I always thought that the Mistral was some kind of hot wind from Africa but it is not. It is a outflow wind from the Alps that rushes down the Rhone valley and then spreads out across the south of France. It is caused by the combination of the clockwise wind around a high in the bay of Biscay and the anticlockwise wind around a low to the east.
At this moment it is blowing at about 40 knots as the green light goes on signaling that I should now enter the lock. The locks are pretty intimidating just by their size. Bollene drops 24meters.
I have a dim memory of someone telling me that they can be a bit tricky to enter when the Mistral blows. A beautiful Piper barge casts off from the waiting bollards to line up for the entry. The Mistral catches her stern and starts to spin her round. The bow thruster is no match for the wind and they spin completely, take a bit of paint off on another bollard and run up river away from the confines of the lock entry area to turn around and make a go with more speed and therefore more rudder.
I decide that this is plenty of time for us to leave the waiting place and get into the lock. But first I have to back off the waiting place into the teeth of the Mistral. One false step and we will be spinning too. We cast off the stern and centre lines and spin the stern away from the dock. Once Skookum is lined up I put it into full reverse and signal Jere to cast free from the bow. We shoot diagonally across the entry area steering with the bow thruster. Once we have a clear shot at the entry I shift into forward to get some rudder speed. The wind is also pushing us very fast into the lock. I line up a floating bollard and stop along side using lots of reverse to hold us against the wind howling along the canyon of the lock. Barbara makes us fast to the bollard and we all breath again.
This then is the Rhone. I first read about navigating the Rhone about 10 years ago in ‘Leaky Iron Boat’ a gripping tale of the adventures of an early recreational bargie. Since the book was written much work has been done to tame the Rhone and most of the time it is now easily cruised except in the spring or when it rains in the Alps and then the flows can jump to levels where it can be shut down as the flood crest passes by. I had been a bit nervous about descending the Rhone partly for the hazards of the flood crests and wind but also for the ability to come back up the Rhone. If we do 10kph through the water and the Rhone runs at 5kph (the Rhine was running at 10kph when we went down in 2013) then descending we do 15kph while ascending we do only 5kph making the ascent 3 times longer. I talked to intrepid sailboaters coming up from the Mediterranean who said that they were sometimes down to 1kph, barely moving especially where the water was funneling through between bridge abutments.
But we were committed. Once we left Lyon where the Saone joins the Rhone it was downhill all the way. And it is a beautiful valley. As you leave Lyon the Massif rises to the west and the Alps to the east. The hillsides are bursting with Cotes de Rhone. Vineyards in vertical rows and terraces run down both sides. The oldest vineyard in the world is reputedly in the Crozes-Hermitage region dating back to pre Roman times. Our house wine in Canada is a blended Cotes de Rhone Villages. Always good and now we could explore the Appellation at our leisure.
The Rhone valley has been a trading and transportation route since time immemorial. There are prehistory communities dotted along both banks. Horses and people pulled boats up river and then they surfed back down again. This was the autobahn for the crusaders. The hills are all crowned with crusader castles leading down to Aigues-Mortes with its spectacular castle jump off point for the Holy Land. The Popes even lived on the Rhone in Avignon when Rome became too lawless and dangerous. Avignon is beyond what even Disney could conceive. Coming around the corner of the river to the entrance of Avignon and the famous bridge is like suddenly sailing into a fairy tale.
In some ways the Rhone is the culmination of our 5 years on Skookum. When we arrived in Strasbourg in 2013 we could turn right to the canal de Rhone a Rhine and head south or left down the Rhine and over to Berlin on the Mitteland canal which is what we did. Now three years later we are heading south to the famous Canal du Midi which is probably the first canal I heard of in Europe. Built in the 1600’s by Riquet to connect the Mediterranean to the Atlantic it is a UNESCO world heritage site and is still operating. It had been originally a bit of a goal for us but it is so popular that July and August are to be avoided. We will cruise along it to Carcassonne and Toulouse next spring before putting Skookum up for sale as this adventure comes to a close.
When I think back to this spring in Nevers on the Loire and the 200km and 84 locks that we did to reach the Saone I remember thinking that I was ready to sell then and give the Rhone a miss. I felt daunted. But events inevitable drew us forward to Lyon and our Rhone adventure was committed. I loved it. A beautiful valley, great towns and wine, A big river after the canals along the Loire, history overload and white knuckle adventure just to round things out.
So now as we wend our way across the canal de Rhone a Sete in such tranquility I can appreciate that balance in existence between extremes that is so invigorating. The one day I swan in the Rhone I held onto the swim platform as the current ripped by our anchored boat. But as I climbed out the invigoration was powerfully evident.
The Rhone is a river partially tamed now but which may overwhelm its human made controls as the extreme weather events of climate change take hold. A powerful force of water and air which as we travelled also include fire as an uncontrollable forest fire swept down on Marseille driven by the Mistral.
I am so happy that I have sailed the Rhone. One of the great rivers of Europe, so imbued with history and the forces of nature that it is an unforgettable experience.