Log #18m La Marne a la Saone Part 2

January 14, 2001 in Log Series 11 - 19, Logs by Series, Series 18 France, The Logs

Log #18m La Marne a la Saone Part 2

Written at Barcelona
Jan. 14, 2001
Covers the period Nov. 21 to Nov. 23, 2000

The tunnel at Balesmes-sur-Marne linking the Marne and the Saone systems, its north end at 47 49.9N, 005 22.4E, is 2.9 nautical miles, or 4820 metres, in length. As soon as we entered, my glasses and the dodger windows misted over, as the temperature outside the tunnel was colder than that inside, and the relative warmth and humidity caused the fogging up. Fortunately I can navigate without my glasses.

It was an eerie sensation inside as the line of lights above the concrete walkway on the right led forward into the blackness like a luminous perspective line, leading to the distant center of infinity on a black canvas. After adjusting to the light level, we could see a pinprick of white light at the end of the tunnel, four kilometres away. The central height was about five metres, but off center where we had to motor it was about 4.5, keeping in mind our air draught was 3.3 m. I can appreciate the problems that larger yacht Caramba had in keeping enough off centre to stay mid channel, but not too close to the downward slope of the arch on the left.

The passage took 33 minutes to transit, requiring concentration not to drift either side of the channel. There were approximately 254 lights illuminating the right hand length of the stone lined tunnel. The elevation was at 340 metres from sea level where we entered France at Honfleur on October 1, 435 nautical miles and over seven weeks ago, accomplished through the 109 locks so far.

As we approached the far end, the pinprick of light got slowly bigger, expanding rapidly the last 100 metres or so, until we emerged into the grey daylight of our downhill run into the Saone River. Now that we were across the watershed, we were looking forward to a fast passage down the locks and the Saone and Rhone Rivers to the Med. Going down locks is always easier than going up, as there is less turbulence in the lock to contend with. Our only concern was whether they had closed the Saone to navigation.

We went down a succession of 11 locks in a short 4.6 nautical mile distance to a halte just beyond the bridge at Piepape. This halte was not indicated on our Navicarte, but was a pleasant secure mooring at PK 69.5, a pastoral five minute walk into town to its only grocery/boulangerie. The proprietor was a friendly gentleman who allowed us into his living quarters behind the store to send E-mail over his phone line. This store was also the bakery which operated the van that came to our previous mooring in Langres with fresh croissants and baguettes.

We walked around this small farming village which probably had more cows than people. There were a couple of nice comfortable looking inns and B&B’s and an ancient square towered church along the two and a half streets that made up this isolated rural community. We picked up some more croissants and a baguette before leaving next day.

We went through 15 locks, both automatic and eclusier operated (with help from Judy) before stopping for lunch with our bow nudged into a muddy bottom alongside the canal bank at 1230. Murphy’s Law, the only, and large, peniche we have seen in the past two days approached during this short stop, and we had to wiggle our way out of the canal-side mud to manoeuver inside it as it rounded a bend. Even then we were gently surged into the muddy bottom by its bow wave as it passed. No problem, as we were able to wiggle back out into mid channel after it went by.

There was an open but deserted eclusier’s house at Lock #19 that I wandered through to see the layout. The lock keepers’ houses on this stretch were larger than those on the Marne side, with large multi-roomed dry concrete basements. The next couple of locks, #20 and 21, were on high open ground with no trees for a wind break, and the strong southwest winds blowing rain across the canal made lock entry difficult.

We stopped early at 1500 as the next stretch had a number of locks with no mooring walls for several miles, and we would not risk doing the last bits in the dark. It was a cold rainy day, so we just pulled up to an abandoned concrete pier at PK 196.6 to snuggle down for the night with the warmth of our coal stove. We didn’t even go ashore to see what the local community across the bridge was like.

Nov. 23, after 16 locks over 14 nautical miles, we finally cleared the Marne a la Saone Canal, and entered the wide swift flowing Saone River. The river, in spate (flood), was open for navigation, and we were looking forward to a fast trip downstream helped by a 3 to 5 knot current.

Two miles downstream we had to execute a difficult manoeuvre to enter a narrow channel under a low bridge to get into the marina at Pontailler-sur-Saone. With a 5 knot current I had to start crabbing to starboard well above the opening so as not to drift too far down stream of it. An upstream approach to enter would give me more control, but as we altered upstream to start the approach, we were caught in a circular counter current flooding into the opening at about three knots. I could not take it slowly, as to use reverse engine would eliminate my steerage way.

The bridge looked very low, and the opening beneath it was only about twenty feet wide. Did we have enough height? – especially with the elevated water levels? I couldn’t nose up to it and back off if we couldn’t get under, not with a confused 3 knot current surging us into the opening. Judy said we had enough height as there was an air draught clearance indicator on the downstream wall of the bridge, indicating a little over 4 metres, and we need 3.3. OK, we were now committed and barged through, crabbing into the countercurrent, then altering to try to go straight through, with power on to maintain steerage. We had one or two feet clearance, but I was not able to watch, as emerging under the bridge we had to immediately execute a tight 180 degree turn in order to approach a pontoon against the still 3 knot current, and not get swept into a shallow narrow tree covered channel flowing into the Vielle Saone past the marina. Lots of fun!

We got alongside the pontoon behind a German boat, Navarin, helped by her singlehanding skipper, Jurgen. Whew, that river current needs to be handled with care, caution and respect. We were here, at Pontailler-sur-Saone, 47 18.3N, 005 25.1E, at a marina with power and electricity, and from which we could send E-mail. Two more days and we should be in Lyon and on the Rhone River.

However, by next morning the water level had risen over a metre, and the land end of the ramp onto the pontoon was two feet below water. We had to put down our fender board from the pontoon to the steps in order to get ashore. What was worse, though, was that now we could not get under the bridge to get out into the river. We were stuck!