River Baise Antics

Posted by nigelorrmail on August 8, 2013 at 10:45 AM

River Baise antics

     The MS Waterman found herself moored at the Halte Nautique at Buzet on the canal lateral a la Garonne having completed a strenuous journey up the River Baise. She had just finished a cruise upstream to Valence sur Baise to become the first boat in about forty years to complete this trip following the restoration of the canal Eat your hearts out all you bargees with oversized macho luxemotors! Waterman is 15 metres by 4.1m and can just squeeze in to the official 30m X 4.2 m locks. She is also on the limit of water depth at 1m and limit of air height at about 3m. The original river Baise navigation was about 80 kms long and consisted of 30 locks between the downstream limit of St Leger at the confluence with the Garonne, a few kilometres upstream of the Lot / Garonne confluence and the upstream limit of the town of St Jean de Pouge. The navigation started to fall into disuse in the 1930s but in recent years much has been done to restore it. The opening on July 17 of the latest section now allows cruising from St Leger to Valence sur Baise including the important link with the Canal Lateral a la Garonne at Buzet. We joined the Baise at this point. On arrival at the double lock that takes you down from the canal to the river we were issued with a map that went as far as Moncrabeau. In addition we were given a magnetic swipe card for operating the locks. There is only one lockeeper on the whole stretch upstream once you are on the river . He is at Graziac between Condom and Valence where there is a double lock.  The locks up to Lavadrac are a little wider than the official 4.2m but their location and lack of  mooring positions for the bigger boats necessitates some reasonable helming skills. The magnetic card system means that a crew member has to get out at each lock that is not  in your favour and get the cycle  going to set it up.  The alighting platforms are wooden and small but adequate. Once in the lock the card is again used to start the normal cycle. The paddles are opened very quickly and the eddy you get when the lock is half full can take you by surprise if you are not well tied.  The positioning of the bollards on the lockside can also require some unconventional rope work  as sometimes the first upstream bollard is halfway down the lock ! There is little opportunity for mooring between quais and it is openly discouraged as I suspect there has been some delicate negotiations with the existing riparians to get the river reopened. This is not a problem as the villages of Vianne , Nerac , Moncrabeau , Condom & Valence are nicely spaced and all well worth a visit. The first day was a short cruise from Buzet down the double lock and onto the river then about 10 kms upstream to the lock at Vianne and onto the upstream quai right beside the village.

    The first impression is of the differences with the Lateral. The canal is on the valley with big vistas on either side. The river is down in its own tree lined valley & full of bird and animal life, the trees sometimes leaving you a five metre gap at the waterline.  The Lateral is very straight the Baise is very tortuous in places. Being a largish boat for the Baise we attracted a bit of attention in Vianne.  The mooring is deep and there is good free electricity and water.  There is not a vast selection of shops but you can get most things.  In the summer months there is an attractive night market on Fridays and there are two or three restaurants that open only on that day. The Vianne glass factory is well worth a visit as are some of the individual glass blowing workshops. The fortified town like many in the area was built during the time the English ruled this part of France. The evening we were there the mayor came down and talked of their plans for refurbishing the mill. This is a large old building by the weir that has had a chequered history in recent years when it was used as a pub. It now stands forlorn but the mayor hopes to restore parts of it when he has the money. The next day was a little more strenuous as we continued upstream to Nerac. The locks up to and including Lavardac are about 4.5 metres and relatively straight forward. At Lavardac, upstream of the bridge,  work is going on to clean up an old quai . Water is deep and there is a single bollard and the odd ring. A tap has been installed and smartening up work was evident. A little further upstream there is a small mooring which allows you to walk through the trees to Barbaste and its unusual fortified mill. All the locks to Nerac are automatic and close by mills and weirs making it a very attractive run. Three weeks before our voyage there had been big storms in the Pyrenees and the waters were very muddy as a result .  

