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Messing About On The Canal du Midi

Gill Martin lets Le Boat take the strain on a family cruise in the South of France

Written by . Published on September 16th 2012.

Messing About On The Canal du Midi

“CAPTAIN’S Log: Salsa III, Le Boat fleet, Canal du Midi, Day One – Castelnaudary, South of France.

Motley crew: mother, her two first cousins, one partner, visiting French friend and, oh yes, the wife.

Incidents: lock rage, engine failure, parasol damage, near mutiny over raucous late night party.

Upside: a week of relaxed cruising in unspoilt sunny French countryside, enjoying local cuisine, field fresh produce, crusty baguettes, glorious cheese, good wine at ridiculously cheap prices (five litres for under nine Euros) and chance to be captain for a week with no interference from Sat Nav, e-mails and mum. And no one lost overboard.”

Well, that’s what my son might have written. He was indeed in charge of the mechanical bits of the boat, the steering, the speed (all of 6 km an hour) and security (i.e. where did we leave the ignition key?), scrambling us from sunbathing stupor to manoeuvre safely through locks (62 in all) while his Mexican wife cooked up the best brunches and sorted the music. Not all salsa, despite the boat’s name. 

Getting To Know The Ropes As We Navigate A LockGetting to know the ropes as we navigate a lock

My job is merely to organise us for a family treat (memo to self: resist career change to travel agent) that starts at 3am for an early bird easyJet flight to Toulouse, a transfer to Castelnaudary, and trust that harmony will prevail across three nationalities, four decades, three languages and two sexes aboard one boat. It did.

It’s the speed, or lack of it, that calms as you make leisurely, languorous progress on an ancient canal that links the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.

This historic waterway dates back to the beginning of the 16th century. The visionary architect Pierre Paul Riquet designed the oval locks, so typical of the canal and still in operation three centuries later. It is steeped in tradition and you can feel the spirit of Riquet, who oversaw the first digging of the canal in 1666 but who sadly died just six months before its completion in 1681.

Lunch On BoardLunch on board

The banks of this old canal, designed for horse drawn barges, are fragile and a careless bow wave can damage the structure. So slow speed ahead

Modern hustle-bustle has no place in this tranquil setting. City-centric rush is left behind as we cruise at escargot-pace from one lock to the next. We are greeted by courtesy and a chat as the lock keepers emerge from cottages covered in rambling roses, wisteria and honeysuckle to operate sluices and gates.

Some cottages boast little cafes, beehives and craft shops so you can tie up nearby and wander along for coffee, arty souvenirs or pots of honey. No Parisian surliness here, as my French friend, on holiday from the capital of rude, found to her delight.

Captain Nick Relaxes With Wife Tania At SunsetCaptain Nick relaxes with wife Tania at sunset

The busiest day is the first. Finding our canal legs, stowing away our belongings in good size saloon, four cabins (two twin-bedded and a pair of double-bedded), two bathrooms, taking lunch in a restaurant overlooking the stunning basin of Castelnaudary, once an important port and boat building centre. Then it’s a supermarket shop for supper on board, breakfast and essentials for the week. A must is the five litres plastic barrel of robust local red Aude wine and the speciality Cassoulet, a delicious dish of duck, chunky pieces of pork, Toulouse sausage and white beans.

Castelnaudary, once an important port and boat building centre in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, styles itself as the Capitale Mondiale du Cassoulet, which is named after the traditional earthenware pot called a cassole in which it is cooked. It looks great but probably won’t fit into your boat’s oven, so resist and go for a can or jar.

Most important of all: plotting our route, a briefing, boat handling demonstration and very brief practice run for the Captain and his First Mate. We take advice to make Carcassonne our target rather than the further Homps, so we won’t be travelling against the clock and can return to Castelnaudary, sail towards the Atlantic, and head slowly back to base during our last couple of days.

Facing The Lock GatesFacing the lock gates

Now is time to cast off and head for the Med. It is baptism by lock: a quadruple that requires all our concentration and vigilance. Boats don’t have brakes, so it’s all about using the engine in reverse and fine steering to keep our 7-ton craft on track. Capt Nick is a dab hand at these manoeuvres (including avoiding mother duck and her 11 ducklings) and his crew quickly learn the ropes: never make fast on a downstream lock, ensure the line doesn’t jam in a crack between the stones, pass lines around bollards at bow and stern…and don’t forget to release as you leave the lock.

Other useful tips: alert all on board to duck under low bridges and retract the parasol.  I don’t but manage to bend it back from its right angle distortion.

Our lazy days start with tai chi moves on deck, to the bemusement of farmers and Lycra-clad Tour de France-wannabes whizzing by on the towpaths, a few locks before brunch, passing vineyards and golden wheat fields. As the temperature soars we seek shade under the canopy of plane trees.

The locks close before dusk so we seek out little restaurants along the banks or in walking distance from the canal. After dining on board our entertainment is watching an elegant heron fish for supper and bats dip into the water as the sky turns in shade from apricot to pewter. A night of music, drinking Marquee (pastis with almond cordial) and chewing grillons de canard (duck scratchings), chatting and cheating noisily at dominoes is interrupted by admonishment from sleepy Captain Nick. Cue theatrical shhhhussshing before the mutinous crew turn in to let sleeping canal dogs lie.

Lock Rage- Two Boats Barge For Position To Exit From LockLock rage – two boats barge for position to exit from lock

Just before Carcassonne we encounter our first and only episode of lock rage when another Le Boat craft rams our stern as we wait patiently for the water levels to equalise. To add insult to injury their goatee-bearded first mate, insists to the lock keeper that he should be in pole position to exit. After much Gallic gesticulating and swearing – “connard” would roughly translate as arsehole – his captain tries to pour oil on troubled waters with an apologetic shrug.

With exaggerated politeness we let them nudge past so they can beat us to the next lock where, guess what, they have to twiddle their thumbs while the lock keeper waits for our stately arrival to process two boats at the same time.

Monsieur Goatee – no doubt a Parisian – is next spotted in the supermarket queue where he manoeuvres his trolley from one line to another to speed his check-out. I find the shorter queue. Result.

Walls Of CarcassonneCarcassonne – the waterfront and, below, its famous fortifications

Carcassonne %26#8211%3B The Walls

Carcassonne is well worth the journey. We moor in the port to explore the famous old city, a fortified garrison dating back to the Roman Empire. It’s perched on a hilltop a few kilometres out of the new town and was restored at the end of the 19th century to provide a spectacular setting for musical and theatrical festivals throughout the summer.

Heading back to base like the accomplished canal sailors we have become in a matter of days we hit the first bad weather. Great timing as this is where we moor overnight in port, pick up our French friend and break open that jar of cassoulet, which would not look out of place as a laboratory specimen. It is delicious.

Next day dawns bright and clear.  We set off in good spirits, only to break down with a snapped engine cable. Again matchless timing as we drift to the bank in the hamlet of Le Ségala to await the Le Boat’s prompt engineers, drink strong espresso and cold beers at its only bar and restaurant, the Relais de Riquet.

Running Repairs From The Le Boat Engineers After BreakdownRunning repairs from the Le Boat Engineers after our breakdown

It’s a simple and swift repair but we are more than happy to spend the night there, to eat at the charming Le Relais restaurant and discuss boules tactics with a party of Belgians, who challenge us to a game before breakfast. We accept, but sadly they are still asleep when we have to depart for our last day’s journey to base. Another result.

Fact file

Gill’s family holiday arranged by Le Boat, visit www.leboat.co.uk.
They travelled with easyJet, visit www.easyjet.com

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