Cruising the Rivers of the West Coast of France: or how STARR became a canal barge…

Cruising the Rivers of the West Coast of France: or how STARR became a canal barge…

La Rochelle became our base for cruising in the Bay of Biscay, North to Brittany. While we visited many of the beautiful islands between La Rochelle and Southern Brittany, the Ile de Re, Ile de Yeu and Belle Ile, our best times were spent cruising up the many rivers to the old market towns that once were the lifeline of commerce in France. The Bay of Biscay is very shallow, many places there is barely 8′ of depth under the keel at close to high tide, so entry into the rivers was a challenge of timing. More often than not STARR would be safely tucked into a basin that was home to the local fishing fleet (Bassin a Flot), with a gate that closed as the tide dropped to ensure enough water for moorage at low tide. Often there might be another outer harbor (Avant-Port) without gates and here the smaller craft would sit in the mud as the water emptied out and returned in its proper time. The trick of cruising up the tidal rivers of the West Coast of France was to exit the safe moorage spot early enough to get into and up the river before the next drop in tide. Don loves a good challenge and river cruising was a real adventure.

Our first experience was in July, heading up the Vilaine River to La Roch-Bernard. Cruising friends with a 35′ sailboat wintered their boat here and could not say enough wonderful things about the place. We leave the Golfe du Morbihan (a shallow inland sea West of Vannes) at 0900 when the tide is ebbing and running fast and enter the Vilaine at 1300 on the rising tide. Now the Vilaine is even more tricky than most rivers, because 4.5nm up the river is Le Barrage d’Arzal (the Arzal dam with its locks). We arrive at L’ Ecluse (the locks) by 1400 and hang out on the seaward side waiting for the locks to open for upriver traffic. While we mill about below the dam with the dozen or so waiting sailboats (all but us are sailboats); we see a guy run down to the edge of the quay with a VHF radio; we call on our radio and talk to the fellow who turns out to be the lockmaster. He asks us our length and then waves us into the lock before the rest of the boats. The lock is divided by a car bridge that passes overhead, about one-third of the length from the upriver end. The bridge is up and we fill up the forward section of the lock, with just enough air space for the bridge to close over us just behind our mast. All of the other sailboats enter the lock and fill up the space on the downriver side of the bridge. We feel like a big sardine in a little can, but it is fun. It is hot and sunny, everyone is happy to be heading upriver, and it feels like a party.

While we wait for the remainder of the lock to fill, some of the Frenchmen on the other boats step ashore and come over to us to chat. They help us out by calling the Capitainerie in La Roche-Bernard to ask if there is room at the dock. The message is relayed to us that it is “Impossible” for us to fit at the dock or on a mooring buoy because we are too big. (As it turns out we are frequently told that it will be “Impossible” for STARR to fit in a marina or at a dock. We became very accustomed to hearing “Impossible! Impossible!” until that official sees STARR and then they somehow figure out a way for us to fit.) It is a certainty that La Roche-Bernard has never had a yacht as big as STARR in their Port on the Vilaine River.

The ride up the river is beautiful and we arrive in La Roche-Bernard around 1600, anchor below the Port, launch the tender and go the the Port Office. The young lady there tells us to go upriver a short distance and to anchor between the two bridges and that maybe tomorrow the Port Captain might be able to help us. We are anchored by 1900 and go to a our friend’s favorite restaurant on the opposite side of the bridge and have the best oysters that we eat anywhere in France.

We spend the morning debating if we should go upriver to Redon or hike downriver to Arzal, when a young man from the Port comes out to us in a small boat and tells us that they have made room for us in the marina. We quickly pull anchor and move to the end of “K” dock. The dock is flimsy, but we put lines over the two strong piling, as well as on the cleats. There is not enough power, but we can fill up with water and we are happy. We can tromp all over town to our heart’s content, which we do. This is a town first settled by a group of Vikings in the year 980, or thereabouts. (There is some question as to the exact date.) The original settlement was a fort on top of rock, surrounded on three sides by water; and was named La Roche (the rock) of Bernhart (Bearheart). The town has a historical walk, using a map obtained at the Tourist Office, with plaques along the way which describe each significant site.

We love this place; it is our favorite so far. In fact we like it so much that we visit it twice, once in July and again in September. It is officially designated as “Une Petite Cite du Caractere” with buildings dating back to the 11th century and flowers everywhere. We spend time just walking about the small village, wandering the streets to see what we might discover. In July we walk the 4nm to Arzal, walking on a trail past fields with hay rolled into cylinders, through a small village, past farms and through the woods along the river, and over the bridge at the locks. It takes us longer than we thought it would, so we have to run to catch the last tourist boat of the day back upriver to La Roche-Bernard. In September we have guests aboard, Shari Walker and her brother and sister-in-law, David and Michone Walker, and while we are in La Roche-Bernard we go even further afield, taking a local bus to Missillac to view the chateau, La Bretesche.

