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Quartette and the Canal du Midi!

Saturday 16th August 2014 saw Quartette off on her Canal-du-Midi trip from Sete (Frontignan marina) to Carcassonne, Toulouse, then on to Bordeaux. Once again she is de-masted and converted into a motor launch, with multitudes of fenders, two folding bikes and plenty of sun cream!

The de-masting was trouble free, aided by the usual sign language exchange with the dock crew (who were very good) and getting the crane lifting strop into the right position by putting the lightest crew member half way up the mast (well done Hamish).

As you can see it was a beautiful day and a very convenient location, with a bar right next to operations!

With the mast left behind to be packed up ready for its lorry trip to Pauillac (Bordeaux), Quartette set off that afternoon for the Canal du Midi, avoiding any possible shallows by parking next to the first convenient British flagged boat available!

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The picture above shows Quartette waiting for the new lifting road bridge at Frontignan, which opens at 1600LT allowing a bit of give and take for French timekeeping! Last report was from a crew happily berthed in Mese marina on the Etang de Thau, so the bridge did open for them. Bon voyage. The map below shows the route from Sete to Pauillac on the R. Gironde, where the re-mast was to take place.

The canal trip was to take three weeks with three crews and Quartette with her 1.5m draft was just about at the depth limit for the shallower parts of the canal. Andy Connor did report digging a furrow through one section, even after asking the lock-keeper to raise the water level by flooding the pound a bit. Some careful research had confirmed a 1.8m draft yacht had made it earlier in the year, but some sections have deep and very soft mud, so no doubt some very slow ploughing took place.

The canal experience was great for the crews involved, with long sections under tree lined shade and peaceful stopovers. The odd star-fighter to contend with and lots of wildlife.

The Canal de Garonne between Toulouse and Bordeaux proved deeper and less challenging, but still offered a rolling country landscape, before joining the River Gironde at Castets-en-Dorthe and on to Bordeaux.

Generally, on board life is more relaxed and sedentary than when sailing, with minimal navigation skills focused on the next lock and/or stopping point with facilities. The bikes are really useful heading off for the nearest village boulangerie and sometimes just getting a bit of exercise cycling on the towpath, a recognised national velo route, alongside the boat.

As skippers will soon discover, the depth gauge often gives rather pessimistic information when the bottom is a thick layer of leaves and soft mud, so the helm needs to be on the ball when an ominous slowing starts to occur. This does not seem to cause any damage to the keel, but when manouvering, beware rocks, supermarket trolleys and old bikes, which can spoil your day.

Once out of the canal system and on to the river, with its strong current and winding vistas, Bordeaux offered the first taste of the sea with rather large cruise ships on the town quays and a pressing need to re-acquire a mast. 

Bordeaux itself has few facilities for yachts, but the small marina on the river at Pauillac does, so we targeted that for re-masting. Since then, both Royan and Medoc have offered this service and may be a better choice nowadays. Royan is quite a buzzy tourist town and the marina has plenty of visitors pontoon space.

After the case of the missing mast in Port Napoleon, extra care and a certain amount of bullish prevarication made sure the mast was transported to the right yard in Pauillac (down river from Bordeaux). To confirm, Andy was sent off in the early hours, grumbling away, to get the little local train with a ‘find the mast (or else!)’ mission instruction.

As it happened, this time the delivery company had got it right and the mast went up as planned, in fine weather and with everyone mucking in. The crane in Pauillac at first seemed too small for the job, but we reckoned without the ingenuity and experience of the operator, who, with typical gallic casualness, showed us a thing or two about erecting a mast – all within a rather narrow tide gate. We did the final tidying and hanking on sails, electrical and halyard installations, on a pontoon in the harbour, before setting off for Biscay and Brittany.

If anyone decides to take a yacht via the Inland Waterways to the Med, be sure to use an English run company to transport the mast and fore-stay, which is often longer and more fragile. The case of the missing mast in Port Napoleon was down to a driver choosing the wrong Marina to deliver, despite very clear written instructions. The second run, from Sete to Pauillac went seamlessly, with the French driver showing a more professional attitude.

Quartette then made her way back to the UK under Bob Cousins as skipper and a much relieved Andy drove back home with a car load of bikes and surplus fenders.

The 2014 Mediterranean Summer Cruise drew to a successful close but opened a new chapter in Andy’s life, so not quite the end of the story. On arriving in Port Napoleon in 2009, Louvet proved to be battered to near death by supermarket trolleys, submerged bikes and lock walls. She really needed a new gel coat and – by sheer luck, the boat was bought by a mad Dutchman, who was originally going to do the gel coat work – but really wanted to race her, in her own class, on the Etang de Thau near Sete.

So Nicola and Andy bought Otaria, from an English couple they knew, with the boat based at Martigues, near Marseille. An upgrade to a sea toilet, fridge, 28’ of stable and more spacious sailing boat, enabled us to explore the French/Italian riviera, Corsica and Sardinia. A hiccup in 2011 left Andy divorced, bankrupt, unemployed, but the sole owner of Otaria and still sailing with PYC when funds allowed.

By 2015, after the Med Cruise with Quartette, Andy had got fed up with the fickle and unpredictable Med weather and resolved to pick up where Louvet had left off, taking Otaria back to England – via the Canal du Midi. So that little saga restarts and a new adventure begins – watch this space!

Andy Bowerman, August 2020.

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