After a restful night near the St Gilles Lock on the Canal du Rhone a Sete we decided on the morning of Saturday 5th August that there was a good weather window of opportunity to make our first long day’s start up the Rhone. Once through the St Gilles lock (PK 300) at 10.00 am there was nowhere to stop for the next 46 km on first the Petit Rhone River for 22 km and then the Rhone, which was at its strongest flow of around 900 cubic meters per second (about 3 kilometres per hour) at the Beaucaire/Tarascon Rail Bridge (PK 268), and it took us until 6pm that day to reach the little Port at Aramon (PK 254.5), averaging a little under 6 kilometres per hour, at a steady 1500 rpm, against the current and wind.
We had tried for 3 days to contact the Port to make a reservation but were only able to leave messages on an answerphone so took it on faith that we would be able to moor there. On arrival we found a space on Pontoon B but no sign of any port management, and only one fellow boater who had pulled in just before us, so we tied up and made ourselves at home. The next day’s forecast was for very strong winds (Mistral) and we knew we would need to stay put so we were relieved when early the next morning the Capitaine, Olivier, appeared to welcome us. He had not received any of our messages as the phones listed in the Fluvial Guide are no longer in use but he could not have been more helpful. I was worried about having sufficient diesel to reach Valence, nearly 150 km away, without needing to make a detour into the very difficult to access pump in Avignon so he kindly drove me and four Jerry cans to the nearby supermarket service station for a much needed top-up. It seemed that the increase in revs on our 70hp Isuzu engine from our usual 1200, using about 2.5 litres per engine hour, to 1500 had doubled our fuel usage to 5 litres per hour – and we only have a 160 litre fuel tank.
We were badly bounced about by the wind and waves on Pontoon B for two nights and a day and despite Olivier’s offer to stay (€25 a night) and sit out the Mistral, which he said never blows for less than 3 days, we decided to move on as another day and night of noise from the slapping of the water under the cruiser next to us would have driven us mad. But not before we became the first boat ever to use the port’s pump-out machine, installed four years ago at a cost of over €75,000 and a condition for permission to open this then new port. It worked a treat, but whilst we were using it a commercial barge went by so fast that the waves nearly capsized the cruiser on the pontoon next to us, spreading their breakfast and crockery about the deck, nearly threw me off the roof had I not been holding onto the pump hose, with us losing some crockery too and suffering two broken castor joints on the PC desk, and leaving the PC monitor toppled over but mercifully not broken once righted.
Fortunately windfinder.com suggested correctly that the Mistral would be less violent than the 50 kilometre per hour gusts that Olivier’s phone app had forecast and we had a very pleasant four hour cruise to Roquemaure, PK 225, where we tied up to an old concrete town quay just made for us and with a beautiful view. We had a blissfully wave free quiet and peaceful night. Rain was forecast the next morning but after cycling in to the nearby Lidl for some essentials we decided to move on anyway.
We knew that along the next 100 kilometres the only moorings would be on lock waiting pontoons, which with permission from the lock keepers pleasure boats can use over night, but they are only about 20 meters long and so one has to hope that not too many other boats have the same idea at the same time. We were lucky at Bolene, PK 190, passing through this enormous 22 metre depth lock on our own, and mooring for the night on the upstream pontoon.
Above the Bolene lock we entered the 20 km canalised Donzere Mondragon reach and this proved to be hard going against some strong flows and was rather dull scenically until we reached Viviers, PK 166, where there is a Port which is still, after several years, apparently completely silted up. On the 2 km approach to the Chateauneuf Lock (PK 164) we barely made 3 kph against the flow and we found this to be a pattern at all the locks as we ascended. After 7 hours on the move we decided to at least try to get into the little port at Cruas, PK 145, officially restricted to 13 metre length boats, as I could see the 18m reception pontoon was empty, so we tied up and then rang the Capitaine, who was happy to bend the rules and let us stay for two or more nights (€21 a night).
We needed a break from the relentless routine of standing out on the stern deck in the often very hot sun and wind for hours on end without a break. There are better designs of boats than ours for cruising long distances on large rivers! Cruas proved to be an oasis of calm. From the river it appears to just consist of a large nuclear power plant with a mural painted on a tower but on closer inspection the town has much more to offer. We had never visited the Ardeche region, whose eastern boundary runs along the river, and so helped ourselves liberally to pamphlets from the friendly Tourist Office.
After shopping, including eventually finding with some difficulty and a longish bike ride, the ‘not to be missed’, weekly Organic Growers Market, my first stop was the Abbatiale Sainte-Marie de Cruas – a church, now a Historic Monument, built mainly between the C11th and C13th by Benedictine monks who founded a monastery at Cruas in 804. Recent archaeological work has revealed older layers dating back to a Roman Villa and has uncovered a beautiful and well preserved C12th limestone monk’s ‘Tribune’.
