Every year, during our season, guests ask what we do during the winter months. Sometimes the question is entirely open – more often it is loaded, as if to say “you guys must have a wonderful life, only having to work for half the year!”
It is half true. We do feel that we have a wonderful life, but not because we can put our feet up for six months of the year! In the first place, the winter months provide us with the time to do things that we cannot do during our cruising season. This includes all the medical appointments – teeth and eyes to be checked, overall check-ups and screenings – France is very strong on preventative medicine. We also catch up on the social life that we have to forego during the season, part of which is to do with the walking group in our little village – last week for example we went on a 2-day trek high in the Pyrénées.
We also spend our time on all the essentials to do with the marketing of our small business – trade shows to visit, agents in other countries to meet, and back home all the booking procedures and client enquiries to handle. Most often, the people who would like to book a cruise on our hotel barge have all sorts of questions first, and it is the way in which we respond to these questions that develops a rapport with our future guests, so that when they arrive on the boat we know them as friends already, and they know what to expect by way of hair dryers, slippers, dressing-gowns, and all the little services that we provide. All of this information is available on our web site, but the personal contact we have with our guests before their arrival greatly helps to get the week off to a good start.
There is, however, another major category of work that takes our time and energy during the winter months, and that is all to do with the maintenance of the barge. Over the years, each winter we have tackled major works on the boat, bringing it up to a higher and higher standard. Neither of us like the “last minute panic” style of preparing for the season, and the high level of presentation we achieve is the result of weeks and weeks of work during the winter months.
We had one adventure with the boat last autumn, when we took her to the dry dock in Toulouse. The journey there and back was fairly routine, but this is not part of the canal system that we normally cruise and so everything was a bit unfamiliar.
We are obliged to put the boat into a dry dock every five years in order to keep our “Permit de Navigation” up to date, and to do routine cleaning and painting of the hull. This year our surveyor had all sorts of new inspections to do, because a new set of regulations has come into force since our last docking. I am pleased to report that we passed with flying colours!
The dry dock itself is a remarkable piece of engineering, right in the middle of Toulouse. The facility was built at the same time as the canal, around 1670, and the covered dock that we were in is a listed building. Originally, there were four open-air dry dock chambers and one covered one, and it is easy to imagine the bustle that was part of the scene in the days of all the working barges on the canal – it is an important part of the industrial heritage of the country. Nowadays, only the covered dock and two open-air ones are ever used.
One of the magnificent elements of the dry dock is that no external energy is used for the docking process. A valve is opened to fill the dock from the basin, which in turn is connected directly to the Canal; water for this comes from reservoirs in the Black Mountains and flows by gravity down the Canal du Midi. The boat enters the dock and is moored. Then a floating plug that forms a door to the dock is moved into position, and a big valve on the side of the dock is opened. The water is emptied from the dry dock and the boat settles on its supports. One fascinating element of this engineering masterpiece is that the water flowing from the dry dock is channelled down about five kilometres of brick-built vaulted tunnel, to flow into the River Garonne.