Summer Cruise: Carcassonne to Toulouse on Canal du Midi

Courtesy of Ryan Air, Diana, Kiki and I bumped to a firm landing bang on time at Carcassonne Airport to meet Hazel, who was already there in holiday mood after a direct flight from north of the Watford Gap. Also waiting for us was my old friend, Peter, from school days, who had long ago seen the light and married a French girl with the associated French way of life. His large Citroen people carrier whisked us into the centre of Carcassonne.

As it was only Friday and boat hand-over was on the Saturday, Diana and Hazel had booked into the Hotel Bristol opposite the canal marina and railway station. Making full use of “priorite a la droite” and traffic tactics acquired locally, we were there in no time. Peter deftly parked on the French equivalent of double yellow lines, but well out of the way on the pavement, so that the ladies had only a short step into the reception room of the hotel. While disembarkment took place, I strolled across the bridge to see if Quartette had already arrived in the marina. Indeed she had and, festooned with fenders and drying towels, was sitting stern-to against the dock.


“Ahoy Quartette” from me caught skipper Jonathan’s attention and he emerged, smiling as ever, from below. We had been sailing together two years before in Turkey, so were already more than acquainted.  Jonathan’s crew of Jan Futcher, daughter Cat van Doorn, and John and Gill Stollery were in town arranging trains etc., so I returned to Peter and the ladies so that he could get off the double yellow lines and bring the car to park equally illegally alongside the boat in the marina. By this time the departing crew had returned, so both crews piled on board to help and hinder each other with kit coming off and going on or staying put.

Jonathan formally handed over QT to Diana, our skipper, on the Saturday with some helpful hints about what to do when stuck in the mud as the canal’s advertised minimum depth of 1.5 meters throughout was a tad exaggerated in some places. Using the kedge anchor to pull off backwards had not always worked, but rowing ashore and walking to the next lock to ask the lock keeper to release water through the lock had saved them on one (or two?) occasion(s). This advice was to prove invaluable. He also mentioned that the engine cooling water filter needed to be watched as it tended to fail after the locks and needed the top released slightly (in tick over) to get water circulating again. This was also good advice.

Before setting out, however, we had to enjoy the delights of Carcassonne, which Jonathan also has described in his trip report. For the Saturday evening we set out for the old “cite”, built in the 11th and 12th century by the Cathars, destroyed by two crusades, and then rebuilt in the 19th century so that it is now a 150 year old medieval fortress.

We had a healthy climb to breach Carcassonne’s ramparts. The ladies, Kiki, Diana and Hazel pause for breath on finding a way in:

We took in the sights, the music, the atmosphere (yes, there were a few tourists around), then took the best table in town for a proper dinner. Here I had my first Cassoulet and Hazel took the photo.

We did not start early on the Sunday but, as we had quite a few locks to open (6) and kilometers to cover (25) to reach our target destination of Bram, we got underway at a respectable hour. We pointed north-west upriver into the unknown waterway, a constant canopy of lime trees giving a spookiness to the first few twists and turns as we left the old town and made our way into the verdant countryside of “Oc”.

Mesmerised by the scene we rounded a bend to find our first lock was on us – La Douce – the soft one, and it was – a mere 2.4 m of drop; we floated gracefully in and handed our lines to the lock-keeper. These she took, but then we had our first lesson in lockmanship.The lock-keepers do not handle lines; we have to put someone ashore who dashes ahead and takes our lines while the lock keeper looks on and focuses on pushing the buttons of a small electronic accordion-like thing that she (or sometimes – he) holds, which controls the lock sluices. (Carcassone lock is shown below.)

More twists and turns in the canal took us towards the next lock, Heminis,but here we encountered blockage to the water cooling system – cleared by releasing the water filter cap and giving a gentle rev or two in neutral. Then we had a grounding as we tried, as instructed, to approach the bank to put our line holder ashore. We were able to reverse out and decided to risk the wrath of the lock keeper by staying in the middle, motoring straight into the lock and handing her our lines again! Success; and so to the third lock, La Lande.

Straight down the middle I steered, a gentle 4 knots, within the speed limit, and no strain to the engine as she was almost in tick over. With some 200 meters to go before La Lande she began to slow as the keel ploughed a bit of bottom mud. As we were in the middle there was nowhere deeper to go, so I tried to keep forward motion increasing the revs, but to no avail, 3 knots, 2 knots, 1 knot and then we stopped fast with 100 meters to go – no more revs would help. What to do?

Well, get ashore seemed a good idea, so the three ladies (I was on the helm, thinking) got the dinghy out and began to pump it up. Then I spotted three joggers on the tow path and Jonathan’s advice about the lock-keeper releasing water from the lock came to mind. “Voulez-vous MAYDAY moi?” I shouted. (Only a single MAYDAY.) They stopped and agreed to jog back to the lock-keeper, then returned with news. She would indeed release some water but, if this did not work, she would summon the DEPANNAGE to do whatever depannages do. Fortunately, the release of water enabled us to float, just enough to reach the lock and deep water, such that 0.1 registered on the QT depth gauge instead of the usual 0.0. With 30 locks to go before the canal’s watershed I thought we might have a struggle to reach the downhill side and be forced to exercise Andy Bowerman’s “Plan B” (don’t ask!), but this was the only place that we stuck in the middle and everywhere else we were either pulled off or managed to reverse into deeper water.

