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Tuesday, May 8, 2012, in Port Napoleon, near Port St. Louis du Rhône, France

Hi all. We arrived last week and began living aboard, though we’ll be in the boatyard for about another week or so. I just thought I’d bring you all up to date on what people do when they’re not sailing around.

The ride from Marseille airport to Port Napoleon boatyard at the delta of the Rhône River isn’t the slightest bit adorable. You’d think an outing through the countryside of Provence would be lovely, a stroll through thyme and lavender-scented meadows. It isn’t pretty. It doesn’t even have the enchantment of untouched vegetation, and wouldn’t even be attractive if it got rid of the occasional dilapidated warehouse or shed. This part of Provence, at the Rhône delta, is just scrubby and unkempt. But it reminded me of something very familiar.

I chided myself when I figured it out; it looks an awful lot like my hometown wilderness, the Everglades. The Everglades are a local treasure, but you have to notice that the Florida that people live in has a cosmetic coating of hibiscus and bougainvillea. Apparently few people go for the featureless entropy of life left alone. I suppose that many of us just want to look at nature, but live in Starbucks.

We rented a car at the airport to keep for a week at the boatyard. Avis gave us a Citroen, and we were happy to drive a locally-manufactured car, one that you don’t see a lot in America. There’s nothing like a GPS with a soothing voice directing you in French. Apparently the software is the same as the navigation app in my BlackBerry. We had dueling instructions, identical voices in two languages. Sometimes the French voice would tell us to take the troisième sortie and I’d translate to Art in harmony with the English voice giving the same instructions in my handheld.

It was clear in the fall that Port Napoleon is a great place for winter storage and all the associated services, with a terrific bistro inside the boatyard, but the moment you’re out the gate on land you’re back in the swamp. There’s a village a few miles away, available by bike if you don’t have a car. Still, we knew we’d have a big food shopping trip to get us started, and a week’s auto rental was not much more money than the taxi from the airport to the yard would have been.

We arrived on a holiday, and boat launch wouldn’t happen until the morning, so we settled in for one night into the on-site hotel, with dinner at Josephine’s, the restaurant on-site (Josephine, serving Port Napoleon, get it?)

Art had a list, as always, of tasks he needed to do before the boat launched, and those he wanted to do as soon as possible. So he went right to work in the afternoon of our arrival, though he’d only slept for an hour or so during the overnight flight.

Our first impressions of the boat were mostly positive. It looked very clean, even though it hadn’t been washed by anyone doing work for us over the winter. The one concern that Art had was that the bottom paint had only been about half-done, and here it was, mid-afternoon on a French holiday (Europe takes its holidays very seriously), with our launch scheduled for the morning. We’d also scheduled some repairs to the gel coat (the white fiberglass part) and those ugly gashes hadn't been fixed. Eighteen hours to go until the launch. Would we need to reschedule?

I walked over to the shed hosting our boat painting and gel coat repair. To my surprise and relief, one of the workers was leaving just as I arrived, and the wife/co-owner greeted me warmly, asking if we needed the cushion covers she’d made for us over the winter. She said something to me about the gel coat repair, which gave me hope that they hadn’t forgotten about us. I asked for Michel, her husband, and she pointed to him across the yard, as he scurried from boat to boat. He was most gracious considering the circumstances, and informed me that Romain, who was half-finished with the painting, was on his way to the boat. Then I remembered that I’d seen an empty paint can under the boat, and realized that he’d probably just gone back for supplies.

In fact, everything I thought was wrong was really fine. I couldn’t figure out why he’d neglected to tape the line between the (underwater) bottom and the (shiny white) hull, for example. Romain’s technique was apparently to paint with broad strokes, then go back and finish the more-delicate waterline. He finished the painting and did the gel coat repairs, leaving some finishing work for the next day when the boat would be in a sling, suspended over the water. He worked later than Art did, probably until sunset.

The launch went well. I’ve become less able to watch the process of our 30-ton vessel lifted within what appears to be two cummerbunds and dipped gently into the water. I try not to think of the word “thud”. This is true even though I know that these guys do this dozens of times every week for years on end. Maybe they aren’t spooked by driving a gigantic lift with wide wheels across a concrete pier that is wide enough on each side to accommodate the width of the wheels and no more. A six-inch miscalculation would put the lift and its cargo into the water. I think I’ll just go have a cup of coffee somewhere for a few minutes. Call me when it’s over.

Romain helped Art move the boat to a visitors’ berth, and I helped with the lines when they got there. We were supposed to do that in reverse, but I couldn’t figure out how to get onto the boat when it was finally deposited in the haulout slip. Romain just leapt across from land and grabbed himself some lifelines.

Once the boat was in the water, Art could test its various systems to see how well they survived the winter. Some years are better than others. This year wasn’t great. The freezer wasn’t working, possibly because of a lack of refrigerant, possibly because of something more serious. This had already happened the previous spring; the yard filled the refrigerant but was unable to find the leak. Maybe we’d be luckier this year. The unlucky part was the duration to wait for service: one week at least. The side refrigerator also didn’t get cold, possibly for the same reason.

