23 August, 2011

Beaune Wine center of France

Beaune - the unofficial capital of Burgundy is reputed to be the greatest wine town in the world. Arriving by train from Chalon sur Saone one walks past the storage cellars of the vineyards and the companies that support the industry, stainless steel works, pipes and barrels but when you are in the centre of the old town that is when you relise that this town sells wine. There cellars or Caves as they are known here one after the next all offering a wide selection of the local wines. Try as we may to find one that was referenced in our comprehensive wine book we could not. They were either bottled by someone else, not the right appellation or just the wrong year.

We should have stood back and found Bouchard Pere et Fils cave and purchased a few from him. In the end we wondered into a merchant who is a consolidator called Patriarche who took over the Convent of the Sisters of the Visitation and turned it into a wine cellar. Entry is 10 euro each and you wonder through their 5 km of vaulted cellars filled with bottled wine. They are stacked one on top of the other as far as the eye can see. From the notice board in each section they were not that old although one section behind a double steel grill was in the early 1930 and 1950.

At the end of your walk there are around 20 bottles of wine each on its own barrel for you to taste starting with three rather good whites: Rully, Auxey-Duress and Meurault. We the went on to taste a range of Bourgogne Rouges which were rather fat and ordinary. The wine guide tried to tell us about their fruity character, softness, aromas of wild fruit and flowers etc etc but frankly rather flat. In the end we purchased Rully red which did not even had a winemaker name on the label. It was a good marketing experience which did not work on either Denny or I.

What did work was the Hotel Dieu or Hospices de Beaune. This use to be a hospital right up to 1970's. Today it is just a tourist attraction but on the third Sunday in November all the great wine connoisseurs and merchants gather in the great hall for the annual charity wine auction started in 1895. The auction is the centrepiece of a week of serious tasting, partying and in my opinion hot air but visitors come from all over the world to bid at the auction. In the old days the wine was made by the individual vineyards and sold at the auction in casks/cuves. The purchaser bottled the wine and the sold it on. Today more than 250,000 bottles are sold each year. The wine comes from either the Hospices own vineyards inherited down the ages or from wine donated by the local vineyards. The auction has an interesting method to force the next bid. When a bid is received a small candle is lit by the autioneers assistant. The next bid has to be received before the candle is burnt to the end and goes out. Great names are created here and people as in all auctions pay far more for the bottles than they are really worth but there again that is part of the mystic of French wine.

Rain and River Levels

This spring has been the driest in living memory here in the French country side. It got so bad during June that the VNF authorities closed the Lateral Canal to vessels drawing more than 1.6 meters. It was a great blow to Sundancer II who where just about to enter the canal when they were turned back. We heard of this restriction and passed it on to a few other yachts heading to Paris. They heeded the advice and rerouted through the Canal de la Marne or Champagne et Bourgogne. Because of our draft we had no option but to take this latter canal. It has a published depth of 2.2m but during the summer people say one can only take a vessel with a depth of less than 1.8 through this canal Our friends Forever and Isis draw more than that and they got all the way to Paris so our setback at Langre was not entirely dependent upon the depth of the canal but in the height of the water between the locks. Sounds strange well as a lock opens the water flows down hill drains the water, a lockfull at a time from the upside of the lock. Now the more opening and closing of the locks the more water flowing down hill. You may well ask where does the water come from at the top of the mountain. In the case of our locks there are three large reservoirs supplying water to the canal system. The authorities have to monitor the flow and the levels all the time. We just struck it on an unluckily period when we where in Langre in that the pond was empty because so many vessels had passed through the system. But it happened to us again with far greater consequences.

On our way back to the mouth of the Rhone while in the Saone we stopped at St Jean de Losne and tried to tie up against the stepped mooring place. We could not get close enough to come alongside so we put our nose in and ran aground with about 1.5 meters from the bank. No problems we put the ladder down and stepped shore. This is a free mooring place so we decided to spend a few days relaxing and walking to the marine up the Canal de Bologogne. This is a major stopping place for charter boats and for the sale of barges plus the repair of others. We walked around a got a feel for the price of old barges suitable to travel up and down the shallow canals.

