Jonathan Footerman navigates the lochs (and the locks) of Scotland, on his quest to circumnavigate the UK in a mini-yacht.
Group jeopardy! That was the 1970s term for thrillers like The Poseidon Adventure, in which a variety of characters were thrust into danger together and behaved to type; a good description of lock usage on the Caledonian Canal, as I began to appreciate in the Muir Town Basin at Inverness. I had sailed my 21-foot mini-yacht Elektra from Portsmouth Harbour along the English Channel and up the east coast to the Highlands capital whose name means ‘mouth of the Ness river’ (without which Nessie would never escape from investigators to the sea). At Peterhead I had teamed up with Alastair in his 27-footer, and although it was mid-summer, we had dodged stormy weather for several days in the Moray Firth to get there. Now, having passed through the sea lock and paid our fees, we were waiting for a 5-gate lock ladder to open and lift us up to a 7-mile stretch of canal that would take us to the Dochgarroch pontoons before the next gale hit, if we were lucky.
Three other yachts were manoeuvring in the basin to be first into the lock: a red 35-footer belonging to an elderly German I had encountered on the way (q.v. episode 7, High Tides etc.); a lightweight 44-footer sailed by a Norwegian, a ‘man in a hurry’ who had held us up at the sea lock by grounding on a sandbank shortly after we heard the harbour master warn him on the VHF; and a heavy steel 46-footer, a bit dented but still going strong, sailed by a committee of 6 post-Solidarnosc Polish men of which one, but I am not sure which, might have been the skipper. It was only a matter of time before two yachts tried to occupy the same space, so I tied up to a wall ring out of the way. Boats coming down the ladder must exit first, and the lock keeper instructed waiting yachts to clear the water. A VHF channel is reserved for use throughout the canal: everyone from Inverness to Fort William is meant to listen in and can hear the instructions, but not our companions because their sets were switched off. The lock keeper’s voice took on an imploring tone, and we yelled for them to tune in. Gradually the message got through and they backed off.
The next problem was organising entry. I had fenders out all round and long lines ready on both sides – you never know which wall you might be on in the lock or who might drift over for an impertinent kiss – but I intended to raft up, so much easier than throwing lines to the quay. The Poles had fenders out on the starboard side: either they did not understand instructions to berth to port, or did not know left from right, or were not listening, but no fenders were moved. The German was to go behind them. The Norwegian’s Beneteau had all her smart new fenders prettily arranged on the starboard side, nothing to port, and was luckily directed there, Alastair to go behind, Elektra to raft up. A lot of stress drained from the lock-keeper’s voice as we suggested that.
The gates swung, the boats came out and the Poles, finding themselves at the front, went straight on to the wrong (starboard) side. The lock keeper ran over but before anything could be done, the man in a hurry charged in angrily because he did not have a fender on the port side, and rafted against them. That put his nose under the sluices, so he backed up a few yards, his stern swinging menacingly part-way across the lock, cramping the rear space on the port side. The German did not like the look of that so he also went to the wrong side (starboard), leaving Alastair to tuck up on the port wall too near to the Norwegian’s stern for me. So I went over and tied to the German, who had an oddly relaxed, not to say sleepy approach to events and was surprised to see me. When the lock gates opened again, he tried to motor off, forgetting to check whether Elektra was still attached.
Things were set up for a better performance in lock 2 where there was room for the Beneteau against the wall behind the Poles (he would so much rather have been in front). That left the port wall for the German and Alastair, with room for me behind if I wished. But I tied securely to his boat, we climbed to the quay and for the next three locks, we slid the raft through without boarding again, Alastair leaning into the stern line while I reined in the bow. None of the others took the cue, preferring to demonstrate their skill at motoring and throwing lines up walls.
