Canal du Midi and l’Hérault
The first rays of the dawn sun found us tied to the bank of the Canal du Midi near the saltwater Étang de Thau. This morning, like many along the canal, was peaceful and still. It’s been over three hundred years since the Canal du Midi opened to navigation as the Canal Royal de Languedoc on May 15, 1681. The spot where we moored for the night has seen endless boats and countless tons of cargo pass. Today the barges are motorized and horses no longer pull boats along the waterway. The last load of cargo has long since passed between the Canal du Midi and the Étang de Thau. Now the canal is the sole domain of pleasure boats or bateaux de plaisance and the occasional commercial leisure cruise barge.
After Gigi had her morning run on the canal bank, we were back on the boat and motoring east. In about a half hour we reached the first lock on the Canal du Midi. All of the canal’s locks have names. A sign told us that this lock, the eastern-most on the Midi, is called Bagnas. The day before, on the Lez River, we seriously bumbled through the first lock of our cruise. When we reached Bagnas we were focused on making a clean passage or at least a cleaner passage. And we did. Bagnas passed without issue.
On most waterways, locks are built as rectangular boxes. Not so on the Canal du Midi. After the failure of a sidewall on an early lock, Pierre-Paul Riquet, the canal’s builder, reconfigured the chambers using a distinctive ovoid design. Riquet’s oval locks are 11 meters wide at the mid-point, 6 meters at the gates, and 30.5 meters long. Like an arch supporting a bridge, the concave shape of the lock chamber strengthened the sidewalls. Today, the many remaining historic locks on the Canal du Midi are ovoid. These locks have stood the test of time.
Riquet’s ovoid lock chambers have advantages to boaters. While locking up, the water entering the écluse is less violent. The extra width in the center of the ovoid lets the incoming water spread out. Smaller boats can transit the lock side by side. There is more capacity. Perhaps there are disadvantages also. More water is used in a lock cycle. “Tying up” to the lock-side bollards is slightly more difficult than in a more usual rectangular-shaped écluse. In any event, Riquet’s ovoid lock shape has become one of the Canal du Midi’s most striking and characteristic features.
The next lock we reached is not typical. In Agde the Canal du Midi flows briefly into the Hérault River, the namesake of our péninchette. After just a moment on the waters of the river, a right turn before the weir leads to the Agde écluse. The round lock in Agde has three gates. Each gate accommodates a different water level. One gate opens to the continuation to the west of the Canal du Midi. A second gate, the one we entered, opens in the upstream direction of the Hérault. The final barrier opens in the downstream direction on the Hérault. Boats head out of this last gate to reach the Mediterranean a short distance away. To accommodate the different directions of travel on the waterways, a round lock was required.
Originally the lock in Agde was perfectly round. That changed in 1978 when the chamber was modified so that larger barges of the Freycinet gauge, up to 38.5 m long, could pass through. Now the “round” Agde lock is no longer symmetrically circular.
A circular lock has plenty of room for multiple boats inside. All of the waiting boats, four in total, joined us in the Agde’s chamber. Later the crews of all four boats simultaneously cringed as we struggled to move our boat out of the chamber without challenging the effectiveness of the continuous line of rubber bumpers that circled our rental boat. Eventually, after a highly irregular seventeen-point turn, we maneuvered the péninchette out of the lock. I was careful to avoid eye contact with the other crews. Though our navigational pride might not have been intact, our boat was.
Around 4 pm we reached our days destination, Béziers. Béziers old town, inconveniently across the railroad tracks and up the hill from the canal port, is the hometown of Pierre-Paul Riquet. It was for us an obligatory stop on the Canal du Midi. We had to pay homage to the statue of the canal’s creator sitting in the town’s plane tree lined central square. And there’s more to Béziers than a statue of Riquet. It is a quite nice and grand town with interesting architecture. We slowly explored the streets avoiding the hot and sweaty hike back down the hill to the port.
Perhaps it was because were no hurry to get back to the warm boat that Becky hopped onto children’s horsey ride. When she deposited a euro coin in the slot, the ride’s motor came to life and strained under the heavier than usual load, Becky whooped it up cowboy-style. It was a sight, for sure. And it was distinctly not “French.” I kept a careful eye out hopeful that the gendarmery would not spot her this time.
Gigi didn’t know what to think of Becky on the mechanical horse. She was afraid and barked. Our pup had never seen the like. And frankly, though I had seen the like, the sight of Becky on the horse scared me also. Clearly it was time to return to the warm boat for the evening.
Start: Les Onglous
Travel time*: 7.9 hours
Cruising time**: 6.2 hours
Distance traveled: 31 kilometers
Moving bridges (trip total): 1 (3)
Locks transited: 6
Weather: Clear, warm, and humid with a 5 to 10 mph wind
At the end of the day, our trip across France was 8% complete based on cruising time and 10% complete based on distance covered. We had passed through 7 of the 246 locks (3%) of the locks that we would cross.
* The time between the start of the day and the end of the day.
**As measured by the hour meter on our boat. When the motor is running we were either moving or standing by to move (like in a lock).