MIKE BODNAR: As the season changes and hire boats flood the canal, Liz and I feel smug in the knowledge that comparatively, we’re old hands at navigating locks now. Or so we thought
Continuing on the Canal du Midi, one piece of advice we’d previously been given paid off: start cruising early each day and finish around 1pm.
As the hire boat fleets awake from hibernation, the canal gets busier, with increased competition for space in the marinas.
With their vessels rented for a limited time, hire boaters want to make the most of every day, cruising long and hard. But it means that around 4pm daily, a flotilla of hire boats arrive at the marinas, all jostling for a berth. Rush hour.
We, however, arrived early afternoon, did our shopping and topping-up of water, and – forgive the schadenfreude – sat on deck with a glass of wine watching the 4 o’clock fray. (That said, we did help new arrivals tie up; we’re not complete killjoys.)
We noticed the hire boats rarely seemed to have a skipper, usually driven by a committee with three, four or even five people (usually men) around the helm, all providing advice, or trying to steer. We invented a collective noun for these: a ‘bungle’.
On one occasion, approaching a blind bend on the Midi, we sounded our horn and kept well right. Good job too, since a bungle came round the corner towards us at speed. Seeing us, all four of the crew grabbed the wheel to steer themselves out of trouble, succeeding only in guiding their large boat across the canal and right up the opposite bank. Luckily there was no damage, and the boat slid slowly back off again into the water.
But any smirks on our faces were wiped off when we entered the lock at Bram. With two hire boats ahead of us, we let them enter first to tie up. By now, we’d learned to do everything slowly and gently, to be easy on the throttle and not cause any fuss or commotion. As I nudged the boat gently to the side of the lock, Liz leaped off ready to wrangle ropes. All good so far, and the lock keeper – seeing that we were pretty much in position – began closing the gates behind us with his remote control.
Which is when it all went horribly wrong. I decided to move Liberty further forward and gently pushed the throttle, but the boat seemed to go backwards. Liz looked confused. I pushed forward a bit harder and the boat went faster in reverse, towards the closing gates. ‘What are you doing?’ shouted Liz. ‘Trying to go forwards!’ I shouted. But the more I pushed forward, the faster the boat went back, until with a massive bang, it hit the almost-closed gates.
The hire boaters looked aghast, Liz was ashen, and the lock keeper ran to the gates to check for damage. I was in panic mode. The éclusier told me to stop the engine, and he and Liz pulled Liberty by the ropes to the lockside. I went to the stern. One of our davits was bent upwards and the swim platform was dented. I felt sick. But miraculously, the gates seemed okay, and we weren’t sinking. The keeper tested the gates and continued to close them, then wrote up what was presumably an accident report on his clipboard. (‘Complete bungle on boat called Liberty. Hit gates. Imbéciles!’)
When the upstream gates opened, the hire boaters wasted no time escaping the crazy private boaters, leaving Liz and the lock keeper to tow Liberty to the side of the canal. Liz rejoined me on board, asking why I’d reversed at speed into the lock gates. I couldn’t explain. The problem turned out to be the joint throttle/gearbox mechanism having come adrift down below. The gearbox had stuck in reverse, along with the throttle, regardless of which way I pushed it. A single cable clamp had disintegrated, but I could see all we needed was to find a small U-clamp with nut and bolt and we could make a running repair.
We easily robbed a clamp from a fuel line, but then spent two hours combing every nook and cranny on the boat for the right length bolt, even unscrewing the knobs from pots and pans in the galley. Nothing fitted, and we sat disconsolately on the aft deck, not wanting to call out a mechanic.
Then Liz, looking up at the ship’s horn, said, ‘What about that?’ She pointed to the small bolt holding it on. Within minutes we’d disassembled it, I’d nipped down into the engine bay and voila! It fitted! A glass of celebratory wine later and we were on our way.
Cost of repair: zero. Embarrassment factor in front of hire boaters: ten.
Liz rejoined me on board, asking why I’d reversed at speed into the lock gates. I couldn’t explain
Rush hour on the Canal du Midi