Sylvain Cambon, VNF

Navigation on the Canal du Midi has had its ups and downs. This unique waterway revolutionised inland waterway transport and there have certainly been plenty of good times.

Throughout the centuries, inland waterway transport has had to evolve continuously in the face of new means of transport that provided fierce competition. The Canal du Midi is no longer used for trade, but this unique waterway offers an exceptional setting for river tourism.

Transport of goods and passengers: the functions of the Canal du Midi

The canal seigneuryand the transport of goods

In 1666, Louis XIV signed the Edict of Saint-Germain, thus authorising the creation of the Canal Royal du Languedoc, the former name of the Canal du Midi, and the construction work was entrusted to Pierre-Paul Riquet. He was appointed Lord of the canal and this edict also granted him exclusive control of the canal. His descendants would also benefit from this unique status.

In 1673, a contract for the provision of boats was signed between Pierre Roux, marine carpenter, and Pierre-Paul Riquet. However, demand was rather significant and so very quickly, the Lord of the canal authorised independent boatmen to come and work on the canal with their boats.

A great number of boats arrived from the Garonne area. But there were also canal boats from the Rhône and even Catalan and Genoese boats transporting goods, all sailing along the Canal du Midi.

Once Riquet's heirs had acquired the canal seigneury, they decided to allow anyone to build vessels that would be used to transport goods. In relaxing the laws that governed navigation along the Canal du Midi, this meant that more and more boats with dimensions adapted to the canal engineering structures were seen here.

Despite these new rules, the Riquet heirs were still in control of the use of the Canal du Midi. They controlled the boats transporting passengers and were also in charge of the construction and maintenance of a fleet devoted to passenger transport. This was known as the 'barque de poste' service.

The 'barque de poste'

Pierre-Paul Riquet introduced the 'barque de poste' service in 1674. At that time, passengers could travel to Castelnaudary from Toulouse in just one day on this service.  

When construction work was finished, the 'barque de poste' became a regular service and was extended as far as Agde. The journey was 4 days long and was a relatively safe and comfortable experience for that time.

However, to cross locks and pass other obstacles, passengers had to switch boats. The 'barque de poste' made frequent stops, at midday (for a meal known as 'dînée') and in the evening (overnight stay, known as 'couchées'), so passengers could get some rest.  

The skipper's boat

Other boats sailed along the Canal du Midi and were devoted to the transport of goods. They were known as the 'barque des patron' (skipper's boat).

The skipper's boats were where boatmen and their families lived. The living quarters were at the front of the boat, in the 'tille'. The 'sapines' (boats from the Loire) and 'coutrillons' (boats from the Garonne) featured a 'pontet' which helped strengthen the hull and was where the boom was attached.

The 'skipper's boats' were used to transport large volumes of cereals, wine and brandy, and fodder. They were also used for the shipment of stones (Caunes Minervois marble for example), wood and coal, fertiliser and sulphur used on vineyards and various manufactured products.

Did you know?

The Marie Thérèse is the only boat of this kind to have been preserved. It was built in 1855 at the Pont des Demoiselles shipyard in Toulouse, and it can often be seen in its home port in Ventenac-en-Minervois (Aude). It is 27 m long and 5.40 m wide, which meant that back then, it was capable of carrying 130 tonnes of goods with a 1.60 m draught.

Waterway traffic was booming in the 17th century

Barges and boats were adapted to the canal!

Boats sailing along the Canal du Midi had to pay taxes to the Lords of the waterway. As such, the denser the waterway traffic, the higher the amount of navigation duties the Lords of the canal were paid... Likewise, the higher the capacity of these boats, the more profit made per boat.

Therefore, over time, the dimensions of the boats were adapted to reach the best compromise between capacity and speed. First there were the rounded and pear-shaped boats with fairly low capacity, then the more elegant 'sapines' boats that were wider in the middle, and the flat-bottomed 'coutrillons' that were square-shaped at the centre.

The dimensions of the engineering structures are also taken into account when adapting boats to the Canal du Midi, such as the length and width of locks, the height of bridges, depth of the canal navigation channel, etc.

In a 1765 inventory, 224 boats transporting goods were recorded on the canal. In 1778, 250 sixty-tonne vessels used the canal.

