Going Down: Deep Locks and Green Beer

We left the beautiful town of Tournus around 0830 Tuesday 13th June and headed downstream towards Crêches-sur-Saône, where our guide book promised us showers, laundry facilities and even a swimming area. We should have known it was too good to be true! We were the only boat on a generously-sized pontoon and there was a restaurant a very short walk away, but as we walked towards it, we realised the information was so out of date that the signpost had the prices in Francs. France has been using the euro since 2002…

Maybe a little out of date. The tarifs are in francs.

The restaurant owner told us there were showers in the campsite behind the restaurant, so we tracked over there for a look, but were informed that they were only for campsite residents, not smelly old boat bums. She didn’t use those exact words, but the impression was clear! So no laundry, no showers, and no swimming. On the bright side, we had a lovely meal in the restaurant and the mooring was free, including water and electricity. We got the impression that the restaurant owner had been wickedly sending boaters over to the camp site for years, irritating the manager there.

A typical page from our ancient river guides, covered in scribbles from us (pencil) and previous owners (biro). It takes us roughly 40-45 minutes per page.

After another boat shower/sauna (the tiny toilet/bathroom on the boat always gets much hotter than the rest of the boat), we headed off the following morning before 0800 for a long passage, almost all the way to Lyon. Stopping places were becoming fewer and farther between, but we were lucky to find a tiny pontoon, just big enough for Barberry, beneath the shade of some trees. We judge our distance each day (now we’re off the canals and not doing dozens of locks each day) by pages of the guide to the river, and this was a long one at 9 pages with two giant locks to negotiate. A distance of 38 nautical miles!

A snug little private berth a couple of miles outside Lyon. So peaceful!

We also use a chart plotter to keep track of where we are, and the AIS allows us to see commercial barges before they run us down on blind bends, which is a real benefit. However, sometimes it can give us confusing information, such as a large barge apparently sailing over the land! It is another reminder that we can’t place too much trust on electronic charts, and that paper is often more reliable.

Apparently péniches come in amphibious varieties! This cargo ship, Elvira, is shown to be sailing merrily along on the land (yellow) on our electronic charts.

The next morning, we set off really early for Lyon, France’s second largest city after Paris. We had opted out of stopping in Lyon because there is a high crime rate there, and thefts from boats have been reported as well as local youths cutting mooring lines in the night. We didn’t particularly fancy waking up in the middle of the river with a commercial barge bearing down on us, and the only secure marina in Lyon was closed until October, so we sailed straight through. It did look like a beautiful city, but we’ve a preference for rural stops, so we took some photos and continued on.

Spage age building in Lyon at the confluence of the Saône and Rhône rivers. I think Battlestar Galactica has finally found Earth!

Once through Lyon, we said a sad goodbye to the beautiful River Saône and turned onto the River Rhône, which will take us all the way to the Mediterranean Sea where we’ll (hopefully) reunite with our mast.

Barberry felt very small in the giant locks of the Rhône. This one was 11.8m deep but the biggest one we’ll navigate will be more than 20m deep.

This is a far bigger, wider, faster river, and we began to meet more and more commercial traffic. The locks are huge as well. The first one we came to, just after joining the Rhône, was called Écluse de Pierre Bénite, and at 11.80m deep, it was more than double the depth of most of the locks we’d experienced so far. No remote controls for these big boys: we have to radio ahead to let them know we’re coming, and answer questions about our boat, our crew, and our final destination.

Many of these bigger locks have lifting gates that we have to pass under to leave, usually getting very wet as river water drips/pours from the gate onto our heads.

We needed every moment of our early start as we’d set ourselves the challenge of reaching the marina at Les Roches-de-Condrieu, a distance of 32 nautical miles (37 land miles) away. This also promised showers and laundry, and for once, it delivered on its promises. In face, it more than delivered, because when we checked in to the capitainerie, we were handed a bright yellow plastic card that gave us free access to a water park a short walk/cycle from the marina.

Les Roches-de-Condrieu wore a halo, outperforming all the other local stopping places by miles!

The showers and laundry were perfect, and we had a great wee berth in the marina, so we decided to spend two nights there instead of the usual one. As temperatures by now were racking up in the 30s celsius every day, the temptation of a swim was too much to resist. We put on our dookers (Scottish for swimming costumes, apparently) and headed off with our towels for the longer-than-expected, hot hike to the lake.

Swimming beach at a lake, perfect for cooling off two hot Irish people who are having trouble adjusting to the temperatures as they head south.

On the second day, we took the bikes to the lake. This worked far better, as we didn’t overheat on the way back from the lake, since cycling (especially with an electric bike) is so much cooler than walking on hot tarmac.

These two Brompton folding bikes have proved themselves a score of times on this trip so far. So easy to store, even on a tiny boat, and simple to fold/unfold. The red one is one of the very early Bromptons, a gift from Fraser’s mum. She also made the useful shopping basket on the front.

There was also a bar/cafe at the lake where we could buy Magnums (almond, yum!) and locally brewed beer while sitting in the shade and watching wake boarders and waterskier strutting their stuff in front of us. The water park is divided into three areas: waterskiing, giant inflatable obstacle course, and swimming area. Plenty to see and do.

