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The Midi Canal

Our boating excursion on the Midi Canal was fun, frustrating, exciting, exhausting, lovely, ludicrous, maddening, and in every way very, very memorable.

Bend in the long canal

The 300 plus year old Canal du Midi extending from the city of Toulouse to the Mediterranean seaport of Sete, was the idea of Pierre-Paul Riquet who devoted the last 15 years of his life and his considerable fortune to its completion (he died a few months before it was opened). Statistics: 12,000 workers, 328 structures (bridges, dams, locks, aqueducts, tunnels), 45000 plane and cypress trees planted along the banks, 240 km of canal dug by pick and shovel! The canal is a section of the Canal des Deux Mers that stretches from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and provided a trade route that avoided the perilous Straits of Gibraltar. Today, although the canal is no longer a trade route, it serves to transport water for irrigation and as an attraction for tourists (like us!).

Two boats had been rented for our small group and we gathered early one morning at the bank of the canal in the village of Le Somail anticipating a day of rest and relaxation. Coffee and tea was made in the small galleys, pastries were set out on paper plates. Some of us sat down in the chairs on the deck with our books and cameras, others opted to sit inside the cabin, both groups preparing to enjoy the leisurely pace and lovely scenery. Uh huh…

Our boat

The members of our group who volunteered to be the pilots were given, oh, 10 minutes or so of instruction on starting, stopping, steering, turning around and we set off down the canal. We passed other excursion boats manned with happy and confident holidayers. We passed boats that were obviously homes (or at least holiday homes) that had lace curtains at the windows and plants on the deck. We passed pedestrians walking along the canal path and people who were just enjoying watching the boats pass. We were part of the scene! It was thrilling! We almost immediately got into trouble…

The other boat

We discovered that you just didn't point the end of the boat down the middle and step on the gas! The slightest turn of the steering wheel set the boat into the direction of the bank, in a panic the pilot would overcompensate and spin the steering wheel in the other direction and so on and so forth. Bump, crunch, grrrrrind…..we bounced off one bank and then the other "bumper car" fashion, finally getting stuck in the mud and roots and weeds on a bank. Pushing with a pole, revving the motor in reverse, revving the motor in forward did little except to frustrate and tire us. Finally another boat moored near us and the good Samaritans on board helped to push us off. (Thank you!)

It may have been strictly 'operator error' but I think that a season of wear and tear on the boat resulted in the steering mechanism, perhaps, not be in tip top condition. Well anyway, that's my story and I'm sticking to it! OK, I'll admit, I was one of the pilots, the pilot who sent us careening into the banks like an out of control billiard ball….sigh….

The return trip after our picnic lunch began much the same. I piloted again with the help of my boat mates who called back to me "One degree to the left, NO! TOO far! Turn to the right, not to the left! Only a quarter turn. Too fast! Slower! Faster! Just an eighth turn. Turn, turn! We're going to hit again!" The result was a zig, a zag, a bump, bump, bump, right bank, left bank, right bank… Finally I told my advisors to "STOP!"

Canal bridge

In desperation I "zoned out" and "felt" the boat's responses to the movement of the wheel and the tug of the current and push of the wind, I listened to the humm of the motor and watched the end of the boat in relation to the curve of the banks. It worked! I started to get the hang of it and we scrapped the bank only a few times more…. As we headed into the more trafficked stretch my fears were that we would scrap a passing boat or put a few dents in the sides of a few of the boats tied up along the bank or put a few scraps or dents or worse into our little boat! However we chugged past the boats, we went under a bridge with a narrow opening, we went through a narrow channel that WAS a bridge, we were OK…! Boy was I feeling relieved, yes I was!

Straight on!

Well, until we rounded a blind curve and someone yelled out a warning that a very large, very long boat coming toward us at a very fast speed was soon to cross our path (actually, I didn't need the warning, it was difficult to miss and my heart was already beating, uh, a lot faster…). The choices appeared to be: (1) be broadsided by the very large boat or (2) run headlong into the concrete bank just ahead. I opted for the concrete bank (one HAS to decide these things quickly when faced with impending disaster!). I increased the engine speed, pushing the throttle forward as quickly as I could. We sped past the oncoming boat, I turned the steering wheel in the hopes of NOT hitting the quickly approaching concrete bank, we didn't. I adjusted the steering wheel in hopes of not hitting the opposite bank, we didn't! Relief, disbelief, relief… We chugged back to Le Somail.

So the day wasn't exactly as we had envisioned, but it was strangely satisfying. An adventure, the unexpected, overcoming difficulties, keeping a sense of humor. AND I have a cherished souvenir of my day as a canal boat pilot on the Midi Canal. The group presented us a set of coasters in a holder in the shape of ship's steering wheel. They are proudly displayed on my living room end table.

 

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