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Avignon Excitment

Posted by nigelorrmail on August 7, 2013 at 10:40 AM

Avignon Excitement

 

  The flood came quickly. There was little sign of it the night before but we knew that there had been plenty of rain in the Central Massif and that was going to end up on the Rhone. The Ardeche flows into the Rhone at Pont St Esprit to the north of Avignon. In addition the moorings at Avignon are just downstream of the lock where you would expect the largest changes of levels to occur in times of flood.  

  The first we knew of any problem was when Gerard and Nicole from the capitenerie knocked on the door at about six am advising me to move my car. It was parked on the quai and the water level was about six inches below the top coping stones. This meant the river had risen about two metres since I went to bed! I dressed quickly and put my wellington boots on and moved the car to higher ground. The boots were used in anger on my return to the boat as in the intervening twenty minutes the water was now well over the quai.   I was moored with about six other boats for the winter on the Quai de la ligne, the old commercial quai at Avignon.

     Most of the other boats were lived on board as it is known to be a dangerous spot in time of flood so the capitenerie only encourages those who are living aboard. “Waterman” was in pole position at the upstream end of the line of boats on the outside of the bend where the water comes shooting down from the barrage. The flow becomes even higher in times of high water because the Ile de Berthalasse floods and water flows across the island to join that coming down from the barrage.  

    Behind us was David on his Kromhout built 18m harbour launch that had spent about twenty years in and around the lagoon in Venice. He had brought her from England and had been cruising through France all summer with his wife Dawn and their daughter Alex. Next in line was Rudi and Charlotte, a Dutch couple with a sea going steel cruiser on which they cruised the Med in the summer. Behind them were two boats that were not lived on, the first being that belonging to Nicole and Gerard and the second to a Dutchman. Next was Ernie. He is an Englishman who had wintered at Avignon for about six years and he and his wife had their daughter and two grand daughters staying. Then there was a Dutch owned Tjalk. Hans, the owner was a psychiatrist practicing in Holland who left his boat at Avignon each winter. Last in line and nicely tucked into a sheltered corner was Languedoc a 38m peniche that is lived on board but never moves.  

   Some days earlier Rudi had advised me on the best way to set up my ropes. He had worked and lived on boats most of his days and watched with amusement my antics in trying to keep my boat in the right position in the high current. He sat me down with pen and paper and explained what was needed and once I had tied the necessary ropes in place he demonstrated how to control the position of the boat with only ropes and rudder. I jotted down instructions in my log book and still refer to them years later when I find myself moored in fast flowing water. The danger as Avignon is that you float onto the quai when the water is high and then cannot get off again as it drops as the current is pinning you to the wall. Rudi’s skills showed me how to use the same current to my advantage to hold the boat out about one metre off the quai but in complete control. I had set everything up right down to marking the ropes with yellow insulating tape to show how much a particular spring had to be slackened to allow the boat to swing in or out. It worked like magic and on the morning of the floods I felt confident in being able to position the boat well. Rudi came to inspect my work and said all was okay so the two of us set of down the quai to see if we could assist any of the other boats to tie up better. David was under control and the two unoccupied boats were being seen to by the capiteneerie staff.

        Ernie however was in trouble. In spite of wintering here before he did not have his ropes set up as per the “Rudi Plan” and was pinned to the quai wall. The danger was of course that the moment the quai flooded he would float onto it. Rudi tried to explain to him what was needed and at that stage it was possible to change ropes round as the water was only about a foot deep on the quai. Now Rudi was a bit of a dour kind of man and if someone does not want to take his advice then on their own heads be it. Ernie was a bit of an "expert" and having been at Avignon over many winters thought he had nothing left to learn. He had survived floods two years earlier when two yachts had ended up high and dry on the quai when the waters fell.

     After about fifteen minutes of cajoling Rudi and I had to leave Ernie to his self inflicted fate and get back to our boats as the water was now over wellington height. My Gordon Setter, Baron, whom I had left in charge whilst I was away was very happy to hand back responsibility of the ship to me. I did a quick trip to the park to empty the dog out and then zoomed to the supermarket to stock up. Once back on board I took apart the gangplank and positioned the boat well out into the current, switched on the VHF and got ready to sit it out. The new position the boat was lying in meant I had to go out on deck to adjust the satellite dish but apart from that deck visits were kept to a minimum. The ropes were as taught as a bow string and the sound of the water on the hull was very loud.  

