Great Glen Sailaway........a Caledonian Canal Adventure
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Great Glen Sailaway……..a Caledonian Canal Adventure
The ship’s company for the Great Glen cruise through the Caledonian Canal was Robin, Eleanor, Cyril, Kevan and Liz. Kevan and Liz in particular seemed eager to begin by arriving a bit earlier than the planned joining time of 3pm at the canal’s Easternmost basin at Muirton in Inverness.
This early arrival suited me, although they caught me in the act of stowing provisions, as we had to negotiate the Muirton swing bridge, Muirton locks and the Tomnahurich swing bridge to get to our planned berth for the first night at Dochgarroch, so the option of an early start was a good one; planning any transit of the Caledonian Canal has to be flexible to a degree, to accommodate boat movements, for example.
The canal authorities in the Skipper’s Guide recommend allowing 2.5 days for a transit from the Beauly Firth to Loch Linnhe, and we had allowed just 2 days to make the basin at the top of Neptune’s Staircase at Banavie, a mile short of the Corpach sea lock at the canal’s Westernmost end. The trick for this boat journey would be to maintain steady progress without spoiling the enjoyment of this timeless way of enjoying the Great Glen.
After welcoming the guests aboard with a safety brief and afternoon tea (everyone on this trip liked tea so I made a point of double checking the tea supplies to reassure me that we had enough aboard – 6 cups x 6 guests x 2 days = 72. Phew, made it, with 8 to spare!
I had spoken to the lock keeper earlier that day so he knew our intentions. Eventually he “shouted” us on the radio and we were asked to be number 2 of 3 boats through the swing bridge and into the first flight of 4 locks. We dutifully proceeded in company with yachts ‘Pigaro’ and ‘Cracklin’ Rosie’ through the bridge just before the evening embargo on impeding local road traffic came into force.
Locking up and down in company with other boats is usually a sociable affair, with crews of neighbouring boats often exchanging pleasantries and during the course of a transit renewing and even reinforcing their initial acquaintances. We were to lock up and down in company with these vessels several times in the course of the journey and grew very fond of the lovely seadog, Otto, aboard Pigaro. Otto, resplendent in a bright red doggy buoyancy aid, seemed perfectly happy aboard a boat for a largish dog that we at first took for a black lab. It turned out that he had some collie in him too which might have explained his continual patrolling around the deck.
By the time we reached the top of this ladder of locks the crew were well versed in the process of rigging lines to control the boat in the lock chambers and had begun to master the art of coiling 3-ply rope too. They had earned their second cup of tea!
However, the accompanying biscuit was nearly withdrawn after a fender was dropped in the water when we were cruising past Caley Cruisers’ motor cruiser charter base. As the offending object insisted on drifting to the bank we spent a few minutes practising our man overboard recovery procedures before retrieving it, as well as our pride, and proceeding to the Tomnahurich swing bridge where we had a 30 minute wait until the evening embargo had lapsed. As it turned out we had ample time to retrieve the errant fender, ahead of the bridge opening, biscuits were served with the next cup of tea after all.
The air temperature had been steadily rising as the evening drew closer and it was definitely shorts and tea shirt conditions as we passed through the bridge and steamed towards Dochgarroch for an overnight stay. We tied up at a transit pontoon and cut the engine. Within minutes beverages and nibbles were served and leg stretching shore leave granted in this bucolic setting before dinner at 7pm. Dinner was served and seemed to go down well. We talked about the weather forecast for the next day, which was to be colder, wetter and windier. My main concern was the wind direction and strength on Loch Ness and there was some hope in the forecast that we would enjoy a sail for at least part of the next day’s leg down to Fort Augustus along the 23 miles of mysterious Loch Ness.
So it turned out. After locking into Dochfour Loch, we passed the old Bona Lighthouse, marking the opening into the canal at the Eastern end of Loch Ness, and soon after rigged the staysail. With forecast Force 6-7 gusts and an average Force 4-5, it seemed prudent to limit the sail plan to the stay sail alone at this stage. As we passed the John Cobb memorial we were managing an easy 6 knots under this sail which we were able to maintain until we were off Foyers, about half way down the loch. The wind started to drop a bit then and, thankfully, the accompanying light rain did too. By the time we arrived at Fort Augustus it was another sunny evening in prospect. But before we could serve an appropriate beverage to mark the end of the day’s “work”, we had the flight of locks at Fort Augustus to negotiate, so the crew made do with another cup of tea, and cake this time.
The Fort Augustus locks always seem to be busy with a throng of interested observers and the sociable experience thereabouts usually extends to conversations with many of them. This time was no exception. The crew of a Dutch yacht were amongst them and they were very taken with Lizzie May’s ample charms. They seemed fascinated by her every detail to the extent I took the hint and invited them aboard to help them satisfy their curiosity.
We tied up on the stone quay at the top of the ladder for the night next to a large Norwegian wooden motor fishing vessel. Drinks were served on deck followed by that evening’s meal. Robin and Eleanor went for a jog along the towpath before dinner. I reviewed the trip so far privately: we had made satisfactory progress, enjoyed some sailing on Loch Ness and were set up nicely to complete the journey on schedule the following day. Importantly, the tea supplies would last.
The next day entailed ascending to the canal’s high point of Loch Oich, negotiating 2 locks and 2 swing bridges in the process. This section of the canal is very beautiful with much of interest to observe. The buoyed channel through Loch Oich justifies a degree of concentration and as we led the possession of 3 yachts, comprising our friends from the initial locking up at Muirton the day before, I made sure that the appointed crew were diligently ticking off the channel markers as we passed them.
It was literally downhill from Loch Oich to our destination for this cruise and before we entered Lagan Lock it was timely to brief the crew on the differences for descending in the canal lock chambers. They caught on quick. More tea was served. And chocolate biscuits.
The Easterly wind which had enabled a sail on Loch Ness had moved round to Sou’West so we weren’t able to sail down the over 9 mile stretch of Loch Lochy, the third deepest loch in Scotland, but it was nice to see a wooden ketch with its stay sail set taking advantage of a Force 4 heading in the opposite direction. I noted Ros Crana, one of Caledonian Discovery’s barges, anchored in Achnacarry Bay on Loch Lochy – it’s useful to have a rough idea of the location of the bigger commercial vessels on the canal before entering the narrowest reaches between more open water.
We entered the final section of canal for our journey at Gairlochy and served a buffet lunch. The forecast rain for mid morning had held off and it was still warm with good visibility revealing the line of the big four thousand foot high mountains to our South; Aonach Mor, Carn Mor Dearg and, of course, Ben Nevis. All were completely visible and the views of the dramatic North face of The Ben were set off by the snow trapped in gullies and on the remains of the winter cornice at the curved rim immediately below the summit.
We were allocated a berth at the top of Neptune’s staircase between 2 relatively large steel vessels so we had a bit of fun winkling our way in before turning off the engine and putting the kettle on. We had made it. The rain had held off, though we could see it approaching from the South West, and the tea had lasted. Everyone seemed happy and we all began to make the adjustment back to the different pace of modern life.