Category: Canal

Time on the water

Arms straining, I pull myself up the sloping foredeck for the nth time and wriggle into position on the windward rail where my meagre seventy eight kilos helps to balance the boat as she accelerates upwind again, crashing and bashing through the waves. The next piece of sea thumps into the bow, jumping up and dousing me with salt water but my body protects the rest of our crew from a soaking, not that their gratitude is particularly overwhelming, I have to say. This wave is one of many I take full on for them, but I’m not complaining. I signed up for a week of racing on Owen’s 10 metre X-yacht, Jochr, and know full well that this is what goes with the territory, it is just part of the experience.

We have a mixed bag of weather thrown at us, fairly typical for any summer in the West Highlands I guess, heavy rain and winds one day and light airs the next, but despite this our fortune in the rankings for our class remains good. For the final passage race, a long southerly beat down the Sound of Mull from Tobermory to Oban, my role is to ensure that the genoa passes smoothly around the front of the mast on each tack without the sheets catching on the front of the mast or the sail getting hooked on the guard rail. Aside from this I am ballast, the weight of me and the other crew making a minor but significant difference to the performance of the boat. Our skipper drives us across the Sound then back again, against twenty five then up to thirty three knots of headwind, as we fight to keep our place in the fleet of yachts that surround us. For hour after hour we battle on, hardly pausing for breath, until after four hours we find ourselves jostling for position on a finish line beside Lismore Light. The current is running fast here calling for fine judgement in close proximity to other boats but the gun fires at last signalling a good finish to the final race of the week, the end of six tough days.

West Highland Yachting Week                           West Highland Yachting Week

Jochr is on the far left of the picture, sail No. 9726

Our boat and crew have sailed through rain and shine, wind and calm, rough and smooth seas, enduring some excellent and challenging racing from which it takes my body some days to recover. At some point I will admit that I am too old for this sort of thing… but not yet.

As things turn out this year all this strenuous stuff follows soon after a family trip south into Yorkshire for a week long holiday on a narrowboat, motoring slowly along the Leeds to Liverpool canal, where the only real exercise is cranking the key to open the sluices on the many locks we pass on Megans Drum With us here are Mike, Eleanor and of course, wee James, for whom this is a first boating experience.

The term narrowboat means literally that and for good reason; these boats are built to fit the canals (or is it the canals that were built to fit the boats). The locks on our canal are just big enough for two boats, each a maximum of seven feet wide, to fit side by side with only inches to spare. The canals were built for working boats which often towed a ‘butty’, an engine-less load carrier, and it was essential that both boat and butty could fit in the same lock side by side. If the lock is any wider then all that happens is that you waste water. The overall boat length is an issue too as any more than fifty feet long and we’d be bumping up against the lock gates on the Leeds Liverpool. But given these restraints, it is quite surprising how much can be fitted in on board. On Megan’s Drum we have separate bedrooms, toilets and a shower, a fully equipped kitchen and dining room, storage for all our stuff plus the convenience of mains electricity for the microwave oven and the TV.

Our days on board consist of chugging slowly westwards through the Yorkshire Dales at no more than four miles an hour, the canal speed limit, so our pace of life slows to accommodate this. Being in charge of steering I get to watch my crew opening bridges and lock gates ahead of me then once through, I manoeuvre the heavy boat to the bank to pick them up again. It becomes routine, eventually, with each member of the team knowing what to do. Steering the long vessel around a tight bend requires forward planning, anticipation of the way the stern will swing, as the boat pivots about its centre rather than its rudder, but generally we manage to avoid bumping the canal sides too often or entangling ourselves with the trees that frequently overhang the water on one side. One can certainly imagine that life has always gone on at the same slow pace on the canals but (not surprisingly perhaps) young James finds it hard coping with the speed the world drifts by. He is often happier sitting below playing games on his ipad and we worry that he misses the herons standing knee deep in the shallows or the amusingly named and brightly coloured narrowboats that are floating homes to a sizeable population on England’s waterways.

At dusk all traffic stops and we too pull over and moor to the bank. The water becomes still, only disturbed by the movements of the odd duck, the occasional swan and fish rising to take flies from the surface. Now the tree-clad banks and the painted boats are reflected almost perfectly by the water creating a surreal inverted image.

Megans Drum on the LeedsLiverpool canal

Home at last – job done!

Cirrus Cat in the Crinan CanalOur delivery of Cirrus Cat to her new home was complete after we finished our passage of the Crinan Canal and then a day later tied her to a pontoon in Tarbert Harbour. What we started back at the beginning of July, launching the boat from a boatyard in Cornwall and sailing her anticlockwise around Britain to the west coast of Scotland, is now finished. Job Done!

