Canal du Midi with the lateral Canal of the Garonne completed a waterway from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. It was built from 1661-1681 under the supervision of Pierre-Paul Riquet and the sponsorship of Louis XIV (the Sun King). We covered the 170km from 14th century Castelnaudary downstream to Port Cassafieres.
The crew of friends comprised Malcolm Brown (Navigator and Executive Officer), Lee Brown (Principal French speaker and IT guru), Mal Beavis (Foredeck hand and Relief Helmsman), Adelaide Beavis (Master Chef and Relief Lockhand), Ron Logan (Chief Lockhand), Bev Logan (Deck Manager and General Hand), myself as Captain and Helmsman, and my wife Margaret (Stern Lockhand and Captain’s overseer). Without the prior week on the Murray River in similar roles, I think it unlikely we would have completed the voyage with bodies and friendships intact.
The booklet from the charter company on holidays from UK and Europe Travel (in Melbourne, and very helpful) states on the cover ‘No experience necessary. No licence required’.
This might well apply to recruits being trained in the French Foreign Legion 4th Regiment, also based at Castelnaudary. But it is a bold statement in relation to hirers of the superb but complex Beneteau Vision Hybrid 1504. At 15 metres (eight tonnes and four cabins each with ensuite) it only fitted through some of the bridges with centimetres clearance. We received in good time guidance in the form of a Captain’s Handbook and a comprehensive Guide to the Canal du Midi.
The initial briefing did not prepare us for the complexities of the vessel, the hazards along the Canal represented by other traffic (fortunately light) and moored vessels, weather conditions (unexpectedly cold and wet on some days), the sheer number of locks and narrow bridges, the hundreds of bends and overhanging branches which swept and dropped debris on the upper deck.
Our problems were aggravated by the absence of 2-way radios to base, and the need to use mobile phones.
We were grateful for the courtesy of all the staff we encountered in spite of some language issues and received prompt attention to all calls for help. But the apparent policy of attending to the ‘squeaky wheel’ rather than conducting comprehensive pre-voyage checks and briefings, may be in the long run less efficient and safe.
On the first afternoon we made less than 10km. The next day we reached Bram (another 15km), a Gallo Roman city built on a circular pattern with the church in the centre. The advice on rebooting the system that we had from the hirer’s Cedric at Bram enabled us to complete the journey in good order. On several occasions though it took four or five attempts.
From Bram to Carcassonne was about 20km and we had time to shop at the old city. There is a stunning restored Norman-built 12th century castle complex used in the film Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner. Port of Carcassonne Captain was Stephanie Bourgain who could have passed as a model on holiday and provided helpful advice. When leaving Carcassonne we had to wait in its Basin in a strong wind. I had to hold the vessel against the buffets and caused such a lack of confidence among the owners of adjacent moored boats that a number came out with their boathooks ready to fend us off. Fortunately this was not required.
The next day we reached Trebes – about the same distance. During our only all-hands run ashore our iPad owners were able to get their WiFi-Fix at the wine bar overlooking the Port while sampling Languedoc libations. Trebes’ Port Manager Jean-Michael made it clear though that we were behind schedule to reach our destination by the following Saturday. With this encouragement and fewer locks, we covered almost 40km next day and reached Roubia, near a bridge that framed a superb view of the snow-capped Pyrenees.
The following day saw our longest run (about 45km) to the Port of Colombieres. We stopped for lunch at Capestang where I managed a reverse park alongside, to the bemused applause of other boaties. The girls explored the village during lunch and came upon the Gothic Church of St Etienne (13th and 14th centuries). The worth of our safety procedures was confirmed when Malcolm gave a timely warning to one lady when she stood up to photograph this majestic church, not noticing that we were approaching a low bridge.
Colombieres is just beyond the Malpas Tunnel, 160m long and dug in eight days in the late 1600s. We had hired bikes and noted that most canal boats carried them. Margaret and I took a bicycle ride along the tranquil tow path. Sadly, when we later went to fire up the BBQ it would not stay alight and the 50+ Euros we had spent on fine French steak was substantially wasted.
The next day we reached the multiple locks at Fonserannes (near Beziers) by 1130hrs. We were the first of several private boats in the queue but behind three long barges carrying passengers. After the usual closure for the lockkeeper’s lunch, we did not start the 6-lock descent (20m) until 1430hrs and it took an hour to get through.
