Tuesday, May 31, 2011


A busy harbour and major navy base - no wonder it's twinned with Norfolk, VA

[Maryanne]On the edge of the Côte d'Azur, on the French Riviera, Toulon is a place few stop, they might drive through it perhaps, but rarely stop.. It’s not terrible, but there are plenty of other places along the coast that do a much better job of attracting the tourists (Nice, San Tropez, etc). The area was heavily bombed (by the allies) in the war, so much of its original charm is lost. It’s also the main home of the French Navy so there is plenty of military boats in the harbour; very much like Norfolk, VA – so much so they are twinned cities!

So why did we stop here? Primarily it's somewhere with good transport links (the train for Kyle), and good access to stores for me. Kyle left me with a host of chores to do and I’ll hardly bore you with laundry, grocery, scrubbing the decks, etc, but one of the main ‘different’ chores this time was to source a passerelle. Passerelle is the French word used for what we'd know as a gangplank (oh, sorry, you already knew that?).

The method of securing the boat to the dock in the Mediterranean is generally anchor down, reverse back, stern-to the dock and tie up, fenders either side make a nice boat sandwich. Footprint can optionally reverse this and go bow-to the dock and pick which seems best for each marina. This approach gets many more boats in the marina, but generally means a pretty big gap from the back steps of the boat to the dock. Now imagine leaping that gap with a bicycle, or full cylinder of propane, or a week’s supply of groceries – it is NOT going to happen. Hence the need for a Passerelle! Ideally we should have resolved this need much sooner, but better late than never, and Kyle is so weight conscious he didn’t want extra stuff on board for the passage from England.

Back in Cap d’Agde I’d priced them out – oh about €600 ($860, or £525) for a cheap one (oh boy!!). What most people do is rummage around in the back of their garage for parts to make one.. a good secure, 2.5 m (8’) gangplank. The primary solution seems to be an old ladder with a board secured along the length supported by the rungs; a couple of wheels at the dock end to cope with the constant motion and a hook or hinge of some sort to connect to the boat end. Voila!

So off I went to find a ladder. Now, remember I’m on cycle or foot here, so I can hardly drive along the motorway and find the biggest and best DIY store, but luckily there is one not too far away; unfortunately it doesn’t have any suitable ladders.. Hmmm.. what is a girl to do? I’m pretty sure when we need one, we are really going to need it, and most likely very soon, so I decided to buy wood and work from scratch.. First I buy a big 2mx30cm board, then 3 2.4m x 5cm x 5cm timbers. Now, can you picture me managing all this on my bicycle? I do believe I entertained much of Toulon. After much drilling, swearing, and testing I hope I’ve something passable and functional, but only use will establish that – so far I’m surviving crossing the gangplank, but it might be a good idea to kick start the diet again.

The docks and our new Passerelle - long may it last - we'll the season at least!

For the whole week we’ve had Internet on the boat for just €20 (orange wifi reaches the marina), but I’ve been too busy to abuse it much. It’s been so nice to catch up with banking and basics without having to hang out in a bar or café (or even McDonalds).

It’s not all been work though; I’ve made some time to explore the town and surroundings a little. I made and met-up with a www.couchsurfing,org friend for some French insight, and even sampled a couple of museums (neither especially great, one especially terrible). Oh and I was warned off taking a picture of an ancient bell tower as a matter of national security (it happened to be within a Navy base - you can look, but don't take pictures).

A feel for Toulon, much of it's ancient past was bombed away, but there are still patches of old city walls

Giant sculptures and ancient overgrown fountains

Markets and street painting competition

Despite not being popular on the tourist trail, the town is filled with lots of grand architecture, an old naval yard, shaded squares, a wonderful daily fruit and veg market, and lots of great cafes with tables tumbling into the squares. Not bad at all!

Squares to relax in

I’m here too early in the season it seems; I took a cycle ride along the coast and was met with the fantastic looking Royal tower guarding the bay.. The notices informed me it was free to enter but didn’t open until 2pm.. When I returned at 2:15 it still wasn’t open, a quick check of the small-print revealed I’d have to come back in July, until then it’s closed. Oh well! The next fort I stumbled across is now a restaurant with open air tables among the crenellations overlooking the sea, I took a quick sneak look, but without a reservation I couldn't stay long.

Towers, Forts and beaches - pretty cool coastline

For just €8 I can buy a day pass that lets me use all the area buses, the ferries in the bay (it’s a big bay) and have a cable car ride up the local mountain, and I’ve been hoping for a full day without chores to make the most of that. The day finally came, unfortunately so did the wind (cable car won’t run) and the sun went away! Oh well, again, maybe some other time?

