Tuesday, 17 September 2013

River navigation: Up La Charente

Everyone told us that visiting the historical town of Rochefort was worth the 2.5 hour motor-sailing slog up the river.  Since we were supposed to have very light winds anyway (wrong again, Meteo France) and our rendez-vous with family for a weekend sail in Royan was cancelled, we had some time on our hands and were game for a little river adventure.

A 12 nautical mile river navigation from the mouth of the Charente river to Rochefort.

Rochefort was chosen by Louis 14th in 1665 to be the naval center of France, where battleships would be built, repaired, and outfitted.  The arsenal included facilities for ship-building, sail and cord making, iron works, and the world’s first naval medical school (which continued until the 1960s and still houses a creepy medical museum with “specimens” from the French penal colony that was established here).  It is also the port from which Lafayette sailed in 1780 to help the Americans in their revolution against the English.  A replica of his ship, the Hermione, is under construction with plans for a 2015 sail to America.

Arriving in the Rochefort loch and port with its restored 17th century buildings.

With beautifully restored buildings along the river, sailing into Rochefort is like arriving in a small riverside Versailles.  The old town area, while small, resembles a Parisian neighborhood, complete with palm trees.  And as is usually the case in the off season, the third night in port was free, so we took our time to bike around town and wander through its side streets.

The Royal Corderie (cord works), the longest building in the world when built.

The Hermione replica and the sail-making workshops.

One of the many gates into the arsenal area.

The more modern part of the town and HUGE farmers market.

The river cruise up to Rochefort was not without its charms and amusements, either.  The river is lined with fishing cabins, privately owned shacks on stilts that are the envy of every local. 

Fishing cabin at the mouth of the river.

Fishing cabins line the river near Rochefort.

Just before arriving in Rochefort, two bridges pass overhead, with a comfortable 32 meter clearance.  The center of the channel is marked on top of the bridge (red cylinder on the left, greed triangle on the right… yes, North American friends, it’s “backwards”.)

Channel markers posted on top of the bridge.

Now, you may ask, why put the channel markers way up there?  Because it’s easier for the CARGO TRAFFIC to see.  I had read that the Charente still had an active river commerce and traffic but we thought we would be safe on a Sunday.  Thus you can imagine our surprise (and explicatives) as we rounded a corner of this bucolic river scene and saw a cargo barreling down on us in a narrow part of the river channel.  My first high-pitched scream to Patrick was, quite naturally, “GET OVER !  GET OVER !”  Then after a mad dash down to look at the chart to see how much water was actually over there, I retracted. “NO !  Stay where you are !  DON’T get over !”  As he got closer we realized there was more room than we thought and we passed more or less comfortably.

Yikes ! Big neighbors on the river.

These big guys also have some alignments (transit markers) to help them find the middle of the channel.   For some reason, they’ve chosen the letters A and T to mark either side of the channel.  The game is to line up the two poles so that the A’s are on top of each other, which puts you in the deepest part of the channel.  Smaller boats like ours don’t really need this but it’s fun to play along anyway.

Alignments (or transits) to find the deepest part of the channel.

We had been dodging stand-up-paddleboarders since the mouth of the river.  We figured there was a rental site somewhere on the river and that this fad (a very peculiar one that I thoroughly fail to understand) was big on the river.  As we neared Rochefort, one young man was very (dangerously) close to us and Patrick jokingly asked if he wanted a tow.  With a big smile, he dashed behind Spray and used her as a wind break from the 15 knot headwind that had kicked up in the afternoon.  He stayed with us for about 10 minutes and had no problems doing 5 knots behind us.  He said he was participating in the Fort Boyard Challenge, a race from Fort Boyard in the bay to Rochefort, a 25 mile endurance race.  He said he would probably get in trouble for using our boat as a wind break, but we told him we would vouch for him and tell the race organizers that we were lost and asking for directions.

Drafting behind Spray after 25 miles of paddling.
We plan to leave Rochefort tomorrow night (loch opening and tidal constraints) and will head 1 hour down river to the port of Soubise for the evening, and then back out into the bay to parts unknown ! (to us…).