The democratic Poles approached each task in communal spirit, and in lock 3, the lock-men waited politely on the quay for their ropes, trying not to yawn, while the man in a hurry stood off behind. Last in, when we were already tied up, he hovered on the motor, too disdainful to keep a line on the wall until his way was clear. Higher up now and less sheltered from the wind along the canal, it was only a matter of time before his bow started to blow off. The girl-friend threw the bow line a few times but could not reach the quay several metres above, and the Norwegian had to charge forward to fend off as the wind brought the bow over to our side of the lock. Perhaps I should have been a little alarmed at the prospect of Elektra acting as a fender, but the fact that at $6,000 she cost about 2% of the Beneteau left me with irrational equanimity. The skipper ran back to catch the boat on the motor, alternating between forward and reverse, but did not get it quite right and had to hotfoot forward again. Alastair ticked me off for laughing. In the meantime, the Poles encouraged the girlfriend to try one more throw to them and they passed the rope up to the lock keeper. The stern was not yet tied off and as the bow was brusquely dragged in by the lock-man, the stern swung out. Back sprinted the Norwegian in the nick of time to prevent his beautiful gel-coat (fibreglass finish) introducing itself to Elektra’s outboard, and at last threw up a line to the lock-keeper.
The Scottish author Ronald Macdonald Douglas advised the English “don’t even attempt to get the guttural sounds of ‘ach’ and ‘loch’. You will only strangle yourselves. To say ‘ach!’ correctly you need generations of Scots blood behind you and you must have been born with the peat-reek in your nostrils and the sight of the hills as the first thing ever you clapped your eyes on.”
The canal provides plenty of practice. Motoring gently against the wind, it was a lovely journey to the pontoons and lock at Dochgarroch, before the canal and river merge into Loch Dochfour and Lochend at the start of Loch Ness a few miles from Drumnadrochit. Och aye! ‘Twill be a braw bricht nicht, the nicht! The bank drifted past at river barge pace, the occasional bicycle overtook on the tow path, and the scenery cast a lovely green spell by which the fairies lulled the dozy master of a certain red yacht away to the Land of Nod: with a loud bang she collided with the bank some way ahead. None the worse for wear, I was assured at the pontoons, where everybody had to wait for the lock however fast they arrived. DochGarroch is the first stop after the initial ladder to the canal, with bank-side pontoons for 700 metres before the lock. The speedy Beneteau passed it all to get close to the gates, but found no space long enough that far up (who’d have thought it?). Instead of backing up, he turned the boat, easy enough in the wide part by the lock as the wind blew him neatly around as soon as he cut the revs. Turning again further back in a narrower stretch put him right across the canal from bank to bank, struggling to do a multipoint turn with a metre or two of spare space and the wind opposing. The situation grew taut with the arrival of the red yacht which progressed on in a stately manner, like a lady in corsets and lorgnette, quite certain that any obstructing body would disappear of its own accord. To my regret, I was 200 yards back as the drama unfolded. A lock-man confided that he quickly sloped off in the other direction. Anyhow, it sorted itself out without him.
Rather than struggle against the wind, Alastair and I decided to stay the night, and walked up to the lock to lend a hand. It opened, the Beneteau was in like Flynn on the starboard side, the Poles behind him, and the red yacht alone to port at the front. The lock operated in the usual manner and the instant it opened again, the Beneteau was off like a greyhound from the slips while the German took his time with ropes. “I hope they wait for…” I began as the Poles cast off and moved up the lock, just as the German also left the quayside. Not easily alerted by the world in front, the world behind him held only surprises. As he chugged unhurriedly towards the exit, the expected gust of wind blew his bow into the middle, straight on to the steel yacht moving up with a blithe lack of foresight. All the Poles ran up to fend off at the bow. Nobody stayed on the helm, or thought to put the motor in reverse. “Throw us a rope!” we bellowed by the stern, watching it swing to port as they pushed the bow to starboard. The wind took the red yacht around ever more strongly, and finally one of them looked over his shoulder to see what all the shouting was about, saw the stern half-way across the lock and dashed back to throw us a rope. It hit the wall and dropped into the water, twice, and now it was too late: the boat was angled across the lock with the red yacht holding the bow to the starboard wall and the stern jammed on the port side. The lock-keeper walked stoically across the gate, took a line from the smaller boat and the mess got sorted out. I thought it was the last we would see of them. By chance I met the Norwegian in Oban, who told me that the ‘prop kick’ on his boat was to starboard, which is why he berthed and kept his fenders that side. Complex underwater geometry causes sterns to kick to one side or the other when the prop is put into reverse, useful to the experienced skipper. I could only reply that I supposed my outboard had its advantages.