From here it was a short but steep walk up through the very picturesque medieval town streets, with some renovation work being undertaken to bring buildings back into use as houses and gites, but with most of the buildings higher up the hill, topped with a fortified monks’ chapel, still in a ruined state.
My last visit was to the Town Museum set in nice gardens and opened in 1987 as the Andre Auclair (1893-1976) Art and History Centre. It shows a retrospective of this painter’s very varied and wide ranging work and I very much enjoyed getting to know some of it.
The weather forecasts for the next 10 days were still looking favourable with only occasional days of higher winds and we decided to push on to Valence despite the Capitaine’s prediction of several days of a strong Mistral ahead and a gentle reminder that his port fees were cheaper than in Valence! We made the 33 km trip in just over 6 hours and before mooring filled up with 112 litres of diesel from the self-service pump in the Port de L’Eperviere (PK 112). We had averaged just over 5 litres per hour for the last 22 hours of cruising, and would have been very close to running out had we not been able to fill up at Aramon.
There is a 3 km cycle path from the Marina into the centre of Valence which we had visited on our way down when we had an enforced 1 week stay here so instead we spent the day cycling to the nearer Geant Casino and took time to just relax and plan the next stage of our journey. After Valence there are more frequent mooring opportunities and fuel stops and with only 112 km left to go to Lyon we were thinking of taking it in short hops of a few hours at a time, perhaps visiting some of the possible sites of interest temptingly described in the Ardeche tourism leaflets.
We left Valence on a bright sunny Sunday morning with our sights only set as far as a lunch and possible overnight stop at the pontoon at La Roche de Glun (PK 98). On arrival there at midday we found several cruisers already double breasted on the pontoon so we had to carry on to Tournon (PK 91) where we hoped to be able to moor up and spend a day to take a ride on the scenic Ardeche Railway. The barge quay just outside the port was already taken and so we nosed in gingerly to see if we could tie up to the quay just by the port entrance – but we never reached it, and found ourselves firmly aground.
After lunch I engaged in a conversation with some local bystanders on the pavement who suggested the sailor on our other side should pull us out. Udi, the Israeli owner of Va Bene, sent his youngest daughter and three of her boarding school friends over in a dinghy to fetch a rope which he then attached to his winch, and slowly the stern started to slide off the mud.
This all worked very well until there was a nasty cracking sound from his winch – but enough was left of it to complete the job and after exchanging emails, so that I would be able to compensate him for the repair costs of any damage, we backed out onto the river and carried on upstream.
The next possible mooring was another 15 km away at St Vallier (PK 76) and shortly before we reached it at 6pm we had watched as Va Bene overtook us and moored up beside the boat already on this small 25m pontoon. I hovered and Udi was quick to invite us to breast up which we did with some difficulty and many defensive fenders on Va Bene’s curved hull and ropes to each end of the pontoon with help from the French cruiser Thalie on the upstream end. Serge, on Thalie, who had come downstream, told us that the nearest upstream pontoon, over an hour away, was already taken. After checking with Udi and learning that he wanted to leave at 8am the next morning we set the alarm clock and had an early night – it hadn’t been a good day.
At 8am we were up and looking forward to moving onto Udi’s space on the pontoon and visiting the local supermarket – but Udi, who was reading on the stern deck, announced that he was letting the young sleep in a bit. As it was a lovely morning we decided at 8.30am just to press on and who knows, maybe get to a mooring before anyone else.
We passed the pontoon at Andance (PK 68) where we had moored on our downward journey in 2015 and thought we recognised the Dutch cruiser Voet, with whom we had moored in Aigues Mortes and at Aramon, and continued against a strong current up to Sablons lock (PK 61) where we had only a short wait. Above the lock we picked up a bit of speed and were moving nicely along this canalised section with sloping concrete banks when at PK 53 I heard an unfamiliar alarm buzzing. It took me awhile to locate the broken fan belt as the cause after switching off the engine. The boat, now adrift, seemed to be staying put on the left bank which was a relief, after experiencing strong currents earlier in the day, but I wasn’t sure what might happen if a commercial or a cruise liner came by. Just as I was taking a deep breath, and about to get the spanners out, I spotted Voet coming up behind us and Hannes was good enough both to ask if we were OK and then to offer help with replacing the fan belt. He tied alongside and we drifted together. I did have a spare belt but I wish I knew then what others have now told me that a good pair of ladies tights can make a temporary fan belt repair (and are quick and easy to install).
It took Hannes a hot and tiring hour to work out with a shared collection of tools how to get the belts off and then put on a new one (neither of us sure that it was the correct belt or sufficiently well tightened). The least we could do was to give him lunch whilst we cruised along gently with his boat in tow.
Fortunately I had already reserved a mooring at Les Roches de Condrieu (PK 41) for that night and it was with huge relief that we limped into Port by late afternoon. The mechanic mentioned in the Fluvial Guide was on annual holiday so the Capitaine gave me the phone number of an English mechanic based in Lyon, but he was away in Monaco fixing luxury yachts until the following week.