Kyle will be home soon, and we'll be off to explore the next place, this time together - much nicer.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cliffs and Calanques

[Kyle]I would have loved to stay and linger longer in Agde, but my work schedule wouldn’t allow it, so we had to move on immediately. It’s one of my great frustrations with my job. I never seem to have the time to really explore so many of the places we go properly. {Maryanne: er.. Kyle... I don't think you are going to get much sympathy here}.

After a long commute I arrived home to dinner waiting for me, and after allowing ourselves the luxury of desert from one of the local glace stands we headed out to sea.

An easy passage

The trip was quite uneventful for the first few hours; a tramontane was blowing (a strong cold wind from the North) providing favourable point of sail for our East-bound passage. The full severity of the tramontane took a while to build and we sailed half the night at walking pace with the screacher (our light wind sail) up. Once passed the delta of the mighty Rhone the winds picked up further and we gained speed for a few hours, until they eventually died again for the morning.

I hadn’t had much sleep at work, nor on the commute, Maryanne and I eschewed strict watch keeping for such a short passage, and decided to just sail until we were each tired and swap about as we needed to. I was doing surprisingly well for most of the night but fatigue finally hit me just after sunrise and Maryanne was kind enough to let me sleep until noon. When I awoke the wind was mostly gone and the coast showed dramatic tan coloured cliffs topped with scrubby pines.

I had been hoping for a fast passage because even though I only had a couple of days off, I really wanted to stop at the calanques (geos or mini-fjords) just to the South of Marseille. Calanque d’En Vau and Port Pin were the first two we explored. I had originally hoped to anchor in the tiny but beautiful Calanque d’En Vau with it’s majestic rock formations and high cliffs, but it turned out to be crowded with day trippers and we were not sure we could take the room we needed. We continued on to Port Pin (the next calanque), which was less dramatic, but still pretty; same thing.

Calanque d'En Vau - stunning

Around the following corner at Port Miou, this calanque provided plenty of available moorings on the outside of the harbor and picked one up. Due to the limited room in the calanque moorings are for attaching bow lines, while stern lines are then led to pendants or rings on the cliff face ashore. We found a spare mooring and attached our bridle at the bow and I donned snorkel and fins to swim the stern line ashore to the ring and back. No sooner had I completed this laborious process then the port captain showed up and told us to move due to the cliff divers above us. We unhooked everything, moved to our advised mooring and just as I’d completed swimming and attaching the stern line, he asked us to move to a different shore side ring… Oh sure, no problem! He then charged Maryanne 12€50 for the privilege; we were a little bristled since it was free just around the corner, and we weren’t sure we were getting much for our money, but after all the moving agreed. As I was tidying up the lines, he returned and apologized for under-charging us, we needed to pay 19€ since we were a catamaran! Maryanne attempted to negotiate but he wasn’t having any of it! In an attempt to find out if there were any additional services, we were told we could top up with water (which we didn’t need) at the dock – a hollow victory. {Maryanne: Most of our frustration was not really the price, but our hot off the press guidebook had given us an expectation of about €5 to pay, so the difference was an unexpected shock, also this was the first time we'd used this method of mooring, and with all the forced moves we did it 3 times - it wasn't seeming such a tranquil spot at the time the guy asked for the money!}. But it was still a beautiful anchorage to be and we had no energy to fight or move. Since I already had mask and fins on, Maryanne suggested I go ashore and explore while she secured the boat and completed the end of passage check list.

The mooring field is quite deep (6-10m), and there wasn’t much sea-life within the first meter or so of the surface, but deeper there were plenty of fish and anemones, starfish etc. It was so nice to feel comfortable swimming in the water the boat was floating in again; warm (enough) and clean.. I used the opportunity to check out Footprint’s bottom, the canal hadn’t been too hard on us, but she had a few scrapes all the way through the bottom paint on the starboard bow and rudder (the side nearest the shallow bank we had to hug when passing other boaters).

At that point I was happy to climb aboard for the evening when Maryanne asked if I wanted her to put the camera in the underwater case. “Why would I need to do that?” I pondered. Then I realized I could swim ashore and get pictures from the top of the cliffs, once that idea was in my head there was no getting it out. She tied some shoes, a hat and the camera in its underwater case all to a line and off I went, towing it behind me to shore. It took me quite a while to find a spot to climb out, but in no time I was walking both on and off the cliff top path, enjoying the perspective.

