Near Champagne I left the narrowing river for the much narrower Canal de Loing. I seemed also to have entered the 19th century. Sometimes I saw brown autumn fields being plowed by oxen. There were far fewer peasants on the banks, and most of those to whom I waved shyly turned their backs. This was not simple disdain for the USA, because occasionally I would be asked about the American flag I displayed on the stern. "Quel drapeau ?" (what country does that flag represent ?). But how many of us recognize the French flag, whose 3 colors we copied?
The narrow secondary canals of inland France required special barges which snugly fit the smaller locks. The number of barges was much smaller than on the Seine. When two of them met, one would go aground on one bank, usually the right, while the other squeezed by on the other side, noisily removing paint. A few barges were pulled by colorfully ornamented horses trodding waterside paths compressed over 3 centuries. When an intersecting bridge was encountered, the horse would be unhitched and led forward, then smoothly reattached beyond the obstruction, to the barge which had continued by inertia.
The canal banks were often lined with Lombardy poplars (aka plane or plain trees), giving the impression that I was travelling through three dimensional Impressionist paintings. This account seems mostly a list of unique problems met and solved, but know that my days crossing the back country of France were filled with beauty, competing in memory with adventures.
Borrowed from the Internet is this recent picture of the Briare canal, typical of rural canals between Paris and Lyon, a favorite subject of Impressionist painters and embraced by Lombardy poplars. The picture shows the canals remain as beautiful as when I traversed them in 1956.
This website has many beautiful photos of the waterways of France:
Clicking on anything in it just under "Aboard In France" will produce copious descriptions.
All locks had lock-keepers in vigilant attendance. Those on small locks were usually aging veterans of World War I or II, some handicapped. So I often worked the unmotorized lock machinery myself, which speeded my passage. The lock-keepers supplemented their meager salaries by selling vegetables they raised, or extending a tip basket on a long pole.
From my log:
"With ascending locks I shift into reverse to nearly stop the boat as it enters, then clamber up the lock ladder if any, or up the lock gate, or over the lock side if it's a shallow one. Then I retrieve the mooring ropes with the boat hook I took with me, and help close the gates and water intakes. As tons of water surge in from the lock bottom, I tie one rope to a lock bollard and pull on the other to control the boat as it rises. When the lock is full I open one uphill gate while the keeper opens the other. Then I buy vegetables or leave a tip, untie the ropes and motor onward".
Descending locks are much easier to negotiate. The water drains from the bottom of the lock so there is very little turbulence, hence mooring ropes are not necessary, for the boat can be controlled with a finger.
The technology of canal locks is old, simple, ingenious. Over a thousand years ago the Chinese discovered that heavy boats could be raised - and lowered - by falling water, by opening and closing doors in a big box in a waterway. It's a perpetual cycle: water is transported to the clouds by solar power, from whence it occasionally falls to enable the lock system. Once I looked down on rooftops as Swalker ascended a staircase of interconnected locks built before there was a USA. Centuries before that, Dutch engineers invented the windmill, which harnessed solar power in the form of moving air.
After a watercraft goes downstream downhill, there are several ways to get it back upstream uphill. On the canal system, it's by locks. On a swift current like the Rhone before it was tamed, it was by powerful engines. In some places it was muscles pulling on ropes: horses on some European rivers and people in the Yangtze gorges. On the Mississippi in the 1800s and Canada's MacKenzie in the 2000s, the solution was to sell the barge or raft whole or in pieces at the end of a downstream downhill run, and return upstream with the money.
November 10-11 logs:
"I spent the night by the bridge at Nemours, which is '(du) pont de Nemours' from whence came the name of the American chemical company. The next day was a holiday, so the locks were closed. I spent the day removing, fixing, and replacing the semi-blocked muffler, and removing much of the soot deposited in the bilge when the muffler noisily disconnected".
November 12-13 logs:
"The muffler malfunctioned again, so I disconnected it and vented it in the bilge again. While doing this, clad in heavy wools and oilskins, with my head in the bilge and my feet overhanging the hull, a shoe fell off. I dove in the cold water to retrieve it, without success, so until the next money drop I will wear my wooden klompen. They float, and are handy for driving in mooring stakes.... This is the latitude of Labrador, in mid-November... I went from the Canal du Loing to Canal du Briare this afternoon... The dearth of traffic allows me to make much better time: today 41 km and 16 locks. I overtake and squeeze by an occasional barge at my standard 5 mph, thereby demonstrating anew that Americans are speed demons. Tonght I listened to BBC while eating a hot meal I made of buttered vegetables, soup, cheese sandwiches, milk and cheap red wine. The coal stove works fine. I walked past a moonlit graveyard to an adjacent village of 3000 people, but none was afoot and all was quiet and dark... The camera quit permanently".
Canal Lateral de la Loire. The structure was designed by Gustave Eiffel,
"canal aqueduct"was until recently the world's longest. The "Lateral Canal"
lies beside the Loire River and uses its waters, but has locks to bypass its rapids.
There are French canals that pass through unlit tunnels, but none were on my route.
November 20 log: "Yesterday I passed the summit at 986', the highest the boat will ever be... This morning ice coated the trees, decks, and water. The sun shone on a world of irridescent silver beauty, and there was a lovely steady tinkle of shattered fragments as I motored through the half inch of surface ice". Soon the ice would be too thick at this altitude and latitude,
November 21: "My best day's run: 22 locks and 53 km, the last 7 at night. Between river strip maps I have to rely on signs at intersections, and came on one that said only, "No Fishing". I correctly guessed the right fork was the correct one, and spent the night at my first city since Paris: Chalon-sur-Saone.
