Canal du Midi, Canal de Jonction, l’Aude, and the Canal de Robine
Thomas Jefferson said of the Canal du Midi in 1787, “Of all the methods of traveling I have ever tried, this is the pleasantest. You should not think of returning to America without taking the trip I have taken.”
Indeed we’d generally agree with our founding father. Cruising the Canal du Midi is most pleasant. But there is to every rule an exception. And this day, the day of our voyage from Narbonne to Argens-Minervois, the Canal du Midi trip did not find its way into the “pleasantest” category. Not that it was that bad. But, when grading on the curve, someone has to get a “D.” (Except for those attending Stanford where a “C” is the new “D”.) In any event, our cruise from Narbonne to Argens-Minervois did not rank with our best days on the canal. Even Jefferson might have found our day’s journey annoying.
The problem on this day was simple—it was windy. But it was more than the general annoyance of strong winds. On a keel-less lightly ballasted rental boat without bow thrusters heavy wind is not just a nuisance. It is a navigational hazard.
Out of Narbonne things went well enough, for a while. (You can watch the video.) Nearing the end of the Canal de Jonction, I dropped Becky onto the shore to activate the last lock before the Canal du Midi. We’d expected this lock to go as fast as the others we had passed. And as we had done at the prior locks, we didn’t bother anchoring the Herault to the shore. The plan was to loiter in the boat mid stream until the lock gate opened. This time the strategy was a mistake.
The lock, the Cesse écluse, did not cycle quickly. Unknown to us at the time, as I dropped Becky on shore, boats from the other direction were entering the lock. Becky reported later that a combination of a party boat having too much fun and the operator of a professional tour not paying attention resulted in comedy of errors. The locking cycle took 20 minutes longer than normal and some quick scrambling by the tour boat captain to avoid a serious lock closing disaster. While Becky waited lock side entertained by the other boater’s antics I motored in the Herault in the channel.
On the boat there was a problem. The wind had picked up. It was difficult to hold position in the narrow channel. The gusts had the boat skating from side to side; at times I was pushed back almost to the prior lock. Our boat usually handles easily but under these conditions it was a handful. None of the standard techniques, like nosing into the bank under throttle, helped. I desperately wanted to tie up to the bank but Becky was still transfixed by the action in the lock. It was too windy for her to hear my horn blasts. I pinged around the pound in all directions like a pachinko ball until eventually the gates thankfully opened.
Despite the difficulty entering the Cesse écluse, the locking process itself went easily. Out of the lock chamber a left at the waterway junction returned us to the Canal du Midi. Now the head wind became a crosswind. But, as long as our pénichette was kept to the center of the canal, navigation continued to be easy enough. We just had to crab the boat along in the center of the channel. There seemed to be no real problem. Why I could I have been having so much trouble in the wind earlier?
Then it was time for a bathroom break. I turned the wheel over to Becky and went below. Soon after sitting down in the head I heard a scrapping sound. Maybe we just brushed a submerged log. That sometimes occurs.
Then, moments later it happened. With a crash we came to a sudden stop. That was no log!
“That can’t be good.” I thought as I quickly hiked up my shorts and hurried topside.
On top I could see that the Herault was lodged in the weeds pinned into the left, down wind side of the canal bank.
It took some maneuvering but we eventually got the boat clear of the bank. Again we traveled along the canal, carefully maintaining the crab angle and keeping to the center of the channel. It went OK, but there was a problem. The Herault seemed down on power; the boat shuddered heavily at full throttle. It did not maneuver as well as it once had.*
Thinking perhaps that the wind would ease later in the day, we took a break. Or maybe we just figured we needed a drink after our canal shenanigans. No matter the true reason, the temptation of tasting wine was too compelling to pass. Thus, after a considered mooring to the safe upwind bank, we stopped at Ventenac-en-Minervois for wine tasting.
In Ventenac a wine chateau sits directly on the canal. The tasting room even has its own dock. Not surprisingly it is a popular stop for the pleasure bargers. Here we saw for the first time what the other bargers refer to as “gas pump” wines. In the winery, pumps with handles looking suspiciously like those used by gas stations, dispense wine into a container of your choice. The wine costs between 1.10 and 1.50 euros per liter, about the price of gasoline in France. From what we tasted, the wine quality was quite reasonable. Indeed we rather liked the Minervois wines we tried. Thinking that a little extra ballast wouldn’t hurt we stuffed a half-dozen newly purchased bottles into the hold and continued along the canal.
The winds had not slackened during our break. Indeed, if anything, the winds had increased. Still we could crab forward along the canal. All we wanted to do was to reach our rental boat company’s base at Argens-Minervois for the night.
Locaboat’s Argens base is not far from the Argens lock. The Argens lock is the first lock on the Canal du Midi since the Fonserrannes Staircase 54 kilometers back. We had broken the effect of the long lock-less section of canal with our side trip to Narbonne. Nevertheless, it is still amazing that Pierre-Paul Riquet and the other constructors could build such a long flat stretch in an era when accurate surveying was not possible.
Eventually we reached the Argens lock. Locking up, I needed as usual to get Becky to the bank to help with the ropes before we reached the chamber. Unfortunately, there was no easy way to get Becky off on the “easy” upwind side canal. This bank, the right bank, was covered with thick weeds. There was no choice but to drop her on the dreaded downwind bank.
With Becky on shore I struggled to get the boat, now pinned against the bank, into the center of the channel. It took a dozen attempts but I finally got the boat angle perfect and was happily crabbing into the middle of the channel. And then the unexpected happened. A rental boat came by full speed cruising on my side of the canal! I had no choice. I gave way and was pushed back into the bank left to start the whole process over again.
With the passing boat now waiting impatiently in the lock, I futilely tried to re-find the “perfect” angle away from the bank. First I’d nose into the bank, set an angle to the shore and back into the center of the channel just like you would move a car out of an angled parking spot. But when I tried to turn and power forward, the boat would be pushed by the strong wind back into the bank. I tried powering the boat further backward but there is little control in reverse; I was quickly blown out of sorts. More by accident than by plan, I finally found that I could get the boat to turn completely around if I turned away from the lock. A 330 degree turn from the initial backing angle and I was finally off the bank and moving into the lock.
Fortunately the safety of the Locaboat base was just a short distance past the lock. We were soon tied to the dock for the night. The boaters that had passed us at the lock were also moored at the base. When they walked by on the way to town, Gigi barked. You go girl.
The day’s stretch of canal, with the strong winds and all, was the most difficult and trying day of our trip. Even Thomas Jefferson’s enthusiasm for the Canal du Midi might have been diminished. If there were going to be many more stretches like this, it would indeed be a very long trip by canal across France.
*Later we learned that these symptoms occur when the prop fouls with weeds and can be cured by reversing the motor.
Travel time*: 8.2 hours
Cruising time**: 7.7 hours
Distance traveled: 31 kilometers
Lock chambers transited: 11
Weather: Cooler with high winds
At the end of the day, our trip across France was 22% complete based on cruising time and 22% complete based on distance covered. We had passed through 24 of the 246 locks (14%) 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).