Canal de Garonne
Forty days after our cruise began in Lattes we were on the verge of reaching the western end of the Canal des Deux Mers in Castets-en-Dorthe. When we loosened and stowed the Herault’s mooring lines in clear cool morning air of Meilhan-sur-Garonne we were three hours, 17 kilometers, and four locks from our goal destination.
We could have made the journey to Meilhan faster. At a modest pace the trip from end to end on the Canal du Midi and the Canal de Garonne, without pauses and side trips, would have taken us seventeen days. If we pushed we could have done it faster, perhaps in just two weeks. But why would we want to do that? Canals are the destination and the journey. For us there was little point to moving fast.
We arrived in Castets-en-Dorthe near two in the afternoon. In truth we made it to the exact end of the Canal de Garonne but the Herault did not. Rental boats are not allowed through the last two locks that link the calm canal’s waters to the flowing Garonne River nearby. Perhaps we could have begged the canal authorities, the VNF, to let us through the benign second to last lock and into the final flat pound. But even if the VNF let us through the penultimate lock they would not let a rental barge through the final lock, a particularly deep and unusual tandem double and single lock combination that exits to the brisk current of the Garonne River.
Downstream of the Canal de Garonne’s last lock is the city of Bordeaux situated on the Atlantic Ocean estuary of the Garonne River. Castets-en-Dorthe is at the extreme of the tidal influence of the ocean. Thus navigation of the river is tide dependent. In the lightly powered Herault if we had exited the canal’s last lock onto the river with an outgoing tide it might well have been disastrous. Either that or we would have been beached somewhere in Bordeaux and obligated to drink the local wine until rescued. Perhaps it was best that there was no temptation to take the Herault through the last lock.
The most we could do to complete our journey was to walk over to the last big lock, declare victory, and take celebratory pictures. As we stood on the side of the lock well above the Garonne we tried to figure out why there was a deep, seemingly unused single lock in parallel with a double-gated lock at the end. Was the single lock historically used when the Garonne’s waters ran high? Marks on the wall of the lockkeeper’s house are testimony to just how far above the current river level that the Garonne’s floodwaters can get. At the extremes of the floods, the last two locks on the canal and at least one more lock inland would not be needed.
Our journey to Castets-en-Dorthe was not without issue. A couple of locks west of Meilhan were heard a new sound over the rumble of the Herault’s motor. It dawned on us; the water pump was running full time. We used the switch on the dash to shut the pump off and called our rental boat company, Locaboat Holidays. We learned when the technician met us in Castets-en-Dorthe that a water hose had come free and water had been gushing into the Herault’s hull. The loose hose was easy enough to fix but now the water hose problem was only the tip of our barge’s issues. The jet of water had shorted out a key electrical board and triggered another heater failure. It was getting cold inside the boat when a Locaboat staff member returned. This time the thankless job fell to the manager; it was late on Friday. Before he left the manager fixed the problems or a least the boat now functioned for a while as it was supposed to.
Even the Herault’s radio got into the act at the end. For some reason it started to switch over automatically each time a new local road traffic report came on. We kept turning the annoying traffic update feature off but to no avail; we’d hear the music from our iPod until the next report came up. Every fifteen minutes the radio would switch to the distinctive universal cadence of a traffic reporter. It didn’t matter that details were in French; we knew what we were hearing. A local road traffic report in French was not helpful while navigating the canals. The radio problem did make it seem like everything on the Herault was in chaos and breaking at the same time. It had been a long journey for the tired and soon to be remodeled Herault.
In theory our arrival in Castets-en-Dorthe completed our journey across France by canal boat. But we could not leave the Herault in Castet as there is no Locaboat base there. We needed to backtrack to Agen, 84 kilometers and 18 locks away, to return the Herault to a rental base. With six nights left on our contract, we had plenty of time. We could even go a little further beyond Agen if the Herault could keep chugging along. After forty days in the tight canal boat you might imagine the novelty for us had worn off but it hadn’t. We were ready to cruise on endlessly. The end of the trip was not anticipated; it loomed.
Travel time*: 3 hours
Cruising time**: 3 hours
Distance traveled: 17 kilometers
Lock chambers transited: 4
Weather: Clear and cool, cold at night
At the end, our trip across France was 81% complete based on cruising time and 83% complete based on distance covered. We had passed through 223 of the 246 locks (91%) 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).