Final days aboard

Saturday, 30 June

While in Trebes, Alan and I both visited hairdressers. I came out with my color refreshed and the shortest cut in the world, but at least it will last until we get home. I had noticed that the majority of middle-aged boat women have quite short hair. I’ve learned that the lifestyle certainly isn’t conducive to elaborate grooming regimens. The young coiffeuse couldn’t speak any English, but we managed, with help of sign language, to chat about the sort of things you do with hairdressers. In fact it was the most intensive language practice I’ve experienced since being here.

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Our last few days on the Canal passed peacefully. Considering they’d travelled from Helsinki, it felt almost miraculous when Colleen and Paul arrived in a taxi to the quay at Trebes at midday on Monday. We went down through the triple lock and moored up outside the village in order to make an early start next day. (The locks are staffed from 9 am until 7 pm in summer, with an hour off for lunch, so timing one’s arrival becomes an issue.) We were planning an overnight at Homps, to top up the water supply and to enjoy one last dinner at En Bonne Compagnie.

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My work as deck hand was much easier with the extra help. We even began to feel slightly superior when seeing some of the hire boats bouncing off lock walls or other boats and having trouble with their lines. But I have really come to admire those seasoned couples who calmly and expertly manage all the manoeuvres themselves. Boating can cause tension between couples – an observation based on personal experience and noticing the amount of yelling that goes on in the locks!

Our major challenge was the heat – around 40 degrees for a couple of days – especially when having to queue for locks where there are often no shade trees. Worst of all was hearing a horn blast from a hotel boat, and realizing that our wait would be even longer because they always have priority. We comforted ourselves with the thought that the pampered guests were probably quite bored with nothing to do but sit around in air conditioning and have drinks and restaurant style meals served by the onboard chef.

It was always entertaining to watch the skill with which the skipper of these huge barges steered them into the locks with just centimeters to spare all round and flicked the lines on and off the bollards.

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With all these waiting periods, we were often overtaken, repeatedly, by walkers and cyclists. One quite elderly couple (that is, similar in age to us!) hiked walked steadily with large packs on their backs and hiking poles all through those scorching days.

The following night, all locks behind us, was spent outside Le Somail under the plane trees. Next morning, Colleen and I strolled in to the very cute barge epicerie moored on the canal right in the village. It’s a tidy, well-stocked store (clearly with foreign tourists in mind) where we bought provisions for the day including some excellent bread. It’s not always possible to find fresh bread along the canals and the quality varies.

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We’d been advised to keep a stock of tinned and dry food in case it was a long way between shops. Mostly this was not needed, so our last supper was an attempt to finish off the remaining provisions – an odd mix of cold soup, a tin of surprisingly tasty lentils with carrots, salad, cheese and tapenade. This was fine as we’d stopped at Capestang and eaten a very good lunch.

At Capestang we again passed under the lowest bridge on the canal system, and ogled some more beautiful boats. One was an immaculate Linsson cruiser for sale, so Alan chatted to the owners and we all debated our ideas about the criteria for a live-aboard boat. Such things as: deck space with removable cover, no more than 15 metres, proper shower and toilet, functional kitchen with fridge/freezer, main bed with space each side, guest accommodation, bow thruster, and so on …

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Later we took a break after the Malpas Tunnel in order to walk up to a lookout to see the surrounding fertile alley and drained remains of a huge lake.

Then it was a short run back to the port at Colombiers. It was so good to have had Colleen and Paul’s company, but now we were all thinking about onward journeys. After an overnight in Narbonne, Colleen was heading to London to do an art course, while Paul was wending his way home to the cold and rainy north coast. We had a final excellent dinner at Meli Melo and then it was over. Alan and I were left to gear up for the next phase. Funnily enough, it’s the locks I miss most, or perhaps it’s the adrenalin surge that accompanied them, followed by the sense of achievement each time we got through unscathed.

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Sunday 1 July

Well, that’s it. Today we heard that my mother has had a series of strokes and we’ve decided to return home early. Spain, Portugal and Morocco will have to wait until another time.

