Updated: Mar 17
Canal cruising in a barge is like playing a game of miniature golf. Just as you finish with one tricky section and congratulate yourself for getting past the hazard, you find that there is another hazard just ahead. On the canals, each obstacle is waiting to scrape your paint or dent your hull, and if you are not careful going under a very low arched bridge, you would not be the first person to peel off the wheelhouse roof.
Most of the time, cruising on the canals is peaceful. The pace is slow, and on days when the sun is shining and the birds are singing, it is heavenly. But the canals are narrow, and even though you follow a chart, you never really know what you may find just around the next bend. It seems that every time you are lulled into daydreaming and have your head spinning with the beauty that surrounds you, oops! Hazard ahead!!!
Even if you know that a canal bridge over a river is ahead, it is always surprising to see how narrow it can be. Just as in miniature golf, you need to drive straight to avoid bouncing all over the course.
And while canal bridges are narrow on the bottom and low arched bridges are narrow on the top, tunnels are a bigger hazard.
In a tunnel, the fit is so tight that you worry that you might damage your boat from top to bottom. Seeing a tunnel ahead on the chart makes people with freshly painted barges very nervous. And emerging out the other side without any new scrapes or dents is cause for celebration.
Drawbridges are yet another hazard waiting for you. They pop up occasionally along the canals, and it seems that no two are alike. Their operators don't seem to think it is necessary to lift them all the way, which makes passing through very exciting.
Locks are exciting too. There are big ones, small ones, short ones, tall ones, usually with boats of all sizes maneuvering in a small space waiting to enter and exit. Passing port to port is not always the case. Again, like miniature golf, you must weave your way through the moving hazards of the course.
Their unpredictability complicates moving hazards. While seeing a huge commercial barge come around the bend can make your heart beat faster, they almost always follow the rules. It is the summer rental boats that will, more often than not, do something wildly unexpected. They are on a week's vacation and haven't had the time to learn how to drive.
Boat traffic, though, is generally more predictable than cows.
Cows don't read the canal navigation rule books. When you come around a corner and see a cow in the middle of the canal, it is hard to know which way to go. You would probably aim the ball straight through the cow's legs on a miniature golf course, but it is best to go around on a barge.
Whether you have had an exciting day cruising along the French canals or playing a game of miniature golf, it is always lovely at the end of the day to sit on your back deck, put your feet up and toast your success.