Fraser’s blog brought us as far as Port Napoléon in the Mediterranean Sea, where we slotted into a comfortable berth on the visitors’ pontoon. What he didn’t mention was that as we arrived, we were told that the mast crane had broken, so we might not be able to get our mast put back up. However a few days later, the elderly crane was fixed and we booked an appointment for the following Friday, 30th June, at 4pm to get it stepped.
This was the first really luxurious marina we’d been in since we left Cherbourg, and we were very quick to test out the facilities. I’d give the showers a solid 9.9/10 for temperature, flow, cleanliness, good hanging for clothes, etc. One of the best we’ve seen so far.
The first full day here, we chilled and slowly found our way around the place as well as catching up with mountains of washing. Fraser cycled to the local supermarché, about a 7 km round trip, but I stayed aboard. The Mistral was in full force and I decided that a top-heavy person on a small folding bike was a recipe for disaster in that wind!
We’re really enjoying the variety of food on offer in French supermarkets and shops, and have loved trying different meals — although most of our meals, in this heat, tend to be based on bread, meat, cheese and lots of salad. The meat might need cooking (burgers, chicken kebabs, steaks, etc.) but are more often just sliced, cooked meat of various types. It’s all been delicious, that’s for sure! And, naturally, we’ve embraced the wine culture of the region, sipping at chilled white local wine with dinner.
The temperatures have been in the range 32-38 this week, and even when the Mistral is blowing, it’s still almost unbearably hot if you’re trying to do any jobs on the boat. We’ve both been covered in sheets of sweat at various times, trying to work outside. We try to take frequent breaks inside with all hatches open and the fan going (day and night), but even then, it’s uncomfortably hot.
Air conditioned restaurants and supermarkets provide temporary relief, and we sometimes like to sit in the shade outside a cafe and sip beer with ice cream on the side, but the best cure we’ve discovered is an incredible beach, only a 14 km round trip by folding bike with cycle lane most of the way. That’s 14 km of exposed Camargue, surrounded by salt flats and shallow water with herons, egrets and flamingos feeding. The beach is enormous, stretching further than the eye can see, and cars are allowed on it. In fact, many people bring camper vans down there and pretty much live at the beach.
The water is perfect temperature: cool enough to be refreshing but really easy to get in. Even Fraser has no trouble, and his wetsuit has now been stuffed into an inaccessible locker, a symbol of shame. The water clarity is great, and there’s effectively no tide so you don’t have to worry about your shoes being carried away by a wave. The sand is fine, smooth, golden, and well maintained by raking. I don’t think I’ve seen a beach as good since we were in Cornwall, and this water is warmer!
We’ve been trying to cycle to the beach every day, especially the really hot ones. Even though we get tired cycling (head wind both directions, it seems), it’s worth the effort. Besides, cycling results in a breeze in your face, which helps, too. The hottest day was Monday, when Fraser checked the thermometer inside the boat (so in the shade, hatches open, fan on full) and it registered 100 degrees Fahrenheit (about 38 Celsius). That was definitely a beach day. In fact, we stayed in the water until our skin went wrinkly.
There’s a very helpful Tourist Office in the local town of Port St-Louis du Rhône, situated in an old stone tower. Apparently, there’s usually a charge to explore the upper floors and roof of the tower, but when we said we were living on a boat in Port Napoleon, the young woman said we counted as residents, and let us in for free! There’s a huge collection of taxidermied birds on the first floor, and a photographic exhibition on the second floor, but the views from the roof are the highlight of the visit, overlooking the Camargue across the River Rhône.
Some days we’re either too busy for the beach, or we choose to go sight seeing. Fraser mentioned that we hadn’t managed to stop in Arles because there was nowhere to tie up, but last Tuesday we caught a bus there instead. It took a little over an hour each way, but the bus was air conditioned and we were allowed to bring our bikes in the luggage compartment. We were glad of them, because they allowed us to see more than we’d have managed on foot.
Arles is a fascinating place to visit. The main attraction is the Roman amphitheatre, which has been in almost continuous use for 2,000 years. It’s been pillaged for stone, rebuilt (three towers added in Medieval times) and even has rows of modern bleachers, but its original Roman structure is still there, plain to see. In Roman times, it would have been used for chariot racing and for gladiatorial combat to entertain the masses; more recently it’s been used as a bull fighting arena and nowadays they hold concerts and festivals there.
