What's it Like - Living on a Canal Boat in the South of France?


If you're not used to the concept, it's kind of hard to picture it.

There's Maggie May, in her regular mooring spot.

How do you get power? 
Do you have neighbors? 
Where ARE you? 

What kind of boat do you have? 
Do you sail all the time? 

And - WHY are you there?

Why a boat?
Boats are great in some ways.
Less so in others. 

A boat is easy to lock up and leave. 
A turnkey operation.
Empty the fridge and go.

Since we still plan to continue to travel a lot - this is a major factor.

No house sitters. No pool service.
No tweaking the garden drip system before leaving.
No yard. No cat.


It's simple
No utilities or property taxes.

Mooring fees are low.
Insurance isn't hard to find. 
And - if you don't like your neighbors, you just loosen the ropes and - go.

You have 360° views. 
From the galley and salon, we can see in all directions. 
It's living outside as much as inside.

It's still a bit romantic.

The water reflections on the wood ceilings at dawn. 
Fish jumping in the evening. 
The sound of the ropes straining in the wind.

It's sociable. 
Friends on boats. 
Friends in the village.



It's comfortable. 
Everything has its place, and is within reach. 
Having a boat prevents you from collecting too much stuff. 

It's off the grid.
I always liked the idea of being off the grid.

I even had an (almost!) self-sufficient farmhouse in the West of Ireland when I was 20.
Using solar energy is very satisfying - and surprisingly efficient.

(More about power and water - and solar panels on the boat.)


There are almost 30,000 km of rivers and canals in Europe. 
France alone has over 8000 km.

They're beautiful.


Our canal, the Canal du Midi, was built in the 1600's.
It's a handmade canal that connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean.  
It's also called "The Canal Between Two Oceans".

Some odd details about the Canal du Midi here.

See that tiny blue line at the bottom? By the number 4? That's where we are. 

In theory, we could be cruising for years and never explore everything. 

But - canal boating is slow. 
Very slow. 
Going through the hundreds of locks takes patience. 

Being on the move is like this.

We move sometimes.
Not often.
Usually we enjoy where we're moored.

So - what are the boats like? Sailboats?

Some are sailboats.
But most are not.

Bridges on the canal are very small. Very low.

So they have to take down the mast.

This is one of the smallest bridges, in Capestang. This boat got stuck.

A lot of canal boats are restored barges - built over 100 years ago.




Some are fancy "Hotel Barges" that take paying guests. 


Plus, there are loads of "drive-yourself" boats you can rent.
Locaboat, Le Boat, Canalous, Nichols, Minervois Cruisers.

All sizes. All prices.  



We rented this boat with the kids in 2014, before Maggie May. 
Later, we cruised the lovely Lot River. And the Yonne. That story is here.


However, all over the thousands of km of canals, there are small communities of private boats.

Some are weekenders.


Some visit their boat for a few weeks in summer.



Some live all year round.


And some boats - become homes for ducks. 


I like that the boats are all different.
Each boat has a different story.

The port at Capestang, the next town over. Where we get our mail.

This is our boat, Maggie May.

Built of strong Durham steel, she weighs about 25 tons.


3 cabins. And 3 bathrooms, which is very unusual.
2 helms, inside and out.

The inside helm. 2 cabins and 2 baths behind Stan. At 6'4", he can still stand up inside.

She's about 15m (50') long, and over 4m (13') wide.
She's very comfortable.

The galley - on both sides of the boat. Main bedroom and bath behind.

But the best space is the aft deck, where we spend a LOT of time.



Friends Ron and Fiona, who live on The Swan. Cruising the canals at 80.

The flat bottom on Maggie May is great for canals. 
On the other hand, it's not a good boat for the sea.  


Our mooring is in Poilhés, a small French village about 2 hours north of Barcelona.

Between Montpellier and Toulouse.

The "lavoir", originally used for laundry. From the aft deck.

People living on boats in Poilhés come from France. 
Argentina. New Zealand. Scotland. England. Germany. Belgium. 

Sunday morning at the market in Capestang with Luc and Anton. We sailed in on Luc's boat, Marolis. 

Why the south of France?



People in Europe assume it's because the weather is better.
But New Mexico has great weather.
Four seasons, dry, clear, good skiing.
And sunshine almost every day.