The delights of the canal unraveled as we proceeded with 0.0 on the clock

The lime trees continues to shade us. Every now and again certain to these magnificent trees is marked with a cross. These are trees that need to cut down and replaced because they are infected by a bug from certain mushrooms. This is a problem on a similar scale to Dutch Elm disease and Ash die-back, but the French government has put E 200 million into a regeneration problem which may defeat the problem. (Mind you the French government resigned on the second day of our adventure to be replaced the next day intact, minus the former Minister of the Economy, a Socialist who, unlike the rest of the government team, was bold enough to express some socialist tendencies. These trees have seen many governments and, with the intent expressed, will hopefully see many more.)

All this excitement was prior to lunch, so we needed a good spot to relax and take refreshment. Lunch was of course an enforced break as the locks closed down from 12.30 for an hour. We found ourselves at a lock called Villesequelande and managed to get through before the “lock-down”. Just the other side the canal guide identified a mooring with grassy glade and pic-nic bench. In we went and got within a metre of the bank when she stuck. Into reverse to come out; revs up, up, that’s enough, no movement backwards and certainly not forwards. No near-by lock above us to release water to enable us to float.  Definitely lunch time.
As we enjoyed our camembert and Corbieres with the freshly baked bread of only a few hours before, when we were in Carcassonne, thoughts of winching from an aft line around a tree on the other side of the canal came to mind. We still had the dinghy pumped up and we had a long enough line. Who would row across and tie the bowline? After more cheese the 1.30pm lock opening time passed and, to my great surprise, another boat appeared coming towards us. There was so little traffic on the canal, that this was only the 3rd or 4th boat we had seen all day, Again my shout went up: “Voulez-vous m’aider ?” and they took our line and pulled us off backwards.
Released once more from the mud, Hazel took a firm grip of the helm and got us powering forward again, touching a full 4.2 knots from time to time, our 8 Kph speed limit.
And so we reached Port de Bram lock on the first day. And it was good. This was a delightful place and we were welcomed encouragingly by the lock keeper, despite the helmsman (me) trying to park in the wrong place and grounding once more, we were invited to come right alongside the bar and restaurant where there was an amazing 0.5 meters under our keel. After bicycling into Bram and back, where there was no restaurant, we booked a table 10 feet from the boat and had a most enjoyable meal. Fish was their speciality.
Day two saw another sunny day and a new government, but I expect there were few around us who took note of the latter. I found the bread shop open (despite the sign saying it was closed) and we were fairly sharp starting off, given that skipper wanted us away in good time to complete 9 locks to Castelnaudary. This we did. Hazel’s line throwing skills were much enhanced by the deeper locks. (Note the 0.6m under the keel!)

We also had staircase locks to deal with:

Here we are in Castelnaudary observing the local fauna – a French water-rat heads for a drain.
Castelnaudary is the last large town before the water-shed. Here the canal becomes a medium sized lake, but with no buoyage recognised by CEVNI, we crossed it in trepidation with the usual 0.0 on the gauge.
On Tuesday we set out for the top – the long stretch where the canal flows in both directions and is cunningly fed by a spring with streams that flow both to the Atlantic and to the Mediterranean. This natural phenomenon was spotted by Monsieur Riquet, the builder of the canal completed in 1680, and is the reason it exists. There is an obelisk here to his achievement but, because of our keel depth, we were unable to reach the bank to look for it. Perhaps next time…
Once over the water-shed, lock keepers were replaced by metal posts with buttons on them. There were only three buttons, but it was important to press them in the right order. One for in, another for out and a third for MAYDAY. It was not obligatory to press the third button. The metal posts also took 12.30 to 1.30 pm for lunch.
Now it was all downhill and encouragingly the water depth began to improve with no more problems in the middle. For Thursday night we stopped near Baziege, where we met a delightful English couple, Paul and Sue Bowler, who had their own nearly new 20 meter long Dutch barge, just within the lock size. Paul and Sue had sold their house in England and were pottering backwards and forwards across France enjoying the moment. Their barge accommodation was amazing – the living room had a three piece suite, 50 inch TV, wood burning stove, there were two double bedrooms, an enormous galley and a huge engine room with engine to match. No watching the water cooling system at every lock!
We were shown around their mega-boat after we had invited them aboard QT for G & T provided they brought the ice (which we could see would not be a problem for them), They were very polite about our living quarters and we are proud of how cosy they are.QT faces up the Lady Sue below:
Hazel had to leave us on the Friday morning from Baziege to catch a train back to Carcassonne and we continued on into Toulouse. where the marina and facilities were outstanding, both in general terms and certainly relative to the sometimes primitive conditions of other resting places. Here Bob, Terry, John, Andy and Nicola took over from us for the journey to Bordeaux and beyond.
We had plenty of time to look around Toulouse:

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