A canister with a filter in it from our watermaker had burst. That’s surprising for two reasons: The first is that Art winterized the system before we left. Avoiding this sort of thing is why you winterize systems that involve plumbing. Reason number two is that many people don’t bother winterizing around here because the Med doesn’t usually freeze for very long. Apparently this year it did, and apparently there was a bit of fresh water somewhere in the system that normally doesn’t get winterized. Estimated time to get the missing part: more than a week. We started to wonder whether we should keep the car longer than we’d planned.

We had other issues. The propane in the stove was leaking somewhere. Fresh water was getting into the bilge, most likely from a water tank leak. The tilt on the dinghy’s outboard engine didn’t seem to know when to shut down. Nobody had remembered to reattach the Wi-Fi antenna to the radar pole before the pole was put back up, and now the connection point was unreachable. We’d have to take down the pole again, not something we could do on our own.

And when we’d taken down the mainsail in the fall, a batten (support inside the sail) had detached, requiring Art to remove some stitching to pull out the stranded piece. We took the sail to a friendly and capable sailmaker in town, but none of us could locate the missing stitching for him to sew, only an old repair, so we decided that maybe the event had happened in a previous season and been rectified during a previous springtime. While one technician was helping Art hoist the sail, he found the tear, and we rousted the sailmaker out of his Sunday sleep to come to the marina and fix it by hand as the sail flapped from the mast.

We made a few trips into the local village Port St. Louis du Rhône. Its population is only about 8500, even though there are three good beaches and the Rhône riverboat cruises terminate there. There’s a big protected marina and lovely blue water. But the area’s exports are salt and mineral oil, not cute little Provencal tablecloths and olive oil soaps.

To be fair, the place isn’t exactly dismal, but it isn’t exactly charming. The buildings need paint, and sometimes windows. There isn’t much of a design to the town layout, and window shopping wouldn’t be a draw even if there were any windows to see. It’s clear that they’re trying to upgrade the waterfront, with paved walkways, and flower boxes on the lampposts, but they haven’t exactly reached the level of cheerful yet.

Pillboxes remaining from World War II deteriorate alongside the road leading to town. Apparently they raise a good deal of France’s noteworthy cattle. I figured this out because of the large, angry graffiti on one of the concrete pillboxes. It shouted “voleur de bœuf” or “beef thief” (not as clever as it sounds in English) at some cattle rustler in town. The two-mile stretch between the boatyard and the town is scrubby on the river side of the street and sort of industrial on the other side. This area, the Camargue, is known for its wild birds and white horses. A skinny white horse hangs around longingly near the fence facing the marina as if he thinks that there’s food somewhere out there.

Where there are salt flats, you’ll often find flamingoes, but you’ll also find salt mines, often quite ancient ones. Salt was and still is a very big deal to civilizations so that human life can flourish or even survive. The construction of salt mines at nearby Aigues Mortes by the pious King Louis IX (now the Saint Louis of Missouri and many other namesakes) was an important undertaking in the mid-13th, century.

Port St. Louis du Rhône was created after a disastrous 1711 flood changed the course of the Rhône River and ruined the lives of those who had lived on what is now the riverbed. To compensate the residents and strengthen the levee, the King’s Council imposed a tax on the transport of salt on the waterways. The money also funded a tower commemorating the recently-sainted Louis hundreds of years after his lifetime, near a chapel similarly dedicated.

The tower, in this empty place, acted as a lighthouse, a customs house, and a defense against pillaging. How good a defense it provided is not clear, as it was guarded by a few cannons and some invalids. Well, that’s what the history article said: two or three cannons and a few invalid men. You can just picture some elderly guys on crutches hopping around after the would-be pillagers. How come nobody pillages anymore, anyway?

Apparently this level of security was sufficient for some fishermen, because they began to build cabins there. Napoleon Bonaparte ordered a canal at Arles, which eventually connected to this village. This led to the construction of a train line and a boom for the port in the twentieth century. Alas, the place declined when France took its investment to building up nearby Fos and abandoned whatever industry was in Port St. Louis. The rail line is now gone, and the shells of industrial buildings litter the landscape.

The tourist office is housed in that well-maintained old tower, but the workers don’t speak English. I remember our conversation with them when we first arrived last October. It was stilted, as are all my conversations in French (my fault, not theirs). We’d asked if there were any tours to, say, the Camargue, which is the nearby national park. They seemed almost surprised that we’d ask such a question. They must have assumed that everyone who makes it to Port St. Louis du Rhône already lives in the area and has a car. Since that’s the only thing to do in the area, I wondered what the point was of maintaining a staffed tourism office. There’s a lovely and large marina, which just brings in more foreigners to be somewhat disappointed in a town that could be so much more.

The one aspect of France, even rural France, that never disappoints, is lunch. We found several restaurants in the town that were worth the bike ride last year, and are definitely worth the short drive. But we didn’t have to leave the marina to have a nice lunch, and we went to Josephine’s one day out of about every three, in between appointments with people fixing the many, many things that weren’t working on the boat.

It’s still chilly in the mornings and evenings but sunny and clear during most days. Art calls it “good working weather��, but I’m covered in fleece. I’ll enjoy it for now. It gets hot in these parts pretty soon.

Love, Karen (and Art)