Thursday 13 June 2019

There are over 2000 miles of connected navigable waterways in the UK. The three major exceptions are the Mon & Brec (which we’ve worked on with WRG), the Forth & Clyde and Union Canals, connected by the Falkirk wheel (which we’ve visited), and the Caledonian Canal. The latter is an incredible feat of Telford engineering that follows the Great Glen, crossing Scotland coast to coast from Inverness down to Fort William, linking the North sea to the Atlantic via Loch Ness, Loch Oich and Loch Lochy. 
As it is highly unlikely that Legend will ever get to navigate the great Caledonian, and as neither of us has ever been up to the highlands before, Dave’s retirement present to the pair of us was a week’s boat hire on the Caledonian and, as an ordinary motor boat would be a bit too much like a busman’s holiday, we hired a yacht.
We should mention at this point that we’ve not sailed anything for 15 years, and what little we did do was in small dinghies. A 29’ yacht is a bit different.
And so, we tied Legend up on the Kennet & Avon at Sells Green with double pins, planks and springs, made sure the automatic plant watering system was working and set off on a rather wet drive northwards.
We planned a big road trip round the hire, visiting as many friends and family as we could fit in on the way. Our first stop was at Hawne Basin where we’ve been several times to black our boat. Martin and Yvonne have got a permanent mooring there for Evolution, and had arrived the night before. We turned up just after they’d moved across to their new permanent berth and helped them celebrate their new home with a cup of tea and Yvonne’s lovely scones followed by a huge lunch. We are just a bit jealous of them; Hawne is such a fabulous marina, so homely and friendly. 
From there we drove through rain of biblical proportions to our first overnight stop at Laura & Alison’s on Wenlock Edge.
They’d finished the chicken coop that Dave had helped re-roof and it looks terrific. All they need now are a few more chickens to fill it.
In the morning we went with them into Much Wenlock for Poetry Breakfast. This is an hour in a little café where the cultured turn up for coffee and croissant and read poems to each other. The theme for the month was The Singer & The Song, and there were some lovely, beautifully read poems about birds, concerts and music. Dave did a short piece about Keith Richards falling out of a coconut tree which, considering the demographics of a tea shop in Much Wenlock on a Thursday morning went down very well!  
More fond farewells and we were off again, this time to Whitchurch where Bob & Mandy were moored on Matilda Blue.
They were on their way along the Llangollen canal and our paths crossed perfectly. Mandy presented us with a lovely lunch, which meant we could test their new dinette. It passed with flying colours (as did lunch, of course) and it’s completely changed their boat, making the middle room a lot more usable.
Overnight stop number two was in Brampton near Carlisle where Dave’s Auntie Margot lives. Phillipa, Spud and Jill were there as well so we had another lovely evening catching up with folk we haven’t seen for ages.
In the morning there was much hugging and promises to do it more often, then we were off, over the border and following signs for tourist routes to Edinburgh and the east coast.

From there we went to Perth, then over the Cairngorms and through a Glenshee snow shower to Inverkeithny…
...this time to visit Ann-Marie’s cousins Rob and Sara. More fabulous food ensued, including rhubarb crumble, much to Dave’s delight. After breakfast the next morning we had a tour of Rob & Sara’s beautiful house and amazing gardens including their wonderful sheds. It’s a truly fabulous place that they’ve created there.
After lunch we set off on the final leg of our northern drive, past all the Speyside distilleries to Inverness for our boat handover.
All the way up to Scotland, the clutch on the Kia had been getting more and more sticky, to the point that, when Dave went to back into the parking bay he couldn't get it into reverse. He started it in gear, parked up and switched it of. We'll deal with it when we get back. We were met by Hagen and Jordan at Seaport Marina and were given a very brief introduction to Merlin’s Magic, a swift run-through of the inventory, (mostly emergency sea-going stuff we’d knew we’d never use) and then left to our own devices.
Inside was a lot smaller than we're used to...

