Circumnavigating the UK in a Leisure 27, Part 10 - Peterhead to Caledonian Canal
Saturday July 16th 2016 Peterhead to Fraserburgh - 24 miles
The morning is overcast, but with little wind despite the forecast of south westerly 3-6. On this part of the coast, a south westerly wind can be gusty, just as it is on the south coast with a northerly breeze.
I dither badly over setting out but eventually at 11.00, Dark Star departs Peterhead bound for Whitehills or Banff, 38 miles "round the corner" on the Moray Firth.
The first hurdle comes in the form of Rattray Head. These prominent headlands cause confused, uncomfortable seas and the usual tactics is to sail 2/3 miles off the headland.
There is a large swell running in Peterhead bay, pushing me north. With sails up, the autopilot can't cope, but with a bit of engine power, the autopilot is much happier.
There are some big, confused, seas even two miles out from Rattray Head and for the first time on this trip, I feel the need to put the washboards in place across the companionway in case a rogue wave comes aboard.
Locals know best !
Just then I notice a the sail of a yacht close in, almost on the beach it seems. Presumably it is sailed by local people. They sail close in to Rattray Head, under genoa only, hugging the coast and soon draw well ahead of me. Oh well.....
At 13.30 it's time to alter course, sharply left, to the west, to head along the Moray Firth. The wind has gradually been backing from south west to west which means it's now bang on the nose.
Then the rain starts and the wind picks up. For another hour we bash along, motorsailing hard into the wind, rain and increasing swell. There are another 4 hours of this to endure before before reaching Whitehills or Banff.
Abeam is the busy fishing port of Fraserburgh. It has no marina, caters only for big deep sea fishing boats and discourages yachts.
On the VHF radio, the coastguard issues a strong wind warning and that decides it. Abort the trip and seek shelter in Fraserburgh.
The harbour master is not unfriendly, confirmed that I could enter for the night and gives me a berth alongside the wall in the inner harbour for £12. A calming cup of tea, in perfect shelter, is memorably consumed.
Phoned home and Val who said it was rather too hot to sit in the garden at home in Shoreham By Sea!. Still just 14 degrees up here.
Fraserbugh on a wet Saturday night in mid summer is depressing enough. Hard to imagine what it's like in mid January. However the promise of a chinese take away seems a good way to end a frustrating day.
Climbing the slippery, vertical iron ladder set into the sea wall to access the quayside is always a challenge. Descending the ladder with a chinese takeway safely tucked into the rucksack on my back is neatly done.
No fried rice!
Settling down with the food, I am a wee bit hissed off to find that the fried rice is missing... Some days are more testing than others.
The evening is not much better with boy racers screeching around on the top of quay till the police chase them off around 23.00. It was exactly two months ago, May 16th, when I departed Shoreham By Sea.
Sunday July 17th 2016 Fraserburgh to Banff - 26 miles
After yesterday's aborted trip, I cautiously emerge onto Fraserburgh bay. It's a wonderfully sheltered bay, unlike Peterhead Bay which can be something of a tidal maelstrom.
The Met Office repeat their strong wind warning but I have a nice south westerly breeze just behind me. Up goes the the full genoa and off we toddle, staying close in to see more of the coastline.
Dark Star is sailing nicely but the GPS showed speed over the ground is just 2 knots. Oh dear, there is much more tide running against us than the chart indicated (just half a knot).
At the next headland, the wind then flips around due west, straight on the nose. Now wind and tide are contrary. Here we go again, motorsailing with mainsail only and bumping into an increasing swell.
It is slow going up the Moray Firth, but some wonderful little drying harbours are appearing as we pass, ideal for the twin keel boat which can take the ground.
Harbours such as the old fishing centres of Sandhaven, Rosehearty, Gardenstown and Pennan. The forecast strong wind never appears but it is not warm.
It's just 14 degrees under the sprayhood and 10 degrees if you pop your head out (as displayed on a little digital point and click thermometer).
However it's not raining. Andy Lamper texts to say that it is 25 degrees in the Solent and they have the barbecue/Cobb cooker out.
Banff, one of the best marinas on this trip?
The Banff harbour master appears as Dark Star enters the harbour and personally shows me to the allotted berth and helps secure Dark Star.
