Monday, 17 August 2009

The Rallye du Canal du Midi: The salad is being served

This event in southern France is so much more than a rowing expedition, or so we eventually figured out. It was equally a water-based opportunity to explore the thing that the southern French care most about – food, and wine.

But after various faux pas and misunderstandings, the organisers eventually realised that we weren't deliberately trying to be rude; rather, it was just that we were British and didn't understand. 

It was very, very HOT.


Event: Rallye du Canal du Midi
Where: Toulouse to Béziers, France
Distance: 200km or so, plus a sprint regatta on the last day
Time: 5+1 days in stages, some untimed
Boat type: Touring coxed quads (known as "yolettes")
Number of crews in the event: 37
Event Organiser: Association de Toulouse Pierre-Paul Riquet

I first heard about the Rallye from some Dutch (I think) fellow participants in the Vogalonga to whom I got chatting on a vaparetto after the event. 15 months later, I was on the start line in Toulouse, with my husband and three friends. 

We'd arranged to meet a British rowing acquaintance, who then ran his own vineyard very near to the point we'd be stopping for lunch on the Wednesday, and who occasionally sculled on the canal. On discovering our plans, he cautioned us that "You do realise it's like doing the Boston Marathon every day for five days, don't you?", but actually the rowing turned out to be the easy bit.


The cox's seat may have come from
a classroom, but it was
practical and comfortable.
We meet our boat for the week
So, back to the car park by the opaque green river, in one of the less salubrious parts of Toulouse, and we found the boat that we'd arranged to hire from the event organisers, the Association de Toulouse Pierre-Paul Riquet (PPR designed and built the Canal du Midi, an effort which more or less ruined and killed him). The ATPPR are a very dedicated bunch of individuals, who have worked hard to run this large event for years, but it's quite a cash-strapped organisation, and on first sight, we were somewhat disappointed by the quality of the boat and blades. Later, it emerged that the boat was actually pretty suitable for what we were going to put her through, though we still thought that the blades had all the materials-science qualities of wilted celery. And heavy wilted celery at that.

After some rustic rig adjustments (just put some rusty washers under it, that'll jack the height up), we set off with 27 other yolettes, 4 brave singles and 5 almost as brave doubles. Their bravery was less to do with the many miles they'd have to row on their own, and more with the sheer difficulty of clambering out of less stable boats on your own at locks that were quite without landing stages or other places to get out of a small  boat with riggers.

At this point, I should record that there were two Belgian crews, one in an Empacher yolette, for goodness sake. The feeling that they were "over-dressed" in this high quality craft never really went away all week.

Chariots of hire
Portaging the boat on the chariot.
All of the yolettes in the event also had to be equipped with a "chariot" (say this in a French accent, please), which turned out to be an extremely robust piece of carpentry with small bicycle or possibly large pram heels attached. We were told we would need to put our boat on this to "portage" it round locks, which we were not allowed to go through (because it would have taken FAR too long and also used far too much water in a canal  that has to be fed from the mid-point, unlike British locked rivers, of course).

We had no real idea about how we would use the chariot at locks, but no doubt all would become clear once we got to the first one.

In fact, it didn't. And it took us a day and a half to get to grips with our chariot lock technique, by which time we had lost so much time compared with the handful of other fast crews, that we never clawed our way further up the rankings than third place, but more on this later. 

Suffice it to say that at various locks we managed to knock our rudder off, let the rudder strings trail out the back of the boat, drop the chariot in the water, and just be generally inept. Once we'd honed the technique, though, my role, as the smallest member of the crew, was t be the "trolley dolly", and insert it under the boat when we pulled it out, and whip it out from under the boat at the last minute when relaunching. 


The chariot stowed correctly in the bows.
Note the bend on those wilted-celery blades!
It even took us a couple of gos to work out the best way to place the chariot in the boat, which was sideways (if you're ever doing the event, reply to this post and I'll explain more!). On the final day, we got chatting to the French crew from Lille, who were lovely, and ribbed us gently about how a bunch of obviously fit youngsters like us had let a bunch of 50 somethings like them beat us. We explained about our initial hopeless lock technique, and they smiled knowingly – having clearly been amused by our antics, but also having left us to figure it out for ourselves. We can't really blame them.


Lunchtime
We'd rather assumed that lunch would involve sandwiches and maybe a piece of fruit. If we were lucky, it might be French bread. But that's because a picnic is what we, as Brits, would expect to eat at lunchtime, on holiday, and especially on a riverbank in August. How wrong we were. Don't forget that many French people still go home for lunch, and have a proper meal. And the fact that we were in the middle of nowhere next to a field of sunflowers was no reason not to eat properly.


Waiting for lunch on Day 1.
There were 3 courses every lunchtime, and two bottles of red wine PER CREW. I kid you not. When the organisers came round to clear the tables at the end of the meal, they eyed up our bottles of wine - we'd drunk about a quarter of one of them between the five of us - and asked, incredulously whether we were finished. As the week went on, I imagine that there were as many amused comments amongst the organisers about the strange rosbifs who don't drink good red wine to aid their digestions at lunch, as there were amongst us about the strange organisers who seem to think that serving red wine at lunch is a good idea when we have over 2 hours to row in searing heat.

