Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Sailing Bordeaux

Just one word for you: DON’T. 

You could wait until 2020 when the port of Bordeaux is scheduled be renovated and enlarged to receive visiting yachts.  But even in 2020, there’s nothing they can do about the fact that you have to navigate 50 miles of river to get there, and I’ve come to accept that rivers like this one are not meant for sailboats:  4 to 5 knot currents, water so thick with mud that the depth sounder lapses into a coma and flat-lines as soon as you leave port, tree branches and trunks that threaten to bash into your hull / keel / rudder at high speeds, and cargo and passenger barge traffic vying for space in relatively narrow channels.  I saw a weather forecast yesterday that warned of 2 meter “seas” in the river.  I laughed.  I no longer laugh.  Even a moderate wind (12 knots) against a stiff current (4 knots) can whip up mountainous mud slushies.  And to add insult to injury, the scenery around the river is just not that pretty.

Selfie in the muddy Garonne River.
Watching for branches.

There are two very good ports at the mouth of the river, Royan or Medoc.  Beyond this, you have Pauillac (25 miles) and Bordeaux (another 25 miles) for sailboats larger than 10 meters (and preferably with a lifting keel for both).  Pauillac is limited in depth and has a very narrow s-shaped entrance with strong currents, and Bordeaux is limited by a series of locks, all requiring good planning and time management.  Arrive too early in Pauillac and you get bashed around by 3 knot currents inside the narrow port while you’re trying to manoeuvre; arrive too late and you get stuck in the mud.  Bordeaux has a very nice waiting pontoon, but it’s on the edge of the river and exposed to all those tree trunks coming and going at 4 to 5 knots.  Fun, eh?  Whatever your typical cruising speed is, increase it by at least 40% because of the current.  At one point, we were so far ahead of schedule, we doused the sails and then cut the motor off completely and still made 5 knots. 

Pauillac entrance - welcome to wine country.
Pauillac waterfront at low tide.
The port in Bordeaux is old, industrial, butt ugly, has filthy water and is not meant for visiting yachts.  We called ahead a week before and were told there would be no problem for our visit and that we could stay for a week at no charge.  After this initial contact, we could never reach anyone by phone again.  

Waiting dock for Bordeaux Locks in front of the beautiful Chaban-Delmas bridge.

The lock entrance to Bordeaux port.

Inside the lock with tramway in background.
The lock operators were very helpful and opened the 2 turning bridges and 1 lifting bridge for us, but they told us we were on our own to find a place in the port.  There were only a few slips free, and all were stern-to-dock moorings with buoys for the bow line.  Great practice for the Mediterranean, we thought !  After a rather successful tie-up, we were greeted by our neighbours, a small community living aboard vessels that were way past their sailing prime.  While they were kind enough, they aggressively told us we were not to try to use the water or the electricity since they had to pay for those services and we were likely to overload their circuits.  They also told us we had taken the spot of one of their comrades who would likely be back with the next lock opening (every 2 days).  A sign on the port office door read “Closed.”  The immediate surroundings were grim and far away from the city center.  We quickly informed the lock operators we intended to leave with the next lock opening. 

Our first stern-to-dock mooring.

Port of Bordeaux basin number 2.  

We did bravely venture out (despite one guide book that suggested it was dangerous to leave your boat unattended) and found that we were only a 15 minute walk to the tramway that took us straight into the heart of Bordeaux.  Bordeaux is like a small Paris with a better climate and we love it.  For a brief moment over a glass of wine we decided that the port wasn’t so bad after all, but once we made our way back to the port and the wine wore off, we realized it was truly nasty and we couldn’t stay.

Bordeaux waterfront.

Bordeaux waterfront with fall colors beginning to show.
Leaving Bordeaux, however, was almost as difficult as getting there.  As we were making our get-away, the lock opened and a big green net dropped down, blocking the exit.  After waiting, perplexed, as long as I could stand it, I climbed off the boat and went to the lock operator’s shed to see what the problem was.  “We don’t know what that net is or who put it there.  You’ll have to motor up to it and cut it with a knife.”  When he saw my jaw drop and the blood drain from my face, he said “Um…I can go with you if you’d like.”  

Net strung across the lock barring the exit.  Tramway blocked.  Mareda blocked !
Tied up to the bridge while the lock operator tries to cut the net.
We tied up to the bridge and he went off to try to cut the net, surrounded by a growing crowd of on-lookers, blocked in their commute by the open bridge.  The city tramway was blocked for the 45 minutes it took us to get the net cut.  While he was working, he received a phone call explaining the situation.  Apparently the net belonged to the organizers of an adventure race to be held the next day, where participants were meant to swim through the port basins (eeuuuwww!) and climb up the net.  They informed the city official in charge of such things, who completely failed to inform the port authorities.  I hope someone informed the race organizers that their net was cut…       

Our back-up option for a port in the area was the Halte Nautique de Lormont, just 2 miles down the river and underneath the Aquitaine bridge.  This was an idyllic spot located right next to the boat taxi service that takes you into Bordeaux in under 15 minutes.  The problem is that it is also located right on the edge of the river and leaves you exposed to getting bonked by those ever-present tree trunks.  Patrick cleverly parallel-parked us between two boats thinking that they would break most of the wood for us during both incoming and outgoing tides.  It was a good idea and probably spared us about 80% of the wood hurled our way, but we still heard many bumps in the night.  We were very glad to pull away and head back down the river to Pauillac, Medoc and the open sea. 

Halte Nautique of Lormont.  Much prettier if not safer.

Lormont dock underneath the Aquitaine bridge.

We now have 15 days to make it back to our home port of Arzal.  We can make it in 5 hops without any night sails but that leaves little time for any tourism. The weather has turned capricious, too, so we will certainly have a few port days as we wait for things to blow over.  Still, we’re thrilled to be hitting the open sea again after a week in the river, even if it means heading home and ending our sailing season.


Astrolabe Sailing said...

Wow interesting post. Funny about the net! Safe travels.