   We arrived at Nerac and moored below the lock to try and catch the only shade. There is a waterpoint here and no charges. The only shore power is through the lock at the Halte Nautique where first night mooring and water was free, electricity 10 ff . Nerac is an historic town as it was the home of the future king of France, Henry IV . The family chateau is in the middle of town and has opposite it the cafe with the rather strange name of the Escadron Volant, the Flying Squadron. This turns out to me named after a few hundred ladies who would follow the king from the north when he would come and visit the town. I suppose they were kind of medieval groupies. The chateau is not too impressive but if you are into French history the English commentary on tapes give you a good background to the times.

   The next day Ben and Maria who had joined us at Moissac were due to leave by bus train and plane to get back to England.  Inquiries at the tourist office uncovered a bus from the Place de l’Horloge to the station at Agen from which they could catch the train to Toulouse for a plane back to England. The only suitable bus was the 10:14 . Miss that and you miss the plane. At 10:00 we were sat at the Cafe de The in the Place de l’Horloge. The cafe proprietoress asked us where we were going and then said there was no bus till 14:00 !  I checked in another cafe and they confirmed the worst by showing me a different timetable from the one we had been given at the Maison de Tourisme. Panic. I rushed to the Tourist Office where the girl was most casual about my predicament. In the end I got her to phone the bus company to ensure there was a 10:14 and that it stopped at Place de l’horloge. No problem sir. By now it was about 10:12 and I went back to Ben and Maria  & Mary who were sitting drinking coffee unaware of the difficulties. At that instant the 10:14 arrived but sailed straight through town without stopping and headed towards Agen ! Nigel rushes back to the Tourist Office where the lady learns some new anglo saxon expressions but says there is nothing she can do. I demanded she got the bus company man back on the phone and after a few curt sentences about his bus driver I convinced him that under the circumstances he should organise and pay for a taxi. We ourselves had tried to organise a taxi the night before but both the Nerac taxi companies had all taxis booked at that time of day. The bus company man did miracles. Within twenty minutes a taxi had arrived from Agen which allowed Ben and Maria to catch their train.

   Very relieved, Mary & I returned to the boat to find the river had risen by about a foot whilst we had been away. The Frenchman on the next boat who was in Nerac for an exhibition of his sculptures in wood had adjusted our lines. We decided to go through the lock and moor in the town on the top side of the weir. All was well till midnight when I got the feel we were at the wrong angle. Investigation revealed that we were stuck hard on the bottom and listing with the river falling as fast as it had risen. Much pushing and shoving and the aid of the sculptor finally freed us and I set up the boat on a spring to keep the stern well out into the river till we left the next morning. The run from Nerac to Moncrabeau was relatively incident free. This part of the waterway is not state owned and so you see lots of Privee and Amarrage Interdit signs. The cuts above the locks can be long narrow and shallow with a couple of bridge holes that were about the exact size of the locks into which we had squeezed .

