Ascent to the Summit: 27-28/07

Chitry-les-Mines – Sardy-lès-Épiry – Baye

We were heading in the same direction as Guy and Chantal, so we arranged to meet up at Baye at the end of the day. Our two boats would not fit comfortably together in the locks, so we agreed that they would leave first and we would follow on the next run. After the first lock, all the subsequent écluses are only 30 m in length, not the usual 39 m for a frèycinet lock as we had been travelling through previously. The next stretch featured a double lock for a bit of fun (thanks to Steve for this and several other photos in this blog)

and then a long straight stretch including a very narrow section

Just about to get squeezy.

just before we entered the basin which has a set of moorings and the LocaBoat hire base.

As we left the basin, we passed under a bridge into Écluse 24 (Yonne) and on the bridge was a memorial plaque to Jo Parfitt.

Jo, an expatriate Brit, was one of the people who ‘discovered’ the Nivernais in the 80’s and as a founder member of the ‘L’association des Amis du Canal du Nivernais‘, was instrumental in establishing the tourist canal we have today. He used to own the shipyard at Migennes, now run by Simon Evans.

It was still quite hot when we arrived at Sardy-lès-Épiry where Guy and Chantal were waiting and we enjoyed some cool beers together under the trees in the shade. While there is no shade for boats at the mooring at Sardy, it is a wonderful long mooring, well serviced with bollards (but without any water or electricity).

While eating dinner later on in the evening we were thrilled to have a surprise visit from Muriel and Didier, our friends from Migennes. One of the wonderful benefits of cruising like this is that you meet people who knew you were coming because they met a boat going the other way who talked about meeting you, and so on. We saw this with the smoked trout episode at Prégilbert. So Muriel and Didier had been taking a drive along the river and knew where we were from chatting with other boats and the éclusiers. So they came by to just say hello. They didn’t stay for very long, but it was lovely to touch base with them again.

View of the mooring the next day, just before leaving.

It is a great place to rest before continuing onto the Sardy Staircase, a group of 16 locks that take you to the summit of the Nivernais, culminating in three tunnels. So people tend to wait at Sardy before commencing the run which is best done in one hit. There is really only one spot along this route where you can moor overnight (between locks 6 and 7) and probably only room for a single vessel.

This stretch of canal proved to be superbly organised. Managed by the Département de la Nièvre, teams of éclusiers move the boats along in both directions in a well-coordinated effort. This is similar to the situation on the river Somme, where local government has responsibility for the waterway. The VNF pick up the Nivernais again at Cercy-la-Tour.

Supplemented by the usual summer student cohort, everyone was so helpful in contributing to making the experience a total delight. It was a simply gorgeous journey shepherded by friendly, competent and hard-working éclusiers and éclusières who seemed to be genuinely enjoying their work. Some of the old lock gates are manually operated – by brute strength.

The young summer students are easy to converse with as they speak English as did several of the older lockies – of course Lisette competently conversed with the rest.

The day started out fine and sunny although later on it turned cloudy and there were a few showers.

One of the features of this section of the Nivernais is that several of the old lock cottages are now owned by artists and small businesses. At the third lock (#14), we found ourselves beside a pretty cottage, now lived in by a potter, Robert Fuchs. Lisette asked our éclusier if she could dash in as we knew there were no boats behind or in front of us waiting for the lock. Ringing the bell, we entered a tiny stone room, lined with shelves filled with the most unusual pieces of pottery. It wasn’t hard to find a few to take back to Australia as gifts. We tend to leave worrying about how to get things home without breakage until much later – normally we would not buy fragile gifts, but these were truly remarkable.

At this lock, as at many others, the bollards had been painted with attractive designs.

One sculptor has a studio in one of them and his sculptures are dotted along the canal leading up to his cottage.

Approaching Écluse 10.

Partway along this run, the éclusier leaned down and handed us a card from Len and Marion – we had seen their Pierre Le Renard pass us going the other way without having time to hail them. Len had given his card to the lockie to pass to us as a greeting! We had met Len and Marion last year at Moret-sur-Loing.