Exploring Port Miou Calanque

Returning to the area I’d come ashore, I passed the cliff diving sites, where high divers had earlier been plunging in. There was an inscription chiseled into the rock, in French, indicating the site is used by the local high-diving school (the French word for diving is plongee, which I like very much.). It occurred to me that If I could get up the courage to jump, I’d have a shortcut back to the boat saving both a walk and a swim. After standing at one of the jump sites, thinking about it for a while from the 10m jump, I threw my fins, mask and camera down below, effectively committing myself to the jump. I did it, landing in the water behind Footprint. Wow!

See Kyle Jump... can you? Picture to the right

When I surfaced, proud and smug from the adrenaline rush of survival, I was surprised to find my belongings nowhere in sight; they must have sunk and I'd be in trouble! At the boat Maryanne watched on, and provided her snorkelling gear and a boat hook for me to search and recover our treasure (or else!). Everything had settled about half way down a slope at about 5-6m of water and I was just able to recover it (Whew!). Maryanne was particularly concerned that our underwater case was only rated to 5m and this screw up had put it below that for some time. Luckily I recovered everything and the camera was fine. Lesson learned – fins don’t float (oops).

Once Maryanne was safely in possession of the camera I decided to return to repeat my dive allowing it to be captured for posterity’s sake, this time leaving all my kit behind on the boat.

It was far to short of a day and we knew we had to leave in the darkness of very early morning, but Maryanne had a surprise for me when I got back. She had located some rum agricole (which I’d failed to find in the stores earlier) and surprised me with a proper ‘ti’punch; a perfect ending to the day.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Hanging out in Cap d'Agde

Coast around Cap d'Agde

[Maryanne]Poor Kyle hardly had time to enjoy his surroundings and an ice cream before he trudged off in the early hours towards Agde train station and on to Paris for a flight to work; I think I arose about the time he'd have been halfway to Paris.

I had a number of chores, but found plenty of time to explore (much of which was spent looking for Internet).

I needed to top up the boat's water tanks; I have a 30m water hose and a host of different connections to fit to various threaded taps and the 'quick-connect' type systems - what could stop me? First problem was I could not find water at our docks which seemed as though they were a newer extension. My water hose was not long enough to reach the original docks with their plentiful taps! Just at the point I was working out I'd have to jug the water from the taps to the boat (what exercise!) a fellow British boater (Chris on Amy) saw me pondering and offered me the use of her hoses, before you know it I had a hodgepodge 70m (230') of connected hoses and was topping up my tanks.

At this point a French boater pointed out the 'modern' water connectors that were just a few meters from my boat (at the back of the power pedestals). After filling the tanks I decided to return all the borrowed hoses and try out the new connectors but I still couldn't work out how to use them even with Chris's help - perhaps we needed a special connector and I added a note to myself to ask at the Capitanerie. Some time later I met the same French boater at the dock and asked her to confirm how to connect to the modern/different water fittings... "Oh but you had the right connector" she said, "right in your hand". I tried again and couldn't connect, perhaps mine was slightly a different diameter? Some French/English difference? She compared my connector to her connector - identical - and with her confidence and a LOT of elbow grease we shoved the connector in place needing a force way beyond where I had given up and Voila! Water.

These metal tubes at the BACK of the power pedestal connect to the water supply! So much still to learn, you pull back an outer sleeve and push your 'quick-connect' hose fitting in with all your might

I met up with Chris and her husband Phillip a number of times during our stay, they were warmly welcoming and very kind, and Chris took a particular liking to jelly beans which I'll have to remember if we cross paths again.

Along with my household and boat maintenance chores (I have to say that since Kyle will be reading this), I managed a day on my bicycle exploring the surrounding beaches and scenery, and another day in Agde to sightsee at a more relaxed pace. Our Camera has been seriously misbehaving recently. It keeps shooting in the wrong mode (e.g. using Macro for a scenery shot), meaning we end up deleting 80% of the pictures we take. It also seems to shoot everything at least a little out of focus and very gloomily and cuts off two of the corners on most shots; it's been really frustrating. At some point it seemed to have lost a couple of days of pictures entirely and this was the main reason for my returning to Agde (Luckily they were recovered some time later when we realized the memory card had become unseated).

Cap d'Agde is (in)famous for its nudist colony (they even have a naturist Marina). It seems this and most of the water parks etc. are seasonal and all seemed closed right now, so I never found myself in trouble, nor enjoying (or not) the special views of the area.

