17th August Cstelnaudary

Abemama is now some 160 kms into the canal system and has passed through the area between the Med, Carcassonne and Castelnaudary, which is undoubtedly the busiest stretch of any French canal and is often subject to delays of several hours at the most active locks, where letting through 100 boats a day is not uncommon in August. We chose to do the most crowded section last Saturday, when many hire boats are at changeover, so had all the locks to ourselves and no delays. We then bided our time until Tuesday and Wednesday to cover a stretch which is known to be busy on other days with many hire boats leaving and returning to base. We had 3 very laid back days.

This contrasted with a day before, when we waited 2 hours at a lock which we have done in 15 minutes. This was because they were dropping down four of the biggest hire boats, all over 40ft and handled by novices. They were so tightly packed that, as the water level was lowered, the gunwale of one wedged on the lock wall and was resting on the capping of its neighbour. It began to cant over quite dangerously, so the lock had to be refilled and the boats juggled. When the doors were opened, the boats could not get out of the belly of the lock via the narrower exit, so it all had to be done again.

Having been almost rammed and much abused and hassled by a boat determined to overtake, even though we were doing the maximum permitted speed, we were much heartened to see 2 inspectors making speed checks. Last week one boat was fined 1500 ffr and the inspector, whom we know because he used to be a lock keeper at Trebes, told us that he can impose fines up to 5000ffr. In a long conversation about the problems of this crowded stretch, he also told us that he had clocked one boat at 16kph – twice the legal speed limit.

It is good to see the authorities waking up to what is dangerous to the canal and the other users, especially as the last time I wrote about this, a couple of people who really should know better, almost accused me of distorting facts – which I obviously have no need to do. Should anybody doubt the veracity of the above commentaries, they will find the jamming incident recorded in the Observations column of the log for the Pechlaurier lock on 9th August and our vignette is recorded as checked on the sheet of the relevant inspector at Jouarres a day later. He will remember the conversation – because I asked him to.

Over the past weeks, we have passed and talked to many UK yachts on passage to The Med. Most of the crews looked very tired from a series of 0800 – 1900 days of travel and labour. It seems a shame that they treat the canals like an autoroute to be covered asap, because the trip from the Atlantic to The Med is still a marvellous experience and, in spite of the crowds in July/August, still full of pleasures. However, to enjoy it to the full, you must have time to smell the flowers and to find the best wines as you go.