We are moored just out of Homps, currently catching our breath after two days induction with John and Pascale on Mere Maria. They were extremely helpful and hospitable, but the reality of driving a 90 tonne barge proved to be pretty daunting. The challenges include the sheer physicality of using the wheel (without hydraulics) to keep her on course in strong winds, through narrow openings under bridges, into the uphill locks, and at the same time avoiding the numerous pleasure boats on the canal. That was mainly Alan’s job. Mine usually involved ropes and locks – six of them over the two days
Locks … In the training course I was told never to get off the barge, but ‘simply’ to lasso the bollard on the quay, which could be 3 metres above you, and proceed to secure the boat (an almost impossible task for me). Down here, it seems you jump off, or climb a ladder, and the skipper throws you the rope. From there it feels as if you have an extremely large, very wilful dog on a leash as the water surges in and pushes the barge about and you try to hold the bow in place. Well the skipper is trying to do this too, but the deck hand is hauling as hard as she can. All this under the critical eye of the eclusier (lock keeper) who once had to come down and impatiently clear my rope which was trapped round the bollard at a critical moment.
In between all this physical and mental stress, there are tranquil stretches of nothing but canal, lined by the famous huge plane trees. Sadly there are many bearing a couple of green paint stripes and they’re destined for removal because of the disease that’s attacking them. I’ve heard that the locals blame the Americans and their ammunition boxes from WW2 for the problem.
For anyone who, like us, has watched Rick Stein’s culinary tour through France on a barge, you may recall that at one point he changed onto a hotel barge called Anjodi for the final part of the trip. Well, at one point we were a bit excited to pass her, moored up at her base port.