September 10, 2010
Having spent the day cleaning, and replenishing our food stock at the local Inter Marche and purchasing a new barge board, replacing a woefully inadequate one, we were ready to carry on.
At 0830hrs on a sunny Monday morning (6.09.2010) we reversed out of our pontoon and made our way into the Canal Du Centre, a 100 kilometre stretch of narrow, sloping sided canal, which would lead us to the final stage of our journey to the wider and busier Soane and Rhone.
The Canal Du Centre is said to be wider than the Briare but according to George, the Canadian we met at Chartrettes, is dilapidated and poorly maintained.
The main feature of this canal is the number of lock its presents some 60 over its length.
Smaller than those on the Seine they are largely self operating.
As French locks are designed for large barges, mooring bollards and ladders are placed accordingly. As our 36 foot yacht in no way fits the profile of a barge, taking Fandango through these canals presents some very interesting dilemmas requires a flexible approach and sharpens boat handling skills. As there is no standard design for these locks good observation and careful discussion before entering a lock is paramount. It is therefore important to have a strategy in which the collation of information about the lock profile is communicated to ensure safe passage through the lock. Our strategy was to view the lock through binoculars, establish the state of readiness, the position of the ladder in relationship to the mooring bollards, the type of mooring bollard and the side of the canal on which the lock control panel is situated, and then formulate a strategy to ensure so that we could get to the correct side of the lock to activate the process.
This canal has about 61 locks, most of which are self operated. To control entry into the lock is based on an internationally recognised system of traffic lights, two red lights means wait, red and green means stand by and green means go ahead.
On the Canal Du Centre a series of locks are activated in agreement with the Eclusier who will ensure that the first lock is ready at the appointed time, after this the locks activate as you progress through each one, each is automatically readied for your arrival and entry is controlled by the traffic lights displayed on the approach to the lock.
The first few locks on our run were ascending locks, this meant that on arrival the lock would be empty, once we enter the lock, we secure Fandango and then the lock is activated and it fills to the height of the water on the exit side of the lock.
The process of moving from one to another requires us to enter the lock, tie up on bollards and climb up a ladder to the lock side and activate the lock by pulling a line suspended from a bracket on the lock side.
As there is no standard design, each lock presents different profiles, often ladders and bollards are not accessible at the same time, so flexibility is a key element.
Progress along the canals should be constant, that is unless there is a vessel travelling in the opposite direction, which takes priority over you or that a mechanical fault prevents progress, this requires that we ‘stem the tide’ often for long periods, the longest has been an hour.
VNF staff patrol the canal and are constantly supervising the locks to ensure that flow is maintained. It all sounds very efficient but there are a number of things that can go wrong which often result in frustration and slow progress.
Today was to be a busy one as we had …….to negotiate. During this journey the locks would change from ascending to descending locks, this means that rather than entering an empty lock which would fill, a descending lock works in the opposite direction and we would drop to a lower level to meet the lower level in the canal. Dealing with descending locks requires a different strategy as these locks were often very full, leaving little space for our fenders to fend off Fandango from the side of the lock. It was therefore essential to ensure that all our fenders and boards were correctly positioned to protect the hull. The four large balloon fenders purchased from Ian and Pippa in Rouen had proved invaluable to this end.
Our progress through the locks went as planned and as we approached Genelard the sun was shining and all was right with the world.
Genelard is a small village, boat mooring is in a large pool just inside the village limits, there was an unusually good depth of water in the pool and the sides of the pool were straight, allowing us to tie up close to the bank. Water and electricity were free and available on the bank side, so we tied up, plugged in and enjoyed the remainder of the afternoon and evening sitting in the warm sunshine. There was a bar close by, so we enjoyed a coffee, beer and a glass of Pastiche.
Later in the evening a British flagged boat appeared in the downstream lock, on board was a young English couple, speaking to them in the lock we discovered that they had concluded a 4 year, part time, cruise around Sardinia, Corsica and Turkey and said they were on passage back to the UK where they hoped to find a mooring in the Hamble, we passed pleasantries as the lock opened and they went on their way, we made good our passage to the bar.
Later we returned to Fandango to discover that the English couple had moored behind us and invited us to join them for a chat and drinks later.
Kate and Homer were consultants, one in planning the other in computing. They had taken sabbaticals over the four years and had travelled extensively throughout the Med during their time, they were a mind of information and as is our custom we pumped them for information about the Med and shared our knowledge of our trip from Le Havre.
A pleasant evening was had and we parted late in the night, the following morning before we rose they left Genelard.
We had decided to stay in Genelard until Monday morning and arranged our passage through the lock nearby for 9am.
