River tourism and boat graveyards along the Canal du Midi

Carmen Gil de Arriba



PHOTO 5-GIL de ARRIBA--PHOTO.docDerelict boats in the proximity of the Agde Round Lock, summer 2014
Source: Gil de Arriba, 2014

Today, derelict pleasure boats, houseboats and barges, left to decay and disintegrate, have become a common sight along certain stretches of the Canal du Midi. This spoiling of nature is made worse by spills of diesel oil, motor oil, etc., from these abandoned vessels – visual pollution that is in stark contrast to the beauty, charm and harmony of these river landscapes, so highly praised in the guidebooks.

The photo above was taken along the stretch between the towns of Agde and Vias, an enchanting area with a rich history, located only a short distance from the practically unique Agde Round Lock, the only lock with this peculiar form along the Canal.[1] This exceptional work of civil engineering serves not only as a way of changing levels, but also as a junction or “roundabout”. When arriving from Vias to the west, the lock allows passage to the Hérault River through a small channel (the canalet), about 600 metres long. Continuing on southwards, the canal runs along the wharves and quays of Agde and its Grau d’Agde district, all the way to the Mediterranean. Back at Agde, another exit leads to the Étang de Thau, via the upper Hérault River and through the Prades Lock.

According to press articles from a few years ago,[2] before becoming abandoned, these pleasure craft go through a whole series of stages beginning with a transfer of ownership, often several times, with none of the owners actually carrying out the relevant administrative procedures. As a result, mooring fees are left unpaid and it becomes extremely difficult to find the real owners, some of whom can be living hundreds of kilometres away from the places where their boats are moored, or even outside France. Under these conditions, all it takes is a decrease in the owner’s finances (not unusual given the current economic crisis), or a simple loss of interest in sailing on his part, and the boat remains moored for months on end without anyone ensuring its upkeep and maintenance. And thus its gradual decay begins, with the constant risk of it slipping its mooring lines, especially under bad weather conditions, which can result in it banging up against other boats or the Canal walls and installations.

In 2012, the public navigation authority Voies Navigables de France (VNF)[3] estimated at between fifty and a hundred the number of derelict boats along the Canal, from Bordeaux on the Atlantic to Sète on the Mediterranean.[4] Today, some three years later, a simple visual observation shows that these figures have only continued to increase, no real solution to the problem having been found.

From an administrative point of view, once it is clear that a boat has been abandoned, Voies Navigables de France is responsible for conducting an investigation to determine the owner of the vessel. This includes the posting of a notice on the boat concerned, followed by a summons. If this first procedure is unsuccessful, VNF publishes a “Notice to Mariners”. Once the deadline is passed (a period of more than six months) without the owner claiming his boat, VNF can initiate the procedure to auction it off. In the likely case of the boat not finding a buyer, the final stage involves breaking it up to recover scrap and any parts that are still in good working condition. Whatever the case, it is essential that the entire scrapping process be initiated by the public authorities and carried through to its conclusion. However, this does not always happen, current trends showing a much more passive, overworked or overwhelmed attitude faced with the proliferation of derelict vessels. All this is obviously detrimental to the beauty of these natural areas, popular tourist destinations steeped in history and culture.

[1] Built in 1676, this is the world’s oldest round lock.
[2] La Dépêche du Midi 18/04/2010.
[3] VNF manages the largest network of waterways in Europe, with 6,700 km and some 40,000 hectares of navigable rivers, canals and associated facilities (cf. www.vnf.fr).
[4] Objectifnews 11/04/2012.


Carmen Gil de Arriba
University of Cantabria, Santander, Spain


Translation Spanish > English:
Catherine Davies