A note about the holiday in France that Josephine and myself recently returned from. Maybe it will give others ideas for boating holidays abroad. Maybe there could even be an HBBR event in France some day, I have just read that Timmo has something in mind.
We took our home made rowing boat to France on the car roof (strictly Josephine's rowing boat, made by me to meet her request for a boat that would be even easier to get afloat than our sailing dinghy). The boat is loaded onto the car roof with an arrangement of runners and a roller at the back of the roofrack. I might put some pics here sometime.
The initial plan was to row the navigable length of the R. Charante from Angouleme to St. Saviens. We were advised that the river above Angouleme would be too shallow with rapids and a preliminary exploration by car confirmed that to be the case. We were also advised that the tidal river from St Saviens down to the sea beyond Rochfort would be muddy and rather uninteresting, so we missed that out, especially since we had previously been up from the sea to Rochfort in our sailing dinghy. We were on the Charante for six days, but we could have done the trip quicker than that with less stopping for sightseeing. Its certainly an attractive river, flowing through farmland and woodland for most of its length but also flowing past some picturesque villages and interesting towns. The city of Saintes has roman antiquities and Cognac and Jarvick are popular with tourists although we didnt get to try the guided tours that take tourists round the old distillery buildings - names such as Hennesy, Martell, Courvoisier etc. Although the old riverside distilleries are impressive buildings I think most of the production is now in more modern processing plants a little outside the town of Cognac. We did notice a 'tank farm' near Cobnac, presumably the tanks contained huge quantities of a fluid even more expensive than petrol or diesel.
We launched our rowing boat at a small slipway down the hill from the old centre of the city of Angouleme and we found plenty of car parking spaces by the riverside along the road near the slipway - see picture. There is a railway linking the towns along the Charante, this made it straightforward to get back to the car at the end of the trip.
The current on the Charante is about the same as we have encountered on the HBBR Thames trips, i.e. it is slightly helpful as long as you are going downstream but not at all scary at any point. There are hired out motor cruisers, but boat traffic seemed to be a bit less than on the Thames. We carried a small tent and other camping equipment and some nights we camped on areas of public space by the river, e.g. alongside a lock, or on a grass area near a village quayside. No one objected to our tent, but we did wait until late to put it up and took it down early. There are also several waterside campsites along the river with full shower facilities etc. - France is really good that way. For this holiday we made use of several such riverside campsites - picture shows me wheeling our boat into a campsite from a nearby slipway.
Those wheels that clip onto the sides of the boat are really useful - the boat becomes a wheel barrow for transporting the camping equipment between a car park and a river or a river and a camping place. (the wheels are a neat idea I copied from a canoe I saw at Beale Park a few years ago). When we want to stop and go ashore for a coffee or whatever we often use the wheels to haul the boat onto the river bank because it is pretty well as easy to do that as it is to tie the boat up afloat and it avoids the risk of damage from the wash of any passing boats. Having said that, getting ashore from a small boat can be a bit difficult on the Charante since the banks are high and overgrown for much of the length of the river - we often had to keep rowing until we came to a village with a quay or slipway.
The locks on the Charante are all in good working order, at least they were for us. I include a picture of a typical lock, they are all similar except for the penultimate one before tidal water, that one being electric with a lock keeper. You work the locks yourself turning those green painted metal wheels, you don't need a lock handle.
After the Charante we spent a few days on the Sèvre Niortaise, which is the next major river to the north of the Charante. Pretty well everything I have said about the Charante would apply also to this river - I would be hard pressed to say which river is the more scenic. The Sevre Niotaise passes through a flat low lying area, the Marais Poitevin whereas the Charante passes through more undulating countryside. The Marais Poitevin was once under the sea and although most of it is now rich agricultural land there are areas of marshland nature reserve with small channels some of which may be navigable by small craft although we kept to the main river.
We now started to work our way north and spent one day rowing on the River Vilaine in the region of Roche Bernard. This is a river we had navigated with our sailing dinghy back in 2002, but we felt it was worth re-visiting. There are steep forested hillsides rising above the river Villain in the region of Roch Bernard. Some way below Roche Bernard the river is dammed with a tidal barrage that has a lock to the sea, this makes the lower reaches broad enough to be navigable by sea-going yachts under sail and there are several marinas where quite a few English yachts are berthed, some rumors would have it that this may have to change after Brexit.
