Canal voyage and giving thanks

Day trippin’ on the Canal du Midi

Several of us were invited to join our friend Tim aboard his beautiful boat Mary-Lou on the Canal du Midi, a few days before the canal closed for the season. It was a glorious early-November day, the air fresh and crisp, and the colors vivid. There was eager anticipation in the air that morning when we arrived in Carcassonne, and later, the on-board atmosphere was relaxed and full of joy. That, and a lot of great food!

A little background
I’ve had the intention of writing a post about the engineering marvel that is the Canal du Midi, but that’s a bit of a project. For now, there are a few key things to know. One is that people have tried to build a canal to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea since the Romans first attempted it 2,000 years ago.

Others tried—including Leonardo da Vinci—but it wasn’t until the 1600s that Pierre-Paul Riquet, of Béziers, figured out how to get water flowing where he needed it in order to have a functioning canal. In 1666, King Louis XIV granted permission to begin construction.

The canal opened in 1681, eight months after the death of Riquet. It had taken fifteen years and about 12,000 people—including women—working with shovels and pickaxes to dig the trenches for the 240-kilometer canal.

And finally, Riquet didn’t just build a canal. He built a graceful waterway that blends in with its surroundings, celebrating the nature it flows through. Structures such as bridges and locks were designed to a classical standard of architectural beauty. It truly is a lovely canal. Let’s go see a tiny piece of it!

Setting out on the Canal du Midi on a crisp November morning.
Gleaming teak provides the backdrop for an antique bronze wheel, cast and polished by hand.

Mary-Lou
Tim’s boat, the Mary-Lou, has a remarkable story. She was built in 1908 by Samuel White’s, a shipbuilding firm on the Isle of Wight. Originally, she was a picket boat, a small naval craft used for harbor patrol and work close to shore, and sometimes carried aboard larger vessels. The Mary-Lou was carried on the deck of the World War I battleship Dreadnought.

Later the Mary-Lou was upgraded to an admiral’s barge by the addition of the counter stern and a cabin, and even later she was converted from steam to diesel (1945). Tim acquired her as a young man, spent over eight years on the restoration, and then sailed her across the English Channel and down to Carcassonne.

Big thanks to Tim for providing the information above, as well as the following three photographs.

The Mary-Lou in 1918, in either Malta or Gibraltar. Photo courtesy of Tim Harris.
The Mary-Lou shown in Richmond, where Tim spent many years restoring her. He and his young family lived aboard the boat for a while, too. Photo courtesy of Tim Harris.
The Mary-Lou in the French coastal town of Agde. Photo courtesy of Tim Harris.

Tim told us that he once had 17 people on board—his extended family, with lots of kids all over the place, including the roof. We were a more sedate group of, well, older kids.

One of the major activities on the canal is drinking. Another one is navigating the locks. In the hands of a novice, these two things don’t really go well together. Happily, we weren’t in the hands of a novice.

Our day was warming up a bit, and we were lucky that there wasn’t any wind. We went through two locks, and then tied up to shore to enjoy a splendid feast, accompanied by some of our regional Blanquette de Limoux sparkling wine.

Passing through a lock usually involves notifying the lock keeper, who lives in a house located right at the lock. At least one person aboard will jump to shore to handle the ropes.

Phil jumps ashore to help with the ropes.
Inside the lock, Captain Tim prepares to toss the rope up to receiving hands.
One of our friendly lock keepers.

The boat enters the lock through one set of gates, which then close. The water level begins to change by either adding or reducing the amount of water inside the lock. The boat rises or drops, and when the water level matches the level of the destination side of the gate, then the gate slowly opens to allow the boat to proceed. Here are some photos of our progress through one lock.

Top left, approaching the lock. Top right, just outside the gate. Center left, going through the gate. You can see the gate at the far side of the lock, and you can tell the difference in water levels. Center right, the water level is rising, and the boat is inching closer to the level of the bank. Bottom, the far gate begins to open so that we can continue along the canal.
The water looked like liquid gold as we passed through one of the locks.
At every lock along the canal, there’s a house for the lock keeper. Mounted to the wall of the house is a sign that indicates how far it is to the next lock, in each direction. “Écluse” is French for “lock.”
After lunch, we all leapt ashore and took a stroll along the banks of one very pretty lock. This worldly signpost stands near the upper gate. The view is facing the direction of Toulouse.
Looking the opposite direction from the worldly signpost above, there’s a lovely view of the Canal du Midi, looking in the direction of Carcassonne. Near the top of the picture, you can just see the white hull of the Mary-Lou on the left bank, peeking out from behind some bushes (follow the line of the walking path).

After admiring the view, we made our way back to the Mary-Lou, and Tim turned her around for the return voyage. The shadows had begun coming out much earlier than even a month ago, and the close of day wasn’t too far off. Everyone reached for their jackets.

Thanks to Tim for a fantastic outing aboard the Mary-Lou! A gorgeous day, a lovely canal, a really cool boat, and a group of friends sharing food and conversation. Life doesn’t get much better than this.

The golden light of late afternoon tints the trees and the water on our return trip to Carcassonne.
Mary-Lou’s wake on a beautiful blue-sky day.
Captain Tim enjoying the camaraderie of a day on the canal with friends.

Parting thought: American Thanksgiving
Thursday, 24 November is the American holiday of Thanksgiving. There are as many ways to celebrate the day as there are families in the United States, but the heart of it is to share a feast with those you love, and maybe to express gratitude. I like both of these very much.

Everyone has their own style with gratitude, and one option is to do nothing at all. But I’m a big fan of expressing it. I like to start with the fact that I was able to get out of bed this morning, and then I move on from there: I’m grateful to have that bed, and the roof over my head. I’m grateful for the wonderful, loving, beautiful people in my life. The food on my table. The sun. The rain. The birds. The trees.

There is so much to be thankful for, and while I express it regularly, Thanksgiving is the day in my calendar for going full-throttle on the gratitude. So that’s what I’ll be doing on Thursday: eating rather too much, and saying thank-you a lot.

Seen in a different section of the Canal du Midi: the surprising red of an ivy plant that has completely taken over a tree.