Circumnavigating the UK in a Leisure 27, Part 11 - Caledonian Canal to The Crinan Canal
Say goodbye to fellow Leisure owner, Robert Piggott and leave Dochgarroch at 08.30 for the 22 mile run down Loch Ness to Fort Augustus.
Emerging from the sheltered narrow canal section on to the expanse of Loch Ness, with a fresh force 4 blowing straight down the loch, is a rude awakening.
What happened to the forecast south easterly? Here we go again, motorsailing into the wind and short steep waves, with a reef in the main.
I had a line on the chart plotter straight down the middle of the loch. Tacking back and forward at 45 degree angles across this line proves the most comfortable way to progress.
No sign of Nessie
No sign of Nessie - or summer! It's overcast and dull, but it stays dry. About halfway, Urquhart Castle comes in view to starboard (right) and the wind drops significantly. Just like summer weather in the Highlands, of Nessie I see not a glimpse.
A steady stream of hire cruisers passes by heading in the same direction, towards Fort Augustus. After about five hours of steady motor sailing 23 miles down Loch Ness, the old Benedictine Abbey at Fort Augustus is in full view.
Dark Star noses towards the pontoons which are jam packed with boats and is lucky to find a slot. It is 13.30. All activity on the canal stops between 12 and 1pm to allow operatives to have a lunch break.
Unfortunately it will be 15.15 before Dark Star is listed to enter the five flights of ascending locks. It's overcast but now quite warm and Fort Augustus is buzzing with tourists who flock to watch the boats going up the locks.
When my number finally comes up, there are ten boats, crammed ino the lock. Dark Star is at the back, just a bit too close to the huge lock gates as they close.
A Scene from Ancient Egypt
Once the first lock is fully 'flooded up', the practice is to get off the boat and walk towards the next lock, pulling the boat along as you go, with stern and bow ropes, like a scene from ancient Egypt.
I am managing pretty well, but a French chap from a well crewed yacht decides I need help and grabs my line. Beware of enthusiastic Frenchmen bearing lines.
He does not realise that the bow rope is used only to guide the boat whilst the stern rope provides the drive.
Luckily one of the canal staff comes to the rescue and relieves the Gallic helper from his task. It takes over an hour and a half to move the boats up five flights of locks, politely answering queries from tourists as we go.
Its amazing nobody falls in the locks and that the "public" are able to mingle so freely with the toiling boaters.
From Benedictine Abbey to Timeshare. Moral here somewhere?
I want to visit the old abbey at Fort Augustus and park Dark Star against the quay wall at the top of the locks around 17.30.
Unfortunately all pontoons spaces are already filled by novice hire cruisers. They might have taken charge of their boats only the day before (Friday, changeover day), but they already know a good berth when they see one.
The Benectine Abbey has been sold and is now a time share complex "The Highland Club". The building makes a handsome photograph, but the image will haunt those poor lads who were abused over decades at the school, 'run' by Benedectine monks.
Sunday July 24th Fort Augustus to Gairlochy
After stocking up on supplies on Fort Augustus, I set off for the next two locks at Kytra and Cullochy. Just two yachts go quickly through the first lock, but we come unstuck at Cullochy where the operators' one hour lunch time break has just started.
The operators have been at work since 8 am and it's not feasible to stagger lunch times. The hour of lunch is also used to rebalance the water in some of the locks.
This is a narrow canal section but it soon opens out into Loch Oich and thence to more locks at Laggan. When the wind picks up the rain follows.
At the end of Loch Lochy is the lock at Gairlochy (thats a ridiculous number of lochy things) together with a small set of pontoons which provide shore power, something I missed last night on the quayside at Fort Augustus.
Around 16.30 a wet and bedraggled skipper ties up Dark Star and goes in search of a lock keeper. The end of the Caledonian Canal at Corpach/Banavie is just five miles further on.
However, first there are these locks at Gairlochy to descend and finally the famous set of locks, Neptune's Staircase.
The lock keeper advises it's too late to get down Neptune's today. In any case the holding pontoons above Neptune's at Banavie are full up, with boats rafting up two and three deep.
Banavie is the end of the line for the hire cruisers which then head back to Inverness/Dochdarroch. It seems best to stay here at Gairlochy tonight where there is plenty of room and more importantly, shore power.
Monday July 25 Gairlochy to Banavie - 5 miles
It rains all night. I have been allocated a space in the 13.30 lock. We are now moving downwards towards sea level so the rope work in the locks is a bit trickier.
Ideally, the bow and stern ropes are kept taught, but allowed to move as the water level (and the boat) drops. Failure to maintain concentration results in expensive sounding noises as fittings part from the deck.
The five mile section from Gairlochy to Banavie is again quite narrow, typically canal. The scenery is splendid but the mountains are covered in low cloud and the temperature is still 12-14 degrees!
