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Paris and Back

Buoys Toy
Buoys Toy

The winner of the most Interesting Log and the Black Dog Trophy was A. N. Thomas and L. M. Thomas for this log about their trip to Paris and Back

Over the years I bet we all end up with mental “Bucket Lists” which normally, unfortunately do just that.. They Stay Mental. Taking our own boat up the Seine to Paris was quite definitely on the list, but Mighty Max 2 having a draught of 2.5 metres, plus a particularly high carbon mast were two downsides to the idea. But things change. Selling the racing boat quickly got rid of the air draught problem, and finally buying a twin screw Grand Banks 42 Europa the other one. Buoys Toy only draws 1.5 metres!

With the new boat based in Lymington, we were also a tad closer to France than our old Mersey racing area. Just a case of getting used to manoeuvring with two engines, and converting to a Yachtmaster (Power) and Bob’s your Uncle.

The learning curve was indeed steep, but 12 months after taking over from the old owner we decided that it was now the Seine’s turn. Arthur, my erstwhile Main Trimmer just loves engines, and by the time last September arrived we had dealt with oil changes, filter changes, discovered Racor elements, dressed drive belts, and fixed blocked toilets. Such Happy Days!
This, though, is where it all seems to go awry.

We read the books; we read the articles; we checked the websites. EITHER. We were incredibly Unlucky, or the writers of said books & articles were the opposite.

The first part of the trip, across the Channel to Cherbourg, was the bit that concentrated my mind the most. With the crossing of the Bay de Seine to Le Havre not so much.

We had had some problems with the stern thruster on Buoys Toy during our summer outing to Liverpool via the West Country & Ireland; an intermittent fault became a definite one, and we ended up after several weeks of frustration with a replacement motor & new battery. Fixed; eventually. Good to Go.

Thus it was mid September before Dave, Anne, Lesley & I powered out through the Needles Channel & headed South. 1400 revs; 9knots. There was a plan of sorts. I reckoned it would take about a week to get up to Paris, and then stay perhaps a fortnight. However it WAS mooted that leaving the boat there would give us the opportunity of Christmas in Paris, doing some Eurostar commuting. Very open plan!
The forecast was good; F4 from the West, Reasonable viz, but with some rain near the French coast. I had been worried about the heavy traffic in the Channel, but the combination of AIS & Radar made it a gift. We were within 8 miles of Cherbourg when the rain started, and the visibility dropped, and continued to drop until we were sailing in a grey pea soup of less than 1⁄4 mile viz. Jeepers! Electronic navigation completely.

Eventually this huge dark “lump” appeared dead ahead. Was it one of the forts which defend the entrance to the port? Well, not unless the forts had an AIS signature of a dredger! We were reminded of the M&S adverts. This was no ordinary dredger!

It was truly enormous, right slap bang in the fairway, discharging into another equally huge barge alongside. The fort, when it did appear was completely dwarfed by this monster. We gave both a wide berth & headed like drowned rats for the Marina.. Port de Plaisance, even, two miles or so deeper into the outer harbour.

The downpour continued. It rained when we berthed, it rained during a particularly good dinner in town, it rained in the Carre Four, and continued while we unmoored. Very, very wet. Glad I’m in a wheelhouse & not in an open racing cockpit.

Out after that one soaked night. We leave via the Eastern entrance, find the fairway buoy then turn right, and head for Le Havre. Rain stops, sun comes out. But the wind is now 25 kts dead astern and building.

Forecast is still F4. Hmmm.

It continues to build. We now have a serious roller-coaster ride across the Bay de Seine as the wind gusts at near gale. The seas are building up dramatically, and we discover the Grand Banks will surf at 17 knots. Impressive. Even more so that she doesn’t vary off course by more than 10 degrees, & the auto pilot is performing beautifully. There’s a lot to be said for that long keel.

Wind astern..& Building!
Wind astern..& Building!

The approach into the Seine is now a toss up. Do we head directly into the river entrance, and then up to Honfleur, or into the marina at Le Havre? Le Havre is closer, but there are loads of “Thou shalt nots” in the Pilot... We decide to head for the river which is a good one mile wide at the top of the Bay, & risk the plethora of anchored ships lying outside. The AIS shows no less than ten such vessels, but in reality they were easy to avoid as we got closer. Dodging the Red Jet in Cowes had obviously given us more confidence than we thought!

