Having enjoyed a brilliant cruise on the beautiful Canal du Midi from Le Somail to Agde last year in a cruiser hired from French boat hire operator Nicols Boats my wife Lois and I, and our Lifeboat Station colleagues Malcolm & Jill, plus our three dogs, decided we’d like to do something similar again this year, but having explored the eastern stretch of Canal du Midi before we thought we’d try the section north of Carcassonne this time.
Following our cruise last year, as experienced seafarers but relatively new to cruising on inland waterways, we’d been asked if we’d be willing to write an account of our cruise on the Canal du Midi and about our impressions of the boat; this we duly did and the resulting article was published in several magazines.
So with last years’ experience in mind we thought we’d not only try a different section of the Canal du Midi this year but we’d try a different model of cruiser from Nicols extensive range of boats. So far so good and we duly booked a Nicols Confort 900DP with two double cabins, two Showers &WCs and a dual steering position including a “fly bridge” Although more or less the same size as the N1000 we hired last year the layout of the Confort 900 is different in so far as the cabins are at either end of the boat rather than next to each other in the bow (the front end).
So we were all set to start our cruise from the Nicols base at Port Lauragais south of Toulouse and make our way further south hopefully as far as Carcassonne and then back again to Port Lauragais.
However Lois and I and our two Westies, Alix & Donald would be travelling to Port Lauragais from Agde on the Med where we’d been staying for the previous several weeks whereas Malcolm & Jill and their Cockapoo Stanley would be travelling to Port Lauragais from their house in Brittany and stupidly none of us had thought to give the Nicols base at Port Lauragais a note of our contact details for the days immediately prior to starting our cruise…
So when we arrived at Port Lauragais around lunchtime on the day we should be starting our cruise we were horrified to find that the boat we’d booked had been returned to the base the previous day in a seriously damaged condition with a hole in the hull! An alternative boat was ready waiting for us but as luck would have it this was exactly the same model of boat as we’d used the previous year when cruising from the Nicols base at Le Somail. The manager of the base at Port Lauragais was unaware of that, but as we’d planned to write a report on a different model both we and the base manager were faced with something of a dilemma to say the least!
After some phone calls a solution was forthcoming whereby we would indeed have a different boat to write about although it meant an hour’s drive south to the Nicols base at Le Somail where we were allocated a large Confort 1350 with four cabins, four showers and electric WCs and designed to accommodate up to ten people!
Our original passage plan was to have travelled from Port Lauragais south-east to Carcassonne but now we were starting from Le Somail our revised plan was to cruise north-west towards Carcassonne which we realised was likely to take in a rather prettier and more interesting stretch of the Canal enabling us to visit the very attractive and strategically once very important port of Homps.
It was now getting into late afternoon so we decided to spend the first night of our week’s cruise on the mooring at the very attractive village of Le Somail where there are several good bistros. So after loading all our gear and deciding which two of the four cabins were going to occupy we took advantage of the opportunity to get in some practice manoeuvring this 13.5m long boat fitted with a bow-thruster which none of us had experienced using before. However with such a large cruiser operating on a canal which in places was no wider than the length of the boat the bow-thruster proved to be invaluable, particularly as in early October although the weather was warm and sunny there was a brisk wind for most of the week; indeed on a a couple of days it approached almost gale force which called for some very careful steering especially through the several narrow bridges.
Le Somail, with its old hump-back bridge and quintessentially Languedocienne old stone buildings is arguably one of the most attractive villages along the Canal, and in the 18th century was one of the staging posts for the passenger barges that plied the Canal on the four-day trip between Agde and Toulouse; in those days passengers had to change boats every time they reached a double or triple lock and carry their baggage up the steeply sloping towpath past the lock – no less than twenty-five during the four day trip!
After stocking up our supplies at the Grocery Barge moored alongside the canal bank at Le Somail we adjourned to the local Auberge where our dogs were made very welcome, and enjoyed very good meal and a nice bottle of wine before walking back to our boat to retire to bed having planned an early start the next morning.
