"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Barging down a French canal

By on September 28, 2020 in Travel with 0 Comments

By Lee Martin

Not too long ago — before the COVID-19 travel restrictions  — some of our friends, who had travelled the world extensively, were planning a trip to France for three weeks. 

They were planning the whole thing and I liked the idea of someone else doing all the work. I half seriously asked them if my wife, Susan, and I could come. And being friends who we had know for years, they said yes. 

The highlight, apparently, was renting a barge for a week to float along the Canal du Midi. Not knowing anything about what they were talking about, I did do some research. 

I found a Rick Steves’ video that showed exactly what it is about. There Rick was floating by beautiful French vineyards and villas, glass of wine in hand, smiling that Rick Steves’ “good life” smile. He looked relaxed and peaceful. Who WOULDN’T want to do that!

I am not a mariner or have I ever owned a boat. So I was relieved when my friend said that he would be piloting the barge. That meant all I had to do was sit back and sip wine and enjoy the scenery.

When we arrived to pick up the barge, it appeared as advertised: a 1940’s era, wood varnished interior that exuded charm and nostalgia. She was about forty feet long with three bedrooms and three baths. There were six of us to make this our home for the next week.

A local French man gave us a brief introduction to the barge. 

We had six days to reach our final destination so we wanted to know how long we should motor each day. “Oh, about two to three hours a day” is what I remember him saying. 

We left shortly after the introduction, but since it was late in the day, we motored smooth and easy to a nice quiet peaceful spot to spend the night. There wasn’t a breeze in the air. 

The next day we awoke to strong crosswinds over the canal. 

My friend was piloting as promised. But now the steering was more difficult than the night before. MUCH more difficult! The crosswinds were catching us broadside and making us fishtail down this narrow canal. 

The barge seemed to be fighting my friend’s effort to steer her in a straight line so as to avoid obstacles like other boats coming at us. It became nerve wracking.

My friend started to panic so I took over. It was all the concentration I could muster to avoid hitting not only the side of the canal but also other boats coming in the opposite direction. It was like driving an RV down the highway battered by strong crosswinds. 

My friend took over for me again to figure out if he could steer her straight. 

And she seemed to have a mind of her own. It became obvious it required some finesse or instinct. And it was exacting a toll. My friend finally gave up. “I can’t do it” he said, “you’re going to have to do the steering.”

Now when he said this, I thought he meant until lunch or maybe dinner. What he meant was he had capitulated for the rest of the trip. 

I’ve never seen a discouraged Rick Steves face, but if there is one I imagined it was on my face at this moment. 

So much for someone else planning the trip. I was now the pilot of a barge with no boating experience and on a canal I had never even heard of before the day we picked it up.

I spent the rest of the day learning on the job. And it was exhausting! At the end of day, I collapsed barely able to move. 

I felt the pressure now of having to get to our final destination alone. And this wasn’t even my dream trip! I was supposed to just go along for the ride.

However, it was about to get worse. 

While my friend was recovering from his panic, he had decided to read the map in our boat. 

What the Frenchman at our introduction had failed to mention is that there were more than 53 locks between us and our final destination.

But not just 53 single locks, there were also double and triple locks! I had never heard of such a thing. 

I loved to go to the Ballard locks and watch the boats maneuver through, but it was a single lock, and I had never been through them myself. 

What’s the big deal you say? 

The locks needed to be manned by Frenchmen and they needed to take long lunch breaks every day from 12 to 2 p.m. It didn’t matter how many boats were waiting to go through the locks. 

In other words, they would take lunch in the middle of a canal lock traffic jam. And it would last two hours no matter what.

But if waiting for them to finish their lunch wasn’t bad enough, it would usually take us up to TWO hours just to get THROUGH the locks depending on whether they were single, double or triple.

These two hours would be some of the tensest of the day. It meant all six people had to be on deck to tie lines to the side of the lock without hitting other boats. All this was to be done while those same French lock workers were cursing at us in French. 

I’m not sure if they were cursing but they weren’t encouraging. 

The gist of all this was instead of two to three hours of barging, it would now take between 8-10 hours a day. I was a full-time pilot! It left very little time for admiring the local scenery, which was stunning. But my “passengers” enjoyed it immensely.

My recommendation for anybody who wants to travel the Canal du Midi. 

Watch the Rick Steves video and then book travel on a barge that has a REAL captain and crew. Then you can sit back and enjoy all the romance and beauty France has to offer from this unique vantage point.

Lee Martin has lived in Leavenworth for past quarter century with his wife, Susan, of 38 years.

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