Finally, before returning to Plymouth with Brittany Ferries, we rowed the River Blavet from Pont Augan to the estuary at Laurient. We made an initial inspection of the lock at Pont Augan and were confronted with a sign prohibiting unauthorised personnel from working the lock. We also found that the sockets of the English lock key that we had with us were too large for the spindles on the Blavet locks so even if we were to ignore the sign we would have difficulty working the lock with only an adjustable spanner. Canoes are expected to be carried round the locks but our boat is really a bit too big and heavy for that, especially when loaded with camping equipment. Then we met a lady walking the towpath and asked her if she might have any idea how boats went through the locks. Her English and our French were both very limited but we gathered that if we wanted to navigate the river we should have our boat at the lock at 08:30 in the morning. So we got up early from the camp site at Pont Augan, packed our boat with camping equipment and rowed up to the lock. At 08:30 the lady we had met the previous evening arrived in a white van, produced a lock handle and opened the lock for us. It was only then that we realised that she was a professional lock keeper - I dont think she had let on about that when we met her the evening before! She told us that at least two days notice is normally required from boat owners wanting to navigate the river but she would work the next five locks for us anyway. We had no idea what was the plan after that and there are more than five locks on that river, but we reckoned that five locks was better than no locks and if necessary we could walk back to Pont Augan along the towpath the following day. So off we went down the beautiful river, maybe it is even prettier than the other rivers we had just visited. Wooded hills and rocky outcrops rise steeply from some stretches of the river making almost a gorge in places. And, as we approached each lock, the gate was open for us and there was our friendly lady lock keeper waiting for us in her white van. There was no charge for this service. We got to the fith lock and then she announced that she would open all the locks for us right down to tidal water because, as she said, "I am the best lock keeper in France". So on we went, rowing as fast as we could since we felt that it was unfair to hold her up any more than necessary. She did announce at one point that she was going for lunch and would be back in an hour so we did get a brief rest, but we did the whole stretch down to tidal water at Hellebont in one day whereas I had allowed at least two days for a nice leisurely cruise. The following day we went on down from Hellebont to Laurient on the ebb, then back up on the flood. I have to say that on the face of it, it seems a mad system by which a lock keeper has to work all the locks along a stretch of river - had there been more than one boat traveling in more than one direction I can only guess that she would have been driving back and forth all day long. I dont know why they don't just let boaters work the locks themselves as on most other non-commercial navigable rivers. We did thank our lock keeper with a token drinkable gift after our return by bus to Pont Augan.
I have only talked about our rowing, we did some camping/sightseeing in between the rowing trips and also visited English friends who have moved to France, so it was a good holiday.
Well, when I started writing this I had not intended to write nearly so much, but now that I have done so perhaps I will see if I can add some more pictures and make it into an article for Keith to consider for the DCA magazine.
Hi again John,
I just read your post about your holiday in France and saw your rowing boat.
Is that foam/epoxy? I'd be very interested to know the material dimensions/weights you used if so.
P.S. You've now made me want to explore the French rivers.
Hi Tony - our rowing boat is 3mm plywood with a thin sheath of glass and epoxy on the exterior only. It weighs about 42kg, so not ultra-light but the clip on wheels make it easy to move around. 3mm plywood is quite adequate since the panels of the narrow hull have only a small span between the chines. I am sure that a foam sandwich construction, especially with epoxy and carbon fibre, could be lighter - the racing rowing shells are amazingly light. However, plywood is so much easier to work with (imho).
Thanks John. As you probably gathered from our other correspondence I'm keen to hear from others who've built in foam/glass, partly as I'd like to see where the weight's come from. Also thinking about wheels for the Duck.
Yes, I think building in ply would have been easier, in fact I'm now wondering if I shouldn't have gone to the other extreme and built something out of really cheap materials, accepting that it would fall apart after about a year.