On reflection, this was never going to be the most relaxed of sailing trips for us, largely because we always knew that the distance we had to cover was considerable, further in fact than we had ever previously sailed in one season. It was, first and foremost, a boat delivery trip and this was always in our minds. For this reason the trip never really became totally relaxing, it always had a more serious side to it, that of getting Cirrus close to home before the end of the sailing season. Setting off in July might have made the trip seem a little more pressured than it need have been but it did give us a wealth of new sailing experiences and a feeling of immense satisfaction over what we have achieved.

So was it worth it?

Well there were certainly a lot of fun moments and we do always feel very comfortable on board the boat – it is our home from home – so at no stage did we feel like giving up. What was most enjoyable was revisiting so many of the east coast harbours, places we visited in 2009 and many other places we have known for much longer. Once again we made friends along the way and met a lot of very charming people, preserving our good impressions of those that live in or around our coastal communities. On the downside, we did a little less sailing than we would have liked, making more use of the engine than we prefer to do because of the need to press on when the weather allowed us to do so. Along the way, as luck would have it, we managed to miss out on the best of the summer weather because by the time a heat-wave did arrive in the south of England, we were further north where we found cooler climes. But despite all this, yes, it was worthwhile doing the trip the long way round and we are secretly quite proud of what we have achieved.

Having now moved from boat to house we find ourselves having to re-learn old skills and to cope with the strangeness of things. Gull at Carradale PointFlushing the loo without operating a pump is a strange experience and watching television is an art we have seem to have lost somewhere along the way (we never could see the point of having one on board the boat). We struggle to find programmes that interest us enough to keep us in our seats. Outside I observe that the birds which visit our garden are puny specimens compared with those that soared past us at sea although they do make up for this lack of size by energetic movement undertaken at high speed. We are fortunate that the sea is not far from us here and it takes only a few minutes walking to put us back in a more familiar environment, amongst the rocks off Carradale Point where a gull sits patiently digesting its last meal. Warm rock at Carradale PointSea urchin at Carradale PointAs I scramble about over the sun-kissed lichen I notice a sea urchin waving its tentacles at me from just beneath the surface and I bend low to take its picture before spotting the yellow sponge-like creature cuddling up to it. These are the colours of nature at its best.

Cornwall to Scotland days 47 to 50

Day 47/48 – Our little adventure around the British Isles is almost over. We feel now that we are rapidly approaching the point at which we can say “That’s it, we’ve done it”. One issue still outstanding, however, is the small matter of deciding where Cirrus Cat will live permanently now that we have brought her to Scotland. Carradale Harbour (for those who don’t know it) is tiny and not suitable for us but there are plenty of other choices, marinas or moorings, to consider. Our brief couple of days back home have given us an opportunity to draw up some plans, even to begin thinking about where next year’s sailing season will take us.

It has been lovely to pop back to Carradale and meet up with our neighbours after so long away. Our outdoor life must have left us looking quite healthy – there have been a number of comments on this – and once again the warmth of the greetings is just great. Most surprising to us, who expect to do everything on the boat ourselves with little or no help from others, has been an offer of assistance from Brian and Audrey to help us with the locks on our transit of the Crinan Canal. This is no mean offer since most of the fifteen locks are operated manually by a vessel’s crew and the whole experience is a physical one, particularly for two people. It gets easier and quicker the more helpers you have, particularly if someone can go ahead and prepare the next lock before the boat leaves the last one.

After only one full day at home, mostly taken up with taming the garden vegetation before it overruns the house, we set off again, driving to Tarbert to take the first of only two buses to return to Dunstaffnage. This misses the most spectacular part of the journey, the views from the west coast of Kintyre, but it gets us back on board by mid afternoon and just before another brief rain shower lands on Cirrus’ decks.

Day 49 – We start our twenty-five mile passage to the start of the Crinan Canal just before the top of high water. Sound of Luing swirlsTiming here is quite critical because our route takes us through the notorious Sound of Luing where twice a day the water rushes first one way then the other at speeds which our boat finds hard to match. The trick here is to arrive at one end just as the tide begins to sweep our way, southbound, so that we are squirted through the narrow passage like water in a hose pipe. In reality this is a poor analogy because this land was shaped by giants and the Sound is at least a mile across at its narrowest point. Being in the middle of it we get no impression of the rate at which we are being carried along as Whirlpool in the Soundof Luingthe only evidence is the whirlpools which form on the surface, driven by upwelling currents as if one of those giants is waving his hands about far below us. The depths in the Sound vary from sixty to less than ten metres and in one spot an underwater hummock rises to within less than three metres of the surface. All these irregularities can produce dangerous conditions and overfalls, especially when combined with the giant winds which frequently blow here. Once again timing and a good boat are essentials here.