    The first casualty was David on the boat behind. One of his ropes broke and he was being thrown around badly in the current. It was only a matter of time before the other ropes would go under the strain. David, being a competent and experienced sailor, could see this danger and so acted immediately. He already had his engine running and unloosed the remainder of his ropes and headed of out into the river. He could make no progress against the current but keeping his head into it managed to manoevre across the river to the slacker water on the other side where he moored up against a Belgian owned luxemotor. He had had to leave all his ropes behind tied to the quai so it was lucky the luxemotor’s crew were on board and saw him coming as he only really had one shot at securing him self to the boat.  

    Throughout the day the waters continued to rise so that by dusk there was about three feet of water on the quai. The capitenerie at Avignon is a 38m barge moored at right angles to the river and kept in place with piling. The staff stayed in touch over the VHF and came to check things out every hour or so. It was too dangerous to use their launch but they could get down the road that runs on high alongside the now inundated quai. The rings and bollards to which the boats were secured were well under water so any opportunity to change mooring setup was now lost; besides which the current on the quai would have swept you away and you could no longer see where quai ended and deep water began. The news from the capitenerie was that there was more water on the way and to expect about another metre rise during the night.

  As it was going dark Dawn and Alex off David’s boat came to see if I needed any supplies. They and all the people off the boats on the pontoons below the capitennerie had evacuated to the capitennerie to spend the night there. Whilst we were chatting Dawn, who had glanced upstream let out a shriek and pointed at two 38m barges normally moored about 400 m away. They were tied together but no longer tied to the bank and were being swept down the river towards “Waterman”. I called up on the VHF to give everyone a little bit of warning and then with the last few seconds before collision I dropped a tyre or two over the bows as fenders and then get back inside the boat and waited for the bang. What saved us was the “Rudi Plan”. The bows of Waterman were about three metres from the stone quai and the stern was about one and a half. The peniches hit hard on the bows on the port side and drove us hard against the quai. The gap saved us. If we had been moored tightly against the quai we would have just been squashed. As it was we hit pretty hard but bounced back into the current. The ropes tying the two peniches  together broke and as a result of hitting Waterman they had been pushed out into the river and missed the boats behind.  

   One of the peniches was swept well out into the river and went round the capitennerie. It collided with the Benezet bridge which is the “sous le pont” bridge. A large piece of masonry fell into the river but the arch held. The peniche disappeared downstream. The second peniche hit the ducs d’Albe that keep the capitennerie in place and if you look carefully you can still see a list on them to this day. The second peniche ended up broadside on against the capitenerie and finally stopped. Within minutes the pompiers arrived armed to the teeth with equipment. An inflatable was launched and sped off downstream in pursuit of the peniche that was still on the rampage whilst plans were put in place to haul the second one out of the current. Three big cranes arrived and lorries with concrete blocks of about eight cubic metres with a ring in each as temporary anchor points for winches. They had obviously had to do something like this before.  

   Whilst all this was going on Ernie came on the VHF asking for assistance. The water level was so high on the quai now that his boat had floated onto it and the current had thrown his bows against one of the concrete electric box bases holing the wooden hull. He was sinking. One of the cranes was sent to his rescue and they soon had him held on slings but with him resting on the quai. The family were moved off and Ernie set to doing some repairs with the hole being held out of the water. An hour or two later whilst on what was to be an hourly inspection of the boat throughout the night I noticed one of my springs was on the point of breaking. One strand had already gone and it was only a matter of time before the remainder snapped. I VHF’d the capitennerie for assistance and they came out with another rope. Luckily there are rings high in the wall of the quai and they were still just above the water line. By now there was about 2.5 metres of water on the quai. They secured the rope to the ring then threw me an end which I secured to do the same job as the damaged spring. We were just in time as half an hour later the original spring went with a hell of a crack that had Baron leaping onto the sofa for comfort.

   The rest of the night’s vigil went without serious incident. Huge trees were flowing by at breakneck speed and the occasional one struck the boat. One large trunk came down the quai between the boat and the quai wall and swept straight through three electricity boxes as if they were not there. By early morning light one could see Ernie’s boat still held by the crane but now patched up. The crane stayed on station for a further six hours or so till the water went down enough to see him safely back in the water. By mid afternoon you could paddle on the quai and the next day David returned and the moping up started.   The pompiers had caught up with the peniche about five kms downstream where it had got caught against something. It was hauled back a week or two later. It turned out that the two barges had only been tied to the bank at one point on a very short rope. As the river rose the rope tightened and pulled the bollard out of  the soil with it’s concrete anchoring still attached to it. They were not insured.  

Categories: Travel stories

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