After the amphitheatre, we visited a Roman theatre, which is also still used. Even though there are modern additions, such as lighting systems on huge frameworks, the original structure still features. The French seem a pragmatic people and I love the way they would rather adapt the ancient edifices than knock them down and build new ones. It allows us to get a feel for ongoing history, not just a snapshot in time from around the 1st century AD.
We had bought a ticket that allowed us access to four different attractions, so we next cycled to the river to visit the old Roman baths. These, it turned out, had been buried as the town expanded and houses had been built in/on/attached to the original Roman structures. It was only in fairly recent times that the baths were rediscovered and excavated. Parts of them are pristine, including swathes of the old hypocaust system, flooring tiles, and Roman concrete (apparently more robust than modern concrete).
The last place we visited (after fitting in a really nice restaurant lunch somewhere in between) was the underground forum remains. If that sounds confusing, it’s because I’m a bit confused about it too. Where the original Roman forum would have stood, with its central square and palisaded buildings surrounding it on all four sides, there are now more modern buildings, including the Town Hall and a church (possibly on the site of a former Temple to Minerva?). According to Wikipedia, what we visited was the Cryptoporticus, or basement level of the original forum. It consisted of dark passageways that stretched for a long way underground in a U-shape. It was blessedly cool down there, so we didn’t come up for quite a while!
Once back in the baking heat, we felt the need of refreshment while we waited for our bus, so we found a lovely little artisanal ice cream shop that also sold fruit smoothies. Two boules of ice cream and a large smoothie each, and we felt ready to tackle anything. With the bikes folded and put in their carrying bags, we were ready for the air-conditioned bus ride back to Port St-Louis du Rhône and the 7 km cycle back to the boat before showers and a light supper.
Wednesday was a fairly busy day. Our mast was due to arrive around lunchtime, and we wanted to be there to see it offloaded safely, but first we met up with a couple of fellow sailors. Tim and Karen had negotiated the French canals a week or so before us and had been really helpful with information about locks under repair and good stopping places, so it was good to catch up with them before they flew home the next day. Then, bang on time, Nigel from Boat Loads arrived with a trailer full of masts, including ours. It was a huge relief to see it safe and sound, along with our sails, boom, spinnaker pole and whisker pole. We trudged to and fro with all the bits light enough to carry and put them back on the boat, ready for the mast to be re-stepped on Friday.
That evening, we met Stuart and Marina for drinks We’ve been following their YouTube channel for a couple of years, as they came through the French canals using the same route as we did. Now, they’re renovating an old boat from the 1970s that has been left abandoned in the boatyard, and we’ll be very surprised if they don’t make a brilliant job of Seabird They’re both incredibly hard workers, knowledgable, and have a great attitude You can find their channel here.
We’ve experienced the viciousness of Camargue mosquitos, or at least we thought we had, but we so enjoyed chatting with Stu and Marina that we didn’t at first notice the swarms of hungry insects waiting to mob us as soon as we emerged. Even Fraser got a couple of bites, much to his indignation. Why on earth would they bite him when they had my delicious blood available?
The mast had been placed onto rolling supports, so we could move it around as we removed all the padding and protection we’d wrapped it with in Rouen, in what seemed like a different lifetime. That Thursday, we got stuck in, feeling a sense of urgency to be a proper sailing boat again.
After unwrapping the mast, we sorted out all the rigging, making sure everything was ready for the crane. The marina charge for the crane per half hour of use, so we didn’t want to be wasting time on crane day if we could get things ready ahead of time! The spreaders and masthead fittings had to be replaced, as well as the VHF aerial and wind indicator, as neither of us had any intention of going back up the mast to sort it once it’s up again!
The masthead light gave us a bit of a pause, because it’s LED and there was no obvious way to tell which way it should face. In use, it is a tri-light, so one third of it shows a green light forward and starboard, one third a red light forward and port, and the rear third shows a white light. These lights are all a legal requirement, so not only would we look like idiots if we put it on back to front, we’d also be breaking maritime law. We won’t know if we got it right until our first night sail…
By lunchtime on Thursday, we had the mast prepped and ready to go, so we asked the marina office if they could keep us in mind for any earlier slots for the crane. They weren’t optimistic, so we cycled to the beach for a swim instead!
