Slow Boat Across France

An oceangoing crew succumbs to the temptations of rural France while taking a pastoral shortcut from the Med to northern Europe

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With the air of one accustomed, Anke Brodmerkel steadies Enterprise's bow as water floods into the umpteenth lock on their ascent of the Canal du Midi.©detlef Jens

It was quite an anticlimax. The day before, we had sprinted across the Golfe du Lion in a mistral, doing seven knots under the double-reefed main alone. Now, the mast crane hovered impatiently over the boat, as though this were a gloomy, end-of-season November afternoon rather than a beautiful, brilliant, sunny sailing day in June. It all seemed a bit unreal.

But we’d made our choice. For various reasons, we had to return to our home port of Hamburg in northern Germany for the coming winter, and the quickest and most pleasant route from the Mediterranean was through the Canal du Midi and Canal Latéral à la Garonne, which connect France’s Med ports with the Gironde estuary, which leads to the Bay of Biscay. From there, it’s a short hop to the English Channel and, finally, the North Sea. We were saving ourselves a detour of roughly 2,000 miles around the Iberian Peninsula while, at the same time, passing through some of the most beautiful countryside of France--and many famous vineyards.

Now, after countless miles in Atlantic and Mediterranean waters, our 34-foot steel sloop, Enterprise, was in Grau d'Agde, on the Hérault River, being transformed into a canal boat: The mast and boom were to be stowed in heavy, wooden cradles on deck, and the topsides festooned with fenders and old car tires. There was only one lingering worry. I still didn't know for sure if we'd make it with Enterprise's draft. I'd phoned several lockkeepers along the Canal du Midi, and they'd all assured me, pas de problème, that we'd get through with our draft of four feet eleven inches. After all, they guaranteed a minimum depth of five feet three inches. A mere four inches of water between the bottom of our keel and the canal bed didn't seem a lot to me, and other people had warned me that during hot summers, farmers along the way would pump a lot of water out of the canal to irrigate their fields, which would then lower the depth below the guaranteed minimum. It was only much later that we met other yachts passing through with actual drafts of five feet three inches.

We comforted ourselves with the fact that this was only June, and the water level surely wouldn’t be affected until late July or August. We chugged off through the beautiful, ancient town of Agde toward our first lock, one that connects the Hérault with the Canal du Midi.

For this inland trip, my girlfriend, Anke Brodmerkel, and I had been joined by our friend Gabi, who’d taken a 10-day holiday for this unusual waterways experience. Ten days, I thought, would be more than enough to deliver Gabi the 300 or so miles to Bordeaux, on the Gironde estuary, from where she could conveniently fly back home. Granted, we had to negotiate 117 locks on 270 miles of canals on the way, plus about one tide’s worth of free-flowing river. For my part, I was determined not to hang about. The women, though, had a rather different view, and little did I know of the hazards lying in wait along the route to waylay even the most resolute traveler: dreamlike canal-side restaurants with overgrown terraces and mouth-watering menus, ancient châteaux with vast cellars full of local wines to be tasted, and medieval cities soaked in history.

Going Up
We quickly slipped into a smooth canal-running routine and motored along under a hot Mediterranean sun. Locking uphill was like being caught in an industrial washing machine, but we had our techniques for coping. Once the boats were inside and all the gates closed, the water rushed into the lock at such a rate that the little basin was instantly transformed into a whirlpool of white, foaming water on which Enterprise danced like a drunken cork. It took a fair bit of muscle at times to keep her in place.

But the main danger in the locks wasn’t the angry water. The majority of traffic on the canals nowadays is made up of extremely sturdy motorboats that are chartered out to anyone--no license needed, no experience expected, and no questions asked. They are, consequently, built to crash into one another. The problem is that the average yacht isn’t as armored as these floating tanks and so doesn’t fit into this arrangement. We do mind if another boat crashes into us, and we had some extreme adrenaline-pumping moments. In one lock, I found myself shouting, something I’d normally be ashamed of. Having barely fended off one of these destroyers, I turned around just in time to see another one aiming purposefully toward our self-steering gear. Picturing this vital piece of equipment as a tangle of scrap metal dangling off the stern like a piece of modern art, I lost my cool and yelled at the top of my voice at the poor, terrified devil behind the wheel of the charter boat--ruining his day, no doubt, but saving our windvane. After that, and after similar occasions, we repeatedly told ourselves we should be grateful to them. After all, without the charter-boat trade that flourishes along the entire length of the canal, this wonderful waterway might by now have fallen into decay and be closed to navigation. Partly making up for the threat of the destroyer-boats, whose operators, given the lack of regulation, couldn’t be expected to know better, is the fact that there’s normally no commercial traffic whatsoever on the Canal du Midi or the Canal Latéral à la Garonne.