At the southern end of the Mal at CorryvreckanSound lie the Isles of Scarba and Jura, between which is the Gulf of Corryvreckan, a place we peer into as we pass by, from a comfortable distance. I try to stand in the way so that Kate cannot see through the narrow gap that causes all the fuss.

The wind has dropped and the sun has come out making it very hot, for a change, as we slip into the Crinan Canal and tie up for the night. It is still and quiet, the noisiest sound being made by the swallows which are out here in force for their evening meal of midges and other flying fodder.

Day 50 – Our Crinan lock operating team meet us at Bellanoch keen and eager to get started. Brian&Audrey in the CrinanAt the first lock they are ahead of us, smiling and waving us in, then they rush ahead to get the next one ready. Brian is on sluices, winding them open to let the water rush into the pound, while Audrey puts her back to the heavy lock gate which slowly closes behind us. These two are canal experts and work together as a well oiled machine. We cannot believe the rate we are moving through the canal. Surely this must be a record passage time?

We have to rein them in for a lunch stop at Cairnbaan then it’s off to Ardishaig for the last few locks before we exit the canal there and wave them farewell. Many thanks for all your hard work guys.

Tonight we are swinging to a mooring at Otter Ferry on Loch Fyne. It is cool here now and overcast, threatening rain but as yet it holds off. This is a sheltered, secure place to spend the night, to rest up after all our lock-related activities.

Cornwall to Scotland days 44 to 46

Day 44 – Suddenly there is a new urgency to our movement westwards through the canal. Using the internet we have access to weather forecasts for the days ahead (we can see the future) and there are some strong winds ready to impale themselves on the west coast of Scotland over the next few days, nothing spectacular but enough to cause us to react by moving forward our plans to exit the canal. Cirrus in Neptune's staircaseWe start early, motoring the length of the repetitively named Loch Lochy, then navigate the final man-made stretch of canal to the top of Neptune’s Staircase, an engineering masterpiece in the form of a flight of eight locks built back-to-back. In one swoop this transports us sixty-four feet (some nineteen metres) downhill towards the sea, all at the expense of a bit of muscle power as we tow Cirrus from one lock to the next, repeating this eight times in all until we arrive at the bottom. All along the way we are besieged by tourists whose cameras click and whirl (I know digital cameras don’t do this but I have an active imagination) as they photograph us and every movement of our strange craft – viewed from above our catamaran’s decks look like they belong on an aircraft carrier. Behind us the dark clouds build, finally dropping their load after we are safely berthed at Corpach, the sea lock exit of the canal.

Day 45 – Once again we are up early, so early that when we emerge the morning mist is still hiding everything, but at least we are able to lock out and catch our tide down Loch Linnhe.Fort William early morning


We motor on past Fort William as the mist gradually dissipates leaving just long scarves of white through which the mountains occasionally peep.



Corran narrows

At the Corran Narrows the sky ahead has changed from grey to blue and there are ripples on the water but not enough wind to encourage sailing so we decide to do some exploring under motor, to weave our way behind the isles of Shuna and Lismore into the Lynn of Lorne. Islands and islets are dotted everywhere here as if scattered like seeds, dark, weed-covered rocks poke above the water, some having protective pillars erected on them, others crouching low and barely visible whereas all around there are grand mountains which sweep downwards to the water’s edge then continue out of sight deep below us. We are thrilled to be back here at last, in an area which we now regard as home.

Then, still in the Lynn of Lorn just before making a turn towards Tenacity on the rocksDunstaffnage Marina where we intend to stop for the night we pass Rubha Fionn-aird, a low promontory with rocks lurking out of sight beyond the land which have caught out the skipper of the yacht ‘Tenacity’, a boat which had emerged from the canal with us earlier in the day. Taking a short cut here the yacht has run aground with the tide falling around it. A lifeboat stands by but the crew are not in any danger as the weather is benign. It is a long wait for the next high tide but we later learn that they get off safely, although not without some damage.

When we are safely berthed we make a quick decision that faced with strong winds for several days ahead we will leave the boat and travel home to Carradale for a few days. This may seem a strange thing to do but free bus travel encourages such behaviour, despite the distance, and it will give us the chance to check on the post waiting for us and to make sure everything in the house is well.

