for the current at the river crossings though, which can take you by surprise.
There isn’t much to see as you pass through the Camargue, flat fields, scrublands stretching either side, occasional groups of horses on the banks, barren trees festooned with white egrets, looking for all the world like handkerchief trees, clay banks. Eventually as you push further into Languedoc Rousillon, the fields give way to numerous salt-lakes and the banks of the canal are lined with little fishermens’ cabanes. Some a little more salubrious than others. There is no road leading to these cabins, so there are lines of dinghies on the opposite bank where the fishermens’ cars are parked. They arrive and row themselves across. You wouldn’t want to forget and leave anything in the car. And then out into open waters, lined only with stone, huge lakes on either side.
Some new moorings (to us) at Carnon and also at Palavas. After passing through the swing bridge at Villeneuve les Maguelones (the speed at which this moves never ceases to amaze me!) we continued between the salt lakes until we arrived at Frontignan around 2.30pm to await the second of the day’s passages through the bridge.
This always amuses me. We’ve been assured that once the bridge has been raised the priority here lies with downstream traffic, but this doesn’t really make much sense because the downstream traffic frequently wants to moor in the places being occupied by the waiting upstream traffic. This trip (incorporating a three day stay on the Halte Nautique downstream of the bridge) afforded several opportunities to watch the ensuing melee twice a day (8.30am and 4.00pm) as everyone imposes their own sense of how things should be done. Interpretations ranged from upstream first, downstream first to both at once – interesting – and even one hire-boater who turned up too late but insisted on floating about in front of the newly lowered bridge, dancing up and down on the deck in frustration. He eventually moored up, made his way to the control room and shortly afterwards an unscheduled raising of the bridge took place – no doubt money having exchanged hands!
Our mobile phone charger had packed up on the Rhone (always a good idea to have a second one handy) and now both our phones were dead. We took a bike trip out to Intermarché, two or three kilometres out of the town, where we purchased a multi-purpose charger, to our great relief.
Over the weekend the early mornings were marred by fog, and even though it was a little clearer on the Monday when we set off to cross the Etang, we could still hear the coastal foghorns booming. Visibility was very poor with thunderstorms following us across the etang and for the initial few kilometres of the canal. We passed many sunken boats, some of them old wrecks but some of which are going to break their owners’ hearts the next time they visit their prized possession on the Midi.
We moored beneath the first lock on the Midi, and during the afternoon violent thunderstorms and torrential downpours ensued. Then the skies cleared to give a fresher, clearer evening.
We were right on schedule for our booking at Allemand the following day. The round lock at Agde has specific locking times for various directions, and we believed that if we were there by 10.30am we would just have time to visit the little market stall on the road by the lock for bread, fruit and vegetables.
As we continued next day, we noticed that although many of the plane trees have been removed (chancre colore, covered in previous reports), the roots have been left still supporting the canal edging. Still one or two diseased trees remain, a shadow of their former glorious selves. We were glad we’d had the opportunity to see the Midi when it was, for the greater part, bordered by a majestic colonnade of plane trees.
We entered the round lock at Agde around 11am, and were on l’Herault, hanging around outside Allemand by noon, barely a kilometre from the ocean.
The usual organised chaos reigned at the chantier. I’m sure there’s a master plan for lifting, putting back, and shifting of boats to make space for incomers, but it’s all in Henri’s head and takes some time to emerge. The last time we were lucky, and were lifted promptly, but this time we hung around and although we’d been told we’d be out by 3.00 it was going up to 6.00 when we were finally installed in the same place as last time, right by the road. It’s a great spot.
Henri beavers away single handedly all day, hopping from lightweight mobile crane for lighter boats, to heavy-weight mobile cranes for 26 tonners like us, to a single armed crane for yacht demasting and a motorised platform mover. I watched in awe as Henri shinned up a yacht mast to attach the arm of the crane to the appropriate point of the mast. The man is not only a tactician, but a logician, an athlete and a fount of knowledge about boats and their maintenance. His sisters have a good knowledge of English too.
We hired the pressure washer, and got partway through cleaning the hull before suppertime, completing the remainder next morning. After that it was on with the epoxy two pack, though we found this time that the coverage was nowhere near as extensive as last time, possibly due to using different rollers. It didn’t need two coats, as it was looking pretty good underneath, so one coat on top of the existing did the trick. We were relieved to see that the only visible effects of our grounding on the Saone in April 2012 were some light scratches on the thick, narrow base plate in the centre of the hull.
The second night, Wednesday, we walked down to the seaside resort of Grau d’Agde, strolled for a while before dining at Le Ponton. I had moules with frites and Neville had Catalan sausage, which reminded both of the boerowors we used to eat in South Africa.
Thursday, and we finished the painting. Neville then rigged up the zig-zag fenders with steel wire, secured them to the hull and we arranged for a noon ‘mise a l’eau’ the next day.