Trebes again

Friday 22 June

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Back in Trebes, having overnighted at Homps (the port, with water and electricity is free for the first night) and surmounted something like a dozen locks. Not always very well.
Yesterday was scorching and we were both pretty exhausted towards the end of the day. Fortunately a man from a boat full of South Africans gave me a hand occasionally with the lines.

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In between locks, there were opportunities to capture a few images along the way: trees, aquaducts, vines and beautiful boats:

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On the run into Trebes we were hit by a violent thunder storm. Alan tried to drive from inside the cabin but not only did the wipers not work, the engine would only go in reverse, so we ended up stranded on the bank for a while before pressing on in heavy rain to the outskirts of Trebes where we moored for the night.

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This morning we managed the triple lock at the entrance to Trebes in textbook fashion, just before everything fell apart in spectacular fashion. In brief, we tried unsuccessfully to moor in three different places and had to be helped out of awkward situations by other boaties. Alain de Botton talks about travel being a humbling experience – this was more like humiliation, and there were some tense moments between skipper and deck hand. The lessons? Knowing more about how the boat responds (or doesn’t), avoiding snap decisions, and improving communication.

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The port is right in the middle of the small town here and the quay is lined with plane trees, pots of flowers, a handful of restaurants, an epicerie, boulangerie and, most important for travelers, a laundromat.

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The canal water supports huge numbers of duck families and fig trees. This afternoon we saw a couple of coypu, like large water rats, in competition with the ducks for the stale bread we tossed in.

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Although the Canal is full of what someone has termed tupperware boats like ours, along the way we’ve seen a few very attractive live-aboard models which have provoked a recurring conversation about what it would be like to make one of them your home for an extended time. A surprising number have a dog traveling with the (usually) middle-aged couple. I saw one tiny dog actually wearing a small life jacket. Next visit to France, we may spend some time inspecting boats for sale.

Colleen and Paul join us on Monday for the last few days as we travel downstream and deliver the boat back to Colombiers. Lots of locks again but all down hill, so much easier.

From Colombiers upstream

Tuesday 19 June (how easy it is to lose track of the days)

Today was lock free – all 45 km of it – and uneventful. It is just so calming to watch the landscape unfold at walking pace. On the way we passed through the Capestang Pont which is the lowest on the canal system in France.

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Shortly after was the Malpas Tunnel, one way and 160 metres long.

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We cruised through several pretty little villages like Poilhes, Capestang, Argeliers, Le Somail (the junction with the canal going to Narbonne), Ventenac, and Paraza. Argeliers was the place we picked up the Mere Maria, but there was no sign either of her or her owners. Perhaps she’s undergoing repairs to weld the aft stanchions back on …

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At Ventenac we paused while Alan went into the local cellar and bought six bottles of a lovely rose we’d enjoyed last time we passed through with the owners of the Mere Maria. I distinguished myself by slipping into the canal up to my knees while mooring and had to have a thorough shower before going on.

It must be foaling season because we passed several horses with their foals alongside.

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Then it was over the Pont Canal Repudre, an aquaduct built by Riquet (the visionary designer and builder of the Canal du Midi). Finished in 1676, it was the first canal bridge built in France and reputedly only the second in the world.

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We pulled up for the night at Roubia, and were soon followed by a hotel boat which squeezed its way through the narrow gap under the bridge. And just for the record, I steered through my first few bridges today.

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Now we’re drinking a glass of another nice rose and eating a fresh goats cheese from the local epicerie. Coincidentally, the wine is called ‘Les pieds dans l’eau’! Tomorrow we face four sets of locks on the way to Homps, so hope we sleep well in preparation.

Colombiers to (almost) the Mediterranean and back

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First, a peaceful cruise with nothing more eventful than an occasional tight tunnel under bridges and a lovely aquaduct. Plenty of tree roots available for tying up to if we’d been mooring here for lunch or overnight. Actually it’s one of the less pleasant tasks as you have to feel around in the filthy canal water for a strong enough root and a gap to push the line through.

