The cons and pros of tight-artistry in boat charter by Neville Heyden

The universal truth that you get what you pay for applies in boat charter as much as in any other pursuit. Perhaps even more so, as budget boating rapidly becomes an oxymoron.
Let’s be clear, there’s nothing wrong with tight-artistry – so long as you are prepared to live with the consequences.
Chasing a bargain is always satisfying, usually entertaining and, occasionally, it can deliver long-remembered bonuses. But the main game is that it can leave you with a few extra bucks – or in this case euros – in your pocket for the next trip.
Take this Afloat reader’s recent experience in south west France. It started out as week on a traditional 9.35-metre Penichette on Le Lot river and a second week in a similar vessel on the famed Canal du Midi. All this for a total of $1800 plus fuel.
Seven connected locks at Fonséranes, BéziersAs a deal, it seemed hard to beat. For this outlay, the two crew would get to see the beautiful historic hillside village of St Cirq-Lapopie, the limestone cliffs and ancient caves of Bouzies and numerous chateaux on Le Lot, as well as revisiting Pierre Paul Riquet’s engineering masterpiece, the Canal du Midi.
Le Lot is pate de foie, goat’s cheese and wine territory – the first two are top quality and attractively priced, and the wine, well, anything from $3 upwards.
Part of the experience was managing the 18 do-it-yourself locks between Luzech and St Cirq-Lapopie. None of this leaving it to a lock-keeper and modern technology before continuing on your way with a mispronounced merci.
Frightful place to break down … our good samaritan Pierre helps the stranded visitors in the shadow of St Cirque Lapopie on Le Lot.These are traditional, unmanned locks where the crew does all the work by hand, including opening and closing the sluices and the lock gates themselves, which involves climbing ladders and winding handles as well as managing lines.
Factor in agreeable European autumn weather – cool nights and mostly warm days with ‘slow’ sunsets – and you have all the ingredients for a relaxing holiday.
Even a late change brought about by unavailability of the preferred Penichette for week one was tolerable because we were upgraded (at no extra charge) to bigger craft sans character.
The embarrassingly-named Daisy Duck – perfect for two, perhaps acceptable for four but way too small for the nominal maximum of seven – would be a comfortable home for the week.
Le Lot river from the ancient village of St Cirque Lapopie.The problems emerged on day one – well minute one, really. Daisy wanted to turn to starboard and only constant winding of the wheel to port could keep her on course.
After two service visits, staff from the Nautic base at Luzech were convinced there was a problem … and it wasn’t just the wind (calm to 10 knots) and a dud helmsman.
The problem was a bent rudder, legacy of a previous hirer, and the base agreed to get a diver (le plonger) to attend. Just how the steel rudder could be straightened with the boat in the water wasn’t clear. It didn’t really matter because, despite many (expensive) mobile phone calls via Australia seeking ou est le plonger?, the diver never did turn up.
Boats waiting to go downstream at the wonderful Pechlaurier double lock on the Midi.So for four days the helmsman just kept turning the helm to port. For the most part it was manageable, if irritating, and occasionally tricky when close-hand manoeuvring was required near weirs.
As he wound the wheel, the helmsman couldn’t help recalling A. J. ‘Sandy’ Mackinnon’s wonderful tale, The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow (available at Boat Books!), which recounts the author’s experiences going backwards through the canals and rivers of Europe. At least Sandy had a good excuse for his unorthodox approach – he had to row his Mirror dinghy when there wasn’t a sailing breeze!
But on day five on Le Lot things got worse, terminal in fact, when the engine failed (no oil in the sump and no alarm). Fortunately, by this time a French couple had taken on the role of the Duck’s translators and, ultimately, rescuers when she stopped paddling in mid-stream.
Map of Canal du Midi and Canal de GaronneClearly, Daisy Duck was now a dead duck. With Pierre, a semi-retired French hydrographer, handling negotiations, the offer was for a ‘top boat’ on the Midi for nine days. At no additional cost, of course.
That’s how the euro-conscious crew finished up on a much newer 12-metre Tarpon with three sleeping cabins, a head and shower each, a big galley with full-size fridge and a roomy saloon. One of the cabins wasn’t even opened (room for an au pair?).
And that’s when mother nature stepped in … it rained non-stop for two days. No one could blame the operator for that, as we were into autumn (cheaper rates!) after all. At least the LPG-fired central heating allowed us to dry our clothes until the sun arrived again and enabled T-shirt cruising to be resumed.
The Canal du Midi and its towns and villages is a gentle cruise that, despite the popularity that makes it too crowded in peak summer, holds many rewards in addition to its picturesque towns, villages and chateaux.

The doomed fungus-affected plane trees on the Canal du Midi are marked with green rings. / End of the line for the crippled Daisy Duck.As well as the scenery, the food and the wine, there’s the characters you meet en route. Such as the grandmother and her rugby-loving son who run the charcouterie at Argeliers. Or the charming Danglas brothers battling to restore the 17th century Chateau de Paraza, purchased by their mother six years ago.
For six years in the 1660s, the chateau was the home of Pierre Paul Riquet, the man who built the Canal du Midi to serve as a shortcut between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, avoiding the long sea voyage around hostile Spain, Barbary pirates, and a trip that in the 17th century took a full month to complete.
He lived there while he directed the building of the stone aqueduct which carries the canal above la Repudre river. It was the first such elevated transport waterway in France and is believed to be the second ever built in the world. Travelling along his canal, who cannot wonder at Riquet’s achievements in creating a canal that uses only the energy of its own flow to raise and lower vessels up to 30 metres in length over its 240 kilometres?
In these energy-stretched times, we need more Riquets to better utilise nature’s resources. Like sailors who harness the wind, his use of gravity is a fine example of sustainability before it became fashionable.   
Other characters encountered along the way included the Dutch academics keen to study the regional vin as they ferried their 11-metre yacht, lengthened to about 15 metres by the mast, down to the Med.
Wonderful though it is, there some dark clouds over the Canal du Midi, however. The rows of plane trees whose roots stabilize its banks are under attack from a fungal disease and many are dying.
There’s also a potential public health issue as very few of the thousands of boats that use the canal have holding tanks. Some boats have tanks, but there are no pump-out facilities (sound familiar?). Then there are the abandoned hulks that remind passers-by that boats need TLC and money to keep the dream alive.
Talking of money, it is fair to say that the budget approach on the recent trip virtually ensured being given a tired vessel. As hire operators say about breakdowns, ‘these things can happen’, especially at the end of a busy season.
What they don’t admit is that many of their craft also start the season ill-prepared.
In the end, what matters is how well the operator addresses the deficiencies. In our case, they did come up with a reasonable compromise.
What they can’t be forgiven for is the names they give their boats – Spiderman, Buffalo Bill, Speedy Gonzales (at max. four knots?) and Jessy James. Regarding our Daisy Duck, we thought Mickey Mouse might have been more apt.
The serious disappointment, however, was to have our time on Le Lot cut short. Maybe there’ll be a next time – at the right price. Negotiations have just started.

* Neville Heydon is New Zealand-born journalist and part-owner of the former Hobart charter yacht Prudence. He is part-owner (with his wife, Gill) as ‘foreigners’ are not permitted to own a majority share in Australian-registered vessels. He blames Scottish ancestry for his parsimony.