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November 11, 2011

Canal des Deux Mers: The Mediterranean

The Herault leaving the Étang de Thau and entering the Canal du Midi

Port Ariane to le Lez, Canal du Rhone à Sète, Bassin de Thau, and the Canal du Midi

It’s a trip that had been the better part of a year in the planning.  We had been imagining our self-piloted boat journey on the historic canals of southern France for so long that trip had become mythical; the start was always so far in the future that it felt like it would never actually happen.

Port Ariane: Through the gate in the center, open during the day, is the Lez River

Finally the day to pick up our Péninchette 1107 at Locaboat Holiday’s base in Lattes arrived.  A day of power shopping for supplies and hurried last minute logistics in the hectic outskirts of Montpellier left us at last on the boat sealed inside modern Port Ariane.  The warm, humid, and still night in the port was the first of the 46 straight nights we’d spend in the small canal boat Herault.

A series of navigable waterways extends from Lattes along the Mediterranean Sea through Carcassonne in Languedoc-Roussillon, Toulouse in the Midi-Pyrénées, and on to the tidal influence of the Atlantic Ocean in Aquitaine’s Castets-en-Dorthe.  Our goal was to navigate the full length of the waterways, sea to sea.

The water route from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic is sometimes collectively referred to as the Canal du Midi.   This is not correct.  Though the historic and UNESCO-designated Canal du Midi makes up a good portion of the route, much of the sea-to-sea link includes other waterways such as the Canal de Garrone and the Canal du Rhone à Sète.  The route from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic is more properly named Canal des Deux Mers

Gigi takes shore leave

On the morning of the first day of our cruise, with the gate between the harbor and the river now open, we emerged from Port Ariane and took a left turn to head downstream on le Lez.  The Lez River is small and humble.  It is not scenic, not at all.  Indeed, the brackish Lez defines a “backwater.”  Fortunately, this least pleasant stretch of water in our long journey came first and was short.  It took only five kilometers of cruising to reach the Canal du Rhone à Sète.

Our passage of le Lez did set one thing straight; getting our rental boat through a lock was not as easy we remembered from our last canal expedition.  The first lock was a wake up.  If we didn’t get better at negotiating locks soon our boat journey would be a painfully long trip.  Two hundred and forty-five more locks lay ahead.

It didn’t help to have Gigi, our International Bordachinhuahua Terrier, distracting our feeble écluse navigation efforts.  Adding her part to the turmoil, Gigi howled incessantly from below deck as we navigated by Braille into the first lock.  Typical of Gigi, when we first coaxed her on to the boat, she was convinced that we were, once again, trying to lead her to a certain death or dismemberment.  The boat is scary, she told us.  After fourteen hours of acclimation on board, Gigi was now vigorously complaining from below deck that we were blocking her rightful canal boat experience.  Gigi, as usual, figured that this trip was planned just for her.  How could we keep her shut in down below?

Fortunately when we cleared the only lock on le Lez it was smooth sailing.  From le Lez, a right turn at the four-way waterway intersection left us heading west on the Canal du Rhone à Sète.  Canal du Rhone à Sète in most points is a rock walled channel through the saltwater étangs or seawater basins that line the Mediterranean coastal plane in this region of France.  Except where the canal joins to the Rhone, there are no locks on the Canal du Rhone à Sète.  Only a couple of moving bridges slow progress.

Canal du Rhone à Sète terminates into the Étang de Thau near Sète.  Before we could reach the Étang de Thau we had to wait in the midst of a jam of pleasure boaters for the Frontignan moving bridge to open.  Road traffic is stopped and bridge is opened twice a day to let the assembled mass of boats through.  Once the bridge opened, the boats tied four deep at the dock untangle and “race” at 5 mph to the open waters of the étang.

Pleasure boats escaping the Canal du Rhone à Sète to the Étang de Thau

High winds occur frequently in this region of France.  The wind can be a navigational hazard for low power shallow-draft pleasure boats, like the Herault with its 6 mph top speed.  Indeed, Étang de Thau is off limits to the pleasure boat fleet in a moderate breeze, above Beaufort Force 4 or about 15 mph.  In high wind we would have had no choice but to tie the Herault to the bank and wait for calmer weather.

Cruising bottomless?