So why leave a comfy house, pool, garden - to live on - even a large and comfy - boat?
People assume we're "retiring" here.
But that doesn't really explain it.


When I was younger, my motto was:
"All life is an experiment. The more you make, the better."

I wound up living and working in about a dozen countries.

Teaching helicopter maintenance in Iran.
Bush pilot in West Africa.
Airport Manager for Pan Am in Zurich. Geneva.
Ambassador's Secretary at the Japanese Embassy in Liberia.
Owning and running an international import-export company in New Mexico.
And more.

Some of those stories are in the book, "Meanwhile Back in Los Ranchos".



I like the idea of a base somewhere, and then exploring from there.
Learning about the region.
The people. The language, the food.

Being part of the scene.

Similar to what's now called "long term slow travel".

Being "on the road" with just the backpack - is a wonderful feeling.
Having all you need in a compact little bag.
You don't really need anything more.

It makes you feel - anything is possible.
Oddly, having fewer choices - can make life feel easier.

This - Maggie May and the south of France - is a good base.
It's beautiful.
Between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean.

Great food.
Excellent wine.

A small, simple, compact home.


It may not be the last base.
But it's easy to close up and - go.

These days, simpler is almost always better.
Fewer things = more freedom.

So - rather than being a "retirement destination", it's more of a "step along the way".
It's not necessarily a final chapter.

We could still wind up anywhere.



It's a continuation of an adventure that began decades ago.
Exploring the world.

Being amazed by the beauty.
Puzzled by the mysteries.
Touched by the culture.

Living each day - kind of making it up as we go along.


As they say here - "La vie est belle."

Life is wonderful.






Sailing the Grenadines - How this Sailing Stuff Got Started

Somehow, this doesn't look - or feel - like France. 
It's not.

But this is kind of where it all started.


We're sailing in the Tobago Cays. 

Tiny islands. Amazing colors. 
Sea turtles. Eagle rays. Dolphins. 

A trail of starfish leads us back to the boat underwater after a snorkeling expedition. 


 We find a sailboat, a 57' catamaran, that needs another couple on it. 

We volunteer. 


With Isabelle, the French chef, and Frédéric, the captain. 
We don't even have to do the sailing - or the cooking - ourselves. 
Three others, a couple from England and one Swiss fellow, complete our crew.



It's very windy - 25 knots - but oh, the colors of the water!

We visit Carriacou. Saltwhistle Bay, Mayreau. Mopion. Union Island. Eat lobster on Petit Bateau. 
Petit Tabac. Petit St. Vincent. Everything very "petit". 




Between my feet and that white beach are sea turtles. And fat starfish.

 After a sandy salty week, we return to our rented house in Grenada.
We've been here over a month.

Feels almost like home by now. 


We'd been here before. 

Spice Islands.
Near the end of the chain of Caribbean islands. 

Closer to Venezuela than to Miami.  

Originally, a few years back, we thought we'd wind up buying and living on a sailboat. 



Two years ago, here in the Caribbean, we began seriously learning about boats. 
We read. Practiced knots. Took training courses.

We passed numerous exams, and got our licenses for bareboat chartering and coastal cruising, inland waterways, monohull, catamarans, navigation, and probably a couple of others. 



We hold licenses from the UK, the US, from Ireland, France, and from the EU. 
Countless books and hours of work. 

-Not that it really meant we knew what we were doing - by any means. 




We spent time on boats in Thailand, in Greece, in France, in Myanmar, in Laos, Indonesia, and all over the Caribbean.  I counted 50 islands we'd visited in the Caribbean alone! 


(See where Grenada is on my map? WAY south.)

But: At one point, we realized that - living on a sailboat, even a catamaran, isn't for us. 
Plus,  the idea of dealing with hurricane season - that just made the decision easier. 

So we began to look at canal boats in Europe. 



We considered over 500 boats (!), mostly online. Once in France, we inspected 30 boats from the inside, (here's THAT story) and eliminated another 30 from the outside. 

I made spreadsheets.
And lists.

And - you know the rest of the story.


When I was a kid, we lived in the Virgin Islands. 

Once, I was invited to a friend's birthday party on her parents' boat. 
I was probably in first grade. 



I remember being SO impressed! 

That memory has stuck with me over the years. 
I don't think I could swim yet, but man, I wanted to jump off that boat with the other kids. 