After three days we decided to leave after breakfast but to my horror during the night the water level had dropped more than 200 mm. We here high and dry. Malua would not move on here keel and the water was at least 50mm below the normal water line boot top. I pulled on the mooring line but Malua would not budge. We had breakfast and contemplated the situation only to realize that the water was rising around us. Someone in the VNF had gone to sleep on the job during Saturday night and forgotten to turn the tap on to let water into this section of the river. On waking on Sunday morning he must have realised his mistake because the water was rising before my very eyes. Now we all know that a kettle takes longer to boil if you watch it and the tide doesn't rise as high if you watch its, the same can be said for the water level in a canal pond, so we took our bikes of the foredeck and went for a ride up the very shallow and narrow Canal du Rhone au Rhine.

It was a lovely experience cycling along the canal knowing we would not have the challenge of the locks.

When we returned to Malua she had risen from the mud and was now afloat in a few centimetres of water. Not wanting to challenge the gods again we moved away from the bank and came up alongside an Australian barge Matilda who let us moor up against then with .400mm under the keel. That night I rocked and rolled to sleep to the gentle movement of the water in the Saone. What a great feeling.

No Rain, Now Rain

People blame climate change on the extremes in our weather but for me I find it difficult to explain how one moment there is a drought in rural France and the authorities are turning boats back along the Canal du Central yet we in the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne the rain appears every day and the canal is full of water. I do know that the canals of France are highly dependent upon the rain in the areas that feed them while the rivers we have traveled on are dependent not only on the rain but on the amount of snow that falls during the preceding winter.

To alleviate this dependency the designers of the canals during the last century developed some large dams to supplement the water supply. Four artificial lakes provide water for the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne. The most important is the reservoir of the Liez which can be seen from the walls surrounding the town of Langres. It is the largest artificial lake in France and was built in 1880 with a barrage 450 m long made of sand and earth with a protective covering of stone.

The reservoir of Saint Ciergues in the valley of Mouche, feed the canal in the area of the Marne while the reservoir at Charmes is slightly larger.

We passed the 1,200 metre dam wall at Villegusien when we stopped near Piepape. The total capacity of these four reservoirs is 43 000 000 m3 which was just not sufficient to get Malua over the sandbank at Langres. The rain that day just added to the disappointment. Our return on the rivers Saome and Rhome will not be dependent upon the rain or the flow of water in these rivers but in my skill at following the course of the channel within the river. I only hope the sun shines for now we need fine days to explore the land and enjoy riding to the vinyards along the route. For Malua and Sundancer II the driest summer in living memeory will always be in our thoughts when we talk about the depth under the keel over a glass of French wine.

Dijon, Kalamata, Seville

When I first purchased Kalamata olives I had no idea that they came from the Greek town on the first finger of the Peloponnese. Now as I slip one into my mouth I remember the great time we had at the market in the town purchasing olives from a number of vendors each with their own interpretation on how the real Kalamata olive should taste.

Last week while travelling south down the Saone river we stopped at Auxonne to take the train for a few days to Dijon. Why they make mustard at Dijon I still don't know but I can tell you it has a vastly different taste as it comes out the tap at the shop where they have made it since 1747 than that purchased in a jar. The maker is Moutarde Maille who now exports their products around the world even to Australia. When I next dip into a pot of Dijon mustard to put on my roast beef or ham I will remember the two days we spent admiring the old building and architecture of the city.

We took a tour with a guide to visit the outstanding buildings of the old city. It was fascinating to admire the different styles and them walk through the door into the inner court yard and the real building. They are all well preserved either by the current owners or by the city. The main church of Notre Dame is an impressive building. Unfortunately during the revolution a single revolutionary decided the carved figures on the front of the triple doorway reflected badly against the spirit of the cause and took it upon himself to chop each image off the façade and destroy the front of the building. Day after day he took his hammer and destroyed the stone carvings. Nobody stopped him and in the end they had all disappeared. Today the façade is just a mess but a good talking point for the guides. The triple line of gargoils where spared. Each has a different face - some human while other are animal like. Impressive if viewed from just under their spouts.

On the outside of the church there is a simple carving of an owl which is supposed to be lucky. It you touch it with your left hand - the closest to your heart, your wish will be granted. It, like the other figures, has been damaged but by a modern hoodlum only a few years ago.

Unfortunately the very good museum of art was closed on the two days we where there so I did not see the tomb of Philip the Bold or John the Fearless. Why cant USA or Australian generals have similar names? Petreus the flattened.

 What of Seville? We visited the area in the '70 when we where traveling through Europe in a Combi, so every morning when I eat my toast and Seville orange marmalade I remember the oranges we picked from the trees all those years ago. What town next?

