This post cover our first week or so in the water, moored at Jacques-Yves Cousteau port in Castelsarrasin.
Having successfully motored the short distance from the boat yard to the port, there was no end to the cleaning and other chores awaiting us on La Caunette. However, we decided to take a day out while we still had the rental car – we abandoned La Caunette for the day and went to visit friends, Kathy and Richard in Buzet-sur-Baïse.
As Dave was keen to stock up on his favourite red wine, our first stop was Les Vignerons de Buzet (the Buzet wine Co-operative). Dave had his ten litre plastic keg refilled with his all-time favourite red wine. It was still the same price as it was in 2019 – €2.60 per litre i.e. €1.95 per bottle ($NZ3.20). This wine is of similar quality to wine sold in the supermarkets for at least four times that price (and in NZ for at least 10 times that). I tasted and bought a couple of nice white wines. Usually I prefer rosé but the ones they had available were a bit tart for my liking. Kathy and Richard also stocked up on wine.
We then enjoyed a €16 (Richard and Kathy’s shout) at Le Vigneron. The meal started with soup, then for entrée we could help ourselves to as much as we wanted from two buffet trolleys. The main was à la carte (Kathy and I had fish, Dave pork and Richard goat’s heart). Dessert involved choosing from a sumptuous dessert trolley. Dave was a little more restrained from when we enjoyed a similar lunch in 2019 (he chose a bit of everything from both the entrée and dessert trolleys that time!)
After lunch we drove to Castelmoron to pick up filters and oil for Richard. We then drove on to Montauban to pick up the controller for Dave’s eBike (a new battery had been fitted).
We returned to Castelsarrasin so Kathy and Richard could have a look at the damaged boat going for €20k (but in the end they were not interested as the boat had very complex electrical and mechanical systems, and they would not be able to convert the single and double beds in the main cabin into an island bed). Dave (thankfully) also went off the idea of buying it as something he could work on over winter (He has since said it would distract from his getting La Caunette into tip top condition).
Dave then dropped me off at the gîte and took Kathy and Richard back to Buzet-sur-Baïse. When Dave got back and took his precious wine out of the car, he discovered Richard had forgotten to take his oil. Hopefully, they can source some more and we can pass it on as out cruising paths will meet/cross in the near future.
Return of rental car
Monday came and we needed to return the rental car to Toulouse airport. We made the most of having the car in the morning, stocking up on pantry basics and other grocery items, bricolage (handyman/DIY bits and pieces) and two 20 litre drums of diesel. Dave also added to his already quite impressive tool collection.
As we had plenty of time, we drove to Toulouse along the back roads. A lot of the roads followed the canal and we passed by fields and fields of maize, ripe grains, cherry and plum orchards (laden with fruit), kiwi fruit orchards (protected with anti-hail netting), and newly planted sunflowers, with the odd quaint village, church, castle or dovecote thrown in for interest.
We stopped next to the canal, at Grisolles for a picnic lunch (I had made).
Having dropped the car off we made our way back to Castelsarrasin with a fairly smooth combination of tram and metro to Toulouse station and then train. The only hiccup was that the notice boards advised our train would leave from Quai 3 (platform 3). We made our way to the platform and there was a train there, but its destination was Tarbes. Our train was due to leave three minutes later than the Tarbes train. This seemed all very confusing and then we noticed people running to another train stopped about 200 metres further down the platform/track. We hastened to it and boarded with a minute to spare. I am sure many people would miss it, as there was no indication it was stopped where it was and I did not pick up anything over the loud speaker messages.
It was very quick journey. While the announcements said masks should be worn, Dave was one of the few who did. It only cost us €15 (about $NZ22) each total for the 50 kilometre trip, which seems very cheap by NZ standards.
Cleaning and provisioning La Caunette
We spent the next few days cleaning, sorting through stuff and organising everything on board La Caunette. The main focus for me was on the kitchen. Luckily I had done a thorough clean before we left so there were no unpleasant surprises in the galley/kitchen other than soy sauce that had fermented and bubbled over – but that was easily cleaned. We also found we had much more wine and beer on board than we remembered – tasting so far suggests it has not suffered from not being in a cellar!
However, everything in the pantry was well past it’s use by date so I tipped everything into the canal for the fish to feast on (makes a change for them from human waste/sewerage from boats with no black water tanks, such as ours). I washed all our crockery, cutlery, pots and pans etc – it was fun rediscovering what we had on board – a bit like Christmas!
While I busied myself cleaning the inside of the boat, Dave focused on cleaning the outside (very traditional male female roles there)! Anyway, he did a great job cleaning the boat down, discovering while La Caunette would benefit from painting, the paintwork was not as damaged as he had initially thought. Dave also put the bimini and flags up, fixed the toilet seat and repaired a few other things. I’m always surprised how he can tie knots and do work requiring fine motor skills given the size of his hands!
