Tom Fenton and Faith Ressmeyer
Sun 21 Sep 2014 17:58
Imagine a backwater, somewhere well up-river. Imagine, at the head of the backwater, a small -well Marina is too strong a word - say a few pontoons. Imagine some twenty or twentyfive boats, some cocooned in their tarpaulin wraps, some with their masts lashed to the coach roof, most shut up for the winter, but a few with their owners aboard. Imagine silence except for the weir nearby and the constant sound of the flow of huge volumes of water through its sluices. Imagine the Capitainerie, closed because it is Sunday. Imagine the ancient dog, who patrols the pontoons, issuing orders that are always ignored. Imagine the two geese, who patrol those areas of the port the dog cannot reach, similarly officious, similarly ineffective. Imagine time standing still while all the processes of decay proceed with undisguised but unobtrusive glee. Imagine the sunken motor yacht still roped to its pontoon. Imagine this, and you have a pretty good image of l'Ardoise.

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We are only some 20 kilometres north of Avignon, less than half a day's journey. Why? Well, we are not sure the gods are on our side, or quite where our guardian angels have gone for the weekend. Two days ago we tried to set off north from Avignon. We left the port, sped silently and swiftly down the short downstream passage to the main river, turned right into the Rhone, and came to an almost dead stop. The river, the colour of milk chocolate, was full of massive lumps of vegetation. We made about 1 mile an hour for some 30 minutes, and then I felt a change, as if the engine had slowed itself down, and our speed reduced. Weed around the prop. Within minutes we were making 1.3 knots .... astern. And a current against us we could not match. (Later that day, they closed all the locks down here, because of the volume of water.)

So we returned to our mooring in Avignon and consoled ourselves with a walk around the town. Avignon is stunning. All the symbols of power and wealth, but done with elegance and undeniable beauty. The town is unspoilt. It is a delight. And thank goodness, because we had to stay another day because of the flood. I think of this passage through the French inland waterways as a reconnaissance, and if we seem to be rushing we will be coming back this way next year. We have already decided we will spend a week here if we possibly can.

But rushing? If only we were. We set out this morning in thin fog. As we left Avignon it became thick fog. We had our lights on and I had the foghorn at the ready, but I don't believe anyone in modern boats, in their glass enclosed bridges, can hear our feeble blast. We found the waiting pontoon at Avignon lock, and groped feebly at the propeller with the boathook, but the chocolate water made it impossible to see a thing. Our VHF calls to the lock were not answered. The silence of fog is the most disconcerting silence of all.

Suddenly the river cruise ship Van Gogh was beside us, ploughing into the lock. I called the lock on VHF again. Nothing. Then a great voice from across the water said, "Beowulf, you can enter the lock behind the big boat." I was unsure whether it said can or can't. I spoke into my VHF "Repettez, s'il vous plait." The voice came again. Huge loudspeakers mounted above the lock broadcast the message to the whole of Provence.

We tucked in behind Van Gogh, and rose 9.5 metres, and it was like the Ascension. Out of the darkness of the deep, into bright sunshine, and warmth. After the lock we made a good 3.5 knots. I rigged up the emergency aerial for the main VHF (it uses an aerial of the mast, and having no mast now, we were hoping to use the handheld VHF) and tested it by calling the lock keeper, and thanking him.

Then we checked the weather forecast. It had not looked good before we started. There is only one thing we dread here. It is the mistral. It blows hard from the north. Tomorrow there will be a mistral. It will blow at 45 kph gusting 80 kph (say 30 mph gusting 50 mph). No way we could motor against that. So we turned into l'Ardoise. If that sounds as if we were reluctant, well I certainly was. Less than half a day's journey done, and we stop? But there is nowhere to stop let alone take shelter from here to Viviers, and that is more than a day's journey. We had been told by Tim and Philippa, a wonderful couple we spent some good time with in Avignon, that l'Ardoise was not to be recommended. Maybe the circumstances of their visit and ours were very different, but we find it surprisingly charming. The Danish couple next to us have lent us a map for touring on our bicycles tomorrow. And a French couple have invited us for dinner tomorrow night. And t is quiet. And there are herons, egrets, and kingfishers. Oui. Les martin-pêcheurs.

Darkness is falling. The Swiss flags of the port, for it is Swiss owned, are beginning to flutter with the early signs of the promised mistral, and I am called for supper. In the last two days I have re varnished two thirds of the exterior woodwork (I don't want you to think I only write emails) and will do more tomorrow. But as for making progress towards the UK, things are not going well.