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Today feels like a real achievement! Our very first lock in the new boat (Meze) was the 5 step Fonsarennes ‘staircase’. It takes so long for boats to work their way through that it’s organized for uphill traffic in the morning and downhill in the afternoon. We arrived around 10.30 and had to wait until 1.30, so had plenty of time for sightseeing. First the view over Beziers with its landmark St
Nazaire cathedral, then the spectacle of boats ascending in the locks. It didn’t promote confidence to see some of their crews flailing hopelessly about. The lock keepers must despair of the
incompetence of many of us.

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Fortunately we had the benefit of two chance encounters. First, a Dutch couple who were head of the queue waiting to go down, just ahead of us. They had a beautiful motor cruiser, complete with an old, blind spaniel, and he gave us a valuable lesson in how to secure the boat easily. They also promised to help us in the lock if necessary. Then we met up again with a couple from Fremantle who spend 4 or 5 months a year in Europe cruising on their boat. She provided me with a running
commentary on what the hapless crew in one boat in the locks was doing wrong.

When we arrived, there was an ambulance with paramedics attending to yet another woman lying on a stretcher. That makes at least four we’ve seen now, all with fractures of some sort. It’s mostly the women who handle the lines, and that seems to be the most hazardous part of mooring and locking.

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Somehow we made our way down – squashed in beside the Dutch boat, with two others behind – with no serious mishaps. The rest of the afternoon was relatively plain sailing. We managed four more single locks before mooring at Villeneuve-les-Beziers for the night. There’s a village market tomorrow morning, so we hope to pick up some fresh produce.

Then on to Portiragnes where we stopped for lunch and decided to stay overnight. We’re still passing through avenues of mostly healthy aged plane trees, with vineyards and orchards on either side. It was quite hot but Alan rode off to have a dip in the Mediterranean five km away. He reported that the beach was packed, the water dirty and altogether not a patch on Byron. I went looking to buy a pair of leather gloves because of rope burns and blisters, but nothing was open on Saturday afternoon.

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Another change of plan … We were moored up waiting to catch the Monday morning group when the green light showed at 4 pm on Sunday, and minutes later we decided to take a chance and go up the almost 14 metre climb at Fonsarennes straight away. Apart from once bumping into the boat in front, we managed it, with Alan driving and Stan and I securing Meze in each lock then carrying the lines up and over each open lock gate to the next one. Then it’s a daunting sight to watch the torrent pouring down in front of your boat as they fill each lock.

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It’s such a spectator sport, especially here and on a Sunday, that onlookers are quite a hazard. They crowd close to the edge, exclaiming and taking photos, and don’t seem to realise you need to get past them in a hurry without tangling the lines.

Now it’s Monday, so we’re catching our breath at Colombiers and catching up with house sale business with Tim. Irene and Stan have just driven off to continue their journey home – sad to think it may be another couple of years before we see them again.

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Moving on

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Disembarcation was made a little easier with Irene and Stan’s help to lug all our bags along the towpath to where the car was parked.

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After visiting several boat hire places and being told to phone a French number, we found that the Canalous company had a small boat available to start and finish at Carcassone. This was great because we could afterwards catch a train back to Narbonne for the next leg of the journey. Then, an hour before departure, they phoned to say our boat had had a breakdown and that we’d been upgraded. So far so good! We were to go to the base where a taxi would be waiting to take us to another base (unnamed). Assuming it would be just a little way up or down stream, we were astonished when the non-English speaking driver took us to Colombiers (near Beziers), more than an hour away.

So here we are in a port full of plastic boats, getting used to the luxury of three cabins, three bathrooms and toilets that work – all tiny but modern and functional. It all feels slightly unreal and disorienting, but with the advantage that Irene and Stan can spend their last few days here on board with us!

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Now everything is up in the air again because we have to return to the same base instead of Carcassonne. More emails to Colleen and Paul, who were to meet us the, explaining that yet again our plans have changed.

