The First 50 years! Memories of the Founder

By Derek Banks,

Of course, being brought up by the River Thames near Windsor in England and getting a boatyard job 50 yards away in the school holidays from the age of 14 gave me a bit of a marine grounding and I definitely caught the boating bug early! It was then that I also met future business partner John Wood-Dow. Our parents were next-door neighbours on the river, and as teenagers we lived every possible moment on the water, cleaning and servicing boats in an early venture we named “Scrub-a-Tub” and delivering boats where people wanted them taken. John and I rowed, canoed and sailed together before he went off to Cambridge and I started a new career in yacht skippering.

And then after lots of sailing, in the mid 1970’s, over dinner in England with some good ‘yachtie’ friends, the conversation and wine flowed around the world of boats towards the amazing, extensive canal and river network in France which seemed virtually untouched by tourism. Despite the wine, or perhaps because of it, this whetted my appetite to learn more about the French canals. Inspired by the surrounding regions of Burgundy, The Midi, the Loire Valley, Alsace and Champagne, all gradually took on their own identities and by the mid-seventies, I found myself on the Nivernais Canal in Burgundy living in a lock house in a village called Fleury in the middle of nowhere and operating a small fleet of self-drive cabin cruisers!

Maison Eclusiere de Fleury

Fortunately, I had plenty of support from Charles, my French-speaking school chum, who had completed a mechanical engineering apprenticeship. Charles, still a good friend today, was there from the very beginning. His Belgian mother also somehow had a little black book of Château owners in Burgundy who seemed to throw endless summer parties. This helped ease the rural isolation we found ourselves in. The early days of boating and barging in France had begun!

In the beginning at age 22, surviving six months seemed like a good objective… but the business grew and with this came complex issues that required a wider team such as accounting, changing the ink in the telex machine, selecting our first computer and more! It was all very challenging for a young chap with little experience on such matters! So, more people joined in and the rest, as so often is said, “is history”.

Gradually the fleet got bigger and by 1982 my partner John and I had in mind a vessel which would just fit the Canal du Midi in the south of France, as a new fully crewed luxury boating concept – the “hotel barge”. Searching for a vessel this exact size, involved literally visiting every backwater and ship broker’s office the length and breadth of Holland. This took three months and lots of driving, talking and following up on leads. Even in the early 1980’s, finding a barge of the exact dimensions of the 17th century Canal du Midi was incredibly difficult.

What was amazing though, after all that searching, was that Anjodi (named after her previous owner’s daughters Anna, Johanna and Diana) ended up being moored in a quiet backwater just one mile from where I was staying in with a Dutch friend, Berend Gozens, who knew more about barges than anyone else afloat. Berend suggested that Anjodi would be a good fit; at 98 ft x 16,6” we would have about the thickness of a credit card between the boat and the lock wall down each side and half of nothing at each end. But he assured me that she would nonetheless glide through all the Midi locks.

Anjodi was built in 1929 and came with 50 tons of World War One aircraft instruments in her hold, 80 large bags of rubbish in the engine room and a gargantuan owner called Foppa who seemed to consume about 30 cans of beer a day and still stay sober!

Anyway, after striking a deal with Foppa and an epic journey delivering her up the mighty River Rhine, down the Doubs, Saone and Rhone rivers to Agde in the South of France, Anjodi found her new home on the canal du Midi. Then, the painstaking work of converting her from a retired freight barge into a luxury hotel barge began.

After a thoroughly enjoyable two years employing a whole variety of skilled craftsmen and characters, Anjodi as she fundamentally remains today started carrying passengers in 1984. She became the premiere luxury hotel barge on the Canal du Midi and is still the most beautiful in my eyes! Extensive use of hardwoods, polished brass and her graceful sheer combined to make an amazing small ship which has proved a great success for over 40 years. No doubt helped along the way by appearing in the BBC’s cooking series, French Odyssey hosted by celebrity TV chef Rick Stein, Anjodi carried 232 passengers in one season, still a record today for an 8 passenger barge, and more than 200 passengers per year consecutively for ten years so, we must have been doing something right!

Gradually, through the 1980s and 1990s, friends with French, Irish, Scottish, English and Italian hotel barges joined us and we acquired new vessels ourselves to create the fleet that European Waterways is today. France has always been our main focus and now most of the regions that we cruise through offer a selection of fascinating experiences such as a vineyard, a charming châteaux, a local market or truffle hunting – all within a hop and a skip from the boat.

Over the years, we have moved from barge building using local artisans, keen to try their hand at marine work, to using shipyards mainly in Holland, with our own in-house operations team in France to support the fleet and carry out regular maintenance and refit projects.

Today we have our commercial office near Windsor in the UK. Our fleet of vessels ply arguably the most scenic waterways in the world, our Sales and Reservations, and Marketing teams change the ink and answer the phones, we print a gorgeous 100 page brochure and our staff and crew which now number nearly 100 share the same passion for barging as the directors.

Our Operations Base in Burgundy

We certainly were not the first barging company in business as there were a couple of others floating around in the 1970s but in my mind from the beginning, there was scope to think beyond one stretch of water, and even today I certainly don’t consider anyone in the barging community as a direct competitor, but rather as allies in the industry. There are over 10,000 miles of navigable waterways in Europe. Even today, half a century in, there are virtually limitless cruising possibilities and plenty of room for everyone if the barge fits the canal!

Derek Banks piloting hotel barge Anjodi on the Canal du Midi

Half a century of building barges, crewing, researching and marketing has not always been easy. I certainly did not think European Waterways would become my life’s work but fifty years on, the barging magic and passion for being afloat remain as strong as ever. Sure, there have been bumps in the road. Yes, telex machines have been replaced by mobile phones, and a fax message has become an email. I remember journalist Philip Beresford’s first words writing an early travel article about barging for the Sunday Times.

“No phones, telex machines or faxes… bliss!”

But safe to say, we knew we wouldn’t get ahead by resisting the advance of technology, even if we only cruise at 3 miles per hour!

Another 50 years – why not? “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose: The more things change, the more they stay the same”. The essence of hotel barging will, at least in my eyes, appeal forever.

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