The first few miles of the estuary is more like the open sea, then surely & slowly the training walls & sandbanks begin to flatten the waves & we are suddenly into France & the Seine. There are still plenty of big Commercial Ships here with obvious right of way. We are sidelined into a secondary channel to keep us well clear of them but now, into view, comes the first bridge. Is it obvious?

Just a bit!

If you like suspension bridges, you’ll love this one. But First. Honfleur.

This part of France took a real pounding when the Allies invaded in June 1944, with a lot of the ports such as Le Havre & Cherbourg being virtually flattened. Honfleur was thankfully untouched, and has the feel of Chester about it. Medieval, pretty, unspoilt, with charm oozing out from every cobble.

Dave & Anne enjoy Honfleur
Dave & Anne enjoy Honfleur

We loved it. You lock into the outer basin, then if there is room, into the incredible Inner Harbour where shops, cafes, restaurants, and tiny hotels surround the old port. The Port Ancien was unfortunately still full even this late in the season, so we ended up moored on the quay just outside... We could step onto the stonework directly from the flybridge... Excellent!

It was even more excellent having breakfast up there in the sunshine the next morning... Warm Rolls & Croissants straight from the Boulangerie 100 metres away, complete with local jam... Pardon, Monsieur. Comfiture...

Whether it was a hangover from the sleigh ride across the Bay, or a fundamental need to dry out, we stayed an extra 48 hours in the town.. We soaked up both atmosphere & vin rouge with delight; plus the sun continued to shine! As an added attraction there was a replica of Magellan’s Flagship, the caravel Trinidad afloat in the Old Port, a mere 50 metres from our berth, with guided tours in all languages.... How these incredible early navigators managed to go round the world (Not knowing it was round!) in such little ships is mind boggling.

Time to go time... But.. There’s a problem with the tide up to Rouen, some 40 miles South of Honfleur... You have to time it right!

Now, you might think that any sailor based around the Mersey estuary with our 10m range would be used to tides.. And you would be right... The problem with the Seine is that you can ONLY travel during the hours of daylight, and as the year moves away from summer then the tidal AND daylight window shrinks...In fact you are left in late September with only about 4 days per fortnight when both coincide... Oops...

In reality, this is where the planning really comes in... Wait for a good Channel weather window, and you could easily miss the Seine Tidal window.. Go in June & the problem is barely there, go in December & then it’s VERY difficult.

As it was we ended up pushing the last of the ebb for about 3 hours, then had the early flood all the way to Rouen... A boat with a steady 8-9 knots makes this much easier.. Do it in a very small one with limited power & you have to be bang on.

The lock out of Honfleur was easy, then on up to the Pont de Normandie with perhaps a knot of current against us.

The pylons supporting the bridge are truly GIGANTIC... Red flashing lights warn the surrounding aircraft, and can be seen for miles, but you just do not realise the scale until close up... It’s so high the QM2 looks as though she could get under with a funnel or so to spare, and the vans & lorries look like toys driving over... It was in fact the biggest in the World in 1995 when it was opened, & it’s just superb.

Did I mention the Pont de Normandie was big?
Did I mention the Pont de Normandie was big?

Things then take a dive.

The Seine is typical of any commercial river worldwide certainly as far as Rouen is concerned. We gently motored past miles of mud, flat land, decaying piers, and derelict lumps of steel which just might have been boats once upon a time. It is all VERY depressing to see what one of Europe’s main arteries can end up like. Frankly it’s a mess, but we trundle on, knowing the city of light is on the horizon. Roll on Paris!

Rouen, though is little better.

We moor up in the visitors marina on the Southern outskirts, and discover the ultra-bare concrete & obvious rat traps are no improvement on the previous 40 miles. No shops; no restaurant. Whose idea was this?

This overnight stop was positively Spartan...

If you are a sailing boat wanting to travel through France to the Mediterranean, at some point you have to drop your mast. This is the marina where that all happens, & they are well geared up with lifts, cranes, workshops etc. to do the job. But that’s ALL they do... Don’t expect any effusive Gallic welcome with wine, candles, & chequered table cloths.

The trick, provided you don’t need to drop the mast, is to by pass the Visitors Marina completely & continue 2 miles on into the city. Because, dear reader, suddenly things start to improve... As you can gather, we didn’t by pass it, & spent a lousy night in the Port de Plaisance; but hopefully, if you fancy the Seine, YOU will!

