‘We cannot move your boat until your wife and dog are safely onshore” (in French) so said Sauper/Pompier in the orange neoprine jumpsuit. He was standing in a bright red rescue zodiac with other Pompiers in the middle of the Rhone river just after the Bollene lock near Pierrelatte. It was a Tuesday evening and we had been adrift in our disabled Skookum since 3:00 in the afternoon. There was a strong current in the river and we were in the middle of a busy shipping lane.
TGV bridge at Pierrelatte
Skookum and we were in big trouble as the prop shaft sheered very unexpectedly as we were just cruising down the river at about 10 kph towards our next stop at Viviers. Suddenly we had no propulsion ( the engine was fine) and could not move, expect sideways as we had a little power in our bow thrusters. Martin called the CNR (the Rhone river authority) in Valence – the nearest phone number we could find but it was in Valence 70km away. The receptionist did not speak English and failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation.
We made for shore but ran aground on the rocks. This part of the Rhone has been canalized to make it straight and more manageable from a flood control perspective, the river bottom was smooth concrete but the edges were shallow and rocky. We had a current pushing us downstream (we were going up stream) at 2 KPH. Martin tried to move us off the rocks. This took a while as the height of the river went up and down based on the locks opening and closing a few kilometers up and down stream. When the water came up we used the bow thrusters to get us off the bank and decided our best bet was to put down an anchor.
Great idea except that the anchor did not hold very well on the smooth riverbed and we were again drifting into the shipping lane. A vehicle came by with some guys from the CNR (the Rhone navigation authority), I caught their attention by waving furiously and shouting for help (in English so they did not understand), but they could see we needed assistance. They called the CNR people, who came by and gave us the phone number of a towing company. We called the towing company but there was no-one home. I was getting concerned. We flagged down a boat that was too small to help us, and later a guy in a UK registered boat moved over to the other side of the river to avoid giving us any assistance. While we waited, I was growing more anxious as this was a difficult situation that we were ill-equipped to handle, then I looked up and there were the Saupers/Pompiers. I was so pleased to see the firemen and felt that help was at hand. They checked we were OK physically then told us we had to get off the boat. Martin refused and asked for help to tow the boat.
Next thing we knew, on the other side of the river, they were launching a boat to help us. They could not tow us to the next town but offered to tow the boat to a couple of pylons/tall bollards in the river made for the large barges, where we could tie up and the boat would be safe. A zodiac with a powerful engine came along side and the pompier in the pink dive suit told me I have to get off Skookum. By this time the land based contingent had expanded and included the police.
Kerry and I wearing life jackets and clutching my handbag with a phone and money disembarked and we were taken to the shore. The lady Gendarme was very kind – she spoke English and asked for lots of information about us; name, date of birth, home address etc
She told me we could not go back to the boat as it was too dangerous and she would book us into a hotel. Talk about feeling like a river refugee! I was wearing shorts as it had been a hot day and was still pretty warm. Unfortunately the evening brought the bugs out and I was being eaten alive by mosquitos and some terrible biting black fly. The officer asked me about our insurance and told me I had to report to the Gendarmerie the next day with a plan as to how we were going to remove the boat from river.
Meanwhile Martin and the pompiers were having lots of fun lassoing the boat to the pylons in the dark. Martin thought it hilarious that they were taking selfies throughout the exercise. I guess they hadn’t had this much fun for ages.
Martin returned to the shore where Kerry and I were waiting. It was dark by now. He had left the lights on the boat and it was open, but safe on the river. The officer was very concerned that we not return to the boat, but Martin had other ideas. The pompiers went back to our boat and took the dinghy off and moored it on the rivers edge so we could reach our boat using the the dinghy with oars.
Martin asked me what I wanted to do – I knew the boat was open and unlocked with the lights on so was reluctant to leave it like that. The officer was equally concerned that we did not endanger ourselves or anyone else by returning to the boat. Martin asked the pompiers, who confirmed to the police officer that the boat was safe to go back on board. So we three (Martin Kerry and I) set off into the night down the path to the pylons where the boat was moored. Luckily my girl guide instincts were still intact and I pulled out a bright flashlight and that helped us row the few meters between the shore and our boat. It was open (with all our money and possessions onboard) and lit up like a Christmas tree, so I was pleased to be on board knowing we were tightly tied to the pylons. I had confidence in the lines (ropes) was they were new and strong– recently purchased from a chandlery in Dartmouth.
None of us had eaten since lunch and it was 10pm so I pulled out some sausages from the fridge and fried them up. In the meantime I fed Kerry her gormand: raw ground beef, kibble and a treat from yesterday’s dinner. We ate sausages wrapped in tortillas with tomatoes and a bit of pesto, a glass of wine and went to bed – but not quickly to sleep as we had been running on andrenalin most of the day and I was still feeling nervous.
The next day we were still there, the weather was still calm and we had an early visitor – the guy that owned the towing company MER SEA Nautical Marine Assistance. Chris came aboard to look at the damage, and asked for information on the boat like its length, weight and the registration etc. We, then, called our insurance company and told them our situation. To our delight they agreed to pay for the towing and may pay for the repairs. Being in a shipping lane we had to be taken out of danger (we were a danger to ourselves and the river traffic) and we had an all-risk marine insurance policy.