At the boatyard Dave had found a paper wasp nest. The European paper wasp (Le poliste gaulois) is quite different to other wasps found in France. As well as being the most common, apparently they have a complex and variable social structure. Natural habitat for nests is open scrub or grasslands but they have adapted readily to human constructions, especially those that provide both shelter and heat. In France this is typically under roof tiles, in post boxes, in the bodywork of cars, caravans and boats! Dave removed and disposed of the nest, but the wasps continued to hang around, even when we were moored by the boatyard. Thankfully they haven’t followed us to the marina.
We moved out of the gîte and onto La Caunette, celebrating our first dinner on board with a bottle of bubbly.
Now we are unpacked and have La Caunette clean and ship shape, it feels like we can at last really begin to enjoy life on the canals. I’ve unpacked all my sewing, embroidery and painting equipment and supplies. I’m especially keen to get back into watercolour painting en plein air (open air/outdoors), whether that is just drawing or painting a leaf or flower or more detailed landscape or ‘urban’ sketching.
Having lived out of a suitcase for several weeks, it is so good to know we won’t need to pack and unpack again in the near future.
Heatwave red alert
As has been the case with much of Europe, we have been experiencing very high temperatures.
La Caunette’s stern is shaded by trees which helps a wee bit. We also have two fans and a portable air conditioning unit that helps keep temperatures down, but electricity consumption up – around 20kW per day. Dave has also used his knowledge of aerodynamics to strategically erect a number of shade cloths and strategically position a large sun umbrella to maximise the flow of cooler air.
For a number of days, 12 French departments, including Tarn-et-Garonne where we are, were placed on red alert for heatwaves. This level is announced only during exceptional, very intense and long-lasting heatwaves and when people need to be extremely careful. This is the fourth time that a red alert for heatwaves has been declared (June and 2019, July 2019 and August 2020). Météo-France describes this current heatwave as ‘remarkable’ given how early in the year it is, saying that it could become the earliest heatwave in France measured on a national level since recordings began in 1947. The previous earliest heatwave was between June 18 and 22, 2017. Temperatures started to fall on Sunday (June 19) when a storm began to move in from over the Atlantic coast. Temperatures are still in the low- to mid-30s, so still very warm!
Two Municipal Officers (Police Municipale is the local police of towns and cities in France outside of Paris) visited us, and everyone else moored in the port, on the first day of the red alert to make sure we were aware of it and to let us know we could go to the (air conditioned) Mairie (town hall or what we probably think of as the Council Chambers) if need be. All outside events in the affected départments were cancelled, including a big concert scheduled to take place in the Castelsarrasin’s town square on Saturday.
Even before the red alert was announced we were finding it too hot to do anything after early-morning. Even with fans and air conditioning running flat out we are still sweating. So we are drinking lots of beer, water, cordial to keep hydrated (take note Gabe).
Adapting to French Summer time
As we approach the summer solstice, the days are long. It starts to get light around 6 am and there is still broad daylight at 10 pm. We tend to get up early and do whatever needs doing first thing (e.g. chores on the boat, Dave fixing things, I trot out to get a baguette etc.)
There is a bench right next to where we are moored which is good to sit on, as it is in shade all day. Unfortunately, it is also very popular with the locals who come out en masse in the evening to get together. Dave has put the gazebo up which affords us a bit of privacy.
Unlike New Zealand where temperatures tend to start lowering late afternoon, here temperatures don’t really start dropping until after 8 pm. So it’s too hot to cook or eat much before then. We’ve got into the habit of having an apéro (drinks and snack) in the early evening, typically this is Pastis (an aniseed flavoured aperitif – 50% ALC!) for Dave and a kir (blackcurrant liqueur and white wine) for me. Then we have dinner around 9 pm and go to bed between 11 pm and Midnight (which is very late for us at home).
Box from NZ arrives
Before leaving New Zealand, I posted off a box full of sewing projects, to keep me occupied while we are in France. It arrived safe and sound at the boatyard. However, when we went to pick it up I learnt I had been stung €71 (about $NZ120) for customs duty. It seemed a bit steep but c’est la vie and as Sébastien, at the boatyard, had paid cash for it already I had to repay him. I don’t mind as I will enjoy sewing up all the various kitsets I made up before I left NZ. I’ve already replenished my supply of lavender sachet dolls that I like to give to people we meet along the way. It’s been very relaxing spending a few afternoons making these (while Dave has snoozed), in the cool of the boat (albeit took a while for me to re-accustom myself with my sewing machine). I have also made some new curtains for La Caunette and started piece a quilt kit set (12 block appliqué cats on ‘watercolour’ background), I bought several years ago.
