The Fonserannes staircase, Canal du Midi, France

One of the most iconic waterways in the world is the Canal du Midi, certainly one of the oldest, and we were looking forward to exploring it. We arrived at the foot of the infamous Fonsérannes staircase of locks at Beziers just before lunch and joined a queue of 3 boats on the curved right bank. We tied up to a convenient tree (there were no mooring cleats) had a quick bite to eat, and then walked along the path to take a look at the task ahead – forewarned is forearmed.

Five, joined-together oval locks stretch upwards, and spectators are already gathering on both sides to watch the passage of boats. Two lock-keepers appear and we asked them a few questions: when would we be able to pass through? How many boats at a time? How long does it take? It turns out that four quite large hire-boats can fit in a lock at one time, and all four go up together, taking around 30 minutes. Boats queuing at the top must wait their turn to come down the flight.

When it was our turn, I stayed ashore and our boat entered last. It seemed that there was not enough room, and indeed there wasn’t, until the lock-keeper asked the two forward boats to untie again and move forward.

Our two-man technique is for me to be ashore and catch the bow line first and make a loose turn around a bollard. Then captain throws the stern line which I turn around the second bollard and throw straight back, returning to adjust and hold the bow-line before the lock starts to fill. So, we have a line each and so far so good. The other boats are ready and watching and waiting for us – except for the curious party of German men on the boat alongside us, who studiously stare straight ahead, ignoring everybody, and each other. Strange – after all, we are all in the same boat!

At last the sluices open, spurting water high into the air in a bow-wave, almost cascading into the lead port-side boat (Boat 1, in front of us). Both lead boats are now under severe pressure, with Wife and Girlfriend struggling to hold the lines taut (they slacken as the boats rise) and husband and boyfriend exercising bow thrusters and engines to help keep the boats in position.

Finally, the lock is full – that was fun! – and our boats file out. A pecking order is established that we will stick to all the way up. Boat 1 (Wife) throws her ropes back on board, but there’s no need – she can take the ropes with her and walk the boat into the next lock. Boat 2 (Girlfriend) spots this and walks forward up the steps to the next lock, paying out line as she goes and then tying up. This lock has bollards in slightly different positions, requiring some thought as to which will be best to use in order to keep the boat forward or aft. Again, the lock-keeper requests the lead-boats to move up so we can squeeze in and the gates close behind us. Girlfriend’s boat’s ropes are incredibly long and become very tangled as she changes from one bollard to another.

And so it goes, the spectators moving with us, taking photos and getting in the way as we walk our boats up the staircase, throwing ropes and helping each other out when catches are missed or adjustments need to be made. Each boat has their own technique, Herman using the boat hook to raise a loop of rope up to Crew. Wife and Girlfriend are still deciding what works best for them. Whilst waiting for a lock to fill, Wife shares with me that she is from Texas, sampling the French canals before travelling to Alicante in Spain to visit family. She declares ‘they are having a ball’. That’s good, because I’m not sure Herman is.

I realise I’ve forgotten to don my gloves – our ropes are no longer soft – and my hands are stinging. The sun is very hot, and I turn frequently to avoid forearm frizzle. The pea-shingle on the lock-sides gets in my sandals, and dust is everywhere. But Captain continues to smile, and Dog lazes on deck, and as we reach the top there is a communal sense of achievement all round, lessons learned, a job well-done. We emerge, feeling rather smug, into the long lock-free stretch towards Homps, and wave to the waiting boats about to descend. Just a few more kilometres to our last mooring of the day. Time for a nice cold beer.

Find out more about how to pass a lock checking our Youtube video



Starting in 2003, James and Ruth have explored 10,000km of the rivers and canals of France on their boat ‘Grehan’. They publish the world’s most popular English-language website about the French waterways with detailed cruising and boating vacation information based on their unique first-hand experience.

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