With the mast gone and Quartette looking more like a Christmas tree with all her fenders, we set off on the next leg on the Saturday afternoon in order to get through the Sete bridge that only opens at 4:30pm each day. To our surprise the recommended route (by Andy) was back out to sea again and in at Sete. Waiting for the bridge to open we had our first taste of canal life when we went aground trying to tie up to the official waiting mooring. However a local Brit came to our rescue by allowing us to raft up – and so stay more in the main channel. After that we were in the canal proper for a bit then out into a short choppy sea heading for Meze on the Etang de Thau. We arrived here in the midst of a waterborne jousting festival complete with canon. There appeared to be only stern to mooring in the harbour entrance where laying an anchor to hold us off was out the question, but luckily the Capitaine saw us and came back from the festival to allocate us a part of the fuelling berth with a post to hold us off. As the dust settled after the jousting we had probably our best local meal of the week in a seafood restaurant by the harbour.
Next day we were off to Bezier and into our first lock – shut for lunch when we got there. We clearly needed to slow down! A few locks later we went into the circular lock at Agde and observed local hire boats bouncing around in it like balls in a lottery machine. Now we realised what all the fenders were for. Imagine our surprise also when this lock lowered us down again. But this is a feature of the Canal du Midi which is built cross country rather than along a river valley like many UK canals. Later that day we also saw flamingos in a nearby dried out lake. Bezier is not to be recommended due to total lack of facilities and moorings in a seedy area of town. But the exit from Bezier is spectacular with the canal crossing a viaduct and then climbing a flight of 7 locks. Seeing water cascading over the lower lock gates we incorrectly deduced that the canal was not short of water. But this is another feature of the canal – in any flight of locks each lock is slightly bigger than the one below it so that they do not run out of water even if there are leakages.
Shortly after leaving the top lock the engine high temperature alarm came on - we could not moor up as the canal is too shallow at the edges – but we found we could put the yacht across the canal and get the bow close enough for someone to jump ashore with a line whilst we investigated the alarm. We eventually concluded that the problem was an airlock in the seawater inlet filter – caused by bubbles in the very aerated water in the locks. Eventually we developed a technique of bleeding the filter with the engine on tick over after every few locks whilst underway. Following a fruitless hunt for fuel in Colombiers – the locals fetch it from the supermarket in cans - we passed through the Malpas tunnel and reached Capestang – a most attractive stopover with good facilities. Once again we were aground trying to moor but eventually got the Capitainerie to tell us where the deep water moorings were – in front of his office only!
Now we were nearly half way and had developed the following “Rules for locks”:
(i) Only try and moor in the most used waiting areas – everywhere else is too shallow
(ii) Stay at the back of the lock – water is less turbulent and less aerated there
(iii) Wait for the local dodgem car style motor boats to tie up before you get near them
(iv) Deploy fenders at all heights from toe rail to water line
(v) Use the engine to hold the yacht in place as the lock fills
– the currents are quite unpredictable and shore lines are often at a wrong angle to be effective
(vi) Bleed the sea water intake filter after every few locks.
But we were not prepared for the next lock surprise when on a triple lock the keel hit the sill between the first and second locks. However the lock keepers do have an interest in “getting you through” and so the problem was solved by flashing water from the third lock straight into the first lock.
Our next stop was at Port La Robine – the only fuelling point between somewhere beyond Carcassonne and the sea – so we felt obliged to top up and were allowed so stay the night on the fuel berth again (see photo).
We had planned a diversion down to Narbonne, but were solemnly warned by phone call to the VNF no less that the maximum draught for this leg was only 1.2m. Port La Robine is a real back water with an ageing, but very diligent concierge guarding the loos and showers and certainly closing them overnight– strange when you are doing your best to keep their canal clean.
With our various grounding experiences so far we were not entirely confident of making Carcassonne on time, if at all, so the following day we made a real push and reached Homps (see photo)
– again no facilities - but redeemed by a superb restaurant on the canal run by an expatriate Englishman and his French wife. As we reached the more hilly parts the canal was more winding and on one scary occasion we encountered a huge barge coming downstream just as we rounded a bend – only option was to go to the side and so on the putty and we escaped! CEVNI style signs were few and far between and I doubt if they would have been widely understood. Indeed one hire company advertised hiring without a licence being needed and frequently we saw young children driving motor boats zigzagging along! But the worst occasion was a starboard side hazard – a recent rock fall I think - marked with port hand buoys – no doubt the local shop only had red buoys in stock!
On our penultimate day we had some pleasant stops for glaces and pain artisan and eventually arrived at Trebes – again a helpful local directed us to a deep water mooring – the tourist office doubled as the Captainerie and so had no relevant expertise except to advise that the loos were locked at 8pm. And finally to the relief of some we reached Carcassonne – finishing off as we had started by grounding just before the last lock where we saw our first and last restricted depth sign of 0.5m – must be some sort of joke I think! I’m afraid I find it hard to believe the stories of 1.8m draught yachts going through the canal, but Carcassonne castle is massively impressive (see photo).
-- Jonathan Gillams