More like a cupboard than a galley.
...but wondering how we'd get on in such a small space was the last thing on our minds. Trying to remember how to sail was what we were most concerned about.
We spent the evening stocking up with pot noodles and trying to relax. 
After a - all things considered - fairly reasonable night’s sleep, we went to talk to the lock keeper who told us to be ready for 10.50 for passage through the swing bridge and up the locks. All the locks on the Caledonian are manned. There are staircase flights at Inverness, Fort Augustus and Fort William plus some single locks in-between and you call up the lock keepers on the VHF radio. Once in the locks, all the boater has to do is pull their boat from one chamber to the next. We had a little motor round the channel below the locks, just to get used to the way the boat handled...
...then followed ‘Steady’ and ‘Cracklin Rose’ through the bridge and into the huge bottom chamber.
 We’ve been in big locks many times before; on the Weaver, the Severn, the Aire, and even the sea lock at Preston, but they’ve all been with our own big steel, flat sided narrowboat. Doing it with a little round, plastic, fragile yacht that didn’t belong to us was a bit scary, especially when the wind picked up. By the time we reached the top we’d more or less climbed the learning curve and set off on the motor, following ‘Steady’ through the swing bridges and Dochgarroch Lock then onto Loch Dochfour and finally Loch Ness.

There was enough wind and enough space for us to put the sails up, but we thought it would be wiser to have another night thinking about it, so instead we had a look for Aldourie Pier, a little place on the lochside where Hagen had said was good to moor. We found it easily enough, but it looked as if there were a couple of other boats already there, so we turned round and headed back to Dochgarroch and tied up on the jetty where we had electricity and all the services.
As it was only half past two, and a beautiful day, we decided to go for a walk in the woods. We’d got the OS Explorer maps for the Great Glen, but they didn’t appear to show any footpaths. This, Dear Reader (as you probably well know) is because the rules of access in Scotland are completely opposite to England, and unless there is a fence or a prominent notice prohibiting it, you are allowed to roam freely. We went in search of some waterfalls that were marked on our map, but they proved to be somewhat elusive. We’re quite sure we walked all the way round, and we’re quite sure we heard the sort of noise a jolly good waterfall would make, but we never actually caught sight of one.

However we had a lovely walk, despite feeling that we were trespassing the entire time.
Next morning we motored back out onto Loch Ness and finally got the sails up. We started off with a scaredy-cat 2/3 reef, but before long we were up to 1/3.

This isn't a camera trick, we were really leaning over, look at that towel. 

There was a lovely clean south westerly coming straight up the loch so we spent a fabulous morning tacking our way back and forth between the banks. Apart from the Jacobite trip boats hugging the north shore, we had the whole loch to ourselves.
After four hours we’d got about a quarter of the way down and had had about enough, so we motored the rest of the way to Fort Augustus. Just before we got there we came across the only other sailing boat out on the water.
After tying up at the bottom of the locks we had a quick chat with the lock keeper, then settled down to a gin and Irn-bru and an early night.
Another glorious day dawned and we had a lazy morning looking out over the beautiful Loch Ness.

Rob and Sara came to join us for the day and brought a delicious lemon cake with them. The came with us up the locks, which we shared with six hire cruisers!

In the second chamber the lockie managed to trap three of them between the bottom gates as he was shutting them, which caused a disturbing crunch and a fair amount of excitement, then in the next chamber the cruiser behind us over compensated and bashed our flagpole. Keep away from hire boats! At the top we moored up and went back down into the town for lunch and ice-creams. Later on, when it had cooled down a bit we took Rob and Sara for a little boat trip up to Kytra Lock and back.
When we got back we’d lost our perfect mooring (unsurprisingly) and  had to tie up on the “Big Boats” mooring instead.
That was Tuesday. The next couple of days didn’t exactly go to plan. Wednesday started off beautifully with a walk into Fort Augustus to send off some postcards...

...then a gentle motor up to Kytra for lock opening time. When we turned the final bend there were three cruisers on the lock landing and another one hovering in the channel. There wasn’t a breath of wind so we hovered behind them. After about five minutes Ann-Marie noticed smoke coming out of the bedroom. We immediately stopped the engine and pulled off the companionway steps to see what was going on, whereupon a big cloud of diesely black smoke wafted out of the engine compartment and set off the fire alarms which, quite frankly, didn’t make us feel any happier. We phoned Hagen and told him what had happened. His first idea was for us to try and find someone to tow us back to Fort Augustus, and he would come out that evening and fix whatever had gone wrong. The cruiser in front of us was good enough to tow us up to the lock landing, where we turned Merlin’s Magic round in the hope of getting a tow back.
By lunch time it was apparent that the only moving boats were hire boats and none of them were brave or daft enough to lose risk losing their deposit. We wouldn’t have, so it seemed unfair to ask anyone else. We updated Hagen and walked back to town where we met up with David & Kate who were on a Scottish camper-van tour with their friends Roger and Mary. We had planned to meet them at Laggan, but Fort Augustus would have to do. We found a very nice baker’s shop and sat on the lock-side in the blazing sun eating Haggis Pies and drinking cold Guinness, while the rest of the UK were under cloud and rain and being told by their weather forecasts that the hottest place in the country was on the shores of Loch Ness.