   In spite of the unwelcoming riparians it was a pleasant days run and we finished on a good small quai at Moncrabeau with free mooring, electricity and water close to a campsite that sold bread. It is a climb up to the village but well worth it for the view. Moncrabeau holds an international festival of liars on the first Sunday in August and they crown a King of Liars who is carried round the village to the throne.  On the gates of town hall there is a « press cutting »  about the time the queen of England visited the town. When you look closely at the photo with the article the hat might be one of the queen’s  but the face certainly isn’t ! After Moncrabeau you venture into the unknown. No Navicarte exists and the map given to us at the Buzet lock finishes here. This new part  connects with a previously isolated section from Condom onto Valence. It had been opened about ten days before and we were the first boat of any size and the first foreigners to try it out. Hireboat companies were not allowing their clientele to use it at this time. The locks are all in operation and automatic using the same magnetic card for access as downstream but there is still some dredging to do. We regularly were scraping the bottom on the cuts approaching the three newly renovated locks and came to a total halt with thirty metres to go to get to Condom. You are now out of Lot Et Garonne jurisdiction and into Gers. As we were to find out, the locals were proud of the restoration and interested in the progress of the crazy English. It took us half an hour of pushing and shoving to gouge out a channel deep enough to get through and at last we were there, the quai at Condom. By then with all the engine noise we had gathered a bit of a crowd. The Condom bridge is a three arch job and the new signs tell upstream traffic to go for the middle arch . This is a very tight manoevre from the right bank where the cut enters and you are 200 metres from the weir. The other boat we have been following ended up on the arch and their whole  cabin was displaced slightly ! The newer locks have a very simple alighting platform with only one bollard and it is right beside the downstream  gate.  Mary  stepped  off there but then I backed the boat down the cut to avoid the turbulence  of the lock emptying in the very shallow cut and the boat only attached at one point. News was soon out that we had arrived. The two local papers visited to get our story and take photos. A grandfather with his grand daughter arrived with a box of  vegetables from his garden. We had shown his grand daughter round the boat the evening before. Shortly after Georges arrived. He liked the boat and in the subsequent conversation it turned out his hobby was building models of historic ships. He does commissions for the Maritime Museum in Paris. The next day we were invited round to see his work and to meet his family. Aperitifs soon became an elongated lunch as we inspected his latest model of the Pourqoui Pas, a polar expedition ship. Mary was given a bouquet of flowers from the garden and a supply of herbs.

   We set off the next day for the last part of the voyage to Valence.  We had been given a map put together by the people who run the trip boat at Condom.  For those of you who have been smirking at the name of Condom have pity on the nearby town of Colon! The section upstream from Condom has been an isolated section open for some time. There are two single locks with a double between them. The single locks are manual and the double has a very helpful lock keeper. That evening we finally made it and celebrated our arrival  with a bottle of Laurent Perrier champagne given to us at the champagne house’s office as we passed through Tours sur Marne last year. We shared it with a French peniche who had had a easier ride than us as they only have a draft of 60 cms compared with Waterman’s 1 metre plus. Baron, our crazy Gordon setter decided to celebrate by chasing a couple of local chickens, one of whom, remained at death’s door as we left Valence but the owner seemed very philosophical about the incident. The halte has electricity and water and a good but unpretentious riverside cafe. The town is like Moncrabeau , up a steep hill with good views. We felt we had solved all navigation problems and that we could look forward to a relaxed run back downstream . We visited the Abbaye de Flaran the next day and on our return got chating to the locals. The road bridge at Valence had a water clearance of over three metres . When the river flooded in 1977 it was swept away when water came right over it’s parapet.  This is the nature of the Baise . It is fed from the Pyrenees and can flood quickly. It can also empty quickly. We had had three very hot days since the last rain and could see the river level dropping and at the advice of the locals we set off back at five in the afternoon rather than stay another night.  There was little water coming over the first weir and we modern day navigators had to contend with other water users that were not there in the days of our predecessors.

   In this part of France they grow a lot of maize and when the rain stops they use gigantic sprinklers most of the day with water pumped from the river. The cuts are often less than two kilometeres between locks and if the weir above has stopped running the pumps, sometimes as many as a dozen on a reach,  can have a significant effect on the water level. We got through the first manual lock okay and scraped our way to the double lock. We expected to have to wait till 11:00 the next day when the lock opened but the lock keeper on hearing our plight let us through and told us to go through the next manual lock even though it was outside cruising hours. At about eight in the evening we arrived at Condom ready for continuing downstream the next day. That is when we met Bernard . He had read the article in the papers and was interested in any problems we might have had.  Bernard is an administrator who has responsibilities for the restoration of this section of the Baise. We talked for an hour and I suggested as we were about to leave that he should come on board down to the first lock. Whilst waiting for him to return the local builder turned up. He had read the article in the paper about our stay in Condom. We had made a casual remark about the noisy building work on the riverside opposite the mooring at Condom. The builder was there to introduce himself and apologise!