The Cathedral, bang in the centre of Rouen, is really quite breathtaking, &, happy days, you can moor up next to it... One of Northern France’s original Gothic masterpieces which helped inspire our own Salisbury Cathedral, it’s worth a long, long look. There is that classic mix of thin verticals, pointed arches, rose windows, and flying buttresses.

It’s hard to believe it was started in the 11th Century, but the tomb of Richard the Lionheart, & the Monet paintings span so many years its age seems to seep into your soul. Just Fab.

... And, being in the City Centre, you are suddenly in the middle of French life... Loads of goodies; food, clothes, cafes, even pubs!

Don’t, however expect the number of people who speak English to be like the French Riviera, or Paris. Oh no. You are in Normandy now, mate; so be prepared to get your rusty foreign language out of that cupboard & get stuck in! The locals just LOVE you to try your schoolboy French on them, & are equally happy trying out their English. You end up with a brilliant conversation made up of “Franglais”. Did we manage? Yep. Did we starve? Nope!

The Seine continues prettily beyond Rouen for just a few miles as a fading tidal waterway, but soon it becomes canalised when you meet the first locks at Amfreville.

These are locks on a GRAND scale... Built to take the massive continental barges in 1880 or thereabouts, they take some getting used to... They are a really far cry from the narrowboat locks we see or might use on the British canal system.

There are several other differences from ours, too. Firstly, they are manned. Secondly, they ONLY speak French via the radio, & thirdly your licence is inspected there and then.

Ah... What Licence? “Le Billet; Monsieur?”

Just a tad of digression here... If you have bought & read “The Inland Waterways of France” which is the standard tome; beware! It is WELL out of date “

The Temporary licence will be purchased at the first Control Lock encountered..”

Not so any more... You buy it On Line these days, print it out, and show it on the Starboard side of the wheelhouse... The Lock keeper merely checks it, then refuses you access through the lock if it’s not on show.... Ooops!

We discovered about then that these burocratic changes had only just come into force, and the lock keeper still had the where with all to help us out... So, after an hour or so we had our “Billet” & were on our way into the Seine proper..

The scenery becomes quite rugged beyond Amfreville, there are massive limestone escarpments in fantastic shapes above very green, very lonely fields with few villages. The river is both deep & wide here, winding its gentle way around the cliffs & the odd dilapidated grand chateau. You quickly realise it’s a genuinely BIG canalised waterway with a lot of marine traffic... ALL commercial. Private pleasure boats?

We saw none.

In fact, there is a feeling here of the land that time forgot... France is suddenly not only big, but deserted too.. It’s most peculiar. We are reminded how, if flying over Europe at night, how DARK it is compared to Britain. Now we know why... It’s not that the UK is all lit up, it’s that Europe is REALLY sparsely populated!

We hear a lot of chatter on the VHF, & note the Bateau Anglais mentioned... Hang on.. That’s us! Apparently my call to the lock at Amfreville caused some amusement...

“Eglise Amfreville, Eglise Amfreville; C’Est Le Bateau Anglais, BUOYS TOY, BUOYS TOY”

All the way to Paris, we are now the Bateau Anglais... They cannot pronounce Buoys Toy!!

One of the highlights of the trip was meant to be Les Andelys... In all the books there are amazing photographs of the white limestone Crusader castle perched high above the water, with an idyllic looking hamlet clustered around a landing stage & tiny marina.

This is also the “Stop Off” for the Impressionist Monet’s house, complete with the Water Lily pond he painted so often... Looking forwards to it! This is going to be our overnight, probably full day stop. All planned.

Again, things are not what they seemed in the book... The Landing stage at Les Andelys is there; we are looking at it... But it’s NOT for private boats... ONLY for the huge Bateaux Mouches. We are told in no uncertain terms to go away!

Further bad news; the little marina that is visible 200 yards from town closed down 2 years ago, & is silted up.. “Prive” is written all over the small entrance which is further barred with a chain. No chance there, then.

The crazy part, though, is that the Bateaux Mouches, or Hotel Boats only operate at the weekends out of season.. In the week you find them moored up in quiet spots with a skeleton crew aboard keeping them warm & aired ready for Friday evening.. Sunday night, & they are dead again.

Disappointed, we motor on to the next lock at Notre Dame de la Garenne & end up spending the night alongside the concrete pound. It’s a far cry from the Crusader Castle or Monet’s house! The local restaurant has closed for the season, too.... Oh Joy!