He points out the Tesco supermarket ten minutes away, and proudly shows off the immaculate toilet facilites complete with a shower wet room in which you could hold a dance.
I also receive a welcome pack full of maritime information. Phone and 3G reception are excellent. The plug in electrics on the pontoon work first time, no cards, meters or dodgy connections. This is fast becoming one of the favourite marinas of the trip.
A visit to Tesco unearths some excellent meals for one. Dinner is soon on the table. Starter, toast and taramasalata (dont ask) followed by haggis, neeps (swede) and mash potato (£1.50) and an apple turnover (2 for 20p clearance) and clotted cream (50p clearance).
Alas It's No to the Orkneys
The forecast for the next week is still unsettled with more wind and rain. Here I am just two good daysails from the Orkneys, 45 miles to Wick on the mainland and then 38 miles across to Kirkwall, capital of the Orkneys.
However, the forecast suggests I could be stuck in Wick for a week. I want to spend time in the Scilly Isles at the other end of Britain on this trip, but time is starting to run out.
After another half hour examining every forecast I can find on the internet, the decision is made to head for the Caledonian Canal and miss the Orkneys. In the canal I should be able to keep moving despite the weather.
Over a cafetiere of coffee, I listen to the Proms on BBC radio 3, Faure Requiem. It doesn't get much better.... Now how can I justify staying here again tomorrow knowing the Caledonian Canal is just "two sleeps" away at Inverness.
Ah, just heard, there is a strong wind warning for tomorrow.
Monday July 18th - Banff Marina
Had a nice lie in and when the hatch is pushed back at 08.30, discover that summer has arrived. It's 17/18 degrees, but it's raining. It turned out a good decision not to sail off in the heavy rain and I took the opportunity to give the boat a good rummage.
Quite a lot ended in the bin. A food and kitchen supplies list is drawn up and two trips to Tesco's are required (the bottles are quite heavy).
The harbour master looks like a harbour master should, complete with peaked cap and he kindly runs me a mile up the road to the only garage around, to fill up the spare cans with diesel.
By 16.00 the rain has stopped. For the first time since leaving Shoreham By Sea on May 16th, I am able to sit in the cockpit without a coat or jersey.
Temperature is 19/20 degs and the town of Banff is braced for a heatwave tomorrow, Tuesday. Normal service will resume on Wednesday with rain and wind.
Have been googling the procedures for getting Dark Star through the Caledonian Canal - now just one "sleep" away.
Tuesday July 19th Banff to Lossiemouth - 27 miles
Aground and engine troubles.
As suggested by the harbour master, I rise at 05.00, cast off at 06.00, but Dark Star is aground in the entrance channel five minutes later.
The same happened in Eyemouth, but there I was moving fast enough to power through the silt. Here in Banff I am stuck. Low water is at 06.30 so there is no chance of any movement for at least and hour or more.
I do the usual power thrusting back and forward with the engine but with no result. Eventually go below for a cup of tea and two Scotch morning rolls with lashings of Lurpak.
Eventually I manage to reverse off the sand bar around 07.30, but the engine does not sound right.
The ear is attuned to every sound on the boat, especially the engine. Any change of sound could mean trouble. A glance over the stern shows that cooling water is coming from the engine exhaust, but not in the expected volume.
Returning to the berth and tying up, the engine cover and steps removed, I start with the obvious, first possible cause of trouble - the sea water filter. Sure enough it is pretty well blocked with black, granular silt.
Filter cleaned, I run the engine back up to speed and all seems well. A fisherman on the next berth offers me a huge, fresh lobster, but I reluctantly decline since cooking it is way above my pay grade. Cast off again at 08.30.
I emerge onto the Caribbean, or so it seems. The sea calm, a wonderful colour of blue, the bay is surrounded by sandy beaches, green woodland and purple clad hills.
The temperature is already over 20 degrees and it rises to the mid 20's as Dark Star sets off in customary rig, mainsail and motorsailing! Alas there is no wind to sail, but it is just so good to relax on deck and sit up front in the sunshine.
Harbours and unfold on my port (left) side, Portsoy, Sandend, Cullen, Portknockie, Findochty, Buckie. There are so many harbours on this shore of the Moray Firth. Finally we cross the large bay which receives the great river Spey.