These small hiccups aside, we developed a smooth script for the uphill locks. We dropped off one crewmember on the canal bank who'd stroll to the lock and say "Bonjour" and a few nice words to the lockkeeper before taking our lines as Enterprise motored into the watery cellar several feet below the bank. With our crew of three, we still had one person left for each of the stern and bow lines. For those handling the lines on board, it was always a pleasant sensation to be lifted swiftly upward until the eyes were level with the ground around the lock and the view gradually revealed more and more of the immediate surroundings: always a picturesque old lockkeeper's house, dating perhaps from when the canal was built under the reign of Louis XIV in 1681, more often than not a tiny but beautifully kept garden, and such frequent little surprises as lockside stalls selling locally produced honey, jams, and wines.

The locks determined our progress in more ways than one. Often we waited: for the lockkeeper to arrive, for the basin to fill, for boats passing the other way. Some locks were operated more swiftly than others, depending on the personality of the keeper or on the willingness of the crews of the boats being locked through to lend a hand in working the gates. Quite a few of the locks along the Canal du Midi are still operated by hand. This isn’t as labor-intensive as it may seem, and as long as one isn’t in a hurry, it can actually be quite relaxing--chatting to the lockkeeper while turning the handles to close the bottom gates, then sauntering up to the top gates, admiring the view or the flowers and plants near the lock, opening the sluices in the top gates one after the other, watching the water rush in and the boats rise, and, finally, opening the top gates. This slow-motion procedure again served to bring me down to the proper canal pace: "There’s no need to hurry," I had to say to myself many times. "We’ll all reach the journey’s end and, with luck, the canal’s end before that."

Then, of course, there was the holy hour of every Frenchman’s day: lunch. All locks stayed firmly shut from 1230 to 1330 hours, which, as we learned while adapting more and more to local customs, is actually quite short for a boozy lunch. But in the heat of these southern French days, we often preferred to cool off with refreshing cockpit showers or simply by diving into the canal. Drying in the sun afterwards, dozing on deck with a glass of vin du pays at hand, listening to the birdsong and the soft breeze whispering in the trees, with nothing around but endless vineyards or fields of bright yellow sunflowers, we were seduced.

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| ©Anke Brodmerkel|

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| Enterprise bids adieu to Bordeaux, trading tranquil bankside moorings for a first taste of the Atlantic Ocean.* * *|

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| A Level of Comfort
We came to like, even love, this way of life far from the sea but so sweet, soft, and lazy. "Look at all these wonderfully converted barges," Anke and I would say to each other as we passed a colony of two, three, four, or five liveaboard barges moored along the canal banks. "Just think of the huge space on those things!" Our own seagoing sailboat seemed tiny in comparison. Would this not be a tempting alternative to our present lifestyle?

In this mode, slowing down from day to day and enjoying every minute of it, we came to various little places, and some of them remained in our minds. Le Somail, for instance, is a typical old village that owes its existence entirely to the canal. Located where the canal met traditional land-transport routes, the town probably began with an inn built in the 17th century. Then came a warehouse and stables and, eventually, homes and a church. Today, Le Somail still lives off the canal, its trade in goods replaced by trade with tourists. But life is different here, nevertheless. We bought stamps from an old lady in her living room so we could deposit our postcards in the village postbox. Then we marched a mile into another world and bought basic provisions in a large "hypermarket"--a store that’s larger than a supermarket and carries a wide variety of goods--on a busy road to some even busier town that we didn’t even want to know about.

In Le Somail, we somehow managed not to visit Château Cabezac, with its cellar full of fine Minervois wines. To make up for this grievous mistake, we stopped a few miles farther along at Ventenac. This impressive château stands right on the canal’s edge, and that it’s a place for tasting local wine couldn’t have been more obvious if I’d found a sign nailed to my nose. Which, in a way, there was. The entire place is redolent with the fragrance of the wines fermenting, of their ripening and aging in huge oak casks, and of the atmosphere of this château, which has been a vineyard for many centuries. Since 1938, it’s been run by the local winegrowers cooperative.

This was one place we just had to stop. Conveniently, just outside the cooperative there was a little landing pontoon to which we tied Enterprise. Turning back after walking up to the massive, oaken entrance gates, we could see miles beyond the canal into the countryside baking under the sun. The vineyards of the Lézignan plain stretched as far as the eye could see.