Not a bad way to wait for recovery. 
After they'd departed to continue their holiday we went back to the boat, then carried on walking to Loch Oich.

Merlin's Magic might not have got there this time, but we did.
Recovery, when it came, was in the form of Hagen and Tony with a 4x4. They turned up at about 7.30 and, after a bit of jiggery pokery to get the rope and all the crew in the right place, towed the boat back to Fort Augustus with the 4x4. Tony was driving, Hagen was on the boat holding the rope and Dave was on the tiller.
With hindsight, it would have been a good idea to have Ann-Marie with the car to help get the rope over the signs and other projections, but once we’d started it was too late and we managed ok. There were a couple of heart stopping moments when the rope got caught on the vegetation and when Hagen nearly fell in, but all in all it was a fantastic experience. The old horse-boaters must have had a very peaceful life. (In-between the chaotic hell-holes of the blast furnaces and steel mills.)
Back at Fort Augustus it only took Hagen 5 minutes to diagnose a disintegrated glow plug. He could fix it easily and he could get the part tomorrow, could we get ourselves down the locks and sail back up Loch Ness in the morning? The wind would be in our favour so we agreed, however by the next morning, (Thursday) we were regretting it. Going out onto Loch Ness with no motor and such little sailing experience seemed like a really stupid idea, so when the Lock keeper said we weren't going anywhere near his locks without and engine, it was a relief. 
Hagen must have been having the same thoughts, because when we phoned him he said that he’d taken the day off work and would be with us by lunch time with the new glow plug. Feeling a lot happier we went down to the shops and bought a little Nessie to go on Legend’s windowsill. Hagen turned up, fixed the engine...
...adjusted the idle speed and, while we waited for our turn to go down the locks, took us out for lunch.
At about three o’clock we set off - with Hagen on board for the experience - down the flight, and got to the bottom at about four. Hagen went home and we motored out onto Loch Ness for the final time. As soon as we were out in open water we hoisted the sails - and all the way up this time.

The wind was in our favour and for the most part was coming over our right shoulder so we made good headway on a broad reach straight up the middle.
By half past six it had started to drop and become unpredictable, so rather than wasting time trying to find it we went the rest of the way up to Dochgarroch on the motor.
We got there around nine in the evening after a glorious boating day, plugged the shoreline in and had an early night.
On Friday morning, after a good night’s sleep we woke up feeling very relaxed knowing we were where we were supposed to be and we didn’t have to deal with anything, just a gentle cruise back to Inverness. We got held up at Tomnahurich swing bridge because Muirtown bridge was already open. (They’re not allowed to open them both at once in case they both get stuck in the open position, which would effectively cut off the north of Scotland from the rest of the world.) When we got to Inverness, we radioed the Muirtown lock keeper, who told us that he had some boats coming up, then he was going for his dinner and that we could go down when he got back. We moored up and waked down in to the city for a look around.

It's a beautiful city and we could certainly spend more time there.
In the afternoon Merlin’s Magic was the only boat down the locks...
then we were through the swing bridge, dieseled up, watered up and back onto our home mooring.
Dave went to see if he could get some adjustment out of the clutch on the car, and was successful in the short term, but the slave cylinder is on it's way out and it'll need mending properly very soon. With luck it might just get us home.
That evening we walked out to Carnac point and back to the marina along the river, shoehorning in a detour to ‘Spoons on the way. There we treated ourselves to a celebratory Caledonian Burger – a cheese burger with a slice of haggis – completely over the top, but we reckoned we’d earned it.