We talked to Bernard about the shallowness of the cut down to the first lock and took him on a short cruise to demonstrate the problem. We got stuck on the bottom and had to retreat to the quai. Bernard phoned the boss of the company doing the restoration work and got him to visit. I explained we had a draft of 1.2m. and should be able to pass. He asked when we were to set off the next day and promised the dredger would there to assist.

At 08:00 the next morning Bernard arrived in his Lycras and with his bike and we set off. As we made the turn into the cut to the first lock we saw a big land based dredger being unloaded from a low loader lorry. We spoke with the driver who said that the simplest way was for us to proceed till we hit the bottom then back off to allow him to dig a channel for us. This took about two hours and at one point we stuck fast on the bottom. A shove from the digger's powerful hydraulic arm soon fixed that!

We said our fond farewells to the dredger and set off for the first lock. We descended. Engine in ahead. No motion. Thoughts of lost propellers went through my mind. The problem was the level we were entering was so low we were scraping the bottom of the lock on exit. The lock was automatic and we were half in and half out of it. If we started a lock cycle to flush us out of the lock the first thing it would try and do would be to close the gates with us in the exit.  I took off all power and tried to float over but could not push the boat. In the end I went astern to the back of the lock  then put her into idling ahead to get a little momentum then half way down the lock went into neutral. We made it. The next lock was equally close but the third one at Autigue was okay so whilst in the lock we got Bernard’s bike off and he set off to Condom armed with copious notes he had made on the way. We got out of the lock and as Bernard headed out of ear shot and over the brow of the hill we stuck hard once more. We were outside the lock but not within reach of the staging to get off to flush some water down. We finally cajoled Waterman back and Mary climbed down over the back rail clutching the magnetic card to flush the lock. The plan was for me to stay with the boat by the staging and when Mary started the cycle going she would dash back to the staging , get on the boat and we would ride the tidal wave out of the 30 yard cutting in which we were stuck. That was the theory. Mary did her part fine but the captain ended up with the boat aground and slewed across the channel. It was back to the staging and another flush. This  time Mary was to stay on the bank and I positioned the boat right in the centre of the channel with her having gone as far as she could go. This time it worked and Waterman shot out of the cut into the river like a champagne cork, leaving Mary stranded with no dowmstream staging for four kilometres, no towpath and shallow banks!  I eventually managed to turn the boat round and get the bows on the peninsular of bank between cut and weir run and put the ladder over the side. Mary was awarded two competent crew badges by the captain on her safe return.

    The rest of the run downstream continued in the same manner  with the main problem being the exits from locks. Most of the weirs were dry as we approached Nerac and on frequent occasions we were sprayed by the maize sprinklers which were badly positioned and drenched you as you passed by. We made Nerac that night and after a hasty shop the next morning ran the gauntlet to Buzet with the main difficulty being getting out of Lavardac lock where the bottom came up to meet us.  At about five in the evening we locked up the double lock at Buzet relieved to be back on the canal but elated at having managed to navigate the Baise in a deep draft boat. It is a very pretty river with attractive villages and a wealth of history. Do however treat it with respect. The channel is very narrow, the staging is light for large boats and the locks flood quickly and violently when you are going upstream.  The water level is capricious in the summer months ( and I suspect in other seasons too ) The restoration has been done perhaps as you would expect with small lightweight boats in mind.  It is however well worth all the aggro and I would contemplate a spring or autumn cruise if I was to do it again. The interest we created and the goodwill we experienced we will remember with fondness for a long time to come.  This was in spite of the fact that  the authorities make it quite clear that at this time the new section is navigated completely at your own risk.  

Nigel Orr & Mary Marsdale & Baron the Gordon Setter


Categories: Travel stories

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1 Comment

Reply Cutipie
3:05 AM on May 15, 2017 
Gers, one of the most rural areas in western Europe and relatively undiscovered, is the French home of pate de foie gras, and has a balmy and dry climate. It is also one of the sunniest areas of France.