Canal du Midi and the Canal de Garonne
On the phone with Chris from Locaboat, our boat rental company, Becky uttered the most dreaded of all phrases in the barge renter’s vocabulary.
Earlier in the day in Toulouse’s Port Saint-Sauveur our morning was much more mundane. A productive round of shopping for fresh food at the nearest marché couvert overfilled the Herault’s larder. It was with some reluctance that we pulled out of the port a half an hour before noon. We stayed two nights in Toulouse; we could have stayed much longer. Toulouse is too large and too interesting for a short stay. As we left we never imagined that the Herault’s demise would be proclaimed before the day was over.
Five kilometers and three locks ahead was the western end of the Canal du Midi. With good fortune we would finish the Midi and make it to the start of the Canal de Garonne before the automated locks closed at 12:30 pm. We weren’t so lucky. When we twisted the pole suspended over the channel to activate our first lock, the Bayard écluse, nothing happened. Unbeknownst to us, VNF’s trash skimming barge that we had seen earlier was busy pulling debris out of the lock’s chamber on its conveyor belt. We’d have to wait for the cleaning boat to finish before we could proceed. And by the time the VNF barge was done it was too late to make it through the Midi’s remaining locks before the lockkeeper’s lunch. Maybe we should have stayed an extra day in Toulouse after all.
The VNF cleaning barge merely delayed our gratification. After lunch we transited the western-most lock on the Canal du Midi. Passing under the arch of a red brick bridge we left the Midi and entered the Port de L’Embouchure. Here the Canal de Garonne, the Canal du Midi, and the little used connector to the Garonne River, the Canal de Brienne, intersect. We had come 150 miles and crossed through 63 locks with 91 chambers to reach this point. A celebration of sorts was in order so we spun a power circuit around the port before we motored through another arched red brick bridge to the start of the Canal de Garonne. Our journey on the Canal du Midi was lamentably complete but our cruise was not finished. Ahead of us was the second major waterway of the Canal des Deux Mers, the Canal de Garonne.
Formerly known as the Canal latéral à la Garonne, the Canal de Garonne receives water from and travels along the Garonne River for most of its length. Starting in Toulouse, the Garonne canal extends 120 miles and passes through 53 locks. The canal’s western end returns the Garonne’s water to the river at the upper extent of the Atlantic Ocean’s tidal influence near Castets-en-Dorthe.
Before the Canal de Garonne was constructed cargo floated to the Atlantic on the Garonne River. Here as in many other places floods and drought limit navigation of the natural waterway. Hence the Canal de Garonne was built in the mid to late 19th century to provide a more consistent transportation link between Toulouse and the ocean.
Leaving Toulouse the Canal de Garonne seems an obviously different channel. At its beginning the Garonne canal is mostly straight. The initial stretch leaving Toulouse is scattered with a line of junky boats barely tied to the shore and only just floating. It is perhaps the most unappealing stretch of the entire Canal des Deux Mers.
There are other differences between the Canal de Garonne and the Canal du Midi. The Garonne’s lock chambers are rectilinear boxes typical of the canals built in France in the 19th Century. Box shaped écluses are perfectly functional but they don’t feel as historic as the Midi’s ovoid locks. And, like the locks descending from the Océan écluse on the Canal du Midi, the lock cycle actuation is automated. Here a pole suspended on wires over the channel triggers the lock. With a twist of the rod from the deck of boat the lock empties or fills as needed and the gates open. Once tied inside the écluse’s chamber bargers activate the last step of the locking cycle using a canal-side button. The system usually works well; the locks cycle quickly.
Occasionally automated locks do not function as expected. When this happens boaters summon roving VNF personnel by cell phone or by the chamber-side intercom. Indeed, eight locks in on the Canal de Garonne at the Écluse de Castelnau we twisted the suspended pole and nothing happened. Two red lights on the signal pole told us that the lock was out of service. We needed to get on shore and contact the VNF on the lock-side intercom.
The service docks for each lock on the Canal de Garonne are located before the twist pole lock cycle actuator. In the wind it was easiest to bounce off the bank, perhaps a little harder than intended, and maneuver back to the dock. Soon Becky was on the bank. In shorts she waded through a field of stinging nettles to reach the intercom. As usual the VNF came rapidly in a car.