There is not much other than pontoon at Dochgarroch, except a little restaurant which has a sign in the window to tell its customers, indignantly, that it does not serve tea and cakes, presumably because that is what so many of them would like. We had a pleasant meal there that evening, but I remain puzzled by a welcome sign on the way up to the road, reminding visitors to drive on the left. It must be for all those foreign cars arriving by yacht.
The worst of the weather passed north of us leaving another dead calm under the remains of a lowering sky. Sailing onto the great water of Loch Ness undisturbed by even a ripple was like walking on to fields of virgin snow. I shot endless digital film of the vistas, castle ruins and bank-side mansions. Fighters out of Lossiemouth buzzed us once or twice, immensely impressive as they tore out of the mountainous surroundings, but with apologies to Her Majesty’s air force, they have a lot to learn from the fearless swallows that nest under the pontoons at Fort Augustus at the other end of the Loch. Two of them played hopscotch down the banister rail of the steps as I went down to the pontoon: having tiny brain pans, it did not occur to them to fly around behind me, and pilots should take note of the dangers of too much time on the wing. But one in particular seemed to be the chief, with a nest under the pontoon beside my berth. He would hurtle along the pontoon at phenomenal speed and about six inches of altitude, break left at my bow and execute a perfect screw manoeuvre to the nest. When he popped out, he would sit on my stern line preening himself nonchalantly. One female flew out on the other side, and he flew over, mated, came back and continued preening, accomplishing the entire process in about five seconds (pilots be warned!) When I left, he hitched a ride for 250 metres, and he deserves his photos.
Fort Augustus is the point of convergence of tourist routes by road, water and bridle path. Our pontoons were at the top of another five-lock ladder, and pulling through the boat raft with a highly professional air, we were the centre of attention, photography and curiosity of the crowds. The canal continues through more rising locks and a swing bridge, running beside the river to Loch Oich, navigable only through a buoyed channel but very picturesque, with forested banks, islets and an unfortunate two-master stuck in the shallows beneath the Invergarry castle ruins. More locks and bridges and the straight Laggan ‘Avenue’ took us to the last inland water of Loch Lochy, to which the mountainous backdrop on both sides lends a wild atmosphere. It is the highest stretch and the weather is changeable (to put it kindly), but when the skies are covered, thin mists hang on the waters and hillsides and conjure the clash of ancient battles and the breath of faerie romance. We headed for Gairlochy at the far end for the third night, a lovely spot where we had tea at the end of the pontoon with some other yachts people, with the Ben Nevis range mist-covered to the South. Someone inadvertently tipped a deck chair into the deep water below the pontoons, but astute casting with my grapnel anchor hooked it out again, to everyone’s satisfaction (fortunately, it was not me at the pontoon end of the line: I have a poor record where fishing is concerned.)
In the morning, we followed the last few miles of canal to the eight-lock descent at Banavie known as Neptune’s Staircase. It is the major descent, and a last lock soon after feels like the tallest on the canal as it drops down to sea level at the Corpach lock, the exit to Fort William at the head of Loch Linnie and the foot of Ben Nevis. There is usually a queue at Neptune’s Staircase, simply because boats cannot pass in opposite directions within it, so the whole series is reserved for the time it takes to complete in one direction. The lock-keepers are keen to keep it moving, and although we had to wait a few hours, when our turn came we went through at record speed. This may have been because they had been listening on VHF to events further back and knew they did not have to take our ropes, or simply because they were fed up and wanted to get home. In any case, we were through in forty-five minutes, to our satisfaction because the wind had risen and the weather was no longer enjoyable.
Corpach is a place of passage of yachts, cyclists, walkers and climbers, not a town like Fort William, but we decided to stay inside the sea-lock’s protection for the night while the weather system blew through. It was a milestone for me: up the east coast, through the canal, now ready for quite different sailing down the Atlantic side of our island, and possibly quite different people. As seasoned travellers know, milestones come and go, and the grass on one side is rarely any greener than on the other; and in the dismal weather on the evening of 14th July 2010, the excitement of this half-way point was only abstract. But it was there, and having sailed for just over six weeks from the Colne in Essex, I went to bed happy to have new waters to explore in the morning, heading south.