Henri turned up with the crane at 10.00am (obviously) and we were quickly out on the river, settled up our account (175 euros for each lifting in/out) and had cleared the round lock by 11.30am. We continued across l’Etang which was relatively calm, and entered Frontignan early afternoon. It still remained unbearably hot.
We caught the early morning opening of the road bridge next day, and made our way along the Rhone a Sete once again. It was a lovely calm day, the sun was blazing down and it was a great opportunity to get a montage of interesting shots of the salt-lakes on either side of the narrow waterway.
We moored up on the bank with pins at Galician, but when a huge commercial went past at speed we lost our two front pins in the water. One we retrieved with a magnet (first time I’ve ever known that be successful) but the other remains in the canal.
Lovely sunrise next morning, dappling the backs of the wild horses congregating on the banks. We raised the lock-keeper at St Gilles by phone, and were through by 8.30am. We managed a steady 9 kmh along the Petit Rhone, which immediately dropped to 7 when we joined the main Rhone. Quite a delay at Beaucaire where the lock had been turned against us to accommodate a trip boat coming down-stream, when another push-pull arrived from Barcarin and took priority. We arrived at Aramon at 4.00pm, having averaged 8-9 km down this stretch which has a strong current. A stiff breeze got up, and Olivier said it would bring rain.
Monday 15 September – what a change. Grey clouds everywhere and we were followed by a thunderstorm in the last couple of kilometres up to the lock at Avignon. Here I got a verbal recorded warning (!) blasted out through loudspeakers from the lock-keeper for removing the mooring line before the green light. Good progress through Caderousse after which we were averaging 9.3kmh at 1400 revs against the current, but below Bollene we dropped back to 8 kmh.
We arrived at Viviers going up to six pm, and as usual the entire pensioner population of the village was camped out on chairs under the trees behind the mooring, arguing loudly. They stopped only to render a critical appraisal of our mooring technique before dissipating as a magnificent thunderstorm built up, bringing spectacular skies. It had been a long hard day, and we’d doubted we’d make Viviers at one point but with great luck at some of the locks we succeeded.
Tuesday 15 September and we headed for Valence, only 60 kilometres and 3 locks. An exciting start to the day at 7.30am. It was a lovely clear fresh day after last night’s storm and I radioed ahead from the moorings to Chateaneuf lock round the corner. The lock-keeper confirmed the lock was ready for us. As we approached I heard him on the radio, apparently calculating lengths and telling some other party that he had a ‘plaisance’. Then he came back to us and I caught the words “au fond d’ecluse” As ever, my understanding of French depends on catching whatever words I can and piecing a picture together depending on the possibilities for the situation ahead. So I assumed he had a commercial coming and was asking us to wait on the pontoon at the ‘bottom of the lock’. Of course Sod’s law had it that someone was overnighting on the pontoon, so we were preparing to wake them up to ask them to move up a bit. Just as we were doing this, the lockie came on the radio insisting that we enter the lock. As we did, a recording in three languages asked us to move to the far end of the lock (au fond d’ecluse… get it?) and I recalled I’d heard him use the phrase ‘demi-sas’ whilst on the radio. Turned he was going to close the gates halfway along the lock and save time and water by ‘half locking’.
You live and learn.
Then, emerging at the top of the lock we were met by a wall of fog!
We struggled on for a hundred yards or so before turning round and mooring at the lock again. Inforhone had indicating a push-pull coming down towards Chateauneuf and we were uneasy about coming face to face with a heavy, long commercial that might be on either side of the water,whilst visibility was reduced to this level. The right decision… the fog worsened and soon we couldn’t even see the lock from the waiting quay.
We eventually resumed our journey just after 10.00am, passing through Logis Neuf by 1.00pm, Beauchastel at 3.20 and reaching Valence by 4.45pm.
The weather looked OK, no mist and only light winds. Traffic prospects looked poor with a push pull heading downstream to Valence and Poseidon, the big commercial we’d encountered on the first day of our trip, coming up behind us. We beat the push-pull to the lock and shared with Poseidon, a locking of 35 minutes of which 15 minutes were taken up by the closing of the downstream gate.
Steady progress throughout the day and when a strong southerly wind blew up we managed 12kmh against the current! Chavannay looked a little unsheltered as a potential mooring for the night, given the winds we were experiencing, but at Condrieu the open pontoon was full. Ampuis it would have to be then, as on the way down. There, a commercial steamed past at a great rate of knots just before dinner sending a wall of water crashing towards the pontoon and shaking us wildly for some time. Others were more considerate during the evening and through the night.
Thursday 18th September.