Arriving at Banavie, above Neptune's Staircase Locks, I find a parking spot on the north side pontoon and alight there, right in front of the shore power and water facility. Result! The pontoons on the south side of the canal appear not to have shore power.
I soon find the Coop supermarket in the nearby village of Caol which has a good selection of meals for one and excellent Scottish morning rolls. Perhaps that's why I am single handed. It's not impressive fare to offer a sailing partner.
Tuesday July 26 Banavie above Neptunes Staircase. Yet more rain and wind.
Again the rain falls all night and pretty well all day. Temperature is still hovering around 12 degrees and everything is feeling damp in the boat despite the electric panel heater running 24 hours.
I take the opprtunity to change the engine oil on the little 16hp Beta diesel which has run faultlessly for 150 hours since departure. Then I tackle the oil in the wretched saildrive leg (gearbox) which takes quite a time to pump out.
It's a miracle!
However instead of the expected milky, contaminated oil, the first litre pumped out looks free from salt water contamination. This is a big surprise, but most welcome. I leave the rest of the oil in the saildrive and top up with fresh oil.
The previous day, when running down Loch Lochy, I ran the engine full out at 3,500 revs for two hours, thinking "If there are any potential engine or saildrive problems, let's flush them out now".
Both engine and saildrive performed with flying colours and I feel more confident about a successful return.....touch wood.
Wednesday July 27 Banavie above Neptune's Staircase
The sun shines for half an hour at 10.00 but by 11.30 the rain and wind resume normal service. On a visit home in late June, I was surprised to find I had lost half a stone. I think the weight loss is down to the rain -I am slowly dissolving.
Today is to be spent preparing Dark Star for sea. Tomorrow I am booked on the 08.00 convoy, to descend the eight flights of locks on Neptunes Staircase.
I would like to be clear of the Canal by lunch time, to catch the tide as it ebbs down Loch Linnhe and pours south through the Corran Narrows. With luck, the tide will push me thirty miles all the way to Oban.
It pays to time the exit from the sea lock at Corpach just right. They dont like you staying overnight in the lock when it's busy, but to get the tide in your favour down to Oban, you need to exit close to high tide.
Thursday July 28 Fort William to Oban, Dunstaffnage Marina - 30 scenic miles
At 08.30 there is a rush to get into the final flight of locks downwards to sea level, Neptune's Staircase is apparently the longest flight of locks in the UK. There is not much organisation by the canal staff and it's 'devil takes the hind most'.
They prefer to load the larger boats first and Dark Star is instructed to wait. Both sides of the lock chamber are soon filled with boats and there seems no room for Dark Star.
However there is a space between the line of boats on each side of the lock and I am instructed to proceed into the lock chamber and raft up to any boat I fancy.
Dark Star is soon tied securely to a 40ft Benneteau which means I had no rope work to perform! All "heaving and hoing" on the securing ropes is done by the crew of the Benneteau as we move down through 8 flights of locks.
Moving from lock to lock, Dark Star is pulled along by the crew of the 40 footer. There is nothing for me to do for the next hour and and half, but boil the kettle and pass the Hob Nobs. To cap it all, the rain stops and the sun comes out.
Finally the sea lock at Corpach
Around 12.30 Dark Star finally emerges from the sea lock at Corpach and motors off in the direction of Fort William and down Loch Lynnhe in a flat calm.
The tide pushes Dark Star quickly down Loch Linnhe and through the Corran Narrows. Off to port appears the snooty Bunree Caravan Club site and holiday cottages which served as a holiday base for Jim, Anna, Val and myself back in 1999.
The most scenic trip to date
The sun is hot, hardly a cloud in the sky, no wind and the scenery is spectacular. After days of rain and mist this is a most welcome change. It is a spectacular trip, with islands and mountains filling every horizon.
I am very fortunate and all too soon Dark Star enters Dunstaffnage marina, just north of Oban.
This one time small marina has expanded hugely in the past few years and the setting in Dunstaffnage Bay is superb. Conversely Oban Marina on Kerrera Island appears to have gone in the opposite direction and reportedly is up for sale in 2016.
After topping up on water, diesel and calor gas, tomorrow's destination will be another canal, the nine mile Crinan Canal which cuts across between Crinan and Ardrishaig and saves a trip around the the Mull of Kintyre (cue Paul McCartney).
Friday July 29th Oban to Crinan Canal through the Western Isles - 30 miles
Dunstaffnage is a well appointed and friendly marina. Showers are very good. Chandlery, diesel, calor gas are readily available.
High tide is around 14.00 so there is no hurry to set out and catch the tide ebbing south down the coast, but I want to get moving so venture out at 12.30.
The wind is north westerly, 15, gusting 20 knots. The first three miles are directly to the west until rounding the corner into Oban bay.
Fish farms are a new hazard and cause regular course alterations. However once the turn souths towards Oban bay is made, we are off sailing free at last.