Day 46 – Our bus from Dunbeg is the first of four which, with waiting for connections, takes up most of the day. It occurs to us that this is not a lot faster than the speed we travel on the boat but it is somewhat less energetic; in fact we both have difficulty staying awake on the long ride south towards Campbeltown. We can see yachts in the sea out near Islay and the conditions don’t seem too bad for them but later on comes the rain and more wind so we are happy to have made the decision to make this trip home.

On arriving at the house our front ‘lawn’ is a little hairier than usual with some interesting botanical specimens peeping through the greensward and our front door is just a little difficult to open due to the mail hiding behind it but apart from all these small irregularities, all is well and we are soon relaxing watching TV with Brahms at the Proms. There’s nothing like home. Hot water comes out of the taps without any effort on our part, the floor stays perfectly still even when it is windy, it feels spacious inside and everything outside is green green green.

Cornwall to Scotland days 41 to 43

Day 41 –Kate on Loch Ness Summer has come to the Highlands. The air is clear, the hills are all in sharp focus and Kate is trying out our inflatable dinghy. Bought last winter and carried all the way from Plymouth rolled up in a bag on Cirrus’ stern we finally get a chance to pump it up to see if it floats and also to find out how easy it is to row. Typically, small inflatables come with a pair of very short oars which are held captive in specially designed rowlocks. They are less like oars and more like a pair of spoons but ours do perform reasonably well despite this.

We had spent the morning motoring along the short section of canal that leads into the vastness of Loch Ness, avoiding the weir on the south side that feeds tons of excess water into the River Ness, and steering well clear of even greater hazards, the hire boats. Exhibitions of astonishing boat handling incompetence go hand in hand with these vessels as families whose only previous experience with anything that floats is a rubber duck in the bath tub are given the keys to a small ship in which they are expected to negotiate locks, moor to pontoons and then navigate across the small sea that is Loch Ness. We hear of an Italian family who take their hired motor cruiser under a swing-bridge without waiting for it to open and successfully shave off the top part of the boat – windscreen, aerials, navigation lights, etc. – without apparently coming to any harm themselves. Whatever short training the hire company gives them fails to include basic rope handling, how to steer in a straight line, what to do if the wind is blowing hard, when to use the bow-thruster and when not to, the list is endless. Any close encounter with a hire cruiser is potentially damaging to us so we make a point of staying well clear.

But maybe the incompetence is infectious for on our first night in Loch Ness we anchor on a sandy ledge in Urquhart Bay close to the castle but far enough away to avoid the tourists. The wind cannons down the length of the loch from the south-west but we are sheltered here, just the occasional random gust finding us. There are, of course, no tides in the loch so we anchor in two metres with just enough chain paid out for this depth. Mid-way through a balmy afternoon on board we suddenly notice that Cirrus is drifting away from the shore and we rush outside to discover that our anchor had failed to pierce the layer of weed and on the first gentle tug it had slid across the bottom and dropped off the ledge into deep water. It is now hanging straight down beneath the boat, touching nothing as even this close to the shore the bottom is seventy metres below us– oops! Foyers FallsWe gradually winch the weight of chain and anchor back on board then start the engine and motor back in to reset it, firmly this time, then we set a depth alarm on the echo sounder so we will not be caught out again.

Day 42 – We sail off in the morning, tacking up the loch against another fresh south-westerly breeze, as far as Foyers, famous for its spectacular waterfalls and on the agenda of most tourists, it seems. We moor here for our second night and go exploring around the lake shore where tiny patches of rounded pebbles nestle between the trees which lean out over the water as if the land is too crowded for them.Foyers beech tree This knobbly old beech tree is so ancient that some of its branches have grown back into the tree again making a mockery of the standard pattern of tree growth. Back at the boat the wind has shifted slightly so our mooring is a little bumpy but by dusk it calms down as it does every evening here, the night becoming quiet and still.

Day 43 – Our time in the Caledonian Canal is limited by the eight-day licence issued to us at Clachnaharry so we get up early to do some serious motoring, to cover some more of the fifty nautical mile length and negotiate some more of the twenty-nine locks. For a change the wind is very light but it rains sporadically for most of the day so we stop for the night just before the Laggan Locks, one hundred and six feet above sea level and at the highest point on the passage. One very good reason for stopping here is the presence of the Eagle, a floating bar and restaurant which winks at us until we drop by to sample its wares.

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