The towpaths

All these vessels were towed by horses, donkeys or cows, using a long rope (called 'maille'), from the towpaths.

On windy days, a small sail was sometimes attached to the boom to make towing easier for the animals.

But this approach was rare due to the unpredictable weather conditions and it wasn't adapted to the canal bridges.

The towpath is only on one side of the canal banks. So when boats passed each other or wanted to overtake, the crew had to follow a strict set of manoeuvres to avoid any incidents. Despite these precautions, there were still often accidents.

Did you know?

It may have been commonplace at other waterways, but it seems that people were never used to tow boats along the Canal du Midi, except at specific points such as the passage through Malpas tunnel

The 19th century canal transport crisis

The accelerated service (for freight and passengers)

In the early 19th century, the service offered by the 'barque de poste' faced competition from the improvement of roads and other links which meant stagecoaches could travel faster. It was therefore decided to introduce an accelerated 'barque de poste' service, which would travel overnight and make more stops. This new service meant that it was possible to get from Toulouse to Agde in just 36 hours!

The newly modernised facilities on the canal which made it possible to pass through locks faster for example, also contributed to the success of the waterway. 1856 was a record year for trade: more than 110 million tonnes of goods and 100,000 passengers travelled along the Canal du Midi!  

The railroad provided fierce competition for canal transport

In the second half of the 19th century, canal transport went into decline. When the railroad opened between Bordeaux and Sète in 1857, the waterway faced serious competition.

Passenger transport came to a halt a few months after the first passenger trains were put into service, as the latter provided a much faster service. As for the transport of goods, this declined significantly up until the end of the 19th century.

When the French State acquired the canal on 1 July 1898, they made the decision to abolish navigation taxes in an effort to revive the transport of goods on inland waterways. Transport began to recover very slowly after 40 difficult years. Canal traffic witnessed a slight improvement and increased from 65 million tonnes in 1900 to 81 in 1910. In 1903, plans to modernise the waterway and the fleet of boats were put forward, but the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 put a stop to that plan.

The State still plans on reviving navigation today

Waterway traffic and world wars

Inland waterway transport declined over the period of the two world wars, and the quantities transported on the canal dropped!

In 1914, the canal had 126 skipper's boats, 70 privately-owned and company boats, 300 horses and 75 donkeys.

Between the two world wars, canal transport recovered slightly, and motor boats had completely replaced the boats towed by animals! This significant evolution gave trade a boost on the canal. Back then, there were around 120 company boats on the canal, and just as many privately-owned boats. In 1936, almost all boats were motorised, and the fact they could operate independently made the Canal du Midi one of the fastest waterways on the French network.

The Second World War and the resulting fuel shortages led to a revival of horse drawn boats during the course of the war.

A new start post-war

At the beginning of 1944, things started to get back to normal. Transport on the Canal du Midi started up again, and a new era of prosperity began.

In 1960, the transport of hydrocarbons using specialised boats reached 120,000 tonnes. This was also when the transport of cereals was at its peak, reaching 144 million tonnes of transported crops!

Around the end of the 1960s, wooden boats were phased out and replaced by steel self-propelled barges. These new boats provided a certain level of comfort and the living quarters included a lounge area with kitchen (and tap water using a tank) and two small bedrooms.

The Freycinet gauge

On 5 August 1879, a new law governed the dimensions of the locks on certain canals, this was known as the Freycinet gauge. To revive navigation on the Canal du Midi, some of the locks needed adjusting to comply with the new standard. 

This work was carried out on the Canal de Garonne between 1970 and 1974. In 1977, work to modernise the Canal du Midi began on either end of the waterway. This gave hope of a bright future for the canal's skippers!

The emergence of river tourism: a new look for the Canal du Midi

In 1984, the French State decided to suspend the renovation work related to the Freycinet gauge in light of the economic crisis and budget restrictions. The world of inland waterway transport was struggling to offer prices that could compete with rail and road transport.

The last boat devoted to the transport of wine stopped trading in 1989. Today, the Canal du Midi is used exclusively for river tourism, and there are numerous recreational boats here, as well as canal barges for passenger transport (sightseeing boat trips or hotel barges).

Faced with the consequences of climate change, the boat rental companies are trying out new tactics to make their businesses more sustainable: electric boats, solar-powered equipment, hydrogen-powered boats, etc.