We’ve now had our 30 minute (!) instruction in driving the boat, so will set off tomorrow morning towards Beziers. Irene has lent me a book set in the area around here, the Pays d’Oc, about the Cathars in the 13th century. Fascinating to pick up references to places we pass through; also to notice differences in the local dialect to the French I’ve heard elsewhere.

Decision Day

The few days R and R have certainly helped our physical state, but the thought of further manoeuvering the Mere Maria into tight mooring spots and through locks is just too daunting. Plus, Alan spends way too much of his time fixing things that constantly break down or maybe have never worked properly (the toilets spring to mind). To carry on, he says we would have to organise more water, gas bottles, fuel and auxiliary batteries for charging the IT devices. Too much.

The owner generously offered to pilot us up to Carcassonne (six locks, most doubles or triples) but finally we decided to admit defeat and call a halt. It’s a blow to pride as much as anything, but preferable to being in a constant state of stress during what after all is a holiday.

What followed was a day in limbo, feeling disappointed with ourselves and at a loss to know what to do next. I realised how adrift I am without a plan. Alternatives all seemed too expensive or too much trouble, until the obvious idea surfaced: we could continue to travel the Canal du Midi if we hired one of the small plastic boats. That way, we might be able to rebuild some boat handling confidence and keep intact the main purpose of the trip. So tomorrow Irene and Stan will drive us to Carcassonne to check out hiring options.

Before we abandon the Mere Maria, here are a few images of some of the best and worst moments.

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Oh dear, didn't mean to upload the ducklings twice, but they were very cute. Every morning there were fewer so the attrition rate must be severe. Alan is inclined to blame the coypu, the introduced rodent (not sure of the spelling).

Homps to Trebe

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Our last night in Homps we had dinner at En Bonne Compagnie, a restaurant run by an English couple who were very understanding about the need of certain travelers to do a bit of internet business before the meal. There were a few tense days while the house sale negotiations were in progress, but thanks to Tim’s acting as attorney and working with Rose, all seems to be going well.

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Alas, Irene and Stan have jumped ship. Their so-called cabin and bathroom proved so cramped and uncomfortable that they’ve decided to sleep at gites each night and join us for part of the days. It works all right because we travel so slowly that they can walk back from their accommodation along the towpath and come aboard at a lock or somewhere we’ve moored up for lunch. They usually arrive with fresh baguettes, so they’re doubly welcome.

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The journey from Homps to Marseillette was a bit traumatic – six locks, most of them doubles or triples. We put a couple of dints in the barge going under very narrow bridges on tight turns. I managed to get the lines tangled in the locks and hurt my ankle leaping off and to top it off, a plastic boat overtook us at speed and swerved across our bow. To avoid ramming him, Alan steered into the trees on the bank and a branch snapped some of our back railing off.

So … we’re feeling rather defeated and wondering whether a few days at Trebes will be sufficient to recuperate and press on. The alternative is to ask John to pick the boat up from here. We’ll postpone making that decision for a while. Our confidence wasn’t boosted by seeing a woman lying on the ground being tended by para medics in an ambulance. She’d broken her leg by landing heavily after a jump from her boat at the lock here.

Meantime, Trebes is a lively little village with plenty of restaurants and other facilities (at last a chance to do some washing in a laundromat!). Oddly there’s no on-land holiday accommodation, so Irene and Stan have gone on to Carcassonne to find some. I suppose the clients of the boat company have their own beds. The four of us had dinner at one of the restaurants last night and I horrified everyone by choosing a salade aux gesiers (gizzards). It was very tasty and I felt it was time to get a little more adventurous with the local cuisine.

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We’ve weighed up the pros and cons of ‘nature’ mooring under the plane trees versus a berth in the busy ports. While there’s a need at times for water and shore power, it’s generally much preferable to have shade and privacy. It’s a 20 minute brisk walk into town, but along the way we see flotillas of tiny ducklings with their anxious looking parents. When they chase after crumbs of baguette they almost run on top of the water.

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At Trebes we saw the first example of replanting of the plane trees, these a variety that is resistant to the plague affecting so many.

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