The noisiest marina in the UK
All too soon Dark Star is slipping through the entrance piers of Lossiemouth. A sharp turn to port and the visitors' pontoons open up invitingly.
It's impossible to get lost ashore in Lossiemouth town; it's laid out as a grid, every street at right angles and each with a view of the Moray Firth. However, it must be the most noisy marina in the UK.
Lossiemouth is the base for the RAF Tornado and Typhoon squadrons. The noise as they perform take offs and manouevres around the bay is pretty extraordinary.
However the RAF station provides civilian employment for around 25% of the local population and pours an estimated £150 milllion annually into the area. "Noise, what noise?"
Previously "Lossie" had boomed on the herring fishing industry which was at it's peak around 1905-1910 and was the principal reason for the myriad of small harbours around the Moray Firth
Wednesday July 20th - Lossiemouth
The forecast thunderstorms arrive at 03.00 and pass through, but at 05.00 the next lot really light the place up accompanied by torrential rain. The morning is miserably wet and allowed for a close study of the "Skippers Guide to the Caledonian Canal".
The afternoon brings a walk around the town, a visit to the laundry room complete with my wee packet of Daz and I concoct a big tuna rice salad which should last for 2/3 days (thanks for recipe Paul).
Have just realised that it's over a week since last I visited a chip shop. Lossiemouth Marina has most welcoming staff and good "facilities".
With an early start and complicated navigation anticipated for tomorrow, sleep is fitful and I wake in a muck sweat after dreaming I had entered the office at the entrance to the Caledonian Canal. "Sorry sir" they said " the Canal is full. No more boats are being allowed in this season"...
Thursday July 21st Lossiemouth to Inverness, Caledonian Canal - 40 miles
Determined not to repeat yesterday's antics of going aground at low tide, I am up at 04.00 and sailing by 05.00. Well sailing in the usual fashion, main up, engine on plugging into the wind and swell.
The wind is westerly force 3/4 and it's dark and very cloudy. I realise that it's worth dodging around each headland and making into the bay where I find less swell and also a tidal eddy which pushes me along nicely.
The tide is against for the first 2-3 hours, but it is a 7/8 hour trip so the tide will be with me for some 5 hours. Dark Star plugs on gamely across Burghhead bay, Findhorn Bay, and Nairn Bay.
After 5 hours at 10.00, the sun comes out, the tide turns and with 6 knots on the log, everything seems so much better. The plan is to arrive at the Clachnaharry Sea Lock, entrance to the Caledonian Canal, one hour before high tide (14.30).
However the estimated time of arrival is now 12.30. For once I need to slow down!
From the Moray Firth, the entrance into Inverness Firth is a real bottleneck just 800 yards wide - the Chanonry Narrows. The tide whooshes through here and the GPS shows 8/9 knots.
On the southern shore stands Fort George a fortress built after the 1745 Highland Jacobite rebellion which ended in disaster at nearby Culloden.
On the sleaty, wet morning of April 16th 1746, the Protestant government forces under the Duke of Cumberland, took barely an hour to rout the mainly Catholic troops of Bonnie Prince Charlie.
"Charlie" disappeared into an alcoholic haze, bonking his way round Europe, but after he died, his body was finally laid to rest in St Peters Basilica in Rome. Case of 'it's not what you have done, but who you know?'
The consequences of that battle were dire for the Highlands, leading to the "Clearances" and mass emigration to Canada and the Usa over the next 100 years.
Fort George is not a monument, but a working British Army barracks and home to the famous Black Watch regiment.
Where are the dolphins?
In the Chanonry narrows I had been advised to have camera ready to snap the dolphins which congregate there to feed. Lots of spectators on the north shore confirm I am in the right place, but not a dolphin is spotted!
Dark Star is buzzing past with the tide under her, but there was still a 15/20 minute slot in which a dolphin might have deigned to show itself.
Inverness Firth widens out into a 3 mile wide bay, but shallow with only 2 metres depth at low water. Five miles down the bay it narrows to another bottleneck crossed by the Kessock Bridge carrying the main road north.
