Navigating the Locks on the Canal du Midi

Posted by on November 2, 2011

The Canal du Midi just west of Argens-Minervois. Our boat is tied to the bank on the left.

If you rent a canal boat you will, most likely, have to go through a lock. At first this might seem scary. I’m sure most people have never entered a lock on a boat that they are operating. I’m not sure I had even seen a lock in operation before. I knew how they worked in concept but that’s about it. In reality, it isn’t scary. It’s actually kind of fun. The only scary thing about it is watching other boaters try to enter or exit the locks… Le Boat must employ a legion of marine repairmen in the off season.

Our first lock was “automatic” – meaning, we put someone ashore and push the buttons ourselves rather than the manned locks where the lock keeper pushes the buttons. The routine is simple:

  • Put a crew member on the shore and they push the button for the direction in which they wish to travel.
  • Wait for the lock stoplight to go from red to green and once green, enter the lock.
  • Once the boat is in the lock the shore person takes both the bow and stern lines and pass them around bollards, hands them back to crew on the boat then presses the large green button that starts the lifting or lower process.

Entering a lock. We are going to go up

The lock then fills or empties depending on your direction. The gates open, a slight shove from the person onshore and you are off to the next section of the canal. If you are at a lock that is operated by a lock keeper they direct you to enter and they determine how many boats can fit inside at once. Three is the common maximum but some of the hotel barges fill an entire lock.

Real dangers at a lock:

    • If you enter a lock from the bottom, crew will have to throw the line up to the shore person. Decks can be slippery and throwing can be tricky. We had a few falls and a bumped head before we perfected the procedure.

The water creates quite a lot of turbulence.

  • If you enter a lock from the bottom and are in front, the water entering the lock can create quite a lot of turbulence and counter currents. We found that two wraps on the bollard and keeping the boat in gear with very slight thrust kept us safely along side without banging into our lock mate’s boat or the side, or from getting rope burn.
  • Speaking of rope burn, a nice item to have would have been a pair of work gloves to help handle the lines. We didn’t have any with us – the 12 odd pair we own were at home.
  • If you enter a lock from the top be mindful of your boat’s position as the water level drops. Your boat can become hung up on the side of the lock. (This didn’t happen to us but we were told the story first hand.)
  • Crew disharmony. It is most likely that no one on the boat will be completely competent in operating the vessel – this can lead to some shouting and anxiety. Going slow is the cure to this problem.

Perceived danger at a lock:

    • Falling into the water. I’m sure it happens, and I’m sure it’s scary, but all the lock have ladders to help the fallen regain their footing. That being said, I don’t think it’s a common occurrence but a certain amount of dexterity is require to have a vacation on a boat.

Stylish French spectators - they think the locks are cool too.

  • Dropping lines, getting caught in the gate, looking like a moron in front of competent, well-dressed French spectators. All of these are real concerns but aren’t exactly dangers. Lines are easily retrieved before they get wrapped around the prop, the locks won’t close on your boat if you follow directions, and the French are too well mannered to snicker and jeer.

The locks only operate from 9am to 12:30pm and from 1:30pm to 7pm. Even the automatic locks close at night. This isn’t a hindrance – it’s a blessing. It forces you to stay put in the morning until 9, to take a nice lunch at mid day, and to end your daily journey at a respectable time. After all, you should be tied up somewhere spectacular, drinking local wines well before the locks close at 7.

Ease into it. Embrace the pace. For me it was easy. I didn't want to come home.

Sometimes you’ll have to wait in a line of boats as there are more vessels heading your direction than the lock can clear at once. This isn’t a problem either. It’s not like sitting in traffic in LA. You are in the South of France! It’s beautiful, you’ve got nothing important to do today and all the people around you are on vacation. They’re relaxed and happy and it’s infectious, plus an open, happy mind attracts good things. For example, we were waiting our turn at a lock and there was a little restaurant near by that sold “take away” chicken. This being France, the chicken was cooked in a sauce with wine and mushrooms (I wish all fast food was like this). We thought we’d give it a try for lunch. One of our crew went to buy it and asked for more than what was offered and was denied being told “No. This is all you can have.” Alright… ask for a serving for four and that’s what you get. No less, no more. We heated it up for lunch and, with a Chardonnay we’d acquired from a local winery, it was perfect. Maybe we should be denied more more often. Our delay turned into a culinary delight.

The locals along the canal still marvel at its ingenuity.

The biggest hazard at a lock is other boaters. Here I’ll relate the story of a man we nicknamed “Rammy.” We were waiting at a lock in the longest line we’d seen on our entire trip – seven boats. We were chatting with the boaters behind us when around the corner came a large eight person boat at full speed. Full speed sounds impressive but these boats max out at 6 knots which is slightly faster than a person walking and a whole lot slower than a person jogging. But the canals aren’t that wide and passing moored boats at full speed is at very least, bad form. As the boat was passing others to our rear the person at the helm was being yelled at, something like, “The lock is closed up ahead! Slow down! The end of the line is back there.” As he reached an outside curve he laid into the boat horn for a good three seconds. It was like he was out of control! Around the curve was a closed steel lock gate. Where did he intend to go? Honking wasn’t going to help. Seeing the gate, Rammy panicked and lost steering or more, accurately forgot to steer. The horn must have rousted one of his traveling companions who arrived on deck just in time to see the shocked expression and large whites of the eyes of the boat crew Rammy was about to careen into. Pushing Rammy aside our hero threw his boat into full reverse and instead of cleaving the poor parked boat in two, he instead just lightly kissed it’s side with his bow. A collective gasp went up from the parked boats. Backing down the canal the hero pulled his boat into last spot in line. Crisis averted. Fiberglass makes such an uncomfortable crunching sound.

We’d see Rammy a few more time that week, but he was never at the helm. If you are considering a trip on a canal boat and are worried about the locks, don’t be. As long as you aren’t too “rammy” they are easy to navigate, the boats are well protected from their crews with bumpers and rub rails and the locks add a fun sense of adventure to a vacation that is nothing but pure joy and relaxation.

French perfection - if you have to make something utilitarian you might as well make it beautiful.

Next time – A typical day on the Canal du Midi = Quaint French villages, fresh bread, wine tasting, wild dill, olives, almonds and mint.



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