Bordeaux’s Liquid Life Line



Without its rivers and Estuary the wine region of Bordeaux would not be what it is today. The Gironde is a navigable estuary (often falsely referred to as a river), in southwest France and is formed from the meeting of the rivers Dordogne and Garonne just downstream of the centre of Bordeaux. Covering around 635 km2 (245 sq mi), it is the largest estuary in western Europe.[1]

The Gironde is approximately 80 km (50 mi) long and 3–11 km (2–7 miles) wide and the French département Gironde is named after it. The Gironde is subject to very strong tidal currents and great care is needed when navigating the estuary by any size or type of boat.


Tug helping a bulk carrier on Gironde estuary to approach a subsidiary of Bordeaux port.

Second World War

The Gironde was the setting for Operation Frankton, a British special forces operation during the Second World War tasked with the objective of destroying shipping moored at the docks in Bordeaux. This shipping were german blockade runners, which were causing havoc, in the Western Approaches. The British Operation was led by “Blondie” Hasler, an Royal Marine Commando, who had an long standing interest in canoe operations, and of the 12 men, who commenced, what was in essence, an suicide mission, only 2 survived. The remained were either drowned, killed by the Germans on Active Service, or executed under Hitlers (Illegal ) “Commando’s” order.

Islands of the Gironde

Within the estuary between the Pointe de Grave at the seaward end and le bec d’Ambes are a series of small islands.

The Île de Patiras is 200 ha in size with a lighthouse to aid navigation in the estuary. Vines and maize are grown there.

The Île Sans-Pain and Île Bouchaud are now virtually joined due to progressive silting and are referred to as the Ile Nouvelle. They total about 265 ha and are owned by the Conservatoire du Littoral and managed by the Department of the Gironde.

The Île Paté is about 13 ha and in 2006 was privately owned. The island has a historic fort built between 1685 and 1693 as part of the national fortification program masterminded by Vauban. The building is oval in shape, about 12 metres high and was originally equipped with about 30 cannon. Fort Paté, together with Fort Médoc and the ancient citadelle of Blaye, defended the estuary and Bordeaux. During the French Revolution the fort was used as a prison for priests.

In 2006, the Conseil General decided to make the island a ZPENS (zone de pre-emption espace naturel sensible). ZPENS status protects the island from development. If the owner wishes to sell the island then the Department has a pre-emptive right. After two months the Conservatoire National du Littoral has the next pre-emptive right and then after another 2 months the town of Blaye has a final pre-emptive right to acquire the island.

The Île Verte, Île du Nord and Île Cazeau comprise about 800 ha and because of their natural state provide a fine stopping off place for migrating birds.

The Île Margaux is 25 ha and in 2005 had 14 ha devoted to vines and is part of the world famous Médoc wine region.


The Bec d’Ambes where the Garonne River from the South joins with the Dordogne River from the East making the Gironde Estuary 80km until it joins the Atlantic.


Lamprey ‘Lamproie

European Sturgeon (Acipenser sturio) migrator fish ‘amphihalin’

They return every 2 to 4 years to their original river to reproduce (between South Gascogny and Scandinavia). They live 60 years. Artificial reproduction (St Seurin sur l’Isle) and releasing of young since 2007. Numbers are increasing. Forbidden to fish.

Small white prawns

Shad ‘Alose’

Elvers, baby eels

Bordeaux Ports

130,000 ha of which 124,000 ha are on the water

  • 1600 ships are received in the ports of Bordeaux (Atlantic port, train and road links)
  • Between 8 and 9 million tonnes of merchandise each year (equivalent to 400,000 trucks, better carbon footprint!)
  • 15,000 employment
  • 7 port sites that export to 5 continents (300 different ports)

Bordeaux: city centre cruise liners

– 2 births available

– depth of the water at high tide (Draft 7.5m) drops 2m at low tide

– for vessels up to 255m length

– river tidal currents are vey strong so mooring lines need to be checked

– water density: 1

– max air draft 49m

– Harbour Master Office VHF (channel 12)

Bassens: multiple bulk including cereal, wood, aggregrates, 10.5m depth

Grattequina: aggregates and heavy goods

Ambes: petrochemicals

Blaye: cereals, bulk liquids

Pauillac: Airbus, hydrocarburants

Verdon: 12.5m depth, containers, cruise liners (2 births for all sizes of cruise ships)

  • protection of the environment is important, 650 carrelets for fishing (50 famileies live from this)

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