Back on the boat there was a problem. I could hear a motor running constantly. Soon I determined that it was the bilge pump that was running full time. The bilge pump’s function is to remove water from the bottom of the boat. As long as it can expel water faster than water is coming into the hull the pump prevents the craft from sinking. Somehow the Herault’s bilge had been triggered by our bump into the bank. Were we now taking on water? Is that why the pump was running full time?
Quickly I dug through the overfilled binder-clad boat manual that Locaboat had included with the Herault. Somewhere there was a brief discussion of what to do if the bilge pump float gets stuck in the “on” position. Pulling up the floor panels in the galley I searched for the crucial pump. It wasn’t obvious where the bilge pump was but I could see the hull easily enough. I could also see that there was a lot of water, way more than I expected, in the bottom of the boat. I moved everything I could see and nothing shut the bilge pump off. Now I was concerned. Was the pump running because we were taking on water? Did we puncture the boat on a stray piece of rebar on our bank maneuver? It didn’t seem possible but why else was the bilge pump on full time?
It was time to call Locaboat. Becky had the phone in case the VNF intercom didn’t work. Securing the Herault to the dock, I waded through the nettle field with Gigi to find Becky engaged with the VNF technician. I told her we had a problem and we needed to call Locaboat. She didn’t seem too concerned and continued to focus on practicing her French. I reminded her that if we were taking on water and the bilge pump cut out we might sink. We really needed to resolve this problem soon, ideally before we went through the lock.
Would we be the first renters to sink a boat?
Becky was quickly on the phone with Locaboat. She was relayed to the nearest base and was soon talking to Chris from Agen.
“We’re sinking,” Becky told Chris.
Out of earshot, I hadn’t heard this.
Not surprisingly the phone was soon thrust into my hand.
“The bilge pump is running full time and there is water in the bottom of the boat,” I told Chris.
“But Madame said that the boat is sinking!” Chris exclaimed.
After assuring Chris that the Herault was not in immediate danger of being left at the murky bottom of the canal she sought advice from a technician.
“Look for a white switch on the hull,” Chris soon relayed back.
I had seen this white box before and had pulled at to no avail along with everything else I could see in the bottom of the boat. Now with the new information I went back and looked more carefully. There was in fact a “lever” imbedded in the middle of the white box. Pulling the lever stopped the pump. Apparently this was the float. I eyed the water in the hull suspiciously for a couple of minutes half expecting to see the level rising. It didn’t. The bilge pump had been stuck on. We were not sinking after all; the hull was not punctured.
All through our hysterics the VNF technician waited patiently at the lock. Undoubtedly he understood more English than he could speak. I’m sure he suspected that we were in a self-induced state of rental boater panic. When we cleared the lock we got a slightly bemused “there goes another loopy set of rental boaters” look. At least the wacky boaters keep him employed.
Surviving the crisis of our own creation we continued on. The junky boats were long gone and the scenery was improving. Hills were rising not far from the still waters of the mostly arrow straight canal. On the banks low trees shaded the water.
Past the Pont-canal de l’Hers we started scouting for place near a town to moor for the night. Being near a town meant that there would be fresh croissants from a local boulangerie the next morning. We saw no spot that appealed so we continued on. Just before lock closing time we transited the Emballens écluse and were on an 11.5 mile-long pound. With no lock gates ahead we could now cruise until it was dark.
When we were certain we would not find a suitable village-side mooring spot we slid dinner into the oven and continued on until the food was ready. Finally we staked up to the bank at 7:30 pm near the Forêt d’Agre. We were by ourselves. No boats, houses, or boulangeries were near. It was certain now that would not have fresh croissants and pain au chocholats the next morning.
Ten minutes after we pulled to the side of the channel we were dining on an Iberico pork roast purchased in Toulouse and sipping Languedoc wine. Our sinking was deliberately forgotten in the peace of our temporary home. Nights like this, tucked in some quiet forested segment of the canal, were some our favorites of our journey. No event during the day could overwhelm the luxury of having our own private canal-side spot for the night.
Travel time*: 8.2 hours
Cruising time**: 7.3 hours
Distance traveled: 43 kilometers
Lock chambers transited: 12
Weather: Clear, warm
At the end of the day, our trip across France was 48% complete based on cruising time and 46% complete based on distance covered. We had passed through 120 of the 246 locks (49%) 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).