Upon our return in September, we take Starr the 50 nm further up the river to Redon. We talked about cruising to Redon when we were in La Roche-Bernard in July, but we couldn’t find anyone who could tell us if the river was deep enough for STARR and if there were any fixed bridges that might not have enough height to allow STARR to travel all the way there. We knew that a tour boat went to Redon and that sailboats sometimes did also, but no one seemed to know if there would be room in the moorage basin for a boat as big as STARR once we arrived. By the time we had returned to La Roche-Bernard the second time, we had become “old hands” at cruising in shallow waters, squeezing into tight spaces and going where no big yachts had gone before. We also found a chart of the canals of France for our area and could plainly see that all of the conditions looked good for the trip, and as I said before, Don loves a challenge . . .

Once an important crossroads for commerce, Redon is located at a point where navigation up the Vilaine River from the Bay of Biscay meets traffic from the canals that come down from Brittany and Normandy. This canal system was very important during the endless years of war between France and Great Britain. During a blockade of coastal waters by the British fleet, commerce could still move through the canals which reach all the way North to the Netherlands and Germany. The trip up the Vilaine River is breathtaking, with only one stop at a bridge with published hours for opening. Since we didn’t have the schedule, we anchor in the river, wait an hour for the bridge to open, and then move on up the river. It is only a short distance further to Redon. Upon our arrival, we are greeted at the entrance to the bassin by Captain Steff, the only British Port Captain in France. He waves us through the narrow entrance to the moorage bassin, which is mostly full of narrow, shallow draft canal boats, and directs us to tie up alongside the quay. Here we feel like a “canal boat”, but Redon is as far as we can go; the canals from here are very narrow (with a maximum width of 14′) and shallow (with an average depth of 3′).

Redon is a great place for a change of guests; the Walkers leave on the train to Paris and two days later our new guests, Geoff and Candace Daigle, arrive. During these two days I get a haircut and a pedicure (which is a medical process in France, and polishing is not a partof the process). We also meet Helen Legendre, propriator of Bretagne Plaisance, a company that rents a fleet of canal barges. She talks to us about life in Brittany and about the beauty of the countryside viewed from a canal boat. We decide that after we have brought STARR home again to the Pacific Northwest, we will return one day to rent a canal boat to explore the inner waterways of France.

“Canalboat” STARR cruised several other rivers during our Summer and Fall on the Bay of Biscay. We traveled up the Charante River to Rochefort, spending an overnight sitting in the mud alongside a floating dock in Soubise on the way upriver and another night in the commercial bassin in Rochefort. Rochefort was once a center for shipbuilding, and we visit the wonderful Marine Museum while we are there. We explored the Odet River, and anchored overnight in the river about 3km downriver from Quimper. The river was beautiful with a fast current, the resort and yachting center of Benodet at its entranc, and the additional “surprise” of a chateau coming into view every few miles along the riverbank

We made one mistake, however. Based on the recommendation of our cruising guide we traveled upriver from Lorient on the Blavet River to the “charming market town” of Hannebout. Yuck! The river was narrow with muddy banks that are a graveyard for “dead” old wooden boats. As we traveled upriver, the river became more and more narrow and shallow; we never had more than a foot or two of water under our keel. Just before the bridge as we approached Hannebout, some Frenchmen came running down to a dock on the edge of the river, screaming and yelling a warning. The problem was we didn’t know what they were saying. We could see a buoy in the middle of the river marking an obstruction of some kind, but we didn’t know if we should go to the port or starboard of it and had little time to choose. We swung STARR hard to port, moving past the obstruction and in the fast current became stuck in the mud of the riverbank. Fortunately we had been smart enough to travel upriver on a rising tide. We quickly dropped anchor, as STARR began to swing sideways blocking the whole river, which at this point was very narrow. The anchor held, we lowered our tender and and using it as a tugboat pushed and pulled STARR off the riverbank. We had had enough; we turned downriver and headed back to Lorient, spending the night in one of the port marinas.

The dam and lock at Arzal on the Vilaine River
Entering the lock in front of the bridge
In the lock, like sardines in a can
The Lockmaster, he did all the work. He opened and closed the locks, opened and closed the bridge and told all of the boats where to go and what to do.
STARR at the quay in Redon
The resort and yachting town of Benodet
The boat "graveyard" on the Blavet River

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