If the only thing that’s putting you off a family sailing holiday, is lack of experience, we have news. First time sailor Sam Bradley and his family recently navigated the legendary Canal du Midi in France and – spoiler alert – loved every minute, even the locks. Here’s how.
Can first time non-sailors really do sailing holidays?
Christopher Columbus claimed, ‘you can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.’ Although our planned sailing holiday in France would be a lot less pioneering than the voyages of Columbus, in many ways it still felt like ‘losing site of the shore’ for our family. None of us had sailed a large boat, or navigated a canal and its dauntingly complicated locks. In fact, we’d never even been on a cross-channel ferry or driven a car in France. So, plucking up our courage, and with just a small dose of trepidation, we boldly departed for the famed Canal du Midi in the south of France and our grand family adventure.
In less than 48-hours we were transformed
A mere two days later our view was very different; both literally and figuratively. Literally I was now contentedly admiring the sunset over the water from the deck of our lovely boat, sipping a glass of wine – produced by one of the vineyards we had recently cruised past – and enjoying a card game with the children.
But figuratively, my view felt equally transformed.
We discovered that driving on the right isn’t too bad, and that overnight ferries are a wonderful way to get a good night’s sleep while also moving closer to our destination. Most surprisingly, I could now confidently steer a boat, and as a family we could even navigate a lock. We might not have left sight of the shore as the canal is only just wide enough for two boats to pass, yet we had definitely expanded our horizons.
Picturesque Canal du Midi is everything we hoped
Our home for the week was Magnifique, renamed Monica by the kids for no particular reason. She may not have been particularly quick – a top speed of eight knots – but we were in no rush, and what she lacked in speed she more than made up for in comfort. Thankfully for us novices Monica was also pretty easy to run: the batteries charged while we were sailing for lights and power, and the 1,000-litre water tank kept us going for up to four days without filling up. However, the most popular part of the boat by far, was the deck; complete with BBQ, shade and mesmerising views of the French countryside floating serenely by.
Bikes on-board double the adventure potential
The days passed just as serenely. Sailing by farmland and small villages, our adult highlights were spotting little signs advertising treats like wine tasting or local bakeries, which were always a good reason to swap the boat for bikes and head off on a family treasure hunt.
We were initially worried the children would get bored, but we couldn’t have been more wrong: catching grasshoppers along the towpath was endlessly absorbing, and many mornings were spent peacefully reading, colouring and playing card games. They were also very jealous of the many fishermen we passed, so we have a good excuse to return next year, armed with fishing rods.
If you want authentic France choose a sailing holiday
Of course, the main aim of the holiday was simply to have fun in the sun, so a giant dollop of culture and learning was an added bonus.
Our children got to see first hand how locks and boats worked, even getting the occasional chance to help steer Monica. Devouring copious amounts of French cheese and baked delights was a very hands-on learning experience. Although the kids were selfishly excluded from wine tastings. And we were also glad the rural setting meant English wasn’t much of an option. Not only did we feel like we were in authentically ‘real’ France, but our French vocabulary also got a much-needed boost.
All three of our kids were wowed by the experience
The most common question we’ve been asked is what ages are best for this type of sailing holiday. Our three children were aged between four and nine, which worked very well. However, we would have liked our youngest to be a slightly stronger swimmer, but we just kept her lifejacket on most of the time. And it was lovely that they were all young enough to still be curious and wowed by the adventure.
A sailing holiday turns out to be great value too
Considering Monica was both our accommodation and transport, something we were reminded of every time we woke up to a new horizon, the holiday was great value for money. Once the upfront rental fee has been paid, the daily running costs and occasional overnight docking charges were very reasonable. Plus the fully fitted kitchen on board, saving many pricier restaurant meal, although the irresistible bakery visits definitely remained.
An idyllic afternoon in historic and beautiful Beziers
The sailing holiday we booked, took us as far as Beziers, one of the oldest towns in France, where we spent an idyllic afternoon cycling over picturesque bridges and admiring the view from the top of the ancient cathedral.
In a delightful 3D show at the Beziers Tourism Office, which the children loved, we learnt that Pierre-Paul Riquet began building the Canal du Midi in 1681. It was a monumental labour of love which took roughly 12,000 workers 14 years to complete, armed with not much more than shovels and pickaxes.
The impressive Canal du Midi is a revelation
In 1996 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site due to the impressive engineering of its numerous locks and aqueducts, and even a 161m long tunnel, which was surprisingly thrilling to sail through. The Canal is used mainly for leisure these days, and Pierre-Paul would surely be proud to know his achievement is still much-loved, allowing many visitors a way to explore and enjoy a part of the country he loved so dearly. I like to think he would also be pleased to know he helped this particular family conquer a few challenges and enjoy a completely new adventure.
After our plain sailing holiday we can’t wait to do it again
They say a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor, and while that may be true, we were glad to enjoy a ‘plain sailing holiday’ where everything went as planned. Le Boat have been operating for over 50 years and have an immense amount of expertise, as well as a delightfully friendly and knowledgeable team. They also boast the world’s largest fleet of boats for hire, from smaller models for just a few guests all the way up to their new premier range of Horizon boats, some of which can sleep 12 guests.
Speaking of horizons, Le Boat cover another nine French destinations, and operate in Canada, UK and several other European countries, giving us plenty of options for planning our second sailing holiday in the near future.
How to plan your sailing holiday
How to get there
Brittany Ferries sails direct from Portsmouth, Poole and Plymouth to five ports in Brittany and Normandy.
The Portsmouth to Caen route has three 6-hour sailings per day in each direction. From £159 one way for a car and family of four.
Caen to Homps by road takes from 9 hours.
Canal du Midi sailing holiday
A 7-night self-catered sailing on board Magnifique (sleeps up to 10) from £1,499 per boat.
Sam’s Canal du Midi holiday started and finished at Le Boat in Homps: 1 hour, 28 minutes east of Toulouse; 1 hour, 28 minutes west of Montpellier.