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Old 02 June 2005, 16:38   #1
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The Caledonian Canal

There must be many people who, one day, would like to take their boats through the Caledonian Canal from one side of Scotland to the other.
We, (Ollie (“qcamel”) and I) recently had the opportunity to go through, and we thought it a good idea to write up the experience for the potential benefit of others.

On Wednesday the 25th May 2005 I flew up to Newcastle to meet up with Ollie. We had never met before, but when he advertised on the Internet for crew for the trip, I just could not resist the urge to volunteer.

Ollie picked me up at the airport and we spent the afternoon checking out the boat and going over our planned route. The basic objective, in our case, was to go up the East coast of Scotland and enter the canal at Inverness, go through, come out at Fort William on the Western side. Then to meet up with various members of Ollie’s family, who had driven their cars up from Newcastle, at Dunstaffnage Marina, just north of Oban, by Saturday night, the 29th.

“Tickled Pink” is an 8m Scorpion open RIB, with a Mercury 225hp 2-stroke outboard. Fuel capacity was 360ltrs but with petrol being difficult to obtain dockside, we had put some careful planning in place. We had 5 plastic petrol containers, each capable of holding 20 ltrs. Which we stowed empty in one of the deck lockers. These were not for the carrying of extra fuel but to facilitate the refuelling process. 100litres of highly flammable and explosive liquid bouncing around inside the boat, was not our idea of an ideal travelling companion!

Day 1 Newcastle to Peterhead 172 nmiles

It was overcast, gloomy and slightly windy on the morning of the 25th. We visited a “greasy spoon” café on the river front for that essential fortification against The North Sea, i.e. an enormous “grease job” breakfast, to pack in as much slow-burn release fat and high energy sugar as possible.

By the time we had stowed our kit, dressed up, topped of the fuel tank, called in our route and ETA into the Coastguard and slowly motored out of the mouth of the Tyne, it was 09.10. The wind was Force 3 to 4, mainly behind us, as we headed off.

Navigation was easy, Waypoint number 1 being the mouth of the Tyne. Waypoint 2, the harbour entrance at Peterhead-a dead straight line.
Now it was just a matter of holding course and cramming in the miles. We were able to dodge most of the showers-we could see them coming several miles off. The sea was otherwise empty with virtually no other boats out. I think we saw possibly 4 other vessels, all day.

Everything went well until about 20 nmiles South of our destination.

The wind suddenly freshened, still coming from behind us. Driving in a following sea is always exhilarating, but dangerous. There is always the temptation to surf down the face of the wave a little too fast. I was driving at the time and have to admit to stuffing the bows, big time, not once but twice!!

Still the boat responded perfectly. The Scorpion has special bungs at the base of the rear bench seat, which you remove to aid the pump-out process. The underdeck pumps normally deal with deck water, but a stuffing brings onboard a huge amount of water which the pumps alone would take too long to deal with. So out come the bungs, slight power-on to lift the nose, and the water quickly drains out. Those last 20 miles took over an hour, and it wasn’t till almost 16.00 that Peterhead Radio (VHF Ch. 14) gave us permission to enter harbour and proceed to the Marina.

There we were met by Jim the Marina Manager and guided to our pre-booked berth.

Ian Alexander, a local, then came over and introduced himself with his Land Rover and a further 5 x 20 ltr. cans. Ian, purely out of the goodness of his heart, had heard about our journey and offered his assistance when we came to Peterhead. Ollie then went off with Ian to find a garage, and returned not only with the fuel but also news of a B&B he had now found for us. He was met by the landlady who demanded “No working boots” pointing to Ollie’s feet. “These are not muddy working boots-they are sea boots and clean at that” said Ollie. “And no loud music, no drinking in your rooms, no noise. You pay for any damage……………..” The rules went on and on. But we need not have worried. When we eventually checked in, she turned out to be a very nice, kind and very sweet lady. Presumably some of her previous guests had needed the Riot Act read to them first!

Peterhead Marina is also overlooked by a large prison which holds most of Scotland’s convicted paedophiles and is interestingly juxtaposed next to a girls school. Apparently when there is an escape scare, they lock down the girls school first and the prison second.

We had used 220 litres of fuel during the day and covered 185nmiles on our run. This means we had been able to drive a remarkably straight course all day. Unfortunately the fuel cans we had brought with us turned out to be useless as they had no breather pipe and the petrol was dribbling out of the can. This meant we could only use Ian’s cans and had to decant 100ltrs twice, once to Ian’s cans and then into the boat. This took an age but despite our pleadings to join us, Ian departed for home without us being able to thank him in the ribsters traditional way. So we went and had his share for him. Cheers Ian!

1. Ollie and Tickled Pink
2. Entering Peterhead
3. Tickled Pink moored up in Peterhead
4. View from my B&B. Only a churl would point out the power station and the sewage outfall.
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Old 02 June 2005, 16:44   #2
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Day 2 Peterhead to Fort Augustus

Next morning the wind had turned to a strong Northerly. It was forecast to turn North-East later in the day, but the first 16nmiles, up past Rattray Head and Kinnaird Head we had to head straight into it. It was tough and took us nearly two hours. As we turned then to port and around the corner, we were unpleasantly surprised to find the wind in fact turning westerly and staying on our nose. We plugged on and as we got further in to the Moray Firth and towards Inverness the wind gradually subsided and we were able to pick up speed. The nearer we got, the flatter the sea became, until eventually, we were running at over 40 knots.

