Sunday, March 6, 2011

France, After Paris

I ascended the sinuous Seine for 3 days through the suburbs of Paris, until dense fog halted all traffic on November 7.   With permission I tied my boat to a barge overnight, which was simpler than anchoring or tieing to trees.   This was my introduction to the Barge People, an informal isolated international society whose member families spend their lives on their barge homes, transporting goods on the waterways connecting 6 European countries... November 1 the locks went on the winter schedule, open only 8 AM to 5 PM, which could slow my progress even further.

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.

Photo of Briare in Loiret

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.

For efficiency, the locks were alternately occupied by descending and ascending boats. If I had to wait long enough to enter a lock I would run the boat gently aground on the sloping right bank, pole vault to shore with the free end of a mooring rope in my hand, and tie to a post or tree.   Once I spent too long buying meat for my standard pressure-cooked stew, so too quickly vaulted aboard and severely bruised my leg.   Another small mishap happened when a barge charged out of a lock while I waited on the bank, holding ropes to control the Swalker.   I couldn't resist the greater hydraulic pull on my boat created by his speed and proximity, so my long horizontal overhanging mast tangled with his gear, which threatened damage to both boats and introduced me to profanity in another language.

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".

The Canal de Briare  (click here)  was completed in 1642, which was 314 years before I used it.
If you click on  that, you might note the several links within it on which you can click, and that the Canals du Loing, Briare, and lateral a la Loire are in line, part of my route from Paris to the Mediterranean.

File: 45250.jpg Briare Canal Bridge
 Here the Briare canal crosses the Loire river on a half-mile bridge to the 
Canal Lateral de la Loire.   The structure was designed by Gustave Eiffel,
who designed the famous tower in Paris.   Completed in 1896, this
"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.

The second afternoon out of Lyon we turned the boat upstream at Beaucaire, running the engine at top speed and still going downstream, until we sidled into the beginning of my last canal, le Canal du Rhone a Sete, joining the river to the Mediterranean port of Sete, in southwestern France.

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.
Click on:  Canal du Midi .

The next anecdote deserves more than "It's a Long Story".   Family and other friends, please remember this happened 50 years ago, and I did not know most of you then.

The scene was a small bar like in a low budget movie which couldn't afford extras.  There were just Peter, Allan, and I at a table; the dour Amazon bar owner, and, seated demurely on a bar stool, an apparent clone of Audrey Hepburn.   Tam on a short hairdo, beautiful.

We talked at length. Her name was Marianne, and she was not happy.   She said she had been betrayed by her sweetheart in Marseille, and had come here that afternoon, where nobody knew her, to work in a bar.   My two shipmates snickered (in English, which she did not understand) that all bar girls have made-up stories and are cynical lying thieves.

Without expression, the bar owner nodded her permission for Marianne to leave with me.

At the hotel I put the required equivalent of a worker's daily wage on the dresser.   She really seemed like a college girl who had impulsively embarked on a career of sin.   She directed that we sit cross-legged on the bed, where she told me an Aesop's fable.   After an hour of exchanging Grimm and other tales, my French improving all the while, we knew each other better, and dawn had begun filtering through the curtains.   It was a much more delightful method of language enhancement than I'd had in high school.

The inevitable happened, then we fell asleep. When I awoke, she was gone. My shipmates would expect my wallet to have vanished. It was still there, as was every franc I had put on the dresser. The unwritten message was, "I really am not that kind of woman".

Charm and beauty aside, she had integrity where it would not have been expected.   Our paths had crossed at a nadir in her life.   In my adult life I'd never known a woman who liked me and asked nothing in return.   I did not want to let her go.   And let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

t the bar, the Amazon said disdainfully that the girl had changed her mind and left for her home in Marseille.   I ran to the station.   The train had just left.

There are many forks in the road.   If I had stuck with the stock of motorcycle makers Toyota and Honda in 1964, if that speeding car had not missed me, if had reached that train in time... Only the memory of Marianne Of Sete remained... remains.   With rue my heart was laden... who knows where the path not taken would have led ?

Evening the next day we 3 males took Swalker from the inner harbor towards the outer harbor, so we could sail early for the next port without waiting for the intermediate bridge to open.   The waters were as black as the night, apparently asleep and motionless.   As we approached the bridge I kept signalling the tender, but it became apparent that he was not awake or not there.   I put the tiller hard over to make a tight U-turn, and realized too late that the still silent surface was swiftly seeking the sea.  The bridge met our mast at its mid-height, and the current steadily dragged the Swalker sidewise under the bridge.   A cross tree (a horizontal brace half way up the mast) broke, then the lone forestay separated with a loud twang. The mast was about to go.  The propeller came out of the water as the hull tipped, and we were left with no propulsion except the strength of our arms, which could not overcome the power of the current.   Soon my boat would be on its side part way under the bridge, fill with water, and go to the bottom of the shipping channel, without clearance for the freighters passing over it.   No life or lights on shore could be seen. All was lost.

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
                                        click here

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