Some of the local beer was green. Fraser said it tasted like a non-alcoholic lime-flavoured fizzy drink, but I noticed it was 5.8%!

Our next stopping place was 27 nautical miles south at Tournon which involved passing through two big locks, one of which was more than 15m deep! In both cases, we were delayed waiting for commercial traffic to pass through first, a giant hotel barge at one lock…

One of the giant hotel barges that pass up and down the rivers. This one went on, and on, and on. My wide-angle lens still couldn’t fit it all in.

…then a huge péniche at the second lock. We also shared this one with a tiny yellow boat from Poland called Mrówa (Polish for ant). And we thought Barberry was small!

Mrówa (the Ant), the tiny Polish boat we shared a lock with.

This lock had a terrifying sill beneath the rear gate. As we were sharing the chamber with a huge barge as well as Mrówa, we were left with no choice but to tie up at the very back of the lock, behind the barge As the water level fell, we realised we were lucky Barberry was only 33 feet If she’d been a 45-footer, we’d have ended up with her stern hung up on the concrete sill.

Giant concrete sill that was only revealed after the water level dropped. It stuck out a good 10-12 feet into the lock. A bit too close for comfort!

Our guide described Tournon as offering 20 berths for visitors, but when we arrived it turned out to be almost full. There was also a huge sporting event going on for children, with all sorts of bikes, trikes, pony rides, etc and of course, loud music. We drifted slowly past, trying to spot a free berth, and realised they’d cordoned off most of the marina area with tape so the children could try out paddle boards and kayaks without being mown down by boats.

Barberry squeezed on the end. Not sure this was even meant to be a berth, because the water was very shallow there Luckily, Barberry didn’t go aground.

We managed to squeeze onto a tiny finger pontoon just outside the tape, and got ourselves safely secured, then we set off to explore. There’s a château-museum in the town that was cool inside and also interesting as it had an area dedicated to river craft through the ages. The views from the windows and terraces of the castle were spectacular We could even see Barberry, far below us.

Barberry (outlined in red) as seen through a leaded window in a tower of the castle, and if you look closely, you might be able to see the children on paddle boards and the tape closing off the marina.

Tournon was another beautiful town, but a bit busy for our liking. Still, there were numerous restaurants and bars to choose from, and we had a lovely meal in one of them After we ordered a bottle of white wine and had pronounced it excellent, we looked up at the vineyards that covered the hillside opposite us. The wine we were drinking was made from grapes gown in one of those vineyards. Each one displays their name on huge posters on the hillside, so it was easy to tell!

Can’t get much more local than this! And it was really good, too.
M Chapoutier, the vineyard that produced our wine that evening

Tournon was a little noisy that night, which is the downside of staying in civilisation when you’re used to solitude. Much as we loved its winding streets and cafe culture, we were happy to move on the next day, not very far away, to Valence.

Exploring the narrow backstreets of Tournon.

With only a few miles to go, we headed downriver to Valence where our guide book promised us a marina with all the facilities! A little wary after previous disappointments, we phoned ahead (Saturday 17th June) and made sure that a) the marina actually existed and b) there was a space for us The cheery man on the phone said yes, we’d be very welcome, so we were optimistic. Oh, too soon. Should have remained wary!

Some of the deep locks are associated with hydroelectric power production. Clean energy.

The wind began to get up as we chugged along, which brought lovely cool air to our heated skin, but then the river started to build up quite a chop. By the time we reached the marina, it was blowing half a gale and the narrow entrance was quite challenging We tied up first at the fuel pontoon (advertised as open seven days a week, self service) It was locked up. After that, we found a free berth and tied Barberry up securely. But the wind rose again, and the forecast was for gusts of up to 30+knots, so we moved to a more sheltered pontoon after the crockery crashed to the floor for the second time.

So many swans on the waterways The cygnets are all adorable!

Once we were secured, we walked to the capitainarie to pay our dues and check out the showers. The door was locked, and no one was around. No one answered the phone. Nothing. As the showers are inside the (locked) capitainerie, and the fuel was locked up tight, despite the place advertising that it was open today, we’re feeling a bit let down. We need the fuel to get us to the Med as there are no more fuel stations for the rest of the journey and we’re beginning to run low. Tomorrow’s early start will just have to be delayed as we’ll need to wait around in the hope that someone turns up to take our money and unlock the fuel pumps.

Tied up in a moor sheltered berth next to Libra, Caroline and Igor’s boat. Looking forward to catching up with them again in Port Napoleon.

One bright spot, however, is that the boat we’re moored next to belongs to someone I’ve been chatting to for a while now. Their mast is being carried by the same company that’s transporting ours, and we’ll be going to the same place, Port Napoleon, to re-mast before heading off into the Med. Caroline also writes a blog, so please pop over and read hers as well, if you’re interested in the French waterways. They went a different route to us, so there’s not too much overlap.

Beautifully preserved old Renault parked in the marina car park.

I’m going to leave you in suspense now, as to whether or not we manage to get enough fuel to take us to the Med. Fraser can tell you the answer in his blog, hopefully due out on 4th July, so there may even be fireworks!

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