06 August, 2011

Champagne Canal and Balesmes Tunnel

The canal was conceived in 1845 and opened as the “Canal de la Haute Marne”.  It starts, in our case, on the Saone near Pontailler sur Saone and rises up through 43 locks to the summit with the long tunnel Balesmes, then falls from Langres via 71 locks to Vitry le Francois which is only a stones throw from Paris.
Some say it is boring because of the many straight sections while others enjoy the rural life surrounding the canal.  For us on Malua the depth was always a problem.  The official chart and recent advice advises that the depth is 2.2 meters however some guide books take the standard depth of 1.8.  Being a glass half full type of person I thought I could even squeeze another few centimetres from the glass. Not so!
Four large reservoirs near Langres summit, la Liez, la Mouche, Charmes and la Vingeanne ensure an excellent supply of water into the system however this year a Dutch barge got stuck in lock 21 of the Vosges canal and put that out of action for more than a month.  The impact of this is that the many Dutch vessels using that canal to get home have been diverted into our canal Champagne.  Now that normally doesn’t matter that much but the extra traffic through the locks means extra water flows down the canal and the authorities have to add water at the top of the system.  Our problem was we were right in the middle of the Dutch pack and the water had not been adequately adjusted.  It would rise and fall 200mm within an hour, so our 100mm under the keel became minus 100.  Ok if it is mud but not good if you hit a sandbank.
The operation of the locks is all mechanised and generally automatically controlled by control unit you receive at lock 43, the start northwards at Maxilly.  A clever device which you press as you approach the lock either “Avalant” or “Montant” – down or up stream.  There is an additional button “bassinne”  you press when you are secure within the lock to close the gates and adjust the water level.  Some locks are controlled by a radar unit set about 100m back from the lock.  As you pass the unit the indicator board next to the lock gate switches on the green light next to the red.  The lock then adjusts the height of the water to let you enter.  When the water level is right the gates swing open and the red light goes out.  The remaining green indicates that you are permitted to enter.  You do this with some care for in our case the lock may be long but it is not wide, only 600mm on either side of Malua.  The water level is almost at the top of the lock wall so your fenders tend to ride up over the wall.  After a while one gets very good at taking the centre line and stopping the boat next to a bollard, always on the side of the activation rod.  These blue and red rods control the water level.  One lifts the blue, never the red which shuts down the system, and the water level either flows in or out.  The former can be quite sudden but nothing like the Rhone river locks while the outflow is more sedate.  In the end we did not tie up on the way down as the boat did not move at all.  One can also use the handheld control unit to start the process.
We only had one lock which did not work but I feel that the boat in front of us pushed the wrong button so after a while I started to push all the buttons and the system reset itself and we entered without human intervention.  We did have a bit of a scare when a German fellow in a canoe joined us in the lock.  As the gates opened he paddled out first and the gates started to close on our bow.  A quick shift to astern and a press on the button saw the gates reopen and we exited vowing to run that silly red piece of plastic down.  Unfortunately he followed us for three days on and off.
Towards the summit the locks come thick and fast 8 in four kilometres and they have a high rise of more than 5.2 meters each.  This means that you have to secure to a bollard set in the wall then as you rise up the side resecure your lines to the bollard above.  Some locks have three sets while most have just two.
Generally the locks have a rise of 3.5 meters and no bollards in the wall so when you enter you have to either climb up the ladder set in the wall to loop your lines round the bollard or use a long boat hook to get a line around a bollard set back from the wall.  Our guests were a great help to loop the lines and became quite proficient at the task. Ten out of ten score on most locks!  Line with a twist minus 2 points.

Meeting traffic coming the opposite way can, if it occurs on a bend, be a very scary event.  On one occasion we came round a bend to be confronted by a large heavily laden peniche/barge with the skipper with his back to us talking on his mobile phone.  On hearing my scream he turned and ran back to the wheel house snatching the wheel from his wife who had lost control.  I turned Malua into the bank, ran aground and just waited for the crunch.  Fortunately the bow wave pushed the stern around, I gunned the engine and we slid past the 30 meters of steel to pop out behind the vessel without a scratch.  The skipper then bust from the wheel house screaming in French as I waved him goodbye.  That was an exception because most skippers slow almost to a stop when they see another seriously wide vessel and you both pull over to starboard as you gently move past with a wave and a Bonjour.