We made it to Lock #6 where we were told we could tie off to wait out the lunch break.

Just about to moor. And, yes, the rope unfurled as planned and landed neatly around the bollard.

We offered a packet of Tim Tams to the éclusiers to supplement their lunch, as it seemed this was a meeting spot for them on this stretch – arriving by motorbike and bicycle, they congregated to take their break. This is the only real place where a boat can stop on the staircase. Here the canal opens out into a small but delightful basin, with a pretty stream just beyond the trees. We would have loved an overnight mooring there.

We knew that this lock cottage housed a cafe where one can get a light lunch. Although the weather had closed in and it was starting to rain, we strolled over. Lisette saw a man with long white hair disappear into the house and followed him in expecting to find a little cafe inside. Instead, he was heard yelling from another room about ‘bateaux’. Reappearing on shaky legs he carried an empty wine bottle out the back. When asked about the chance of a snack he looked at me and yelled in French, ‘this is not a restaurant!’ Despite the fact that there were sandwich boards outside advertising the available fare. Later the éclusier shrugged saying that he’s like that from one day to the next. To be fair, it was raining. The cottage was surrounded by a bizarre garden, filled with odd items, including a number of broken doll bodies sticking out of a mish-mash of totally unrelated items.

Tied up just beyond the lock was a low platform, cluttered with old sofas and tables, and a stereo system blaring out songs from the 80’s. The owner of the non-restaurant did seem to be stuck in a time warp. This is obviously his happy place.

We retreated to Catharina and lunched on baguettes and cheese on board, after which, the éclusier, true to his word, reappeared jumping up and down waving his cap, ready for us to continue.

In écluse 5, with 4, 3 and 2 ahead.

And on we went with the locks now being only 60 m apart, out from one, into the other. Each écluse has a different theme colour all through the staircase and coloured gates rose up in front of us. Most of the locks were around 3m in depth, and it was not always easy to throw a rope up and the horizontally over the concrete wall to the bollards which were set back from the edge. But again, with the help of the éclusiers and Steve, it was not a problem.

Aerial view of the same four écluses.

Reaching the last of the locks on the staircase, Lock #1, the éclusier managing this one questioned our water draught and shrugged. He said that if we did make it to Cercy-la-Tour, his dad had a shop selling beef where the cattle lived outside, in the fresh air. And we should be sure to visit. With that, he set the tunnel traffic lights to green for us and we started the cruise on the summit pound of the Nivernais.

The last section to Baye is one-way traffic for reasons that became immediately apparent as we continued on into a progressively narrower and more overgrown passage. So dense was the overgrowth that we had to move our plant pots from the edges of the salon roof as they were at risk of being knocked off the deck by low hanging branches.

Just about to get *really* narrow.

We had set up searchlights on deck to help with the three tunnels. They are not particularly long (212 m, 268 m and 758 m) and are quite straight but are unlit.

A barge, not Catharina, but similar in size, entering one of the La Collancelle tunnels.

We hoped some additional light would help Ian place us carefully away from the walls. This was not totally successful, and Steve and Lisette spent the time giving Ian fine-tuned instructions: ‘a touch to port’ – or – ‘starboard, starboard!’ Linking each of the tunnels is a narrow chasm, with steep walls and bushes tumbling down to the water.

Emerging from the last tunnel, we found ourselves in a wide space, separated from the Étang de Baye by a low stone wall. There were good strong bollards well-spaced, and we moored easily with Guy & Chantal waiting to help with our ropes. While the drizzle had long since ceased, it was a little cool and breezy. We had clocked up 81 locks (and three tunnels) since starting on the Nivernais at Auxerre.

Judge the wind by the flags – it was quite chilly!

Drinks that evening were on Guy’s boat. They used their excellent understanding and knowledge of wines to introduce us to some new varietals, although it was couched in a kind of blind tasting. Huge fun. And a fantastic way to relax after a long day’s cruising.

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