The stress of chores and cameras was forgotten though as the South of France Wine tasting weekend arrived (Vino Cap), and right on my doorstep (well, almost). €5 was exchanged for an event wine glass and all the wines I could sample for the weekend, some stalls shared fancy nibbles too. With over 80 different stalls, each offering between 3 and 8 different wines, there was no way I'd taste them all. I spent one day sampling a few white wines, skipped the rose completely, and another day sampling reds. I can't remember which ones I liked or didn't like, but It was great fun; such a shame Kyle wasn't able to share it with me.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Mediterranean & Cap d’Agde

[Kyle]Before the boatyard opened, we left the crane dock and motored our now sailboat the meagre four miles from the yard at Grau d’Agde to the marina at Cap d’Agde. We both really wanted to shake the sails out and sail around for a bit, but we still had too much to do and the trip wasn’t long enough to justify it.

The river meets the Mediterranean

The best part was that most of the four miles was along the coast from the Hérault to the harbor at Cap d’Agde, requiring us to officially enter the Mediterranean Sea. It wasn’t an overwhelmingly beautiful spot, although it was pretty, but it was the Mediterranean. We were in the Mediterranean. Just the day before, our log broke 14,000 miles and now we were floating on yet another sea!

The marina complex in Cap D’Agde is gigantic, with just under 2,500 berths. After we got our slip assignment from the Captainerie at the welcome dock, it took us another fifteen minutes to motor the distance to it. We had a bunch of errands we still had to get done in Agde proper during business hours – about a one hour and forty-five minute walk – so we secured everything and hastily departed.

The Beaches of Grau d'Agde on the Mediterranean

We spent the whole day in Agde alternately waiting around and running on wild goose chases in the midday heat, all to no avail. By the time we trudged back home, we were defeated, both physically and emotionally. We both wanted nothing more than a few hot showers each, a hasty meal and then to flop into to bed.

We went in search of the shower block and in the process noticed something strange about Cap d’Agde. Even though it is probably the biggest marina we have ever used, it has almost no facilities for boaters. There was no laundry room, no store and no dock carts. When we did finally locate the poorly marked shower and toilet block, we found it to be grudging, as if there were some law that said they had to put in one toilet bowl for every 100 berths and one shower stall for every 300.

The town was clearly set up for the throngs of tourists that flock to the waterfront by car. The whole harbor was ringed with souvenir shops, ice cream stands and beautiful open-air restaurants serving wonderful smelling food. Everything was at tourist resort prices. I suppose if you had mega-yacht money (with posh on-board facilities and a crew to do your laundry), it would be a lovely place to while away the day in the seat of a rotating selection of restaurants and cafés, watching the world go by. For us, it was a little more of a gauntlet, trying to get through the two-block zone ringing the water without ending up with something we just discovered we have to have. I wasn’t bothered about big oil paintings or marble flowerpots, but the gelato stands were a little harder.

With the mast back up, we had an extra Flag raising ceremony!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Out of the Obstacle Course and Back to Being a Sailboat

The last lock - a special one with 3 gates, and finally the canal ends and meets up with the river

[Kyle]We went out alone through the last lock, the enormous Écluse Ronde, which is probably big enough to accommodate ten boats at once, except that nobody was going our way. After a short section of canal, we joined the Hérault River and headed downstream to the place we would be stepping the mast the next day. Once we arrived at the location, we found two places in fairly close proximity to one another. The one I thought it was didn’t seem to have a crane around, but looked like they may have one out back. The other one had a nice, big crane out front looming over a nice dock that was obviously paired with it. The scale of the chart was such that the arrow with the phone number Maryanne called a couple of days before could have been either one.

We tried my place first. They had lots of machinery and yard space and could clearly handle anything, but the adjacent bank looked like a post-apocalyptic ruin. There were sharp metal and concrete piers and pieces of piers sticking out everywhere. Only about a third of them had a rotting tire or a flat fender on the offending piece as modest protection. The only semi-safe place to go seemed to be in the travel-lift slip. I landed Maryanne very carefully from a corner of the boat on a slab of crumbling concrete and she went in to figure it out. They were very evasive about whether our reservation was with them or not and became noticeably annoyed when she suggested we would go to the other place to check with them. If it wasn’t them, we’d be right back.

It was them (the other place). The guy said that even though they weren’t expecting us until the next day, they could put the mast up later that very day.

