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May 1, Labor Day in France, we find ourselves hanging on the pontoon in the
Garonne River in Bordeaux. ‘Hanging on’ is literally speaking:
the current is swift and threatens to tear the boat off of the mooring unless
the lines are tied tight. Also, as a consequence of this terrific water flow,
huge tree branches come hurtling along and occasionally slam into the boat,
creating a terrific ‘boom’ throughout the interior. We have stayed
for almost a week to enjoy the city and also to follow the tide back to the
Every day, for about eight hours, the river rolls out toward the sea; then
for only three hours it comes back in again. So timing has to be chosen carefully
so as not to buck the four knot current returning. Saturday morning, May 3rd,
the tide turns around at 7AM, giving three hours until 10AM to ride it in.
Then we’ll most likely have to fight the current for an hour, but by
then most of the river is behind and the water flow is not as strong. The total
trip time is about four and a half hours. It sounds like a good plan, doesn’t
So at 6:30 we awake and, after coffee, take off with a whoosh as the current
snatches up Oo-La-La and holds her in its clutches. Travel speed is nine knots,
with a good four-knot boost from the water surge. The day looks fine as the
sun comes out in a rosy dawn. A fine mist along the banks swirls and dances
on the water surface. Bordeaux fades behind and the fishermen in their skiffs
have huge gill nets spread across the river making us hug the bank to avoid
entanglement. The curling mist is spreading thicker now and a little worry
grows with it: could this turn into fog?
Sure enough, by 9AM it is impossible to see ten feet beyond the boat. The
throttle is on idle, but travel goes forward due to the current. The banks
are invisible and there is no clue what lies ahead and in our path. Fishing
boats zoom in and out of the fog apparently unconcerned with poor visibility.
It may be a common occurrence for them, but all we know is that two large peniches
are permanently moored in the middle of the river and coming up soon - we don’t
know where they are.
Going as slow as possible, it doesn’t help that the depth finder is
not working, it is saying there is 0 feet of depth. It is obvious that is not
the case and that there is SOME water beneath the hull, most likely a piece
of moss got caught on the indicator. A mooring at the town of Langoiran is
just visible to the left but a U-turn is necessary to get to it. Just then
the ghostly outline of a big dredge appears dead ahead. That and the barest
shadow of the large bridge ramparts make us U-turn for the pontoon with eagerness
and gratitude. It’s a real pea soup kind of fog, and travel is simply
too dangerous. Just the image of the spiky dredge says enough is enough.
Disembarking from the boat a freshly baked ‘baguette’ and some
apple tarts are found in the town bakery. After a mid-morning break, the fog
is all burned off by 10AM and the day is sparkling clear. What a beautiful
day it is indeed, all the more so for the good visibility.
Travel is slowed down for the next two hours the tide has turned against us
as an hour was lost waiting out the fog. No one is complaining since the sheer
relief of avoiding collision makes the current a welcome challenge. The noon
hour is approaching and that means lunchtime, so I put a call through to the
lock keeper at Castets.
The number rings to a fax machine. I try the next lock and the next, all with
the same results. Why the guidebook has these phone numbers is a mystery, they’re
completely useless. So, as a last resort, the restaurant at the river lock
is called. “Oh, he’s usually around here, but not now, so I’ll
call you back,” says the friendly lady who answers. I sure hope so, since
it means holding onto a pole in front of the lock gates if no one opens up.
Apparently she doesn’t see him since there’s no return call. But
just as the lock becomes visible a white VNF truck is spotted running alongside
the river toward the canal. A light blue sailboat, ‘Cariad’ is
waiting at the poles and we enter the big gates together, both happy to be
inside and going off the river onto the canal. It’s absolutely wonderful
to be back on the peaceful, placid waters and away from tides and other big
river dangers. At the pretty town of Meilhan we enjoy a happy hour with the
crew, Chris and Ivor Jones, a Welsh couple living their dream of sail boating,
they just spent winter on the coast town of La Rochelle and are going to Spain
via the Canal du Midi.
Spring weather is doing its thing and the air is thick with white tuffs of
pollen or tree seeds floating in the air like snow. A small child nearby exclaims
that it IS snow, he doesn’t care what the adults say. It certainly looks
like it as the boats and ground are blanketed in a light dusting.
A week later finds us back in Toulouse, saying hello to Sylvianne and neighbors
and rendezvousing with friends, Pat and Trevor Scott, of Braunston, England
for a grand reunion. We met the Scotts in September 2001, just at the beginning
of the narrowboat adventures in England. They arrive in a beautiful electric
blue Mercedes sports car that Sylvianne graciously keeps an eye on during their
After an unseasonably chilly day sightseeing Toulouse, we’re ready to
take off and cruise. The boat is stocked up and departure is around 9AM on
a cheerful sunny morning with temperatures warming up into the low 70s. The
weather continues to cooperate and five days of glorious cruising pass all
too quickly. Pat and Trevor help out with the ropes and get good suntans in
the process. Along the way we meet up with friends of theirs who have coincidentally
hired a boat to cruise in the opposite direction, toward Toulouse. An instant
party gets going as both vessels tie onto tree trunks for the evening. Three
couples aboard the hireboat are David and Leslie who also have a narrowboat,
Raven, Christina and Mike of Barbie near Braunston and Brian and Diana of Lowestoft,
also narrowboaters. Chatting about websites, we discover that we’re both
featured in the same issue of Waterways World, theirs being www.cutweb.org.uk,
a boating site. It’s a cozy neighborhood on the canals.
At Carcassonne we bid goodbye to Pat and Trevor as they catch the train back
to Toulouse to pick up their car. They are great crewmembers and a joy to have
onboard. Maybe we’ll catch up again during Christmas.
As it turns out, their timing is perfect, for the next day there is a general
transportation strike including the VNF, which means that the lock keepers
won’t be working. So we sit in Carcassonne, a good place to wait. There
is a ‘manifestation’ in the streets of the striking workers who
burn a huge hill of tires in the road, severely disrupting lunchtime traffic.
These strikes have been going on all winter and appear to be getting worse,
for the first time we are directly affected. It isn’t so bad since we’re
not on vacation, but the holiday boats have only 7 or 14 days to enjoy. A sociable
couple from Cherbourg, France is disappointed to lose their last cruising day;
it is a shame to see. But this is only the beginning, it gets much worse later
At Carcassonne some other friendly hire boaters from England turn out to be
readers of this website. It is a great pleasure to meet with Dot and Ian Hart
who enjoyed their cruise on the French canals and whose own website is www.the-river-thames.co.uk.
The ‘neighborhood’ is getting friendlier every day of cruising.
We have a lovely time again with Patsy and Andrew of ‘Floraposte’ in
Trebes (last seen in Toulouse) and Bob and Maureen of ‘Grand Cru’ in
Homps (old neighbors from Port Ariane). In Capestang we meet Sue and Brian
of ‘Orion’ a couple that spent 20 years in Gambia, Africa, running
an excursion boat business. They are retired on the Canal du Midi, finding
it ‘not too cold’ in the winter.
Probably the most beautiful part of this waterway between two seas is the
lock-free run between the towns of Le Somail and Capestang. There the land
falls away and down from each side of the canal giving off a beautiful long
vista of the valley that gently undulates toward the far away mountains. Large
fields of lavender and vineyards surround centuries old estates, some modest
and others grand but each charming in its own fashion. It’s the end of
May and cruising season is full blown. Even though it officially opens on June
1 the canals are already humming with life.
.....on to June