Dead Zone — Dash to the Sea

Slow lizard, representing the speed Fraser’s brain works at in the early morning.

Kerry’s blog brought us as far as Valance, in need of fuel. We hung around there for a second day on Monday, as the fuel pontoon (although mysteriously closed on Sunday) was directly opposite us and temptingly close. Such things are a rare find on the rivers. Fraser had had enough of lugging containers from local fuel stations — the novelty was definitely wearing off! Fortunately, the extra day was not wasted, and a wee man turned up and unlocked the self-service fuel pontoon at around 9.40am. Fraser got very over excited at this and rushed Kerry out to help move the boat the short distance to the fuel pontoon. Rushing in the morning is sometimes a mistake for Fraser as his brain works slower at such times. 

A previous river user (a long time ago!) discovered how shallow it is at the edges of the Rhône. So sad to see this wrecked steam barge at Valence.

Kerry was super-efficient at the wheel as Fraser gave her the all-clear to reverse while he hurriedly untied the lines. The boat shot back a few feet then jolted forward again with Fraser nearly losing his footing and going for a swim. A confused Fraser realised he had forgotten one of the lines and now rushed to undo it, but the whole event was now engrained in Kerry’s memory, and he realised to his doom that this story would very likely be recounted many times. Best to get it out of the way now then and tell you guys in this blog…to get it over with!   

One of many riverside restaurants we passed on our way, but sadly most had nowhere safe for a boat to tie up.

We never did solve the mystery of why the fuel pontoon was closed on Sunday. The advertised opening times suggested otherwise, and when we walked to the capitainerie on Monday to pay for our berth, the guy in charge didn’t know either and it was a surprise even to him — very strange. The only theory was proposed by a Frenchman we met at the capitainerie, who told us that the French normally sleep a lot on Sundays and therefore don’t always turn up. At least we had our fuel now and enough to get us to the sea, so we were happy.

This is what the underside of one of the really big locks like as we pass out beneath the gate. We also get heavily dripped on…

On Tuesday we set off for Viviers and started to encounter some of the deepest locks we had experienced: up to 23m. Luckily, they were all going down now, which is much easier. Also, they had floating bollards, which are the things you tie your boat onto in the lock. Since they are floating, they move down with the boat so we didn’t need to use extra long lines as we sunk into the lock. The only thing is they made a horrible squeaking/squealing noise as they moved, metal scraping on metal with no lubrication. Since the lock was so big there were lots of floating bollards, all making this noise, so actually quite deafening inside the enclosed lock sides!

Some of the giant floating bollards in deep locks. They squeal in disharmony as the water level drops.

Viviers was a lovely town with narrow streets. We walked in from the river pontoon (actually bikes would have been better for the distance) for a traditional beer and ice cream (still very hot weather!) and found a boulangerie for fresh bread, in the form of a baguette of course. It’s the only form of bread you can get in most of France and, although nice when fresh, goes stale really fast and is almost inedible by the next day. Since we can’t find a boulangerie every day we are often trying to chew on stale bread!

The old town of Viviers. Like so many of the places we stopped, this ancient town still seemed very well preserved and has kept its character.

The old part of Viviers was quite a climb and not really suitable for bikes, so Kerry headed back to the boat at a slow hobble while Fraser hiked into town and took some touristy photos. Also, some not so touristy photos, as he found some overgrown areas of the town that had been previously damaged by earthquake and went for an explore. 

Evidence of previous earthquake damage: houses propped up to stop them collapsing.

We took showers in the capitainerie that evening, which was located in what seemed to be a sort of raised mobile home (presumably to avoid flooding). It was really, really hot inside, and although we both had coldish showers we were sweating at the end, and had difficulty getting dressed in the tiny shower enclosures — Kerry came out stating that she may as well not have bothered! 

Hmm. Fraser wonders if this is actually wine or something from a medical sample bottle.

A nice meal in the local restaurant that night, although Fraser tried to be different and didn’t order the usual burger. He went for the next safest thing: fish and chips, what could go wrong? Well, when it turned up Fraser put on a brave face, while Kerry tried to hold in laughter. It was not fish, but fishes, hundreds of them, with their little heads still attached to their bodies. He asked Kerry how they would have managed to gut such small fish and she was not reassuring in her response. Fraser ate a lot of the little fishes that night, but alas, could not manage them all and felt really bad leaving a few.

