It was a romantic notion, giving it all up to live on a boat. We’d even told people we were going to be “sailing on a notion,” but when that was misunderstood we had to explain we meant the rivers and canals of France.
Having lived in New Zealand for decades we felt it was time to rediscover our northern hemisphere roots, but rather than a direct flight to Heathrow we instead embarked on a 12 month detour, buying a boat and cruising some of France’s 8000 plus kilometres of waterways.
Of the two of us, I’m the hare-brained one, so I was surprised and delighted when Liz agreed to engage in such a madcap adventure; her parents had already retired to France, so she could see the advantage of being closer to them.
Others were more sceptical and thought we were mad to burn our bridges so completely, but as Henry Ford said, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” In fact, some seven months into our journey we came across some poignant graffiti under a bridge. It said, “Seuls les poissons morts suivent le courant,” which means, “Only the dead fish follow the current.” We didn’t want to be dead fish any more and adopted the maxim as a reminder that whatever we were doing, even when the Mistral eroded our spirits or the boat broke down, we at least didn’t have to attend interminable corporate meetings.
At Saint-Jean-de-Losne in central-eastern France we’d looked at all the boats for sale, many of which we’d already seen on the internet. Up close they were a lot tattier and in need of more work than they’d initially looked, but after a hefty increase in our budget and a compromising of criteria we found Liberty, an 11.4 metre Dutch- built cruiser.
She was nothing like the charming peniches or more traditional curvy barges we’d envisaged; Liberty was more of a gin palace, but at only 19 years old she was in good condition, fully equipped, and we could turn the key and just cruise off through autumn, down the Saône, the Rhône and onto the southern waterways, including the fabled Canal du Midi.
That makes it sound easy, but in reality we were naïve and wrong in thinking that southern France would be balmy over winter. It wasn’t. One day we woke up to snow. And we hadn’t realised that some of the canals close for maintenance over hiver (winter), so we found ourselves staying for over three months at a small town called Beaucaire, between Avignon and Nimes.
On the other hand, here we met many other live-aboard boaties, some of whom weren’t sailors so much as staylors – one couple had been living on their lovely old Thames launch for five years.
We improved our French, made friends with some locals, and explored the Languedoc-Roussillon region. When printemps (spring) arrived and the leaves were budding bright green again, we set off along the Canal du Midi, which in parts was as lovely as it is promoted on television, but in others was not. They had started to fell the waterway’s 42 000 plane trees due to a devastating disease. It was heart breaking, and we were glad they hadn’t got too far with the culling programme.
Charming French villages and towns, ancient castles, cobbled medieval streets, little ports, the threat of hire boats with six people all on the flybridge fighting over the wheel, these became the stuff of daily life. As the weather grew warmer and we burbled along leafy green waterways we had no doubt we’d made the right decision.
Having almost reached Bordeaux, we had no option but to retrace our route back up to central France, where a more complex spider web of canals offered further options for exploration.
Sounds like heaven? Yes and no. We had some heart-stopping moments, such as at Avignon’s quayside where, with both of us ashore, we almost lost Liberty to the current, rescuing her by a feat of athleticism that defies belief. Another time the gearbox jammed in full reverse and we smashed backwards into lock gates just as they were closing. One windy January day our propeller shaft and gearbox had a tiff and parted company, and at another lock armed maritime police came aboard and demanded if I’d been to boating school. I said, “Oui, en Nouvelle Zélande!” (I hadn’t).
But we learned a lot. We learned we could live in close confinement together, we learned boating etiquette, and even some skills. We learned some more French and I was even able to yell at a Frenchman that he had “no idea how to soil a bat!”
Most of all, I think we learned that if we’d listened to too many people we might never have done it. But then we’d have been dead fish, and going against the current is far more fun.