Locks and Lochs

The Caledonian Canal – 7th to 12th August 2017

While moored near the western exit of the Crinan Canal (see Heading North …), we watched a yacht about the same size as Pipistrelle, going through the last lock.  Crewed by a couple, they had arranged pulleys for their light lines, with both forward and aft mooring lines operated from their cockpit.  We replicated this on Pipistrelle, though as we had additional crew, the forward line stayed on the bow.  The major advantage is that there is no chafe on the lines they are fed in or out.  The other important factor is to use light lines, like the weight of a halyard, instead of normal warps.

On leaving Oban, we headed west across the Firth of Lorn, passing the castle at Duart Point on the Isle of Mull.  There is so much that is spectacular about Scotland, and this castle brought back many memories of our passages in 2008.  From there we motor sailed NE along the Lynn of Morvern, through the Corran Narrows in pouring rain, and then into Loch Linnhe as far as Fort William.  In view of the inclement weather we ditched our plans for entering the Caledonian Canal before it closed for the night at 18.00, and instead picked up a nearby mooring.

Fortunately, the rain had moved on by the following morning, and we arrived at Corpach Sea Lock at 08.00.  The gates were open, with handlers on the lock to take our lines.  After completing checking in formalities and paying the fee, we were all set.  Going through those first locks was straightforward, and the swing bridge had been opened for our arrival.

Thomas Telford was the Scottish engineer responsible for building the Canal, connecting the Scottish east and west coasts and making passages for wooden boats safer than navigating around the Pentland Firth and Cape Wrath.  Construction began in 1803, but was not finished until 1822.  The Caledonian has a sister in the Göta Canal in Sweden, also constructed by Telford, and a twin in Canada.  Corpach is the first of 29 locks on the canal which is 60 miles long, but three lochs or lakes account for two thirds of its length.  Once through the first two locks, directly ahead is the dramatic view of Ben Nevis, the highest peak in Britain at 1345m or 4413ft.

Banavie Locks, or Neptune’s Staircase, a flight of 8 locks, the longest and widest staircase in Britain, takes the Canal up 20m.  Having two extra crew on board paid dividends, as both Lars and Edvard were ashore walking the lines up the locks, securing them to hooks at each lock.  We then motored for 6 miles until we reached the two locks at Gairlochy, and moored up in Loch Lochy for the first night.  We were able to walk a fair distance eastwards close to the loch, through the forestry commission woods.  Facilities at each of our overnight stops were good, with much needed hot showers, and avoided the need to use the holding tank.

The following day we motored 10 miles through Loch Lochy in gorgeous sunshine, with the mountains around Ben Nevis in the distance.  The views in the first half of the Canal are spectacular on both sides.

We then had a short section of canal and another swing bridge to negotiate, before entering Loch Oich, some 4 miles in length, and another swing bridge at the far end, and then meeting our friend and Lock Keeper, Mat Phipps at Cullochy Lock.

Part of the so-called ‘Middle Section’, this has to be the most beautiful of all the locks, with magnificent views of the surrounding countryside, and under Mat’s competent guidance and work, we hope that in time the Caledonian Canal management will recognise this as being one of the best locks on the Canal.  We had time to enjoy tea with Mat on the pontoon, but unfortunately, we did not stay overnight, as there are no facilities here, but instead moved on to Kytra Lock, and then moored overnight at the top of the Fort Augustus flight of locks.

Mat’s parents, Gill and Ken, then arrived, having flown up that day, and we all had a very convivial supper ashore.  Unlike most of the other stops, Fort Augustus is a tourist attraction, with several cafes, restaurants, craft shops and quaint buildings.  Disappointingly, the Museum was closed for refurbishment during the summer months, due to reopen this autumn.

The following day, 9th August, we went down the Fort Augustus flight of five locks and swing bridge in the afternoon, and on into Loch Ness. This most famous of the lochs is just over 20 miles long, contains the greatest volume of fresh water in Britain, and is deeper than the North Sea at 250m.

Unfortunately, we had to motor due to lack of wind, and even then, did not manage to spot the fabled monster!  It was a stunning experience with lots to see, including Urquhart Castle which we were to visit overland the next day!  In the Canal at the far end we towed a yacht out of the mud where it had somehow got stuck.  Manoeuvring Pipistrelle in circles in the narrow Canal was not the easiest of tasks!  We moored for the night at pretty Dochgarroch, and all seven of us enjoyed supper at the nearby very popular Oakwood Restaurant.

The 10th was a lay day.  Joined by Mat on his day off, Gill and Ken took us out in their hire car to visit Urquhart Castle which dates back to the 13th century, and was in use until c1692.  Its history and battles for supremacy between the different clans is superbly portrayed by Historic Environment Scotland, and reminded us of the excellent work the New Zealanders have done to explain their history to visitors.  We started off by watching a film explaining the background, which had a spectacular ending when the curtains opened onto the magnificent vista of the castle and Loch Ness.  The audience gasped and applauded.  A visit is needed to understand the impact!  We then explored the castle grounds and the remaining buildings with their stunning views over Loch Ness.

We then stopped at Abriachan Gardens, which also overlook Loch Ness.  This is more of a family property where the owners not only have a nursery, but also a large variety of shrubs, plants and flowers displayed in their 4 acre hillside garden with its winding paths.  It was an extremely enjoyable visit with plenty of photo opportunities.

Finishing off with a return to the Oakwood Restaurant, it was just as good as the previous night, and provided a fitting end to a great day with Gill, Ken and Mat.

Friday 11th August was Mat’s day off, and we were delighted to welcome him on board for a busman’s holiday helping crew Pipistrelle from Dochgarroch Lock.  Showing him locks from a different perspective, we went 5 miles to Caley Marina, near Inverness, where boat parts we had ordered were waiting for us at the chandlery. Surprising was the vast range of what we would term offshore and ocean-going stock – in a canal!

Unfortunately, because of time constraints, Mat left us before we descended the Muirtown flight of four locks, to a swing bridge, and then Seaport Marina, which in fact is still in the Canal.  The descent went well, and we moored in the marina, which is within walking distance of a couple of supermarkets and Inverness City Centre.

Our Canal transit ended when we went through the Clachnaharry Works Lock, and then the Sea Lock before berthing at Inverness Marina, a few miles away.

Our six-days in the Caledonian Canal were enjoyable and memorable, the scenery stunning, and an experience we will never forget.  As ever, we could have lingered longer.  We found each lock special in its own right, enhanced of course by friendly, helpful lock keepers.  They assist not only the likes of us, but many holidaymakers who may have hired a canal boat for the first time.  The Canal is popular too with kayakers who paddle steadfastly through the lochs and then carry their craft over the locks to bivouac somewhere on route.  At the other end of the spectrum in the Middle Section are the big sightseeing boats.

We took the opportunity to explore Inverness, and also to watch the new film ‘Dunkirk’ – interesting from an historical perspective but definitely not in the light entertainment category.  Edvard and Lars returned to Sweden from Inverness, we were grateful to them for their help in transiting the Canal.  We also carried out essential maintenance, and our next stop was Fraserburgh to collect the boom vang which had been shipped from Falmouth.

The story in the Land of the Purple Heather continues …

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