The wind was significant when we neared the étang.  Fortunately a phone call to the authorities established that the Étang de Thau was passable.  We could continue.  Though it was late in the day, we moved without hesitation from the last section of the Canal du Rhone à Sète and onto the lake.  The towns along the saltwater étang are tempting stops but we weren’t taking any chances with the tomorrow’s weather.  We needed to reach the far side of the lake before sunset.  With the throttle pushed to the wall, we motored for a steady two hours through the open water of Étang de Thau creeping past the endless oyster and mussel beds.

Just past the Étang de Thau, the Canal du Midi starts discretely.  (“Discretely” is a polite way of saying that we spent considerable time wallowing around at 5 mph searching for the entrance.)  In our imaginings we envisioned a large sign marking the start of such an historic waterway.  But there was no big billboard saying, “Canal du Midi starts here.”  Nor was there was no flashing neon arrow showing us the way in.  We saw a lighthouse but we didn’t know that actually meant that the Canal du Midi started nearby.

Eventually we did find the entrance to the Canal du Midi near the lighthouse.  With the daylight fading, the beginning of the canal was the end of our day.  A short distance in we pulled up along the bank, still in brackish water, and staked the Herault up for the evening.  We had covered 51 kilometers on our first day.  This would be the most distance we would cover in a single day on the entire boat trip.   The next day we would move into the freshwater of the canal.  There will be no more stretches of open water to traverse with the péninchette’s throttle locked at the limit.  Progress would be slower.

The Herault moored for the night on the Canal du Midi

Crossing the saltwater left no doubt, our boat journey across France started from the Mediterranean.  The question remained.  Could we, would we, make it to the Atlantic end of the Canal des Deux Mers?  The end was a long, long way away.


Day:  1 and 2

Locations:  Port Ariane, Lattes to Les Onglous

Travel time:  8.8 hours of total travel time

Cruising time: 6.4 hrs cruising

Kilometers covered (trip total):  51 (51)

Moving bridges (trip total):  2 (2)

Locks transited (trip total):  1 (1)

Weather: Clear, warm, and humid with a 5 to 10 mph wind

Notes: Expedient cruise with favorable conditions from the base.  First Officer retrieved mooring spike from the water.  Second Officer went AWOL for a short period.  First Officer is on report for her poor record keeping.

The full picture set is on Picasa.


  1. […] 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. […]

    Pingback by Canal des Deux Mers: Les Onglous to Beziers « Another Header — November 17, 2011 @ 2:49 am

  2. We will be sailing into the Med from the US by 58 foot ketch. Mast is 80 feet; draft is 7 feet. Will we find affordable places to leave our vessel while we explore the canals? We might also consider having its bottom done while we explore. are there facilities for pulling and servicing?

    Looks like a really great trip.

    Comment by Mark & Lynn Hoenke, Grand Rapids, Michigan — December 18, 2011 @ 10:14 pm

    • I’m not the right person to answer your questions…

      Comment by anotherheader — December 18, 2011 @ 11:39 pm

  3. […] is the closest metropolitan area to the starting point for our canal trip across France.  Indeed, the proximity to canal base, Port Ariane in Lattes, is why we were in the area.  As a […]

    Pingback by France: Montpellier « Another Header — December 23, 2011 @ 11:51 pm

  4. […] canal boat journey across France started near Montpellier under the sweaty hot nights of the Mediterranean summer.  […]

    Pingback by France: Conques « Another Header — April 14, 2012 @ 8:41 pm

  5. […] days after our cruise began in Lattes we were on the verge of reaching the western end of the Canal des Deux Mers in […]

    Pingback by Canal des Deux Mers: Meilhan-sur-Garonne to Castets-en-Dorthe « Another Header — April 21, 2012 @ 12:07 am

  6. […] now punctuated the days.  The warm humid evenings of summer along the Mediterranean coast at the beginning of our journey were a distant sweaty memory.  On the canals, the tourist season was winding to a halt.  In less […]

    Pingback by Canal des Deux Mers: Returning to Agen « Another Header — May 3, 2012 @ 7:47 am

  7. […] 2011 we headed out on a hire boat cruise through southern France. It was a two month-long trip and there was no way we could or wanted to […]

    Pingback by Gigi, R.I.P. | Another Header — July 30, 2020 @ 12:38 am

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