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Alex Claydon

Narrow miss with another vessel - but it wasn't due to the wine

Alex Claydon spent three days captaining a boat along the historic Canal du Midi in the Minervois region of the South of France

When I learned to drive a car I was hopeless - and I can still hear the red-faced instructor shouting "STOP!" as we hurtled towards oncoming vehicles on the wrong side of the road.Thankfully I passed (after more than 40 lessons) and thought I had put those dark days behind me - until I volunteered to captain a narrow boat...

I travelled with my first mate to Le Somail, in the Minervois region of the South of France, where the glorious tree-lined Canal du Midi snakes through the countryside.

The canal boats have been custom-made in England and shipped over to France by Minervois Cruisers, who were the hosts of our three-day adventure.

On arriving our instructor, 31-year-old Emily Davies, from Harrogate, gave us a thorough lesson in how to handle the boat before sending us on our way.

Rick Stein
Cook Rick Stein, who went down the canal for his TV series

Unfortunately no amount of tuition can compensate for an inept captain and I'm sure Emily felt a shudder as she watched the boat zigzag out of control along the canal under my command.

Fortunately the boats are designed to be idiot-proof, and after a few near-misses I had the boat motoring along in a semi-straight line.

It was a true joy to travel through the countryside, stopping at lovely little villages along the way. Our trip was only a brief one, and we opted to travel to the town of Beziers, famed for its locks that cascade down the hillside.

The countryside is full of vineyards and as you travel along the canal there are regular signs advertising wine tasting - definitely my favourite hobby while out there.

On the last day gale force winds were awaiting us as we slowly plodded back to the dock. What felt like a hurricane took hold as my first mate slept soundly in the cabin, after indulging in a little too much wine.

A series of sudden gusts caused my rudimentary piloting skills to collapse under the pressure - and sent the barge hurtling towards another boat.

I managed to steer it away from collision, but all control had gone and the boat spiralled uncontrollably into the middle of the canal.

Inside the spinning sent my first mate flying out of bed and there were great crashes from the kitchen as pots hit the floor and glasses smashed in the cupboard.

Thankfully my first mate rescued the situation, taking over the controls, and navigating us safely back to the dock.

After confessing the breakages to Emily, she in turn admitted the winds we experienced were unheard of in this part of France. She also said we probably weren't the worst crew to have tackled the canal.

Emily said: "We have always been really lucky with the people using our boats.

"But I have heard stories of groups of pensioners taking the boats out and getting stuck and the people who run the boating companies having to go out there to pull them out of the mud.

"But that is one occasion. Thousands and thousands of people come to this region because they love it.

"I have moved out here from England with my partner to run the cruises and think it is wonderful. It is the most beautiful place to live - and I think everyone who comes out here has a brilliant time."

On the last day we stayed in Minervois Cruisers wonderful gite, called Constantia, which could easily sleep a family of four.

Emily & Tony
Emily Davies & Tony Winterbottom, who run Minervois Cruisers on the waterway.

To travel around we rented a hire car from Hertz at Nimes Airport and spent several lovely hours visiting Narbonne, which features a very impressive cathedral, picturesque town centre and Roman cellars.

Our flights were from East Midlands Airport to Nimes courtesy of Ryanair, and took about an hour and a half.

To top off the trip I decided to face my fear of snails and wolfed down a plateful; it had me longing to stay just a little longer with the French.

I would recommend this trip to anyone who fancies a relaxing, but at times hands-on, holiday where every day is different and the scenery is just brilliant.

Canal du Midi Bridge
Cruising down the Canal du Midi