Back at the marina we watched the sunset through the rigging...
then, as we snuggled in for our last night on board, we heard the patter of raindrops on the cabin roof. The first time we’d had any rain all week.
Saturday morning dawned damp and overcast. After breakfast we packed and cleaned up ready for handover then, after Jordan had ticked all the boxes, counted all the flares and lifejackets and signed us off, we waved goodbye to our little home from home and drove off down the Great Glen towards Fort William. We stopped at Foyer Falls for a leg stretch and a look at the cascading water...
...then again at Nevis Range...
...but it was still overcast with low cloud and we never got to see the mountain top. At fort William we went for a walk up and down Neptune’s Staircase where the Caledonian Canal drops back down to (almost) sea level through nine lock chambers...
...then went out Carpach where the final sea lock marks the western end of this awe-inspiring feat of industrial engineering.

The Caledonian Canal's statistics are impressive enough, but they don't prepare you for the magnificent splendour of the Great Glen that surrounds it, nor for the sight of big sea-going sailing boats gliding along the man made sections. We were totally smitten by the Scottish Highlands - why we've never been before is a mystery. We'll definitely be coming back.

From Fort William we drove south down the Argyll coast and across Loch Lomond country park... Cove, on the Kilcreggan peninsula by loch Long, where we’d booked an Air B&B.
The view from our kitchen window.
After three loads of washing, a hot bath and a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer each we felt marvellous. However, the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest brought us back down to earth with a bump!
We were back on the road south again the next day. We stopped off at Loch Lomond for a wander about...

...which was lovely but the clutch was getting worse all the time, so instead of the coastal route, we kept to the bigger faster roads down to Newton Stewart in Dumfries and Galloway where our friends Jonothan and the lovely Nicole have set up a B&B.

They were the perfect hosts and made us feel so welcome. After dinner we went for a walk with the dogs through the fairy woods and across the golf course. Compared to the dramatic scenery of the Highlands, the countryside round there is much more sedate, but still lovely and we’re very envious.
There were more fond goodbyes in the morning then, then we were off south again, stopping off in Kendal for a supermarket picnic. The last night on our sailing road trip was at another of Ann-Marie’s cousins, Sue and Steve’s in Hesketh Bank near Preston. Dave had to drive the last five miles or so doing clutchless gear changes. (All those years driving an ERF with an Eaton twin-splitter weren’t totally wasted.) We sat in the sunshine in their garden and Sue produced a wonderful cream tea, followed by a lasagne and a fabulous Baileys Cheesecake. Oh my! Their daughter Emma, along with Bill and Evie came over for a while in the evening and we had lots of lovely family chatting and laughter before another good night’s sleep in another comfy bed.
In the morning we topped up the clutch fluid reservoir again and set off on the last leg back to Legend. We popped into Lymm on the way where Martin and Yvonne were moored on their way to the Liverpool river festival.
It was strange seeing them there as it felt like only a couple of days since we’d been aboard Evolution in Hawne Basin.
Down the M6 and M5 to Gloucester where we stopped at Euro Car Parts for a new slave cylinder, then finally back to our lonely little Legend at Sells Green. Ann-Marie set about unpacking, while Dave fixed the car, and within an hour or so we were all done. Back home after 1400 miles, two weeks of being way out of our comfort zone, lots and lots of quality time with our brilliant family and friends, and yet another fantastic adventure.    
Now we know, Dear Reader, that your first thoughts might veer towards compensation. Yes, we did lose two days potential sailing from a sailing holiday through mechanical breakdown, but with hindsight, we think we gained far more than we lost. We got to spend time with our dear friends and establish a lovely relationship with Ann-Marie’s cousin. And, quite honestly, the sailing we had was more than enough excitement for us. Plus, we’ve been towed along the Caledonian Canal and we’ve got an amazing story to tell! So no, we won’t be demanding compensation from Hagen for something that wasn’t his fault. We’ve had an experience that no amount of money could ever buy.


Boatwif said...

What a wonderful read, helpfully illustrated by map and photographs!
I have visited sections of the Caledonian Canal and have always loved watching boats transit through the locks at Fort Augustus and at Neptune's Staircase. How lucky you were too to see the Glen in mostly decent weather!

Sue/ Boatwif/ nb Cleddau

Jennie said...

We lived in Kinloss on the Moray Firth in the 1970's, so know some of the route you took. It was a great read - thank you for sharing it with us. Jennie nb Tentatrice.

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