The paella served on the first day was merely breaking us in gently: we eventually figured out that each lunch was an opportunity to sample the signature dish of the nearest town, and so it was that on absolutely the hottest day of the whole trip, we were served cassoulet for lunch - which would be a great thing to have after a long, frosty walk in the Cairngorms in, say, January, but was almost inedible to us. 


The fleet took up quite a lot of space, when stopped.

On that particular day, we were in a small town, and the lunch tables had been set up in the shade of a buttermarket-type place. Whilst we were making the most of the coolness of the thick stone building, a couple of the French participants sat on the terrace outside to sunbathe until the first course was set out. We were definitely culturally out of our depth!


Our faux pas with the salad
By Day 3, we'd sussed our lock technique, and managed to achieve our first stage win, bring us up from 4th place to 3rd. When the results for the morning were put up on an easel noticeboard in the lunch area, all five of us were crowding round, comparing with other crews, as any "normal" British rower would, when one of the organisers rushed over and said, "Stop that, the salad is being served." The pre-eminence of gastronomy strikes again – there is nothing, simply nothing more important to the French than eating. And that includes winning.

Locks and shady construction features
An olive-shaped lock. With olive-coloured water.
First up, locks on the Canal du Midi are olive-shaped not rectangular. I'm not an engineer, but I imagine this gives them a particular strength, as well as character. Though they'd be a pain to moor up in were one allowed to enter one, which we weren't, of course.

Second, there are plane trees planed along one bank of almost the entire length of the canal. Whichever tree nursery got that contract must have been laughing all  the way to the bank, although I bet Pierre-Paul Riquet demanded a massive bulk discount. 

Anyway, these are still the original plane trees that were planted when the canal was built in the 1700s. So they're getting on a bit, but nowadays, their roots more or less hold the bank together, so it will be nigh on impossible to replace them.

The canal twists and turns a surprising amount, which meant that, with trees mostly only on one side of the canal, we were sometimes in full sun, and sometimes in the shade of trees. It really was that hot, especially during the afternoon sections, that whoever was coxing would frequently call out things like "600m till a corner and some shade", which was the best news the sweltering rowers could hear.

Whoever was coxing also provided advance judgement on looming bridges - first giving notice of whether they were wide or narrow (which might necessitate pulling blades in) and second on the structure's architectural qualities: "Charming old stone bridge", or "Ugly metal girder bridge", being the most common.

The entrance to the Tunnel du Malpas.
First prize in the "Exciting Coxing" competition was the 170m+ long Tunnel du Malpas which required pretty accurate steering, because there was no more than 2 feet clearance on both sides. I bagged coxing this, an arrangement that suited all members of the crew, although to my shame did brush the wall once, sorry.

The runner up was an incident on Day 4 of the trip, by which time motor boats were becoming more frequent. I realised that we were rapidly catching up with a wide and slow-moving boat that was quite oblivious of us approaching behind, and so was merrily put-put-putting away down the middle of the canal, leaving insufficient space on either side for me to get past. So I called for 10 firm from the crew, after which (with advance warning) they immediately easied and pulled their blades across, so we could sneak up the side of the cruiser, carried past by our momentum. We just made it.

Fortified, and not just by the red wine
Carcassonne.
Although sleeping at night was quite difficult because the temperature hardly dropped at all, we did enjoy our accommodation for the first three nights which was in the Youth Hostel in the fortified town of Carcassonne. In a very European manner, all dormitories were mixed: but the Belgian gent who was shoved in with the five of us (two women and three men), was unfazed, so we pretended not to be either.

The final day's sprint regatta: and we still didn't understand
After arriving in our final destination, Béziers, on the Friday afternoon, we parked the boats in Béziers Rowing Cub car park for the night, and returned the next day for a little sprint regatta. It involved racing three abreast, and there must have been some kind of repechage system, as we kept getting told to turn around and join some other line up. We had very little idea what was going on. Although after a few baffling verdicts, we eventually realised they were judging by the stern, not the bows, as happens in every other regatta any of us have ever been to. We put it down as another cultural experience.

In summary
The Rallye du Canal du Midi is a unique event, just don't treat it as purely a rowing challenge. You will also struggle with the heat; with eating French food; with eating rich, cooked meals at lunchtime; with excesses of red wine; with "pipi sauvage" and worse, the facilities when there were any; and with having only a limited clue about what's going on because even if you speak reasonable French, the accents are strong here.

On the other hand, it was a great opportunity to get to know other rowers from all over Europe (and even Canada) over a prolonged row, and the organisers were lovely - they even provided a team of nurse-type ladies who offered a "we will tape up your hands, backs of legs and other injured parts" clinic "Matin, midi, soir" as they put it. Now that's not something you get ANYWHERE else.
Hats are essential.


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