A warm and sunny weekend was enjoyed relaxing and contributing to the expenses of the bar. On Sunday afternoon a large hotel barge called ‘Liberte’ passed through Genelard and squeezed loudly and painfully slowly into the lock, we sat and remarked on how glad we were not to have to follow this along the canal.
At 9am promptly we had left the mooring and moved the 100 meters to the lock entrance, this was an ascending lock and as we entered I heard a voice shouting Vat, I did not understand the meaning of this so continued on my way to the lock, Chris had stayed on land to help with the mooring lines and I met her at the lock. Just as she pulled the activation cord and the gates closed I saw the face of another boater appear outside the lock gates, I then understood that he was calling to share the lock with us and that we had inadvertently locked him out. Lock. Struggling with my conscience I exited the lock with a guilty heart and made our way up the canal.
We moved through a succession of locks closely following each other, and felt that we were making good progress although the distance covered was a relatively short distance due to the time constraints in handling the locks.
It soon became obvious that our progress towards St- Leger-sur-Dheune was a bridge too far, our conversation with a lock keeper confirmed that the depth at St. Leger was too shallow for Fandango, his advice was to stay on a halt just before lock no 6.
By this time, we had entered a series of 6 descending locks at Ecuisses; these are part of an original flight of 9 locks built in the mid 19th. Century, however only 6 of the lock now remain.
We met a local family whose business is to take parties through the locks in a traditional French canal boat; they also run a museum featuring the work of the locks and their history.
We moored up in front of yet another unoccupied converted barge, as we did so the sky became dark and it began to rain.
A short distance back along the canal is a hotel –restaurant called Entre Terre et Mer, we walked down to it in the hope that we might get a drink and food.
The owner’s are a French couple, he is a Breton, she spoke good English, they have a 7 year old son who is called Allessander, and it was refreshing to have a good conversation with someone. We formed the opinion that these were a lovely couple.
We ate in their restaurant, a salad with smoked salmon, large crevettes, Chris had cod and finished with a chocolate mousse, I had St Jacques and finished with Cheese, a really great meal in a friendly and convivial environment.
We would recommend this hotel to anyone.
We made our way back to Fandango dodging rain and arrived just before another heavy downpour. It rained all night.
We arose in time to make the lock opening at 0900 hrs it was still raining and everything felt cold and damp. We donned our oilies, (those we were told we would not need) and set off in the rain.
We had 18 locks to complete to Chagny, (it sounds rude but is pronounced with a silent ‘G’)
Two locks later in consistent rain we saw the tail end of a large vessel as it disappeared around a bend, we hoped that it wasn’t Liberte!!!
Slowing our pace was not good enough, by the time we got to the third lock we had caught up with the vessel and yes it was Liberte, travelling at less than 5 kilometres an hour (which is less than 3 knots) it was impossible to slow down sufficiently to give ourselves space, Fandango could not go so slow.
With no space to pass we had to resign ourselves to a very slow trip, stopping in locks provided some respite but then there was the traffic from the other direction, if we stayed in the locks no one could pass in the other direction and the eclusieres became aggravated with us holding a lock. At one point we were moved on by a lock keeper as there was a large vessel coming in the other direction, so we had to leave the lock and stem the canal in heavy rain with nowhere to stop. The large vessel was a leisure barge; he must have passed Liberate at a lock as it was not possible to pass in the anywhere else.
The helmsman on the barge was a very aggressive Frenchman, who despite my requests to slow down continued towards us, waving us into the side of the canal and shouting at us, the whole thing ended in a slanging match when I refused to move right into the side of the canal. He tried to frighten us by putting power on as we passed but I managed to control Fandango and escape, a very unpleasant experience and one which ended with me giving the bowman’s sign at Agincourt.
Progress was slow until we arrived at St Leger where Liberte had stopped for lunch and we managed to get past her and completed the remaining locks to Chagny.
Arriving at the Halt in Chagny we were advised by a very friendly Frenchman that there was not enough water for us (1 m) contrary to information in the Navicarte, so we were forced to move on, another friendly American told us that there was space in the basin further on in town so we made our way.
Arriving in the basin, things were not looking good, a general sprinkling of hire boats and barges left little space, not enough for us to squeeze in, blank faces peered out of boats as we circled looking for space. Luckily we saw a space in front of a Hotel barge large enough for us to get in but not big enough for a barge, we quickly moved into the space and tied up, just in time to stop another vessel taking it, we have learned that on occasions you have to take a very selfish stance or you get left with nowhere to go.