We set off at 7.30am, noting that the water level was very low with huge swathes of bank showing at Ampuis. The traffic had been heavy during the night, at least half a dozen commercials going through, but now all we had was Rembrandt, the hotel boat coming downstream, and nothing coming up behind. Through Vaugris by 8.10am and we were cruising through Vienne during the rush hour, with rows of stationery traffic along the quay. I’m always struck by the contrast between neighbouring buildings that you see in France; I’m not sure that happens quite so much in England.
On the slow haul up to Pierre Benite a gas tanker, Provence pulled out alongside as we were passing, and pinched the lock. Even he had his moments though, as he tried to enter the lock on red and green lights, not realising that there was a tiny maintenance dinghy remaining in the lock after the other boats had left. He had to back out to allow the dinghy to exit, not an easy job at his length. We had a long wait as Conquerant, a notoriously slow three part push-tow entered the lock from above, and emerged some time later, an inch at a time.
We lost an hour and a half here, finally clearing the lock with the red maintenance dinghy who’d been working on one of the floating bollards in the lock throughout the locking cycle and had passed the waiting time hanging onto our boat chatting to us, and nipping across the river to clean the level measures.
We cruised through Lyon and headed up the Saone, hoping to moor at Trevoux for the night. It was getting late though, so we pulled in at the quay at Neuville as Trevoux is a popular stop-over and we thought we might not find a space at this late stage.
The Neuville mooring is right in the heart of the town, electricity and water are there but you may have to contact the Mairie to get it switched on. We didn’t bother. This is a busy, noisy little town and not a brilliant choice of mooring in a strong wind, which, together with the proximity of the bridge might be difficult to get away from. Passing boats, water skiers and a Pompiers dinghy on some kind of manoeuvres caused a big wash. Note that mooring is prioritised during the day up until 4.00pm for trip boats.
Friday 19 September
Our last day of boating for this year! Awoke in the early hours to a howling gale and the noise of traffic on the bridge. Lots of knocking and rocking going on. We’d put some rubber mats under the ropes so they wouldn’t get gnawed away by the quay with all the movement, so I got up to check they were still in place. It was market day, and I sat up in the wheelhouse at 5.30am, watching the stalls being erected in the darkness as the rain and wind did its best to hinder proceedings.
Checking the DBA mooring guide this morning, I saw that this quay was a hang-out for the local youth and should be avoided if possible. Good job I hadn’t seen that last night, though the thought had occurred to me when a few youngsters had started hanging around.
We got away with no trouble at 7.40am, under stormy skies, and using the right-hand (no through access) arch of the bridge with no problems. There was no way we could have pulled back in those winds to line ourselves up for the signalled through route beneath the bridge.
The GPS system, which had given up the ghost early on our way down the Rhone suddenly sprang into life! No big deal, we’d used our tabs for plotting way-points across the Etang and our ordinary sat nav for checking our speed.
After Drace lock we were on the home straight and I was beginning to relax.
But the river had one last curved ball to throw at us….
We were on the final three or four kilometres to the turn off to the Canal Pont de Vaux and our home mooring base, when we noticed we were being followed by a large commercial, hotly pursued in turn by a hotel boat (Rhone Excellence). The turn-off onto the Canal Pont de Vaux is just below a bridge (generating fast moving currents) and just above a digue, so access, whilst not overly difficult, does need some careful handling. It wouldn’t be good news if the turbulence from one of these craft reached us as we were completing this manoeuvre across a fairly strong downstream current into a restricted opening, so we increased our speed a little to distance ourselves.
Next time we looked, we couldn’t see the commercial but the Rhone Excellence was quite close behind, and we speeded up a little more. We crossed the current safely into the cutting where the landing stage lies below the lock, and heaving a sign of relief I prepared to get off the boat to operate the lock.
Suddenly, instead of heading straight for the landing stage, we’d altered course and were heading directly for the side of a yacht moored before it. The bow wave from the hotel boat passing the end of the turn-off had drawn us backwards. I rushed to the back of the boat to grab a fender to drop down, as Neville added some power, but then, equally suddenly, we were being propelled swiftly forward towards the lock wall as Neville switched from forward thrust into reverse. This was the second, surge stage of the bow wave. The day was saved, but the performance added zest to the day of the gongoozlers watching with interest from the bridge over the lock.
I operated the lock mechanism to empty it, and the gates opened. Neville pushed off from the landing stage. At this point I looked up, and lo and behold, the commercial, (which had been overtaken by Rhone Excellence) was powering swiftly past the end of the turn off. I frantically signalled Neville, he turned to look and so this time we were prepared for a similar draw-back/surge forward as this second bow wave hit us, only this time in a much more confined space, the lock itself.
So 45 minutes later we were cruising into the port. I was looking forward to a few days rest before starting our drive home.
The September weather in France has been unlike any we’ve previously experienced, very hot at times, a full blown Mistral, lots of sporadic windy days, a few foggy mornings and terrific thunderstorms. But a great trip, and an eventful end to a terrific boating season.
See you next year!