So I did. Jumped off the boat (still a favorite thing to do-) and started swimming. 




Yep. That's when it all started.

Skiing in Austria!



SKIING in AUSTRIA!
With - ALL the kids and family.

How cool and rare is THAT?


Aidan - Kilian - Mikey - Noah - Iris - Trish - Ray - Erik


First trip ANYWHERE for us outside Languedoc in 2 YEARS-! 
(I don't think I've spent a whole year in one country in my entire LIFE before.)

And - it was AWESOME. 




All the kids made it - from Berlin, from the US. 

In spite of the threat of cancelled flights, new restrictions. 
Even though Austria had just come out of full lockdown. 




And: We had the slopes to ourselves. 


Kilian and Aidan at the top of a lift, above the clouds, Innsbruck below.


Sometimes we were the ONLY people on the entire lift - or the slopes. 
No lines, no waiting. Parking lots empty.


Ray following Erik down the hill. No one else around.





Almost eerie. 


Erik and I enjoy the sun while the others catch up


We rented a big house in Igls, just outside Innsbruck. 
Where my family used to go when we were kids.


And found a big VW van that fit all 9 of us - plus skis.




Noah (5) learned to ski quickly. And fast. 
His parents are both good skiers. 


Mikey, Noah, and Iris in the gondola




Noah was pretty darn excited about the whole ski thing.


Ray was a first time skier too. (Not much snow in Thailand-) 
She also learned quickly, with Erik's help.





Ray, bravely tackling the steep slopes -



Erik, sporting cool hat from Tbilisi, Georgia


Kilian is the only one who's been skiing regularly, in Taos, New Mexico. 
He was also pretty excited. He's been teaching Aidan - another quick learner.





Meanwhile, Stan had the house to himself all day, while we were skiing. 
Which - was just fine with Stan, who was working on a big music project.


This is more his style: 



We did plenty of that, too. 

He and I took the train from Narbonne to Innsbruck, through Switzerland.
Spent time in Alsace and Burgundy and Zürich, staying in cozy hotels, eating and drinking well. 




Me? I haven't been skiing much in the past 10-15 years. 
Maybe a half dozen times, usually with Kilian.

I wasn't sure how it would go. 
But - after a day or two, it felt comfortable again.




And - I'm STILL wearing the same ski suit - the now "retro"
 onesie - that I taught the kids to ski in decades ago!


Teaching Mikey - 1989 Albuquerque Journal front page



Okay, if you go back even FURTHER:

Here I am, in Igls, at the top of Patscherkofel, in 1966. 
Exactly where we are now.
With cable ski bindings and leather lace-up boots. 




And yes, I think that's a St. Bernard beside me. 
Probably wearing the requisite cask of brandy, too.

Totally old style.


We skied every day but one, when we explored Innsbruck. 
Different mountains, including ones used for Olympic downhill and slalom events. 

Some trails had neat little huts located strategically for hot spiced wine.


Kilian, Mikey and Erik make a quick stop.


 Or a picnic and a bit of ski slope yoga in the sun.





So how was the official part -? Covid and paperwork?

This Itchy Feet Comic pretty much says it all:


Not the Swiss - not the French - not the Austrians - even the train people never checked our Senior Pass Cards. Or the negative tests. Or the entry forms. 

NO ONE was interested in all their required paperwork. * sigh *

Yes, we're all triple-vaxxed. (And Noah already had covid-)
Yes, we have to show proof - the QR code on our phones - to enter public buildings. 

Yes, we have to wear masks, even on the ski lifts, which - is kinda difficult! 
Under the goggles and the helmet, over the neck warmer or scarf? 

But - at least there's a system, and - we could go skiing.


Innsbruck




The other half of the covid part-? NO ONE WAS ANYWHERE. 



Dijon - in Burgundy


Not in the cities. Not on the trains. Not in the restaurants.

Ok, it was January. It was cold. 





But - still. Kind of eerie. 





We took turns cooking. 


Everything from New Mexican green chile stew and homemade posole

 - to Thai ramen and Italian pasta. 


And plenty of hot spiced Glühwein.






So good to all get together again. And - skiing! 

 It's been a long time. 





SO glad it all worked out-!



Here's what Igls looked like, back in 1966:




Not too much different now.

It's still - kind of magic.