November 22: I passed through 3 locks, nearly my last on the Swalker, left the Canal du Centre at Chalons-sur-Saone, and started down the Saone River. The guidebook said a pilot is advised but not absolutely necessary. Good: I had no money for a pilot. I followed the strip map carefully, sometimes on the inside of a bend, sometimes outside. Going aground on the shifting bottom could be made worse by the push of the strong current. I soon did so, precisely on what the strip chart showed as the red marked route in the middle third of the river, to avoid a barge laboring upstream. I spent the night there, and in the morning watched, through soft silent snow from sodden skies, slow cyclists on the distant shore, oblivious to my presence. My gestured entreaties to ascending barges went unheeded, understandably because if they stopped, steering would be difficult for them. I was on the foredeck in my bathing suit in the falling snow about to walk the anchor out so I might winch off, when that got the attention of another barge captain, who slowed, threw me a light rope that I attached to a heavier one, which was used to pull me free. I shouted, "MERCI !" and he vanished in the gloom upstream.
November 23: I spent the night tied to a barge inside a lock, which would have been OK if my alarm clock had not failed. I awoke just in time to cast off before they shed me in the river. I was told that because cold has reduced meltwater from the nearby Alpine glaciers, the Saone was low and there were many hazards downstream, so I followed the barge closely for 37 km. There were enough unbuoyed underwater breakwaters and shoals on the strip map already, without low water. Just beyond the next lock the barge got tangled with another, so I passed them and continued, until 6 km later another barge crowded me aground again. The current here was relatively fast, 3.5 km/hour, so I was really stuck. Barges ignored me for hours, until one bravely paused only 20 feet away, and towed me free.
I arrived in Lyon, where the Saone met the Rhone, hoping to find a barge that, for a price, would attach to the Swalker and lead me down the Rhone to more tranquil water at Beaucaire. However, traffic was way down because of the low water and fuel shortage. Barges ascending the Rhone torrent needed 1000 HP, whereas engines of 50 to 100 HP sufficed on other French waterways. Fortunately I found a Rhone pilot, Jerome Pariset, who had 20 years of experience. He asked the draft of my vessel (1.35 meters), deliberated, said that was precisely the minimum depth of the rapids ahead and he would guide me to Beaucaire for 12,000 francs, about $32. A 1956 dollar adjusted for inflation to 2011 is about $10. There was no waiting list, because I was aware of no other non-commercial craft making this trip at this season except that megayacht in Rouen. There were long lines of cars at gas stations, most cars being pushed by hand as their line moved forward. I was fortunate to have bought that barrel of fuel in Rouen, for the war and petroleum shortages were getting worse. Once I reached the Mediterranean the boat could be propelled free by the wind.
Some may wonder why, if I were... intrepid... enough to have come this far, I hadn't planned to run the great river on my own. The answer is that I knew my limitations well enough that the Swalker and I survived intact. M. Pariset and I passed several wrecked yachts whose owners had been too confident. Since the current was sometimes 10 mph (not kph), twice the top speed of the Swalker under power, we ran the motor just enough to maintain steeredgeway. M. Pariset apparently knew the river very well: sometimes he would direct me towards the inside of a curve, where one would expect the water to be shallower, and twice we lightly bounced over the bottom, as he had predicted.
The Rhone was being tamed by a huge multi-year engineering project. The first step was the Donzere-Mondregon bypass canal and the world's highest single-lift lock. We tied to floating bollards in the lock, and in 3 minutes were dropped 85 feet. Looking up from the bottom of the chasm to the little patch of sky would not suit claustrophobics. We went out under the massive downstream wall of the lock. M. Pariset hitched us a tow with a passing barge friend for the rest of the bypass canal. A barge with the power to go slowly upstream on the Rhone could travel swiftly in calm water, so we were dragged 10 miles at 15 mph, twice the Swalker's theoretical maximum, as evidenced by the towering stern wave that followed us.
I recalled the song "Sur (on) le Pont d'Avignon" from school, but here passed under the broken remains of that storied bridge.
M. Pariset returned home. I docked in front of a bar, and took the train to Arles, where I picked up a mass of mail, including two $500 checks. The postmistress said the mail had been there the legal limit, and would have been returned to the senders the next day. I continued to Cannes, where with difficulty I had American Express cash the checks. I ate well, and bought shoes.
At a party on the Riviera I met two young Englishmen with alleged boating experience, who agreed to go with me to Gibraltar. The bar owner gave me a cat, but it soon opted to go ashore permanently. We traversed the canal to Sete, passing through the reknowned Camargue marsh with its wild horses. This Mediterranean port was the end of the canal system for me. It is also the terminus of the Canal du Midi, a huge engineering feat, completed in 1681 to connect the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.
Then we heard a faint distant noise... voices... singing... harmony.
The suddenly stationary silhouettes of six silent singers appeared above us on the bank. I called "M'aidez !" (Mayday = Help me !). The men scrambled down to the waterside. I threw them our biggest rope, they pulled with the same coordination with which they had sung, and after a final flurry of metallic protests from the rigging we were free. As they quickly left I shouted, "Merci mil fois!" (thanks a thousand times) and threw them a carton of American cigarettes, which had cost a dollar duty-free in Rouen.
Repairs were made the next day. On the following we passed the bridge by daylight, and set sail for Spain.
Never once had I been asked for my canal permits, which had expired 3 weeks earlier.
To see the next segment (because of peculiarities in Blogger.com):