So on a bright and sunny albeit rather breezy Sunday morning we left our mooring at le Somail and headed west along a very pretty lock-free ten km stretch of the Canal to Paraza a village where Pierre Paul Riquet, the designer of the Canal du Midi, actually lived at the Chateau here during the construction of the Canal. Passing through a couple of quite low and narrow bridges we encountered our first lock at Argens-Minervois, a lovely village typical of the Minervois area, clustered around the 14th century chateau which overlooks the Canal and the River Aude. The lock at Argens has a “shop” selling groceries, wines regional produce and souvenirs
As we were travelling west we were effectively going up-hill so one enters the lock when the water is at its lowest level, secures to the lock wall and waits for the lock to fill - this procedure requires having someone on shore to take your mooring ropes run them loosely round a bollard and pass the end back to someone on board – so at least one of the crew needs to be dropped ashore ahead of the lock and either take the bow rope ashore with them and then walk alongside the boat while it enters the lock, or for a member of the crew to throw the mooring ropes up to the crew member waiting at the top pf the lock wall - Given that all four of us are past retirement age, and that the boat we now had was designed to accommodate a larger crew “locking” was something of a challenge but we managed all of the dozen or so locks we went through without too much drama and avoided any mishaps despite some quite strong winds;
After passing through more locks, including double ones at Pechlaurier and Ognon we arrived at the very attractive small town of Homps which is an ancient commercial port where barrels of Minervois and Corbieres wines destined for Bordeaux were loaded onto barges. Homps was one of the few places along the Canal du Midi where the 30m long barges called “Peniches” were able to turn round. Not only is there a small but very well-stocked super market within easy walking distance of the port there is also a 100 hectare “Etang du Jouarre” lake close by the Canal where the local guide book states you can swim or go dinghy sailing..
We actually stayed here for two nights as the port authorities provide visiting boats with one night free of charge and there are ample electric and fresh water connections available. There are at least two good restaurants which we sampled, one where we spent a very pleasant evening at a table in the sheltered garden at the rear of the restaurant celebrating Malcolm’s birthday, along with our three dogs who happily proved very popular amongst the other diners several of whom came over to “talk to the dogs”!
We were still aiming to reach Trebes on the outskirts of Carcassonne so we pressed on through several more locks to the port of La Redorte where we moored up alongside the canal bank and set out to explore what we thought would be another large village or small town but to our surprise La Redorte turned out to be quite a large town almost completely encircled by the Canal, and apparently entirely devoted to wine making! It has a fairly large supermarket which will deliver orders of €50 or more direct to your boat. As luck would have it we’d partially stocked up in the small supermarket at Homps so whilst we wanted some bottles of drinking water and wine, and a melon, all of which were quite heavy but didn’t cost anything like €50 so Malcolm and I ended up having to carry them the half mile back to the boat.
By now the wind had increased to about Force 5, the sky looked very threatening and the weather forecast was warning of thunderstorms so we chickened out of going on and decided to spend the night on what was a very comfortable mooring albeit rather too close to some very tall trees if there was to be a storm.
In fact the storm passed us by and we spent a comfortable night but by the morning the wind had increased still further to about force 6 and the forecast was still issuing storm warnings (none of which actually materialised where we were) so we decided that we’d give up on the idea of getting to Trebes and Carcassonne and instead we spent an enjoyable morning exploring the town before having lunch.
Lunch over we turned the boat round and started to head out of the port through the quite narrow road bridge that crosses the canal immediately before a sharp right-hand bend, We’d just come through the bridge when we were confronted by two hire cruisers (from another company) coming in the opposite direction almost side by side and thus leaving no space for traffic like us coming the other way! One of the cruises immediately swung round shouting that their steering had broken and crashed into our port side before bouncing off - It was obvious that these two hire cruisers were travelling together and that there was in fact nothing broken about their steering and it was simply a question of them not keeping a proper look-out and slowing down for the bridge so that when they encountered a gust of wind they were unable to control their boat!