The last 'problem' bridge, and somewhere to re-step the mast

We spent the next few hours pre-doing as much as possible so the lift would be smooth. Once the time came, only about ten minutes elapsed between connecting and disconnecting the crane. The bill was only €25! Maryanne and I spent the rest of the day’s light tuning and tensioning the rig, sorting out all of our lines and putting the wind generator back up. We got the Genoa up, but ran out of light before we could get the mainsail back on. It’s more complicated with all of its associated hardware. We tackled that last job at first light the next morning. We were now a sailboat again!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Strikes and Bumper Cars

The 7 lock staircase at Beziers

[Kyle]About five minutes before 8:00am, a big rental boat came charging past us from up the canal toward the locks, throwing us into the bank. Knowing there were several boats waiting to go through and not wanting to miss our chance, we made our hasty departure.

At the top of the lock, we learned that the boat was a crewed charter and that the locks weren’t opening until 8:30. Our guidebook (which is new) is so outdated. Nothing had happened by 9:00, so one of the crew from the other boat went to check out what was going on. She came back and shouted to us that the lock-keepers were on strike today. Oh, you have got to be kidding me!

By then, there was a pretty big backlog of boats wanting to go through. Our spot on the bank had been taken. We asked a British couple if we could raft up to their barge for the day and they kindly obliged. We went down to try to find out something about it first hand, but just encountered closed doors.

Resigned, we went back to the boat where Maryanne called the place we hoped to have the mast stepped to make sure there would be no delays. All of my buffer time was gone. She’s getting pretty good at French. She got us booked in first thing in the morning on the last day I had available (hoping we would make it). He asked her all kinds of questions about the boat and she handled it very competently. I can hardly follow her French any more.

Maryanne went to double-check the locking times and came back to report that they were filling the locks and she had seen a lock-keeper. She called to him across the lock and asked if they were working today. “Oui.” Came the response accompanied by a look that said, “Why wouldn’t we be?”

Because you weren’t there two hours ago, that’s why! He told her they they were starting the down-lock process at 11:30 today. Okay….

At 11:30, we took up a position nearer the lock. Nothing happened. Then we noticed the boats coming up-lock. Oh, you have got to be kidding me again!!

We tied to a ring and a piece of a bar sticking out of a cliff and sat back for the show. A rental boat with a party crowd came up from behind, realized he was out of room and attempted to turn around with the usual too much power. He was hitting everything. It took all of my strength to keep them from stripping the dinghy off. Everybody was yelling “Slow down! Ralentissez!”

Realizing we weren’t going anywhere until the post-lunch down cycle, we had a big lunch and watched the show, occasionally getting up to fend someone off that strayed into us. Our favourite was the drunken guy in the gift store captain’s hat with the crew in matching t-shirts. In addition to the usual bumbling, he made a point of saluting everybody he saw, while his crew toasted everyone.

Finally, our turn came to go down. We shared the lock with the guy who had blasted past us first thing and a very pushy German who forced his way to the front of the line after taking the commercial dock for himself for the wait.

The impatient lock-keepers started draining as soon as we cleared the doors. By the time I had my line sorted out, the boat was too low to jump aboard. There were no ladders. We tagged off and now Maryanne was Captain. It’s good to have someone aboard who knows what she’s doing.

When that locking was through, the German used his boat to push the charter boat out of the way so he could be first. During the emptying of the lock, his boat moved backwards as ours moved forwards and the tip of our mast made contact with his flag. It didn’t break the pole or anything, just brushed the flag. It must be considered some kind of act of war for an American boat to touch a German flag, because he removed his flag and gave us the stink-eye for the rest of the Foncérannes locks, and the two after.

Leaving Beziers

We got left behind on subsequent smaller locks, which allowed the party boat to catch up, requiring lots of panicky fending until they peeled off somewhere to do some partying.

Flood protection and thrill rides on route

After a few hours, In spite of the very late start, we arrived at Agde, the last lock before we leave the canal and head back to sea. We arrived after the last locking in our direction, so we headed out to see the town. I don’t know that I was really expecting much of Agde. A had only seen it on a map as a series of road lines and blotches for populated areas or parks. It turned out to be just wonderful. The city was founded by the Greeks 2700 years ago and looks every bit of it. Most of the streets were narrow enough that I could almost touch both sides at the same time and were organized in an incomprehensible rabbit’s warren. Things were crumbly in that agreeable French way. Maryanne called it derelict chic (Dérélicte! – That’s for you, Kate). We found a restaurant (with amazing pizza!) that offered free unlimited wifi on the way home and camped out for the evening.

First Views of Agde