I line up between the main spans and a final burst of tide induced speed pushes Dark Star into another wide, even shallower bay, the Beauly Firth.
To port lies the entrance to Inverness Marina, but I am heading further on to the Clachnaharry Sea Lock, entrance to the Caledonian Canal. I am unlucky, arriving at 12.30, just missing a busy, packed lock-in.
Standing off is required for half an hour till that lot are locked through. Finally in splendid isolation, Dark Star noses in and is tied up at 13.15. To my delight the lock keeper's first question is 'Have you come far?'.
I have been rehearsing the reply since leaving Shoreham By Sea on May 17th...
In conversation, the lock keeper reveals that whilst mowing his garden, the mundane routine made him think 'Is this it?. He has since signed up to do the Clipper Round the World Challenge!
The licence to transit the canal over a maximum period of a week cost £168 which included all overnight berthing, toilets, showers and electricity.
Power cut strikes
Whilst we chat, the power fails! Lock gates are stuck, some half open, swing bridges similarly. Thinking of my earlier dream, this is bizarre. An hour later, power is restored and Dark Star is locked up into the Canal.
Just half a mile further on, the swing bridge carrying the main railway line is scheduled to open on my approach. The radio burst into life 'Dark Star the swing bridge has power failure, pease make your way back.'
What had I done to the Canal infrastructure? Before I could return to the lock, another message 'Dark Star, please proceed, swing bridge is now operational'.
After a short stretch of canal, Dark Star approaches the four locks, the Muirtown Flight, which lifts boats up to the level of the main Canal.
The concern for the single handed sailor is that these locks do not have floating pontoons to which you can tie the boat. Pontoon and boat rise together as the water level rises in stress free fashion.
Instead long lines are thrown up to be secured on the quayside. The lines must be adjusted constantly from the boat as the water rises, whilst also making sure the boat's hull or superstructure is not grinding againt the lock wall.
Tricky for a singlehander, but later it will trickier going back down to sea level, as failing to adjust the lines could leave the boat suspended in thin air! After locking in very low in the first chamber, once flooded up, Dark Star is just pulled along on the ropes by the lock keepers to the next lock. Dark Star is in splendid isolation so it's very swift and relaxed.
'There is no hurry, you won't be able to get past the Tomnahurich swing bridge until 17.35. Just tie up near the bridge and have a cup of tea' said the Canal staff.
There is quite a backlog of boats going both ways, by the time by the Tomnahurich bridge, which carries the main road, opens.
Thereafter for the next three miles it's classic Timothy West and Prunella Scales' "Canal Journeys" until the mooring pontoons at Dochgarroch are reached at 18.30.
It has been a long and eventful day, but it's not finished. At Dochgarroch, fellow Leisure owner, Robert Piggot keeps his Leisure 29, Rosamunde, and is on hand to tie up Dark Star next to Rosamunde.
Robert whisks me off for a much appreciated pint, then on to a gem of a local restaurant, Oakwood, where I tuck into chicken stuffed with haggis, followed by a lovely Cranachan (Google it).
Afterwards we visit Robert's friends, Vernon and Fiona who live in a house by the canal with a private mooring and power cruiser. They also run a business 'Loch Ness Pianos'.
Vernon has tuned, restored and sold pianos of every description to the great and the good ever since he took on the family business in Ramsgate some sixty years ago.
After a dram or two, we move next door to discover two workshops where all the hand restoration and restringing is carried out by Vernon and hs daughter. The smells from the various woods and oils are unforgettable.
Another dram or two followed and some great "crack" is enjoyed (no not the white stuff) before I retire to Dark Star around 2am.
Friday July 22nd Dochdarroch moorings
Happy anniversary Val! It's the first time we have spent an wedding anniversary apart.
This morning, the thought of casting off for a twenty five mile trip down Loch Ness, the 'natural' stage of the canal, does not appeal. Besides, tomorrrow the wind forecast is from the east which might blow me down the loch.
Today the wind is from the west, which is the direction it comes from 99% of the time, so I could be lucky tomorrow. Today refuel with diesel (thanks Robert) and prepare the blog a day earlier than usual.
Probably a pint followed by dinner with Robert tonight but it can't be another late night!
Thanks for reading this.