Meeting new people
Dave spends a lot of his time sitting on the bench in the shade (when it is not occupied by locals) or under the trees on one of our chairs, and surprise, surprise he strikes up a conversation with people passing by. This has included a number of other boaters, and in particular, an English couple, Charlie and Lynne (and their Bichon Maltese dog called Jacques) who have just returned to their boat Acadia. Jacques is named after the port because he was dumped here, three years ago, by someone when he was only 11 months’ old. Charlie and Lynne adopted him and named him after the port. Jacques considers the port to be his territory and barks at other dogs, especially large ones, as they go by.
Charlie is a Land Rover enthusiast, and much to Dave’s envy owns a 1953 Series 1 Land Rover. He had not heard of Tesla’s Cybertruck but is now well informed. Dave and Charlie now spend quite a bit of each day discussing things that are beyond (or of interest to me, and maybe Lynne).
Other people we have met are George and Pam on Esperance and Tex and Anthea on Liberty (their boat is still in the boat yard so they moved into the gîte in Moissac when we moved out).
A very old wooden (teak sourced from Burma) boat, Omega, arrived a few days ago and is moored next to us. Dave helped the three gentlemen on board by catching ropes when they moored. I was intrigued by the boat’s flag and couldn’t find out much about it until I searched for what ‘DLS’ stood for (the boat has DLS Omega on her bow) and bingo I discovered Omega was one of the ‘Little Ships’ that took part in Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk in 1940, during WWII. The mysterious flag, ‘the Dunkirk Jack’, can only be flown by ships that took part in this operation.
Further google search revealed that HM (His Majesty’s) Yacht Omega began life in naval service. She is a 43 foot ketch-rigged motor yacht with a straight stem and is double diagonal built with an elliptical cross section (Dave will happily fill you in on the details of what that means, if you are interested). She was built at the Admiralty’s Devonport dockyard during World War I (in 1917). When the war was over, she served as a patrol boat at the Schneider Trophy Races of 1929 – 1931 at Spithead, when British entries won every year and therefore became outright winners of the trophy. Later, Omega was sold to a private owner who owned her for twenty-three years. The Admiralty required her for the Dunkirk evacuation and she then continued in naval service on East coast patrol. Later, she became a barrage-balloon vessel and finally, an accommodation vessel. Then, before she was returned to the previous owner, the Admiralty reconditioned her throughout. She has been privately owned ever since and is a member of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships (if you are interested see https://www.adls.org.uk/omega for more information)/. The current owner is Belgian (he has advised Dave on the best beers – not Leffe – and has had Omega for 20 years).
The source of flag and WWII photos is from the above mentioned website.
The Dunkirk evacuation holds special interest for me as my mother served as a Flight Sergeant, in the Royal Airforce during WWII. She was fluent in German and she applied her skills to listening in to, and translating what German pilots were saying. She later discovered she was serving in Y-Section at Bletchley Park, and the work she and her colleagues did contributed to the breaking of the enigma code. The relevance of the Dunkirk evacuation is that after the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940 the Allies knew that to end WWII, they had to land powerful forces in German-occupied Europe. Separated by four years and markedly different in terms of their ‘place’ in the WWII – Dunkirk at the very beginning and D-Day commencing the last act, the two events are nonetheless closely connected.
To quote from the biography I wrote of her (which I am happy to share with you if you are interested, as she lived a fascinating life) “In Kingsdown, one time when we were on night duty [6 June 1944], we were surprised to find the whole ops room filled with officers – every type of army brass, air force and navy ‘scrambled eggs’ that you can imagine. They were very agog waiting for something to happen. They kept coming around to us and asking, ‘Are you sure you’re listening. Are you sure nothing is happening?’ There was absolutely nothing, or very little happening. We didn’t know until we went off duty that D-Day had started. What had happened was that Hitler had decided that the invasion would take place in one of the places where the crossing was shorter. I think the military disagreed with him and were very upset, but he had all the German air force deployed farther up the coast. This meant there was very little German air force about, though of course the army and navy were engaged. Although it was a big event in the war, from our point of view it was a non-event.”
Starting to settle into French way of life
I mistakenly thought the market day here in Castelsarrasin was on Wednesday so I hurried Dave up and we set out relatively early (before it got too hot). It turns out market day is Thursday, but we still enjoyed shopping in a small supermarket in the square and then having a coffee at a nearby café/bar.
We returned to the boat, via a boulangerie to buy our daily baguette, and then into a store that is akin to a $2 shop. It is very big and sells everything. There is a lot of food and drink. Most of it seems to come from Spain and has pending ‘use by dates’. We managed to spend €48 on `must have’ items, but which in reality some we probably don’t need (except according to Dave, the ice-cream).
