Thursday, 28 February 2019

From the Mediterranean to the English Channel by boat - 3


Simon and his partner Amanda

Simon Jenkins is a well known figure on the British canal system and has been a boater for decades, living on, working and owning boats and, for the last couple of decades, the managing director of Norbury Wharf on the Shropshire Union Canal.

There he runs a brokerage, hire fleet, day boats, a trip boat and a chandlery, as well as a paint dock, dry dock and full engineering services. Simon has dipped his toe in to the waters of other boat-related ideas including sea-going charters, but the inland waterways are his first love and he has turned his gaze to Europe, with it’s wide waterways and fully functioning system of commercial river and canal navigations. He is just back from the boat buying trip of a lifetime, bringing his first historic barge back to Belgium, the country in which it was built, from the shores of the Mediterranean. Last month he entered the mighty River Rhone and braved the narrows. Now he is to meet some big locks and big boats. This is his story, in his own words.

The navigable river Rhone stretches from Lyon in central France to the Mediterranean sea. It is 325km long and has 12 massive locks, it travels along the Rhone valley through some spectacular places like Avignon, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Valence, Vienne, and Lyon.
Wine country

Wine terraces
As well as being a very important commercial route it also plays an important role in generating electricity in the form of hydro electric power plants at every lock. The locks themselves are all pretty much in canalised sections of the main river. These tend to be narrower than the river and as they also have a hydro plant at the end and this can mean even more strong currents.

We had to pick our timings, as best we could, to avoid peak generating times – morning, lunch and evening - when the plants could be operating at maximum potential.

This means letting a tremendous amount of water through the generators, slowing our progress down to 4 or 5 kmph, grindingly slow, and always a relief to get in to the lock.
Hydro-electric generation plant at a Rhone lock
The biggest lock we did was Bollene lock, measuring a massive 190 m long, and 12 m wide, with an impressive drop of 23 m. As we were going uphill I think we got the best and most impressive view. It was like a cathedral of locks, a massive, cold and a dank damp place to be.

As we entered the lock we made our way on our, now apparently tiny little boat, towards the front, secured our lines to the massive floating bollards sunk in to the lock walls and waited.
Bollene lock

Entering the lock

Big gates
As I looked back out of the wheel house I was greeted by the width of the lock starting to fill with a hotel ship, its huge bow and beam occupying the lock with inches to spare.

It loomed up on us and almost over hung the stern of our boat. We were close enough to speak with some of the guests onboard who were just finishing breakfast. As they looked down on us we must have seemed like ants on a bit of a branch clinging to the lock sides.

The lock was very gentle as it filled, and in no time at all we were all at the top, gates open, green lights and off we go again.
Hotel ship entering behind us

Hotel ship goes on its way

There are not that many places to stop along the river - but there were some fascinating places we would love to have lingered. However, as we were on a schedule on our journey we couldn't take advantage and most nights we ended up moored above a lock.

Not ideal moorings, as they were mostly on what is called ‘dolphins’ which are bloody great steel tubes sunk in to the bed of the river, some without any shore access. As the commercial boats could work 24 hours a day, the wash from them made for an unpleasant nights sleep, with the ropes creaking and heaving as loaded barges and hotel ships went past.

We eventually made the last narrow point of our journey at a place called the Medeterean bridge at Givors, which was also one of the longest lock cuts, or diversions as they are also known, on our route.

We had been watching the flow rates increase day by day as the North had rain and the snow in the Alps kept melting. As we were travelling North things were getting quite bad and there was even the prospect that we could have been stuck on the river, as it could be closed to navigation for safety reasons.

By now there was plenty of flotsam and jetsam coming down the brown and dirty river so we tied up on a handy pontoon just before the bridge and decided to wait 24 hours to see if the flow would subside a little.

I phoned and spoke with the previous owner and he said that he would never have attempted to go through that bridge with the flow as strong as it was, even though he had confidence in the boat being able to do it.

We waited 24hours with the rushing water around our bows-and the flotsam and jetsam getting caught under the pontoon. I was starting to get concerned as we watched big commercial barges and hotel boats come past us sideways around the bends, taking up the entire width of the river at up to 20 kmph, and then the very rare barge pushing against the flow at 5 kmph.

Large pusher tug on the fast-flowing Rhone

Tug without its barges

In the end, that little barge that we had overtaken right at the start of our journey on the Petite Rhone came chugging past us. We watched him for about half an hour as he pushed against the flow.

Paul radioed the guy who turned out to be Dutch, he said that he had done this journey several times and, although the flow was stronger than normal, he was happy enough to push on.

Small barge pushing the flow
I had total confidence in our barge and the engine, so the decision was made, and we set off shortly afterwards. We untied from the pontoon and crabbed out sideways and in to the flow of the river.

We maintained 4 or 5 kmph all the way until the lock came in to view and we slipped inside our last lock on the River Rhone. Not being foolhardy, and having experienced just what a powerful river we were navigating, we all had lifejackets available, and we had two half ton anchors ready to be deployed in an emergency. You don’t tackle these conditions lightly! 

In the next episode: Thousands of litres of diesel, boarded by armed police and a stoppage forces a route change.

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