Thus convinced that we were in the right place, we entered and, after a brief visit to the little wine museum, descended into the dark, musty, vaulted cellars, where the wine is stored--and tasted. A small but lively monsieur opened bottle after bottle, carefully drawing and inspecting the corks and explaining each wine’s merits as he poured not-so-small measures into our glasses. Under his friendly but critical eye, we joyfully followed the ritual. First we discussed the color of the red wines, holding the glasses up to a lamp so that the liquid inside lit up in various, magical shades of ruby. Then we thrust our noses deep into the large-bowled glasses to enjoy the aroma with a contented sigh before trying to describe in words the bouquets, delicate or strong. Then, and only then, could we take the first, careful sip, letting it linger on the back of the tongue to allow the full taste to develop. Another sigh, another comment, and finally we would drink. We ignored the little basins into which professional wine tasters spit out the wines after tasting them and gladly accepted the price of becoming slightly befuddled as the tasting continued. The rest of that day slipped away in a pleasant haze, but when we awoke very late the following morning to continue our slow journey westward, we found we had a few cases of wine on board.

A major landmark is the medieval city of Carcassonne, which looms proud and conspicuous over the wide plain of the Midi, halfway between the Mediterranean and Toulouse. The original walled city, which dates back to Roman times, is unique in Europe and is classed by UNESCO as a world heritage site. Its fortifications were improved and updated in the 13th century against the threat of an invasion from Spain. As is the case with most of these major sights, we had to share Carcassonne with thousands of other tourists from all corners of the globe. We enjoyed our day inside the walled city, but we did feel privileged in that afterward we were able to retreat to the privacy of our boat and the quiet of the canal.

A few days later, we motored straight through the center of France’s fourth-largest city. Toulouse marks the western end of the Mediterranean Languedoc region and, indeed, the end of the Canal du Midi. From here, we continued on the Canal Latéral à la Garonne. West of Toulouse, we felt a distinct change in atmosphere and landscape, the transition from the sunny, sweet Mediterranean to the wilder and windier Aquitaine region, which borders the Atlantic. By now, with our time running out, we were only about halfway through to Biscay. I was getting restless again and insisted, with Anke and Gabi on the verge of mutiny, that we should press on without exploring Toulouse. Home to France’s second largest university, which dates back to 1229, and known for its vibrant nightlife, historic town center, and cultural attractions, Toulouse would have to wait this time around.

Going Down
The Canal Latéral à la Garonne was much quieter than the Midi, due to the more rugged landscape and thus many fewer charter boats. Progress was much quicker here, as we were now locking downhill, which is easier because one can enter the lock directly. Moreover, most of the locks on this canal were automated, which eliminated lunch breaks and other human delays. The procedure was simple. A few hundred yards before each lock would be a traffic light and, dangling from an overhead wire across the canal, something akin to an umbrella. When the lights showed red-green, indicating that the lock was in preparation, one had to grab the umbrella and give it a short twist clockwise. This would set the automated process in motion: The lock would fill, the gates would open, and we'd motor in. Once secured, all we had to do was hit another button to activate the second phase--the closing of the top gates, the draining of the water, and the opening of the bottom gates. As not-very-prominent signs in the lock informed us, we then had exactly three minutes to leave the lock, after which the gates would again close automatically.

The Canal Latéral has a much more purposeful air about it than does the Midi. In fact, it’s much younger than the Midi, having only been opened in 1856. It’s deeper, wider, and sometimes runs straight through the land, as if cut with a ruler, for miles on end. We noted and enjoyed the gradual transition from being completely carefree canal rats to slowly getting used again to the idea that we were approaching the rougher, tidal, river estuaries. The last lock, in Castets-en-Dorthe, is a large beast manned by a lockkeeper. The descent down to the Garonne River can be, depending on the tide, as much as 15 feet. But, more by luck than good judgment, we arrived at high water, in time to motor downstream with the outgoing tide to as far as Bordeaux.

Bordeaux is another impressive, beautiful city we skipped on this trip, but not for reasons of time. Sadly, the city has today turned its back to the river on which it once depended for its prosperity. The waterfront along the Gironde is mostly neglected and derelict, with no really good moorings for yachts to be found anywhere. There is one so-called yacht basin in a former World War II German U-boat harbor, but this is locked off from the river and only accessible around high water--not useful when coming down with the tide from Castets, in which case one arrives in Bordeaux around low water. So we pressed on, and a short distance past Bordeaux, we tied up to a little floating pontoon belonging to a small sailing club. There, the following day, we rerigged Enterprise with the help of a hilariously small mast crane and the strong arms of six or seven fellow sailors. In blustery weather, we then sailed back to take a farewell look at Bordeaux, just to test the ropes, so to speak, before finally turning our bow downstream toward the Bay of Biscay.

What a luxury, we thought, to be moving silently again and to feel our boat once more alive in the water beneath us. As the spray came on deck, we thought we could taste the first traces of real salt water, and we were filled with elation. The laziness of our canal "holiday" fell away before our eagerness to sail on, farther and farther, out to sea once more.

Since arriving in Hamburg in August 2000, Detlef Jens and Anke Brodmerkel have lived ashore but continue to cruise northern Europe and Scandinavia.