We are beginning to feel unlucky. The Licence debacle, the loneliness of the countryside, the lack of welcome at Les Andelys, and now... FOG!

We awake by the lock at Notre Dame to complete silence. There is absolutely nothing to be heard.. No wind noise, no wave action, no motors. The river is shrouded in a deep grey mass with visibility which varies from zero to maybe 30 metres tops.. Wow!

Breakfast is a distinctly subdued affair.. Not only are we aware that this fog might be dangerous, but we are also running short of basic supplies. We had of course planned on getting to the shops in Les Andelys. Fortunately the fog starts to thin around 10am.

The river traffic IS now moving.. The barges radar scanners are turning, their AIS is switched on, but everything is VERY slow. We wait for a decent gap in the traffic, & cast off. I engage the aptly named “Slow Boat Mode” & take a deep breath... Gently does it.

After an hour of heart in the mouth navigation, going bog eyed from watching both Screen & AIS as the visibility jumps from 300 metres to almost zero in the thick patches we are delighted to find a public mooring space in Vernon.

This is a typical Norman town, tiny & perfectly formed, as they say, with a bustling market place surrounding the usual church.. Cheese, Red wine, & baguettes are easily found. We return to Buoys Toy for lunch to find a gendarme giving us the evil eye... “Hotel Boats Only, Monsieur!”

Oh... The sign was obscured. Bugger!

We cast off & eat while under way... Thankfully the fog has gone.

Conflans St Honorine is down as the “Barge Capital of the Seine” in all the guide books.. There is a fuel berth, & a public marina, apparently.

After our continual disappointments with finding decent berths, this information is now treated with some trepidation.. but NO.. We can berth AND get fuel!!

In fact, we are genuinely made welcome in Conflans; the restaurants are quiet but happy places, the bars very French with zinc counters, & the fuel prices not too dreadful... No Red Diesel, here of course; & we spend our first quiet night in a decent berth.

There are a load of moored up Bateaux Mouches next to us with their usual skeleton crews aboard, & these are visible in the photograph astern of the Toy.. Not small these cruise ships!

We also have the pleasure of meeting our first Private pleasure boater... Henri is travelling alone but for his Pomeranian, & handles his Dutch Barge with panache. Indeed, we thought the dog was going to take his bow line ashore at one point!. Dave, Henri, the pooch & I have a sly but welcome beer under the Autumnal trees of the town square, while Anne & Les hit the shops.

Plus, the pooch drinks Guiness!. Honest.. Quite a character, that Pom.

In the morning, Henri is most unhappy.. His internet access has suddenly shown a load of unexpected lock closures.. At a days notice!

We are trying to be philosophical with him until we realise one of the locks is OURS in Paris! There is a superb marina in the centre of Paris, a stone’s throw from The Isle de la Cite & Notre Dame, but to access the marina, we need the lock... Ooops!

It is due to close today, & remain shut until late February/March. 5 Months.

This is a disaster area.

Suddenly the whole trip is becoming a nightmare. The phones burn. There is ONLY one other public marina this side of Paris, in Suresnes, & they can take us for a fortnight tops. Where we are in Conflans is also going to be full from the following week, plus transport from Conflans is distinctly rural & difficult.

A Council of War is held.

There are not too many options now... Do we go on to Paris, stay a fortnight in Suresnes, then come home? Turn round now & head back to the Channel? Stay here in Conflans for a while, then go home?

We decide to go on... Paris is only 20 miles away, & we feel we should at least get to the City of Light if only for a short time.
There is only one physical obstacle left to us... Our mast!

The bridges in the Paris environs are a tad lower than this part of the Seine.. Down it must come.. Radar dome & all...

The mast dropped outside Paris.
The mast dropped outside Paris.

The mast is an Aluminium structure with some fairly hefty fittings, including the Radar so we end up lowering it with several ropes until it rests on the inflated dinghy. Good to go!

Two hours later, having scraped under the bridges, we find the small marina at Suresnes... The nearest Metro station is 300 metres away, & they can give us shelter for nearly 3 weeks... Great.

So it is that we use this as a base to look around Paris, do all the sights, then jump Eurostar back from Gare du Nord straight into Lime Street.

All we have to do now is get another crew ready for the return... But that’s another story.

© A.N.Thomas L.M.Thomas 2018.

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