Fish and chips, Viviers-style! Kerry tried to reassure Fraser that each fish was definitely gutted (using a micro-scalpel) by an army of tiny fairies employed for the purpose. He didn’t seem convinced.

Kerry had beef skewers and seemed very happy with her choice. We asked for wine, but there did not seem to be a wine list as such so we just asked for white. It turned up in a bottle with no label, so we never knew what it was, but it did have and unusual and unique flavour. So unique it did not even taste like wine — how nice for us to experience something new! At least it washed down the fishes.

The trip down the Rhône wasn’t all picturesque villages. A falling-down factory chimney has its own peculiar beauty.

The following day we headed for our next planned destination. A marina simply called ‘Port 2’ located about 2 miles up a side branch of the main river. It was reported as having all the usual desirable stuff, like showers, washing machine, etc., so sounded fine. When we turned into the river branch it seemed very quiet — except for a French military commando-style exercise in a couple of very fast speed boats mounted with machine guns on swivels. 

Ugly cooling towers with a beautiful painting, and bracketed by wind turbines. France is a country of contradictions.

The river here was edged in what can be best described as thick jungle and reminded us of something from a Rambo movie. As we crept up the river we spotted some sunken boats — not a good sign — so we started to feel a little uneasy, like we were being watched. We decided to rename this spooky river branch the ‘dead zone’.

The ruined remains of Port 2 Marina. Note sunken boat to left of picture (one of many).

Eventually, the Port 2 ‘marina’ came into view but it was like something out of an apocalypse movie. Just a couple of ruined boats and an abandoned capitainerie building, with junk lying around. The pontoons themselves were completely missing. Kerry circled around the scene and quickly concluded that it all seemed wrong and felt way too creepy. With that we scarpered to try to find a better place to stop. 

Fraser became a bit strange after weeks living in a small space with Kerry.

It was a really long day in the end as we had to travel all the way through Avignon, which it is not recommended as a stop as big hotel boats have priority. Eventually, we found a nice stopping place at Aramon and luckily got the last place available on the pontoon.

We would have liked to stop in Arles, but couldn’t find anywhere to tie up. Everything has been taken over by huge hotel barges like this one.

That night we had a chat about what to do next as there seemed to be quite limited places to stop on this part of the Rhone and we did not want another ‘dead zone’ experience like at Port 2. We looked at the distance and decided that a one-day dash for the sea was feasible. It would mean missing a planned stop at Arles, with its amazing Roman buildings and intact coliseum, but we could always come back by bus to visit it once we got to the coast.

Even the VNF office in Arles didn’t have a tying-up place

So, we set off for the sea very early the next day, Thursday 22nd June. What a day: torrential rain,  thunder and lightning to add to the drama. The last few hours of the trip there was actually very little to see. It is all flat land and wide, straight river. Very few boats, just a couple of cargo barges. 

One of the giant péniches we met en route. We shared a lock with this big lad.

Eventually we came to Port St Louis and tied up next to our final lock and the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea! No sooner had we stopped than we spotted someone we recognised: Stuart from the YouTube channel, Sailing Seabird, who had come through the canals the previous year — what a coincidence — the only person we knew in the whole place was right there. We met up for a drink with him and his partner Marina as few days later: lovely folks.

Barberry, waiting for the last lock and lifting bridge to open, the gateway to the Mediterranean Sea.

We shared the final lock with a big, Russian cargo barge, but at least that meant that we did not need to wait very long. We had been through locks as deep as 23m in the least few days, so this one was a bit of an anticlimax as it only seemed to lower/raise a few inches, not even sure which direction and then the gates (and lifting bridge) were opening to allow us through. What a feeling to be in the sea — the smell of the salt water was so different and the scale of the sea after the canals and rivers. We had made it! 

The big grin says it all You can see the lifting bridge at the lock in the background.

Neither of us had really believed it would happen, even after all the years of planning and preparation.  We made the short motor out into the sea and then back into Port Napoleon, where we would meet up with our mast. Actually, we had beaten our mast by a few days as it was not due to arrive by overland transport until 29th June. It seemed appropriate to have a proper celebratory meal at the marina that night. Lumps of meat for Kerry and burger for Fraser – perfect!

Celebrating the end of our inland leg with a meal in the posh restaurant in the marina. Those profiteroles were enormous!

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