Saturday 1 October 2011
Castelnaudary to Villepinte
Bon voyage. We’re up by 7:30 to prepare for a final run-thru with the Le Boat representative. This is our last chance to have questions answered before we get underway. While Jenny, Rick, and Anne stay with the boat, Mary, Karen, and I head into town to do the grocery shopping. We three have a great time–the grocery has an amazing selection of meats and cheeses–and we go a little crazy buying beaucoup du fromage.
Working the locks. Once back on board, after a brief crew meeting, we pull out, bidding Castelnaudary au revoir as we motor the short distance to the first of the fifteen locks we’ll pass through that day. Navigating the locks is fun, but depending on conditions (wind direction, size of your boat, and the number of boats squeezing into a lock at one time) it can be a bit tricky.
Since we’re heading south, the canal is stair-stepping down toward the Mediterranean, so what we’re doing is called “locking down”; with each lock, the water is drained out, lowering us (on average) eight feet to the level of the next section of the canal. Motor along the canal until you come to the next lock, rinse and repeat. If the lock is open and there’s no wait, you pull right in, loosely tying up the boat both fore and aft by looping ropes around the bollards on shore.
You wait for any other boats to enter the lock–a lock can hold three boats at once, a tight fit–and then the lock keeper closes the gates behind you. Using electronic controls, the lock keeper opens the sluice doors and the boats in the lock gradually descend with the decreasing water level.
The air is filled with the sound of rushing water and everyone takes care to keep their boats steady. You don’t want to bump into another boat, scrape the side of the lock as you sink past the wall, or worse yet, have the lip of your boat hang on the edge of the lock. Once you’ve reached the level of the canal below, the doors on the other end of the lock are opened and the boats exit in the same order they entered.
As you exit the lock, you may pass boats waiting to “lock up,” tied up to the shore and waiting for you to clear the lock. They enter the lock in the opposite direction, reversing the entire process, and so it goes back-and-forth throughout the day. (The locks don’t operate at night and they close for lunch between 12:30-1:30.) As you approach a lock, you look at the doors and for signals (when available.) If the doors are open, go right on in, no waiting. If the doors are closed, you pull up to the shore nearby to wait your turn. Some locks have signal lights to direct traffic.
Since we’re cruising on the off-season, there isn’t much traffic coming or going on the canal. This means we rarely have to wait for a lock and when we do, it’s never for more than twenty minutes. With room for only three boats, traveling during peak vacation months can mean a fair amount of down-time spent waiting in line for multiple locks-full of boats to pass through before you get your turn. Because we rarely have to wait long (if ever) to get through each lock, we’re able to cover more territory in a day. And with a view like this, waiting in line has never been more enjoyable.
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The staircase locks at Saint-Roch Lock. Our first Canal du Midi locking experience is the set of four stair-step locks at Saint-Roch, which we do on our own before catching up to another boat on the canal going our way. Throughout the rest of the day, we tag team in and out of the next eleven locks; they enter first and pull up on the left, and we follow, hugging the right wall of the lock. It’s a tight fit, but we all get into a rhythm and it goes quickly.
Lock keepers are the envy of us boaters, living idyllic lives canal-side in the South of France. Each lock keeper has a charming home surrounded by flowers and trees, eucalyptus, palm, and tall juniper. Occasionally there’s a cat, a dog, a vegetable garden or all three. Gone are the days when lock keepers have to manually crank open the locks, now most of the labor is performed at the push of a button. Some locks have a little shop, selling souvenirs and staples (water, wine, fruit, honey). One lock yard we pass is decorated with metal sculptures for sale, presumably made by the lock keeper during his down time.
The lock keepers, young and old, men and women, stand watch as boats enter and exit the locks. Friendly all, they rarely give verbal or physical assistance; that’s not their job.
Overnight in Villepinte. After about three hours of traveling south on the canal, we tie up along the bank, just south of a bridge on the outskirts of Villepinte. It’s a peaceful and picturesque spot, straight out of the brochure.
We all enjoy the quiet afternoon napping, reading, photo taking, and wine drinking before dinnertime, when we take a fifteen minute walk down a plane tree-lined road leading into town. We’ve made reservations at Les Deux Acacias and enjoy a terrific meal feasting on the house specialty, cassoulet, a duck, sausage, and beef stew cooked to perfection. It’s delicious, especially when paired with a Minervois, which has quickly become our go-to local red wine.
Having packed head lamps (always handy on a boat), we use them to light our way back to the canal, climbing the gangway safely back on board our home for the next six nights. Unfortunately, there’s a problem with the electronics that flush the toilets. Unlike a sailboat toilet that has to be manually pumped to flush, this boat has the luxury of a toilet that flushes with the push of a button–when it works. Earlier in the day, one of the toilets stopped working. (There’s a green light that resets when the plumbing can be used again. No green light, no working toilet.) Coming home from dinner, we discover prohibitory red lights in all three bathrooms. Ugh. So much for the two-month-old new-fangled high-tech boat.
Not once when imagining my trip on the canal did I ever dream we’d be camping in France and peeing in the woods!
Clicking on any of the photos above will take you to my Flickr site where you can see more photos from the trip.