At exactly midday we were outside the sea lock at Clachnaharry ready to enter the canal.

Radioing in on VHF Ch. 74 (used the whole length of the canal) we were told we could not enter until after 12.30 due to vessels coming out to sea. This meant we had to meander up and down outside for half-an-hour.

Our suggestion, or Rule Number 1 is therefore, as soon as you line up to go under the Longman to Craigton Bridge (unmistakable), you radio the lockkeeper to establish your entry possibility.

After tying up inside the lock you must go and purchase your canal license and produce your boat insurance (£2m public liability). The license is not cheap but well worth it for the cost of building and running this magnificent feat of engineering.

Rule no. 2. The book says you should have at least two ropes of at least 15m in length and fenders. Two fenders are the minimum you can get away with on a small boat, and they weren’t exaggerating about those 15m ropes either. The technique (when going up) is to throw each line in turn up to the lockkeeper, who puts them around a swivelling hook. He then passes the end back down to you so you can control your boat as the lock fills, and easily, and without assistance, recover you line when the lock gates open in front of you. The locks are quite deep so 15m is not an awful lot of rope to have stowed.

We had also heard a rumour that the lockkeepers were a dour and unfriendly lot. Cobblers!

We made a point of making friends and chatting to all the keepers. We found, to a man (and on several occasions, ladies), them to be a friendly and extremely helpful group of people. This to such an extent, I have e-mailed my praise of them to British Waterways. This approach of ours to lock staff was to bear fruit, and whoever said they were not very approachable probably says more about them than the BWB staff. So Rule Number 3. Be friendly to ALL lockkeepers.

Whilst going through the first set of locks, we asked what chance there was of the next set ahead being open. The lockkeeper said he didn’t know off-hand but would find out for us. Later, as we were going along, we heard him ask his colleague at the next lock, about being open, including the words…..”……… there are a couple of lads coming your way in a fast RIB……….I think they might be The Coastguard………….”.
Now there are 29 locks in the canal system and at every one, for the next two days, lockkeepers would greet us with a cheery smile and…. “Ah, you must be The Coastguard lads, come on in”

We pushed on determined to get as far as we could that day. You must stop for the night at 17.30 and the canal sections have very strict speed limits on them. The lochs however, Loch Ness, Loch Oich, Ceann Loch and Loch Lochy, are not speed restricted. We did the whole length of Loch Ness in 22 minutes to Fort Augustus that afternoon. Yes, Urquart Castle at Stone Point looked very nice, and no, we didn’t see the Monster.

But………we arrived just too late to lock-up to the level above that night. So we stayed at a B&B 100yds from where we moored the boat. The lockkeepers rang round all of the local B&Bs to find vacancies for us on their own mobiles! How about that for service then?

All day it had been overcast. But now it had started to rain. There being no canal action now until 08.30 the next morning, we put the boat to bed and went off to feed and water ourselves. Fort Augustus, canal-side has a dozen or so B&Bs and some excellent pubs and restaurants.

1. Leaving Peterhead
2. Approach to the roadbridge mentioned
3. Urquarts Castle in Loch Ness (taken at speee..ed)
4. The bridge with the entrance to Clachnahhary lock on the right after the bridge
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Old 02 June 2005, 16:50   #3
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Day 3 Fort Augustus to Dunstaffnage Marina, Oban

The book says the minimum transit time of the canal end to end, is 14 hours. We had arrived at midday on the Friday and hoped to clear by close of business by 17.30 on the Saturday. In theory that gives 14.5 “opening time” hours. We could ignore the final sea lock at Fort William as that is open able late. Now this sounds a bit tight, but at the outset, we were quite confident our superior speed across the lochs would stand us in good stead. Hmmm.

We were at our boat at 08.00 the next morning. In fact we were so early we even filled a 20 ltr. can from the local garage and emptied it into the main boat tank.

It was raining.

The lockkeepers arrived for work and talked to each skipper moored up in turn. “Are you going up, Sir? Would you enter and moor on the port/starboard side please? Would you mind if this RIB moored alongside you?” And so on. The Fort Augustus set is a 5-lock staircase. By the time it had got to 10.00, we were now up to the level of our B&B, 100 yards from were we parked the boat overnight. The waiting around was interminable. Every other boat (except us of course), nancying about, fiddling with ropes, trying to start their engines, etc., etc. And it all had to be repeated for each of the 5 locks in the set!

As you can imagine by the time we were free of the top lock in the set, we were positively dying to be off! The objective on non-canal sections to go as fast as possible and hope to free yourself from that set of boats you had just left behind.

So, Rule number 4. In the unrestricted loch areas, go at your best speed, call ahead to the lockkeeper and ask him to either open the gates on your side or to wait a few minutes till you arrive to save shutting you out.