Neither of the crews of the two boats seemed able to speak French or English and they simply carried on without stopping albeit with one of them now with a somewhat damaged bow. Fortunately we’d been able to get the name of their hire company and their registration numbers so we immediately called our hire company Nicols Boats at their base at Le Somail and informed them what had happened.
Their response was brilliant, and having re-assured them that apart from my having cut my arm when our boat was pushed into the bushes on the canal bank, we were unhurt and that the boat was only damaged above the water-line and was still quite useable. As a consequence we were advised to carry on and that they’d get back to us about the damage to the boat the following day. In fact they did better than that because the base manager actually drove out to Homps where we’d decided to spend the night there and visit the restaurant which had been recommended to us by one of the lock-keepers. Having first taken a look at my cut arm the Nicols base manager examined the damage to the boat which appeared to be confined to a split about four inches long and an eighth of an inch wide on the “port quarter” (the part of the boat above the waterline on the left=hand side near the back) and we agreed to make a temporary repair with Duct Tape in case of the forecast rain getting through into Malcolm & Jill’s cabin.
We’d expected at least to have to complete a lengthy report and maybe even risk losing our “damage deposit” or part of it but no the manager said it was not worth all the fuss of making a formal report and taking the matter up with the other hire company and that the necessary repair could be done as part of their routine maintenance so we should just carry on and enjoy the rest of our cruise! We were very well-impressed with the way that Nicols dealt with the situation and with their concern for our well-being.
Having turned back at La Redorte and abandoned our plan of getting to Trebes we now had time on our hands so having enjoyed another very good meal and after spending our “free night’s stay” on the harbour’s official moorings the next morning involved a visit to the local Cave a Vins to sample and buy some of the local Minervois and Corbieres wines to take back to the UK we set off back towards Le Somail.
We got through a couple of locks before arriving at the double lock at Pechlaurier just as it was closing for lunch so we had to moor alongside the canal bank for an hour – unfortunately there was no-where available to hammer in the mooring stakes so we had no alternative but to take our mooring lines round trees on the far side of the towpath. As there were quite a few walkers and cyclists using the towpath here it meant one of us being on shore to lower the mooring ropes every time someone needed to pass by - apart from one guy who muttered about being delayed (!) while the ropes were lowered everyone seemed not to mind in the least and to be happy to have a chat.
Having eventually got through the lock we now had just one more lock ahead of us before the lock-free section all the way to the Nicols base at Le Somail, but having now got a full day in hand we decided that we’d push on past Le Somail as far as we could before dark with the idea of getting to the attractive canal-port town of Capestang. That seemed like a good idea at the time, but passing Paraza, Le Somail and the junction with the Canal de La Robine and eventually arriving at Argeliers the wind had increased to a good force 6 so trying to find somewhere secure to moor alongside the canal bank was interesting because even at full throttle we were only inching forward against the very strong head wind and after turning around even with the engine going full astern it was virtually impossible to stop. Ordinarily of course we’d have moored head to the wind but the only possible place we could moor safely was on the wrong side of the canal for our door and gang-plank so we had no alternative but to moor up downwind which made for an interesting five minutes!
The following day the wind had dropped (of course!) and we motored on down to Capestang for lunch before making our way back to Le Somail to moor up at the base ready for cleaning and handing the boat back on the Saturday morning – but before that we were going to enjoy a good evening meal and a few glasses of wine at the local Auberge!
So would we recommend a cruise on the Canal du Midi? Absolutely! And would we recommend hiring a cruiser from Nicols? Most definitely! In fact we’re about to contact Nicols again about our next year’s cruise, possibly on the Canal du Midi but on a different section, or maybe on one of the many other navigable French inland waterways
Clive Edwards 22/11/2019