The market days in Castelsarrasin are vibrant and full of bonhomie. Stalls spread out over several streets and alleyways. The majority of stalls sell food that is sourced locally. There is a huge variety of fruit, vegetable, cheese, meat, poultry, seafood, bread, plant, etc. Some of these specialise in just one thing, depending on what is in season (plums, strawberries, tomatoes, onions and garlic, honey, or olives, etc).
We did see some New Zealand gold kiwifruit for sale at €12 a kilo, compared to only €2 for some Spanish ones – so our kiwifruit must definitely be seen as a cut above the rest. We’ve also seen gold and green Kiwifruit selling at the supermarket for €.80 and €.50 each (about NZ$1.30 and NZ 80 cents) respectively.
There is not much bric-a-brac at this market, but there are a couple of huge shoe ‘stalls’ that are actually set up on large articulated trucks and a number of clothes stalls.
We buy a few things at the market, especially fruit and vegetables. We have also enjoyed paella and Dave tried some sausssice de canard (duck sausage) but he won’t be buying any more.
I purchased a number of herb plants from the market and now have them potted into containers. I am under strict instructions from the Captain that they have to be kept ‘out of the way’ and I have to make sure they do not stain the boat. Regardless, I do enjoy having them and being able to go out and pick some to add to meals – for example adding fresh basil and oregano to a fresh tomato, melon and mozzarella salad I made one day for lunch.
Dave busy, busy (as usual)
Other chores he has attended to have including replacing the regulator on the gas bottles, designing extra steps, installing proper cable operated diesel shut off valves, cleaning teak slats, cleaning windows and sorting tools (the phot below is just the ones he has inside – a fraction of what are elsewhere – but he still reckons he needs more!)
We understand there is only a handful of Wide Beam Hancock & Lane canal boats remaining in France, but coincidentally there is one moored next to us. She is a bit longer than La Caunette and has not had the same degree of refit.
Her American owners (Don and Laura) leave her in the water year round and when they are on board, they seldom do any cruising. The owners are friends of Charlie and when he learned that they were arriving back soon, Charlie and Dave removed the covers (which had sagged and were full of stale water and then gave the decks a wash down so she is looking a little more presentable.
Don and Laura also bring their Yorkshire terrier, Annie with them. She flies with them, from Orlando, in the cabin – but is obviously in a cage as carry on baggage. Apparently, she just settles down and they don’t hear a peep out of her. She is quite old (14 years) and is blind.
On our bikes
Now the temperatures have dropped (with highs now only in the low- to mid-30s) we have been getting out a bit more on our bikes. Our first trip was to a large supermarket, about 1500 metres along the canal. The lovely side-saddles Dave gave me for Christmas last year are great (they look good, are spacious and easily clip on and off). Now I have put my old ones on Dave’s bike he can share the load (previously he only took stuff on his back carrier. We did a reasonable size shop but still had space if we wanted to buy anything more.
The brakes on Dave’s bike had stopped working and both bikes were due for a full service so Dave took them to a specialist bike shop about three kilometres away. He rode mine and ‘towed’ his. He then had to walk back to the boat and then back to the shop next day to pick his up – but it’s a pleasant walk (or ride) along the canal tow path. When he went to pick up mine up the next day he walked to the bike shop, to discover my bike still wasn’t ready, so he had to walk back. The following day I walked to the bike shop, Dave rode his bike and on the way back we did a small supermarket shop.
It turned out to be quite expensive – €248.80 for Dave’s bike and €97.18 for mine. But they were in real need of attention (Dave has done 8,000 km and rides his hard hence the additional work required) and it is good to have them like new again.
Enjoying our new French lifestyle
We are still waiting for an engine part, and who knows how long that will take. Each time we ask Sébastien about it (whether by email, face-to-face in the yard and when he was in the Capitainerie one time I went in) his response is “Je vais téléphoner au fournisseur aujourd’hui” (I will phone my supplier today).
But we’re happy here and we are getting lots of jobs completed that we (Dave says that is a ‘royal we’) may not do once we are cruising. We have booked another couple of weeks here at the Port Jacques-Yves Cousteau in Castelsarrasin, after which we definitely plan to move on.
It’s very sociable, not so much formally entertaining, but there are a number of boat owners who stay here for extended periods of time and they always stop for a chat as they walk by §two are ex-mechanics so you can imagine what the topic of conversation tends to be). There are also new boats arriving all the time. This includes our Kiwi friends Kathy and Richard who are arrivng this afternoon.
We often wander into the village centre and enjoy watching the locals go about their business over a cup of coffee. There is usually something (or someone) interesting for Dave to inspect.
We’re starting to be familiar faces at the boulangerie (where we now have a loyalty card and a free baguette due), cafés, Superette etc.
Now the heat wave is over, our bikes are fixed and we are getting on top of our chores, we hope to get out and about a bit more. I will write a bit more about Castelsarrasin and other things I hope will be of interest to you in my next blog.