Rule number 5. Do not speed in the canal sections. Lockkeepers are talking to each other the whole time and know which boat left what point at what time. If you speed, they will know. So Rule number 4 above ONLY works if you haven’t been naughty AND you are far enough ahead of the following pack.

By 15.00 hours we had reached the top of Neptune’s Staircase, the penultimate lock set before getting out to sea. The rained had poured down relentlessly all day and, as if that wasn’t dispiriting enough, the mains power failed to the lock gates when we were halfway down the 8 lock set. An emergency generator had to be brought into action before we were “freed” to proceed. We then just squeaked through the final double lock set by 17.30 and close-of-play. The sea lock set was then negotiated and we headed joyously out into the sea at Loch Linnhe.

For about 15 seconds.

When we realised that not only was it raining cats and dogs by now, but it was getting darker, the wind had risen to a strident howl and was hitting us right on the nose. It was “swallow hard” time and press on at best speed. All this was not helped by the fact that our plotter cartography had ended 5 miles back and we were running on our memories of the lunchtime look at the chart. Our speed had dropped to not much over 5 knots as we negotiated the steep seas, and our plotter calculated “time-to-destination” as well-past midnight.

This Scorpion had a stepped hull, and with an outboard engine, was particularly fast onto the plane and could achieve a very high top speed on flat water. In the rough, however, it is nose-light and very sensitive to a strong sea. Very careful attention and concentration was needed at the helm to prevent breaching. However, after rounding one or two corners (please don’t ask me where they were), we were able to make speedier progress between troughs as we more aggressively used the throttle. As our navigation became rather more hesitant we roared up behind an ocean going Norwegian fishing boat and used his position, attitude, speed and direction to guide us through a particularly “iffy” channel between two islands. A little more time was lost trying to find the entrance to Dunstaffnage Marina, (why don’t they mark the entrance there?) and we were in to safe harbour at exactly 20.00 hours. Just in time for a well earned beer.

1. Typical Lock Approach
2. Typical lock departure
3. Day 3 dawns with rain
4. Doing 4 knots
5. What a surprise Garry's "White Water" at Dunstaffnage Marina
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Old 02 June 2005, 16:54   #4
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Day 4 Dunstaffnage to Tobermory and return

We went down to Puffin Divers just south of Oban, early the next morning to refuel. We had calculated that we needed 235ltrs to fill the tank and found in fact it took 247. The instrument error therefore, was low at about 2.6%.

The weather had cleared up considerably by now with only the early snap shower. By the time we returned to the marina to collect Ollie’s family, the showers had largely disappeared.

We decided to run over to Tobermory for the day. First stop was Duart Castle at the entrance to the Sound of Mull, and then a long run up to the town itself. When we arrived there was a large crowd assembled on the quayside, rockets were set off and even the lifeboat turned out.

Unfortunately, it was not in celebration of our arrival, but to encourage a young man who had set himself the task of rowing a small skiff, single-handed, right around Mull. He would be rowing for 5 days for 8 hours per day.

We went ashore in this delightful, sunny town and popped into The Mishnish Hotel for a few drinks. About an hour or so later, members of BIBOA began to arrive in the harbour. Chris Strickland and “Seahound”, The Micklewrights in “Awesome Explorer”, and Gary Tickner’s “White Water”, “Bro Two” were there also.

We departed for Loch Sunart in the bay opposite Tobermory for a “look-see” and Glenborrodale Castle. By now it was mid-afternoon and we decided to go back to Dunstaffnage for an early shower and meal. We were hoping to be able to go down to Staffa to see Fingals Cave but the strong headwind we encountered past Oronsay made this extension to the days outing too foolhardy. All-in-all though, a nice restful day which ended in brilliant sunshine.

I was to look forward to an early start the next morning taking the train from Oban to Glasgow and the airport, through what must be one of the most spectacular sets of scenery anywhere in the UK. All for £16 and I didn’t have to drive either!

A thoroughly successful trip from Newcastle to Oban over a three day period. No serious problems encountered, a myth or two destroyed and a number of very useful tips picked up.

The scenery along the Canal was outstandingly beautiful, not to say dramatic in places. Neptune’s Staircase where you appear to descend hundreds of feet back down to sea level is particularly spectacular.

The book says that the minimum time to go end-to-end on the canal through it’s 29 locks, is 14 hours. Even in a fast boat like ours we would not disagree with this. The time taken is more dependant on other lock users, who need to be taken through with you, and the co-incidence of locks being available in your favour when you arrive. We did it, but if you don’t reach Fort Augustus by your first night, you probably wont make it through by the end of the next day.

From Newcastle to Oban we travelled about 395 nmiles through the water, consuming 467 ltrs of petrol. Lock fees in our case were £130, which I understand to be the minimum.

1. Tobermory from the inside of the Mishnish
2. Tobermory
3. Tobermory
4. Tickled Pink moored up in harbour
5. General view from Dunstaffnage towards Mull
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Old 06 June 2005, 23:44   #5
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