Canal de Garonne
Reaching the end of the Canal des Deux Mers in Castets-en-Dorthe fulfilled our goal of crossing Southern France on the waterways. One task remained. By the terms of the contract, the Herault, our rental barge, needed to be returned to the Locaboat base in Agen in six days. Even moving slowly on the Canal de Garonne six days was plenty of time. If we pressed we could transit the 84 kilometers and 18 locks between Castets-en-Dorthe and Agen’s port in two days. But there was no hurry. On the way back we’d go slow and revisit the places we liked on the way out. Retracing our route to Agen was as a celebratory victory lap of sorts.
It was a foggy cold morning as we pulled the ropes on board the Herault in Castets-en-Dorthe. Late in October the weather was cool. Fall had come. Rain 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 than two weeks using the locks would require special arrangements from the VNF, the canal management authority. Still there were a few boats on the water. Amongst the occasional rental barges taking advantage of the cut-rate deals at the fringe of the season were a small number of full timers in large Dutch barges. The liveaboards hurried to reach their winter moorings before cruising became more complicated. With so few boats on the water we no longer needed to queue for a space in the locks or fear that a spot at the docks would not be available.
Don’t miss seeing a stop a footage of our journey on YouTube!
After an obligatory pause to revisit our new favorite butcher shop in Meilhan-sur-Garonne we continued on to spend the first night of our return leg in pleasant Le Mas d’Agenais. Roger and Kat, our impromptu jetonneries from our outward-bound stop, were still moored at Le Mas d’Agenais’ dock when we arrived. They were waiting for the forecasted strong winds to pass before they moved on to Buzet-sur-Baïse for the winter. Like our rental boat, their beautiful historic Dutch Barge did not have the extra maneuverability afforded by bow thrusters. Roger and Kat’s reticence to navigate the canals in the coming winds was a concern to us. Though more than a than a month had passed since our difficult day on the way to Argens-Minervois we still feared piloting the Herault in strong wind.
The morning indeed came with a warm breeze. But we were lucky. The wind, though it increased through the day, never reached the point where it became a serious navigational challenge. As we lumbered on to the east we passed Buzet and re-crossed the Baïse River on the pont-canal. By the time we moored for a quiet night in Sérignac-sur-Garonne, the wind had eased.
Sérignac-sur-Garonne with its twisty towered church is a short cruise away from Agen. Four nights now remained before the Herault needed to be returned. We decided to cruise to Agen, stop for the evening, and continue on the following day to Valence-d’Agen. Pausing again in Agen had an advantage; we could buy enough fresh food for the remainder of the journey at the excellent marché couvert or covered market.
After our night in Agen, a four-hour cruise took us to Valence-d’Agen. A few miles from Valence is the small town of Auvillar. We intended to visit the next morning. Some say that Auvillar is one of the most beautiful villages in France. We cannot comment. During the night the Herault’s heater again failed and needed to be attended to. The next day we waited for the Locaboat technician to arrive and make the repairs. Auvillar would wait; we visited interesting Valence-d’Agen instead.
Spitting cold rain interspersed with warm partially cloudy skies greeted us for our last full day on the boat. The weather was distinctly undecided. This was our final chance to visit the now mythical Auvillar. But alas the Herault had the last say. Days before our rental boat was destined to begin a full refit at the Agen base the heater failed for the fifth time in fifteen nights. We again called Locaboat and they again sent a technician out to fix the furnace.
When the technician arrived he turned the thermostat on. The heater worked.
“But, but, but,” we stuttered as the technician shrugged his shoulders, packed up, and started to return to the base. His body language said it all; he could not repair something that was not broken.
As the technician stepped on the dock and turned towards his European-style work van we rushed to the Herault’s thermostat switching it off and on for ourselves. Ironically we were now happy that the heater again malfunctioned. We chased after the technician catching him before he reached the van and convincing him to return to the boat.
On the boat the Locaboat repairman switched the thermostat on again. It did not work. Repairs began. The wheelhouse flooring was pulled up and the access panels were opened. Hours passed before the problem was solved and the technician left.
By the time the repairs were completed it was too late for an excursion to Auvillar. In moments our friends G&C arrived from the UK to accompany us on the last leg of our journey. We needed to leave Valence soon to reach to Agen before the locks closed for the night.
Our forty-six day journey across France in the Herault covered 783 kilometers and transited 247 locks. The most terrifying moments came near the end when we let G pilot the boat. G doesn’t drive. He’s never even played video games that simulate driving. Nonetheless, how frightening can a cruise at five miles an hour be? What could go wrong at such a low speed? It turns out that with G at the wheel anything is possible. It can be seriously scary. Nonetheless we somehow avoided a major calamity and the forced invocation of our Collision Damage Waiver. Against all odds, the Herault survived our long journey.
An eventful trip across France came to its conclusion when we nudged the Herault to dock in Agen. For over six weeks the Herault had been our home. The next morning we would return the boat’s keys to Locaboat and start on our way back to California. Behind us we’d leave the Herault taking along only the unforgettable memories of life on Canal des Deux Mers and dreams of future journeys.
The full picture set is on Google+.
Travel time*: 25 hours
Cruising time**: 22 hours
Distance traveled: 136 kilometers
Lock chambers transited: 24
Weather: Clear and cool, cold at night
At the end, our trip across France we cruised for 153 hours in 46 days. We had passed through 247 locks and traveled 783 kilometers.
* 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).