Sailing at last with wind behind
Under genoa only, Dark Star romps into Oban Bay which yields good picture opportunities, especially the RC Cathedral. Course is then altered to the south west to sail down Kerrera Sound.
The mainland is to port. To starboard, Kerrera Island gives protection from the Atlantic swell. Finding protection from the swell is a feature of this part of the trip, dodging between islands and into various "Sounds" or channels.
It produces the most challenging navigation of the trip so far. I had planned to nip through Cuan Sound and down Shuna Sound, under the protection of the Isle of Luing. However it's a narrow passage and a fellow sailor advised against it so I take the safe (long) way round.
As I lose the protection of the Isle of Mull, the Atlantic swell begins to roll in against the tide which is pushing Dark Star along.
Off the port side (left) a Danish yacht heads south east towards Cuan Sound and the shelter of the Isle of Luing.
Meanwhile I pound on into the Atlantic swell for the next hour, mentally sticking pins into my sailing 'advisor'. At last I am able to bear off south east down the Sound of Luing.
The islands of Lunga and Scarba provide shelter and calmer water for Dark Star, but not for long.
Whirlpools, overfalls and the roar of the Corryvreckan
A glance at the GPS shows Dark Star is doing 9 knots over the ground soon after entering the Sound of Luing. Then the fun starts.
There are overfalls and whirlpools for the next mile or so which totally confuse the autopilot, whilst the genoa flogs all over the place as Dark Star is turned this way and that by the tidal upwellings.
Clocking 11 knots!
Top speed over the ground clocks at 11 knots, definitely the fastest Dark Star has moved.
The Sound of Luing ends with the Gulf Of Corryvreckan (cauldron of the seas) which features the third largest natural whirlpool on the planet, allegedly with waves of 20 feet and producing an unmistakable roaring noise in nasty weather.
I keep well to the east of this navigational nightmare and with fingers firmly crossed, headed towards the Dorus Mor (Great Door) a narrow channel bewteen the island Garbh Reisa and Craignish Point.
The Dorus Mor is a famous tide race in these parts but after the Sound Of Luing it proves a damp squib today. However in adverse conditions it would be a different story.
Dark Star enters the sea lock of the Crinan canal at 17.30. Covering thirty miles in five hours is good going, with some enjoyable sailing included and more than enough excitement for one day.
Saturday July 30th Crinan Canal. Crinan to Ardrishaig - 9 miles
Crinan Basin, at the west end of the Crinan Canal, is a communication black spot. There is no mobile signal nor any DAB radio reception.
The friendly lock keepers give me a landline to phone Val and confirm that had arrived safely. Later in the Crinan hotel, I enjoy a pint of beer and free WIFI which at least allows email communication.
Below I can see Dark Star tied up in the Crinan Canal Basin beside the famous VIC 32.
VIC 32 one of the last surviving coal fired steam "Clyde Puffers" immortalised by Neil Munro in the "Para Handy" books and the television series "Tales of Para Handy".
The Crinan - A Do It Yourself Canal
The Crinan Canal has 15 locks and 7 bridges in its nine mile length. The canal cuts across the Kintyre Peninsula, saves an 80 mile trip around the exposed Mull of Galloway and opens up the sheltered waters of the Clyde.
On this canal, only the road connecting bridges are opened and closed by staff. Apart from the two sea locks at each end, you, the customer, are expected to operate the locks. It's a much smaller canal in every way than the Caledonian.
Being much smaller, the lock gates on the Crinan Canal are opened and closed simply by muscle power, pushing on long beams. 'Customers' also wind open the sluices to let the water in, if ascending, or out if descending.
In between all this lock activity, you must return to the the boat and hold the bow and stern lines tight whilst the water levels change.
It's normal for a posse of 3 of 4 boats with young and able crews to join up and go through the locks together.
However a single handed, ancient mariner is not the first team pick. Fortunately there are three other 'older' boat owners who are also in need of younger help.
Contact is made with three excellent local young men and a deal is struck. They will open sluices, attend to lock gates, help with securing our lines and cycle furiously ahead to meet the boats at the next set of locks.
We set off at 10.00 and clear the last lock at 16.30 without a break! I hope we might have a lunch stop. Some hope. I am pretty tired by the end, but there is no way the transit could have been achieved without the 'hired help'.
Whilst the Caledonian Canal is not difficult for a solo sailor to negotiate, the Crinan is a very different story. It seems the young lads in the area have a ready made, summer revenue stream.
Dark Star is parked in the the tiny canal basin at Ardrishaig, ready to be released through the sea lock tomorrow onto the sheltered water of Loch Fyne which stretches 40 miles south down the Kintyre Peninsula.
The port of Campbeltown lies close to the bottom of Kintyre, the Mull of Kintyre, and is a possible destination.
Distance travelled to date 860 miles which is about halfway.
Thanks for reading this.