Sunday, April 8, 2007

On the Canal du Midi, 2004

Click to enlarge. Photos by Nancy

From "Hot Sun, Cool Shadows" by Angela Murrills.

"One day, we promise ourselves, we will journey along the entire length of
the Midi Canal, west to east, Toulouse to the Mediterranean. But not the other way around, because the only stage of the waterway that intimidates us, and is thus best tackled late in the voyage is Pierre-Paul Riquet's masterwork, the staircase of locks just outside Beziers....Riquet was forced to create a link between two levels of water a mere 300 metres apart with an altitude difference of 21.5 metres, about the height of a six-storey building. His solution was seven locks, one right after another."

Well, we did it the other way around, east to west. Not out of bravery or being secure in our competence, but out of ignorance. On our second day on the Canal du Midi, we hit the Fonseraines Staircase. The first day we had gone through one lock and had learned just enough to be confused. The fourth photo is of the "staircase" looking down at five or so locks that we had already navigated. We went through the locks with three other boats and it was a tight squeeze. All hands were on deck as the boats jostled about in the moving water. Then, as the water quickly flowed into the lock after the gates closed, the boat would thrash about and pitch and roll. You had to be roped up properly or your boat would knock into the others. And since we were gaining elevation, we had to take up the slack in the ropes as the boats rose in relationship to the ground. Of course, once the boats were in the lock and gates began to close you needed to toss the ropes up 15 or so feet to a bystander who would wrap it around a bollard and toss it back to you, and you would need to keep tension of the bow and stern lines, take up slack, keeping your boat away from the others, all the while fending your boat off from the green slime encrusted walls of the lock. Well, I can tell you it was an adventure for a couple of land-lubbers. The challenges were entirely different than piloting a boat on Yellowstone Lake where the main hazards were the extremely cold water and fickle winds and weather. Here on the Canal du Midi the challenges were entirely man-made and more of a hazard to the boats than to the sailors.
All in all, it was very exciting going through seven locks in an hour an a half. People, on summer days go out to to watch the canal boats just to see them progress through the locks. Some people moved with the individual boats, some stayed with the same lock. Some shouted encouragement and some laughed at our mistakes and lack of experience. The only other hazards on the canal were the exceptionally tight bridges that did not seem to be either wide enough or tall enough to get our tiny boat through, but they were, and they accommodated larger boats as you can see from the pictures. Some canal boats had cabins that collapsed to allow them under the bridges. Other boats had to pull in their fenders to make it through the bridges because they were at the absolute maximum width for the Midi. The only other hazard we faced was a very long canal boat that we encountered coming around a tight curve in the canal. Since the boat was long and the curve tight, it took up the entire width of the canal. They waved us to the left side and we squeaked by on the wrong side.
This summer we intend to spend a day travelling to Beziers and going to the Staircase to watch some brand new sailors go through the locks.
We went westward for three days and turned around and came eastward back to Agde. On the return, we were pros and went through the locks with the confidence of Admiral Nelson.

1 comment:

Nancy said...

Listening to well-intentioned folks shouting instructions in at least three different languages didn't help my confidence, let alone comprehension level, going through the Fonseraines Staircase. My first mate skills were more than a little challenged getting the sequence of jumping on/off the boat, wrapping the ropes on the bollards, and advancing with rope in hand from the releasing lock into the next. By the last of the staircase locks I might have pretended the confidence of Admiral Nelson, but I was still checking my underwear for stains.