Later that evening Va Bene came into port and moored on the end of our pontoon and it wasn’t long before Udi was telling us his own tale of woe. Shortly after we had left that morning he had started up the engine in readiness to leave but found that he couldn’t get it into gear. Serge, on the French cruiser Thalie, had stayed with him all day ringing round until he found a mechanic friend from Valence who was able to come out and fix the problem by late afternoon. Udi gave me the number of the mechanic but as I was writing it down Serge appeared on the pontoon – this was his home port and he had only passed his French Boat Driving Permit three days previously and so had been on his first outing on his newly acquired (30 year old) cruiser. When he heard our saga for the day he rushed off to his boat and came back with an armful of fan belts – it turned out that he is a salesman for a company that sources and provides manufacturing and agricultural mechanical spare parts to customers whose needs are urgent!
It took Serge two days (one of them a public holiday) to find a mechanic – neither of us thought it was safe for us to continue without a professional check-up as the new belt was definitely too loose, and Hannes had emailed to say that he had just remembered that he hadn’t tightened a bolt that he had loosened in error – but in the meantime Serge found time on his holiday to run us to the supermarket to stock up on heavy goods. It was such a comfort having a local Frenchman working so tirelessly on our behalf to get our problems resolved in the holiday month of August. Matthieu, the mechanic, was quickly able to redo the belts and make sure that we had the correct sizes correctly tensioned – he found that a second belt was badly worn and about to go – so we ended up with two new belts, sourced at a moment’s notice by Serge. We didn’t know how to properly thank Serge for his saintly behaviour but he accepted an invitation with his partner Cathy to aperos and dinner with us on our third night in port. Unfortunately I didn’t have any of his favourite local wine Guigal Cote Rotie aboard, but now I know.
So we set off from Les Roches de Condrieu determined to take it easy over the final 41 km up the Rhone and to keep the revs to 1200 and hope to avoid causing any further undue stress in the engine room. Our plan was to break the journey at Vienne (PK 29) where we knew there was a good pontoon and we reached there by lunchtime only to witness a downstream cruiser turn and moor up on it. As we approached they very kindly made efforts to make room for us but were not open to suggestions that they move to the upstream end of the 25m pontoon to allow us to hang off the downstream end. It proved to be impossible to tie up securely in front of them with only the stern half of the boat roped and in the middle of a rather messy disentanglement who should appear on the pontoon but Serge. A hurried hello as we extricated Pam’s bicycle basket from the cruiser’s bow anchor and he let us know that there was a jetty 200 yards away which we than tied up to.
He didn’t come down to see us there, but we texted, and we stayed for lunch only, as it was clearly designed for larger trip boats (no mooring prohibition signs though) and we were unable to fender the boat satisfactorily. So we carried on in what was turning into another very hot afternoon. I had thought that there might be a mooring opportunity at Givors (PK 18) but it proved to be a no go and there was nothing for it but to tackle the fast flowing stretch leading up to Pierre Benite lock that afternoon. Fortunately we were making good time, even on the reduced revs, and although the final kilometre was a real struggle, we were through and moored up on the upstream lock pontoon by 6.30pm – another tiring 8 hour day.
We had booked into the Port at the Confluence in Lyon for Friday and Saturday nights so took our time on Friday morning leaving the Pierre Benite Lock at 8.45 and making our way slowly up the final 4 km to the junction with the Saone and then continuing on for a further kilometre to a petrol station jetty on the Rhone upstream of the junction. The Rhone is actually navigable for a further 7 km but there are no moorings or facilities for pleasure boats. We were able to fill up with 80 litres of diesel at petrol station prices (€1.27 per litre) and also get a propane gas cylinder refill (€35.50) before turning round and heading back to the Confluence and then up the River Saone for 1 km arriving at 11am as the Capitainerie opened for the day.
In total it took us 14 days, 9 travelling and 5 resting to travel the 300 km up the River Rhone from St Gilles to Lyon. The engine ran for just over 50 hours using 231 litres of diesel. Our travelling days averaged 6 hours of actual cruising covering 36 kilometres at an average speed of 6 kph, excluding locking time which in most cases was little more than 30 minutes although we did have a two hour delay at one lock. Only one day of rest was enforced due to strong winds so we were very lucky with generally favourable weather conditions on wind and current.
We passed through some spectacular scenery and although the Rhone is managed as an industrial river it would have been nice to have had the opportunity to stop more frequently and to visit many more of the places of interest along its path. But the moorings for pleasure boats are few and often far between and their availability is somewhat of a lottery on the day. There is also a sense of urgency felt by most boaters to get up and off the Rhone whilst they can – make good whilst the going’s good! All the boating advice we had taken about making this journey in August or September when the river flows are generally at their lowest ebb for the year had paid off but I have to admit that there is a big sense of relief now that we have made the journey, which at one time I had wondered at the wisdom of attempting.