The space we had taken was at the end of an area reserved for hotel barges, just outside, so there could be no repercussions, this section of canal was narrow and the canal in front of us was already occupied with a hotch potch of barges, and peniche’s.
We counted ourselves lucky as other vessels arrived and we dried off and sat down for dinner.
The hotel barge behind us started its generator, we noticed that this was a British registered vessel called ‘Jubilant of Lymington’ registered in Southampton, the owner came up to us to apologise for the generator and said that it would be running for ¾ hr, we had a chat and discovered that the owner was from Lymington and that he was running the hotel barge for 10 weeks for something to occupy his time, we chatted about our plans and he left as the rain started again.
Later in the evening Liberte arrived, to our alarm it reversed against the side of Jubilant blocking the canal completely, (another example of selfish behaviour) we resolved to get up early the following morning to ensure we left before Liberte!!!
At 0745hrs the alarm went off and by 0815 hrs we were fed and ready to leave, only just in time as we could see the crew on Liberate clearing ropes and decks.
As we lifted our bank pins and moved out into the narrow canal I was contemplating the thought of stemming for 3/4hrs at the lock which was less than 1km away, when the VNF vehicle arrived and the eclusierre asked us if we were making to the lock, we confirmed our plans and he sped off up the canal bank.
As we arrived at the lock, the traffic light turned to green and we made our way into the lock and tied up. As the lock emptied and we descended into the depths of the 5 m lock, we reflected on the satisfaction that Liberte was behind us and we had escaped and we were in front.!!!!
Another 18 locks ahead of us we gradually counted down our progress as the rain started to fall once again. The canal continued winding its way before us ever narrow, overgrown trees bending over the canal as if to say we haven’t finished with you yet, we passed a British yacht as it made its way downstream.
We finally arrived at the final stretch as the canal widened into a straight stretch, an unusually designed restaurant spanned the canal, its customers peered through the windows from on high. As we passed beneath the restaurant we could see in the distance the bridge and control tower of the last lock on the Canal du Centre.
As we approached the Med 35B lock the green light illuminated and we slipped in and tied up on the floating bollards.
The lock keeper came out to book us through taking our boat name and SSR number.
35B was an ascending lock, but we had no idea of what was to come, the navicarte describes this as a 10.80 m lock, but nothing was to give us a clue of what was to happen next.
Looking down the canal we could see the canal ahead, a wide expanse of water with lateral buoys, much bigger than we were used to, quite a surprise as we were still in the Canal du Centre.
As the lock emptied the size of the lock slowly dawned on us, we went down and down, I thought we were never going to stop, as the bollards continued to drop further the sides of the canal closed in on us as if they were coming out of the ground to eat us up, finally we arrived at the bottom, the sheer expanse of the lock hit us, we looked tiny in the bottom all alone and very humbled by its size.
This lock had a gate which concertinaed upwards in sections, like a lift it had a counterbalance weight which moved down as the door opened.
Finally with the doorway above us we slipped our lines and moved underneath, dodging the water running from it was passed underneath the door and into the wide open reaches of the estuary between the Canal du Centre and the Saone.
The wind freshened as we moved into the tide of the Saone, a motor cruiser passed quickly in the opposite direction as we turned towards Chalon Sur Saone and the Halte de Pleasance.
In order to get into the Halte we had to go downstream and double back through a side tributary, a one way system was adopted to manage traffic into the halte, as we entered the tributary the halte seemed very full, oh no not again please, we just need one space, don’t turn us away!!!.
We approached the halte and saw a sign directing us to tie up on a waiting pontoon, the pontoon already had two hire boats on it, but we saw that there was a single space at the front of the pontoon. As we approached a sign forbidding entry to hire boats appeared, this is why the one space at the front of the pontoon was there.
It seemed that the poor weather had resulted in boats seeking a haven in the halte, we learned that vessels had been turned away all day, we were offered the pontoon space we had taken up as the only option to stay, so we paid up and although there was no water or electricity on the pontoon we gratefully accepted the place, dried off, tidied up and sat down for dinner grateful for the rest.
Chalon Sur Saone is blessed with a wide array of shopping, a large retail park is situated within 3 minutes walk from the Halte, Ronny McDonald was there, our internet saviour, Carrefour a very French large supermarket, petrol station, sports shop, all within walking distance. After the confines of the canals this was heaven.
As the weather cleared the jam of boats was relieved and by the following day space was available in the Halte, we moved onto an outside alongside berth and hooked up to the electric and began to enjoy the facilities on offer. A military academy nearby was playing French national music including the anthem.
We decided to stay till Saturday and move on to Tournus.