A sensible attempt to reduce bottlenecks at Fonserannes was construction of a water slide adjacent to the lock set in the 1980s. An ingenious system of baffles retaining wedges of water supporting boats, was transported up and down the slide by a rubber tyred tractor. However, hydraulic and traction failures plagued the tractor and it now stands forlorn and fading, at the top of the facility once so useful. On that Friday at about 6pm we reached Port Cassafieres and had a night to relax, clean the vessel, and make ready to leave the next morning.
Most of the reaches along the Canal are beautiful and lined with stunning trees. Sadly, many have been condemned or lopped and we were told that the borer responsible was brought in by the US Army in ammunition boxes during World War Two. There is an arboreal program to maintain the beauty of the Canal.
The lockkeepers were generally helpful and operated all locks. We had to provide hands on the locks to manage the lines and ensure the sides of the boat did not jag on the lock edge as the water level fell. Ron and Margaret managed this athletic feat many times, ably assisted by Mal on fore deck and others as stern deckhands. With little traffic on the Canal du Midi we encountered few delays.
The vessel was inadequately prepared in some basic areas. There was no boat hook, Captain’s chair for the main deck steering position or umbrella. We received a Captain’s chair as we were leaving Castelnaudary, but it was not feasible to drive the vessel from the main deck as vision was limited and the joystick control for the electric power was only fitted on the upper deck. There was no shelter for the helmsman on the upper deck from the sun or rain. There was a folding canopy (Bimini) but it was impracticable to leave it up while cruising.
The steering requires careful use of the Pod Angle (PA) indicator, and allowance for the delays before corrections take effect. This measure is critical to the safe operation of the vessel on such a tight waterway. Overcorrecting the steering and not re-centring it quickly caused two exciting 360° spins early in our voyage. I found the following routine for narrow bridges and entering locks worked every time:
1. If on Diesel power, throttle back to 1000rpm. If on Electric, just maintain way. If the bridge opening is large, then passage under diesel power is an option.
2. Identify the straight line of approach. Place the keel on this line as early as possible, with Pod Angle at zero.
3. Adjust direction with tweaks of bow thrusters (available in both diesel and electric modes).
4. Station lookouts both sides and have them call necessary adjustments. Also have a safety lookout for head clearance.
5. Find clear water and stay slow before attempting to revert to Diesel power from Electric or vice versa.
The upper driving position was sub-optimal. The switches on the right side were close to the driver’s right knee and on several occasions were inadvertently turned on. There was no cup holder or flat place to lay out a chart. The camera screen (front and rear views) fitted on both control consoles was unusable on the upper deck as there was no shroud from glare or rain.
The air conditioning, heating and TV sets never worked for us. While these did not present major inconveniences, it detracted from the ‘luxury’ ambience we expected. This was probably due to a lack of instructions and operator ignorance rather than faults with this fine boat. Our vessel was the latest in green technology with solar powered battery power, but the ‘black’ (sewage) water is still discharged into the Canal after primary treatment.
While this did not seem to worry the numerous wild ducks, it may present a public health hazard, especially if the Canal overflows through flooding or breach.
The gangplank was wobbly as its retaining pins would not fit fully into the two sets of side sockets.
The cabins were comfortable.
The vessel was significantly affected by wind and we found that a small Australian flag provided by Mal Beavis and placed on the foredeck provided a useful tell-tale. On many occasions a steering correction was required to offset the wind. When turning sharp bends we were often smacked by strong gusts. It was important to assess the wind when entering locks and moor on the upwind side.
We met at Colombieres a family (would you believe) from the same suburb as we all live in, which had had their Vision Hybrid 1504 replaced with an earlier diesel model.
Failure to identify and correct the problems we had before they became evident to users will progressively degrade the value and safety of the charterer’s fleet and its superb flagship. This same attitude was mentioned by Neville Hayden in his story The cons and pros of tight-artistry in boat charter (Afloat Aug’11).
After Jean-Michael at Trebes outlined the progress we needed to make to reach Port Cassafieres by the next Saturday morning, we were unable to stop and sample adequately local sights and produce. Fortunately we had planned a week after the cruise in cottages at Olanzac (north of Homps which is on the Canal). This provided good chances to visit local markets, sample the produce and appreciate the beauty and history of the Languedoc-Roussillon region
We saw a need to have instructions for operating the vessel and troubleshooting in English – and no doubt other languages other than French. Accordingly, Lee Brown sent to the company suggested instructions for the morning start up routine, changing propulsion modes, and rebooting the system. She emphasised the need for 2-way radio. The charterer has offered a concession on a future cruise and we are very tempted.
Canal du Midi is a stunning testament to human ingenuity and achievement. While our experience was rather more challenging than anticipated, it was entirely worthwhile.