The Balesmes Tunnel is an experience to take a yacht through.  It is five kilometres long, 8 meters wide with a vertical wall on one side and a 1.8 meter wide tow path along the other wall.  It is 3.2 deep and almost 6 meters from water to roof.  The speed limit is 4 km/h and I must say with Malua being 4 meters wide it only leaves 1 meter on either side.  Not a lot if you loose concentration.  As you enter you can see the line of lights along the port wall and far in the distance a small speck of sunlight – the end of the tunnel.  Being skipper you concentrate on the speck and judge the distance on either side out of the corner of your eye.  A torch on the wall does help.  If you do hit I suspect you would bounce off the walls until you got control back, loosing your stanchions on the one side and your topsides on the other.  After more than an hour I was relieved to see the sunlight directly overhead.  We were then out into the tree lines canal and the agricultural farm lands of rural France.  All in all the canal is a great experience in canal travel, however the small towns along the route don’t offer much.  In most cases not even a bread shop so you don’t do much shopping.  The rural life is what it is good for and we enjoyed the scenery as the farmers went about their daily life.  A word of advice don’t take a yacht with 2.0 meters of draft into that canal even if the water is overflowing the banks unless you have nerves of steel.

Rural France

French Canal
They say that the French farmer is the most subsidised man on the land.  From our perspective here on the plains of the Saone they work quite hard during the sunny days of summer.  As far as the eye can see, which is not far by Australian standards, the land has been cultivated.  Currently at the end of summer the farmers are harvesting the wheat.  The combines are moving up and down the fields cutting the crop.  The next day the chaff is pilled into rows and the bailers come down and make nice neat bails of hay or alternatively large rolls of silage for the winter.
As we have had such heavy unexpected rain the routine has had to be interrupted because they can’t harvest wet wheat neither can they make hay unless the sun shines.  At our last stop we where in the middle of fields at different stages of the cycle and it was interesting to watch how the system worked.  The older machines required more steps while the modern contraptions produce a roll of hay every few minutes.
In the background of all this activity the sunflowers turn the heads as the sun passes from east to west.  (Trivia question: does the sunflower flower face the sun or turn away from the sun as it moves from dawn to dusk?)
Dotted amongst the fields are the paddocks of Charolaise cows and bulls slowly chewing the cud either to make the cheeses we eat or to produce the delicious veal we purchased at the butcher.  But the signs of autumn are in the trees with some turning yellow.  The farmers are gathering the wood into piles and taking them into the sheds close to the farmhouses ready for winter.
Watching this scene unfold from the deck of Malua was incomprehensible when we launched her those years ago in Sydney.  The question to now ask is what will we see from her decks next year?

Return to Base

Many great expeditions have had to turn back before reaching their stated goal because of lack of water.  For Malua’s 2011 trip up the French canals to Paris that decision was made when the water ran out at Langres in the middle of the French country side.  We had reached the Champagne district, the locks where all “avalant” or downhill and we could almost taste the salt of the sea but the water under the keel was just not enough.
We left the mooring at Langres soon after the sun came up and headed down river for the first time.  We had not gone more than 50 meters when Malua came to a sudden and abrupt halt.  No amount of power would move the vessel, not ahead or astern.  We were hard aground.  Luckily we were still in reach of the mooring quay and I was able to throw a line to our departing guests to secure it to a large boulder.  With the help of the Anderson electric winch and the grunt from the 50 hp Yanmar engine Malua slowly came off the sandbank in the middle of the canal.
Two further attempts close to the left and then the right bank gave the same result – 2.0 m draft will not go over a sandbank estimated to be 1.8 below the surface.  There was no immediate alternative, the result of removing weight from the boat has little effect on her draft and the thud when we went aground clearly indicated that the bottom was hard and not about to give. The water level in the canals was almost full so the dry summer that stymied Sundancer II passage to Paris was not the immediate cause.  The extra weight of the wine, cheese and champagne acquired on route could have played a part but the fact that the canal is rated by the VNF as 2.2 deep doesn’t mean that it is always that depth. Some guide books rate it at 1.8m!
We have travelled many kilometres in the “ Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne” with only 100mm under the keel and in places the depth sounder indicating 0.0 as we steamed along at 7 km/h parting the mud knowing that if you stop you may not restart and if the mud turns to sandbank your expedition is over.  It takes nerves of steel to keep that up day after day.
When the thud finally came we realized that we were not going to reach Paris in Malua this year.  We set our compass for the Mediterranean appreciating that a boat built for the Southern Oceans is not meant to travel through rural France – c’est la vie.