Having grown up on the East coast of the US, I was not unaccustomed to seeing giant sailing boats whenever there would be a summertime festival. It seems that every major harbor from Maine to Florida has a sail-in of some kind every year to showcase these magnificent ships. To keep the tradition alive there are sailing schools in many of those same harbors, including one run by the US Navy, where young women and men train for weeks to rig the sails and navigate these giant vessels through treacherous waters. We live near the Canal du Midi where they do exactly the same thing, minus the sails, of course.
The Canal du Midi, a UNESCO world heritage site, was the globe’s only second such structure when it was built in 1681. As you would expect, the stone bridges built over the canal were not very high, often requiring any passengers and the captain to retreat below deck to ensure clearance. Giant sails wouldn’t work so initially horses were used to pull the barges and now replaced by diesel motors. Still the need exists to protect the heritage of this historic form of transport so France too has aquatic schools for those who want to learn about canal boats.
We arrived at the main canal basin and lock in Carcassonne too late to get a picture of the Europodyssey, the training boat that was just here for the day, but I thought this photo of the lock would give you a good idea of the difference in water levels at this point in the 240 meter/150 mile route from Toulouse to the Mediterranean Sea. For 16 weeks, young people from age 16 to 21 learn every aspect of operating a canal boat including fueling, steering, operating locks, and dealing with dangerous situations.
What I find ironic is that before the students on board the Europodyssey are allowed to operate a canal boat on their own, they are in school for 4 months yet each summer thousands of vacationers rent a boat and after about an hour of instruction are set loose on the canal. Did I mention that these visitors might be enjoying a glass or two of France’s finest wines while they are chugging down the canal and navigating its 91 locks? I think that we’ll continue to safely enjoy our view of the water from the tow path beside it!