Nuclear power station at Pierrelatte
The plan was to tow Skookum 14km to the nearest port called Viviers the next day, and start work on welding the prop shaft, as a temporary fix, the day after. I was a bit concerned as a Mistral was predicted for the night (our second night on the pylons), but we were helpless to speed up the process. So we decided to walk the 4km into Pierrelatte and report to the Gendarmerie. It was a long walk on a hot day (30C). After we saw the police we had a beer in shady spot (Kerry had a long drink as well) then looked for a taxi. Not finding one we walked the 4km back to the boat. We were all exhausted between the heat, the walk and the stress. Walking slowly back when we saw our friends on La Flaneur cruising down the river. Once onboard we found a note to say they had stopped to offer assistance and had a gin and tonic while waiting for us to return. But we missed them
Mark, Helen and Imogen were a lovely Australian family we met in Avignon a few days (which feels like another era) before our prop trouble. La Flaneur is a beautiful 43ft motor/sail boat they had purchased the year before. We met them in Avignon, which was also the beginning and end of the trip for a couple of our family visitors.
Le Pont d’Avignon
Martin’s son Michael and his son Oliver (Martin’s grandson aged almost 13) arrived in Avignon on the TGV (fast French train)about a ten days before our breakdown. We were not quite at Avignon having made our way from Beziers in the week after we arrived back from Blighty. Leaving the Canal du Midi was the end of an era for us in the south of France. We did make another stop at the magical Maguelone church on the Rhone a Sete Canal and hear a beautiful voice singing part of the Mass in perfect pitch with perfect acoustics – heavenly.
Maguelone and Flamingos
After that we settled into Aigues Mortes to wait for our family members to arrive in Avignon. Boating is a very social world and we met a couple of Western Australians on Le Canard du Oz. Steve was from Oz but Henriette was originally from Ottawa – so we had a fine time swapping stories and information.
Mike and Oliver’s arrival was a great occasion for Martin, who had been wanting to share our adventures with Mike and his family for years. Mike’s wife Christine and their daughter Charlotte stayed in Victoria while Oliver and Mike flew to Paris, where they spent a couple of days and then headed south. They were amazed at the heat and took great pleasure in cold showers on the dock in Aigues Mortes.
We stayed in Aigues Mortes for about three days before cruising down the canal to St Gilles and onto the Petit Rhone. Oliver was our first youth guest on the boat and I was concerned that he would get bored. However he is a very bright guy and has an avid interest in anything (mechanical) that flies, so kept himself amused with Youtube vids on the history of flying machines (rockets, planes, space stations etc) with a view to some day being involved with aerospace design and development.
I did want Oliver to appreciate the Roman culture from two millennia ago (as the Romans were the great civil engineers of antiquity), so suggested to Martin that they spend a day in Nimes and Pont du Gare.
Boys at Pont du Gare
This is a two thousand year old aqueduct that is still intact but no longer used. It was also an opportunity to go swimming in the river at the Pont du Gare.
The Golder boys had a Roman day out together. Another day was spent exploring Aigues Mortes, and heading down to Le Grau di Roi for a swim in the Med and a wander around the Mediterranean seaside resort.
The next day was spent on the Sete a Rhone Canal (which I am sure was quite boring for Oliver but he didn’t complain) and we saw the horses and a few flamingos. But like most almost 13year olds he seemed under-impressed. We spent a night ‘in the wild’ and I persuaded Martin to accept Mike’s help to blow up the dinghy in preparation for our trip down the Rhone.
We arrived in Avignon and the boys went off for a stroll around town to discover the fortress of the Avignon popes (1304 – 70) and the half a bridge. Mike speaks French so it was a chance to flex his language skills, and for Oliver was for the first time I think he was in a culture where he was not able to communicate well, because in English he is a very articulate and aware youth.
They left early one morning and Martin went with them to the train station. Oliver and Mike were great guests, Mike helped with shopping and washing up. He was impressed at the lower cost of food in France (we took him to French supermarkets) and Oliver loved the fresh French bread. They took a train to Toulouse as Oliver was interested in the Airbus 380, so they did the factory tour, then flew back to Paris for another day in city (mostly a fun day in the water park) before heading back to Canada. In the meantime Martin picked up the car from Aigues Mortes so we could have it with us it in Avignon.
We met Mark E in the marina when he asked about Skookum – the Altena. He and Martin were very similar people, practical, theatrical, kind and concerned about social justice issues, so got along famously. We spent a lovely evening with them before heading up the Rhone – five hours of chat, wine and food.
Ruins at Rouquemaur
We went through three locks including the massive Bollene lock and power station before our fateful breakdown. Bollene is a 23 meter lock. Rising over 70ft with water underneath is quite a feeling of ascendance.
Bollene Lock – going up 23 meters
We left the lock and cruised along the canalized part of the river, passed a few windmills, an array of solar panels and a large nuclear plant. Then just before the TGV bridge we stopped dead in the water and my heart sank into the river with a thud that said ‘oh no’