Thursday night was stormy, with thunder, lightning, torrential rain and howling gales. Neither of us slept well, but at around 0750, someone knocked on our boat and woke us up. Fraser clambered blearily out of bed and stuck his head out of the companionway, muttering about the mosquito netting, to find one of the yard employees, all wide awake and business-like. Apparently, they’d taken us at our word about an earlier slot for the crane, and could we be ready to go for 10 o’clock please?
We scrambled into clothes and wolfed down a quick breakfast. It’s hard to describe the emotions we go through before the mast is craned on or off. Excitement, certainly, but also a healthy dose of anxiety, especially when your boat and mast are going to be in the hands of strangers. Still, after a few last minute adjustments (turning the masthead light back through 180 degrees after a lot of googling), we chugged around to the quayside next to the crane like a pair of condemned prisoners, arriving 15 minutes early for our execution, I mean slot.
The crane is an elderly yellow monster of a truck that sits precariously on the edge of the quay, stabilised by four legs. Fraser and one of the lads from the yard wheeled our mast around on its little trolleys, and the first thing they did was undo most of the electronics and aerial Fraser had spent Thursday securing on. Then they put a strop around the mast and up it went until it was vertical but the wrong side of the crane. I stayed on the boat with my heart in my mouth. The wind was increasing and the mast was beginning to sway, only held by the thin strop and the wee man hanging onto the other end of it.
I needn’t have worried. This was a well-drilled team, and the mast was soon seated firmly onto its metal foot. Then the two lads from the yard took a rest while Fraser and I ran around with pliers and spanners, attaching all the wire stays that keep the mast from falling down. This isn’t always easy, as the mast tends to lean one way or the other according to how the crane is supporting it, or the boat heeling. As it was by now quite windy, this added another challenge. The wires on one side fitted easily, with room to spare, but there was a deficit of several centimetres on the other side, because the wind was blowing the mast over sideways.
I never thought I’d be thankful for my huge body mass, but as I hung like a chimpanzee from the mast steps, I acted as a counterweight to the wind and Fraser was able to secure the rigging. While we were busy doing this, another wee man slouched onto the scene, a scruffy little fella with a hat and sunglasses, chain smoking roll-ups that smelled, shall we say, quite herbal. He then sent himself up in a cherry picker to replace all the masthead fittings they’d taken off. If the masthead light ends up pointing the wrong way, I’m planning to blame him!
The whole process took us less than half an hour, thank goodness, and we were both a bit shaky with relieved tension as we untied Barberry and motored back to our berth. We’d been a bit worried someone might have taken it while we were absent, as several boats arrived in the busy marina while we were there and a couple were launched as well. Luckily, it was still free, so we went in hot* to counteract the fierce sidewind and Fraser lassoed the pontoon neatly as I brought Barberry to a screaming halt with a burst of reverse, and then more reverse as the wind tried again to run off with her. I’d forgotten how much extra windage a mast offers, and I almost misjudged it. Almost.
We spent the next two days putting all the rest of Barberry’s rig back together: boom (named after the sound it makes against my head when I straighten up beneath it), spinnaker pole, whisker pole, all the electronics that feed down the mast and through the deck. We decided it was too windy to put the sails back on, but then put them on anyway, resulting a few noisy moments and a near-miss when the genoa (big sail at the front of the boat) snapped sideways in a gust and almost knocked me into the water Not that I’d have been complaining, no indeed.
Now, we’ve started weather-watching again, but the forecast is for strong Mistral winds for a few more days yet, so we’ll probably make it to the beach a few more times before it’s time to leave this lovely marina. We also need to fill up with water and diesel, and buy enough provisions to enable us to be independent for a few days, living on anchorages until we reach Nice where we plan to pay a brief visit to my French cousin, Monique, and her family, but Fraser can tell you all about that in his next blog.
*”Going in hot” gives Fraser the heebie-jeebies, but when there’s a stiff cross-wind, it’s the only way to prevent the boat being blown sideways into another (probably far more expensive) boat, or against an unforgiving pontoon. When it’s not blowing half a gale, I’m a lot more cautious and take her in nice and slowly. That gives Fraser more time to get lines attached and secure the boat.