Paddy fields, cowboys and flamingoes. Sete 43:23.60N, 03:42.01E

Saro's Gyda
Derrick Thorrington
Sat 23 Apr 2011 15:24
    The mistral passed and the wind dropped to an acceptable level so we left the shelter of Les Iles de Frioul and headed further west to the edge of the Golfe de Lion, a little fishing harbour called Carro. The Golfe de Lion has a fierce reputation for sudden, unpredicted mistrals screaming out of the mouth of the Rhone at anything up to F10. This was constantly reinforced by friendly locals who cheerfully advised us to watch out for the mistral after hearing of our plans!
    Carro itself was an unspoilt and functional little fishing community. The harbour wall not only encompassed the harbour but also a delightful little bay, just right for anchoring. We stayed for 2 nights and enjoyed the coast path along the so called "Cote Bleu" before setting out for the 62 miles across the Golfe.
Cote Bleu
    Our curiosity had been aroused by a little town along the coast, halfway to our final destination of Sete, between the estuaries of the Rhone and Petit Rhone. We read of various saintly Marys, a servant called Sarah and Lazarus being cast adrift from the Holy Land and arriving at this spot. The pilot showed a completely flat coast with a huge church rising above the sea and told of the Romany Gypsies' annual pilgrimage to their patron saint, Sarah. The town Les Saintes Maries de le Mer needed investigating.
    After an enjoyable sail with the wind on the beam for once, we squeezed into a small space in the marina and went to see the town. We were surprised by the amount of tourism but gradually became aware that this was the main town of the Camargue National Park. The town was completely flat and was made up of white, two story buildings and tiny narrow streets full of touristy shops and restaurants, the church rising out of the centre, high above the rest. Immediately behind the town were large salt and brackish lakes called "Etangs". The Tourist Information showed photos of cowboys, splendidly dressed, cantering white camargue horses, herding herds of black bulls through the shallow etangs, as well as more peaceful scenes of flocks of pink flamingoes!
    The following day we arrived early at the bike hire shop and set out to see for ourselves.No sooner had we left the last building in the town than we saw our first flamingoes. Our cycle ride took us along tracks running between the etangs full of flamingoes and other wading birds. The flat land between was used for rearing the white horses and black bulls. Further north were acres of paddy fields growing 99% of France's rice.
    We had noticed that there was an event in the town's bull ring later that day so, after a bit of debating, we decided to go and see what it was about. We felt a bit uncertain but were reassured slightly by families with young children piling in. Bizet's Toreador from "Carmen" was being played over the loud speakers as fifteen athletic Frenchmen were introduced. A fanfare was sounded and a bull trotted into the ring. The spectacle involved the "Toreadors" attracting the bull's attention, one at a time, trying to grab a trinket from one of it's horns as it charged then leaping to safety over the four foot barriers and up into the stands before the bull made contact. A new bull was brought on after about 10 mins and each was introduced and cheered. We wondered why the toreadors leapt into the stands and soon found out when one bull kept leaping over the barrier too!
    We are now in Sete, at the eastern end of the Canal du Midi,initially a small town built on the side of a small mound on the flat sandy coast, but now spreads over the flatter land. This area is dissected by 3 canals,one of which leads to the "Etang de Thau and the beginning of the Midi.
Canal junction in Sete
There are also 2 canals running across these, one of which is our route to the Midi.
    The masts have now been pulled out and lowered to the deck after many difficulties. The recommended  yard took one look at the unusual masts and said "Il ne pas possible!" and would not be persuaded otherwise. (The masts are supported right down on the keel and run through the deck. They are made of carbon fibre and are  cylindrical, tapering as they rise. They are completely smooth so there is nothing for the crane slings to grip).  The alternative yard, very small, dirty but full of great characters agreed to have a go. After much preparation we arrived at the yard ready for the scary bit of having the two masts pulled out of the boat.The slings were set up according to the manufacturers directions and the crane started to pull. Nothing happened except that the bow of the boat began to lift out of the water! Eventually the attempt was abandoned. We returned to our mooring and spent the rest of that day and most of the next removing lots of rubber type material form around the bottom and deck fittings of the masts.
    Attempt two was successful much to the relief of everyone concerned.. The masts were much heavier than we had been led to believe and the supports that we had made were not strong enough. We were very fortunate to have so many helpful people in the yard. Quickly, strong timbers were produced and sawn and these were used, along with many lashings, to support the original frames. No payment was wanted for these new timbers so red wine was given instead and received with much pleasure. Nothing is too much trouble for the locals here, everyone bends over backwards to help, making phone calls, bringing in other people etc. At one point a local rigger phoned the chief rigger for the French America's Cup for advice!
    We had hoped to make progress into the Canal today but at the moment are sitting on our "barge" in the harbour in strong winds and pouring rain, unable to get out of the berth. The forecast is for better conditions tomorrow, Easter Sunday, so as long as the 5 lifting and swing bridges in Sete are operating tomorrow, we will leave then.
    Joyeuse Paque/Happy Easter!