Oban – Inverness. The Caledonian Canal

Oban – Inverness. The Caledonian Canal

13. July 2018 Off By Søren

“Look at him,” he says, pointing at me. “That man is in trouble, it’s a disaster.” The words come from a lock keeper in Neptune’s Staircase to some of the tourists who are watching the boats going through the locks. It sounds like something is wrong, but fortunately I had talked to him earlier where he let me operate a lock, so I knew it was ok. “Look, that man is alone with 5 women.” Actually I was quite satisfied with the crew to sail through the 29 locks in the Caledonian Canal. However, there was one point later on, where I sent him a kind thought. This was when the cabin was turned into a beauty salon and crocheting workshop, while I was sailing us over Loch Oich.

Code of practice
Liselotte, Frida and Luna had arrived at Oban Marina on Saturday, and were immediately trained by Laura to tie fenders, an important knowledge when we were going through all the locks. Sunday morning we were ready to sail further up towards the canal, a trip of approximately 45 nautical miles. When sailing north out of Oban, we have to adhere to a “Code of Practice” as we round the Kerrera Island. Ships have to go round the island without being able to see any boats around the corner until it might be too late. Some of the rules are, that sailing yachts must use engine, stay on the starboard side and listen to Channel 12. The big ships announce their arrival on Channel 12. There were no big ships when we motored out and as soon as we were out of the strait we could finally set sail. This was first time by sail this summer, so we enjoyed it a lot. We were sailing downwind at  8 meters per second, which was great to sail in.

Again it was an incredibly beautiful boat trip along small rocky islands. At some point, we got a bit worried as the depth meter fell from 38m to just under 3m – we need 1.7m as experienced in the Crinan Canal, where we touched the bottom gently. We were near a rocky island, but there should be no hazards here. I turned away and zoomed at the same time on the map but it did not show any rocks or anything else. The last thing we wanted was to hit a rock. Fortunately, after 10 seconds we were at 40 meters again, and we could relax. Perhaps there was a temporary fault on the depth gauge, or maybe – and that’s the explanation we tend to believe – Nessie escaped from Loch Ness and the canal and enjoyed the water south of the canal.

Fort William

Our new dinghy in action at Fort William

As we approached Fort William, where the Caledonian Canal begins, the hills on each side of us began to rise and mark The Great Glen, which makes up the Caledonian Canal with its lakes. It turned out to be a good thing we did get a dinghy, because in Fort William we had to stay at a mooring buoy. There is a small pontoon, but our draft is too big when it is low tide. Anchorage at Fort William is run by a group of volunteers. We called a phone number found online, were assigned a buoy and used the dinghy to deliver the agreed donation at the pontoon. It was our first night at a mooring buoy so I downloaded an anchor watch app to the phone, which would alert me if we drifted during the night. I ended up turning it off after the alarm went off during the night due to a bad GPS position. Monday morning a team was sent in to shop and they could report that Fort William is a very nice town.

Neptuns Staircase

Neptun’s Staircase in the back, and on the swing bridge a train that looks like the Hogwarts Express

From Fort William there is a very short trip up to the canal entrance. We had the license in place from the Crinan Canal, the cheapest solution was to buy a 2-week license, so we were quickly through the first lock. From here we could sail towards Neptune’s Staircase, 8 consecutive locks, which altogether elevates us 20 meters. We moored at a pontoon below the locks, walked up to the locks and talked to the lock keeper. There was a group of boats on the way down and we would be able to get through when they were down. Now we had plenty of time for an ice cream, and to study how the locks were operated. It was an excellent summer day so we could enjoy the weather and the surroundings, and talk to a Danish boat going downwards. This was also when the lock keeper discovered I was only male on the boat – maybe this was why I was allowed to operate one of the locks, which was a little easier with handles rather than manually pushing the locks. Funny enough, like the Crinan Canal, we were the only boat through the locks in our direction – this would change later on. Again, we were a tourist attraction, and talked to many different and interested people from all sorts of nations. We were still in doubt about where to stay for the night, but the lock keepers are very helpful, and they found the last free space at a pontoon with shore power available. We were next to a boat from Inverness who could recommend a local pub with good food, so we went there for dinner after a good day in the locks.

Neptune’s Staircase is quite close to Ben Nevis, which is the highest mountain in Britain with its 1346 meters. Normally the top is covered in clouds, but with a sunny and cloudless day we could see the top. And when you’re in Scotland it’s almost a must to see a Whiskey distillery. Within walking distance of Neptune’s Staircase is Ben Nevis Distillery, where we went on a tour of Whiskey production on Monday morning. We also got to taste, and although we learned tricks of adding a few drops of water, which made a difference, we will never be too fund of whisky.

Tour at the Ben Nevis Whisky distillery

After the tour we sailed off to Loch Oich, which has the highest altitude in the canal. On the way we sailed across Loch Lochy, which probably stands as the most beautiful lake we have sailed through the canal. The lake is long and narrow (like the others), but it is very pronounced how the mountainside on both sides goes directly into the lake. It is very beautiful. At Loch Oich we were assigned a pontoon at an activity center. There was not much activity by the time we arrived, but there was a bar showing World Cup semi-final between France and Belgium.

“All But England”
The next day also had a World Cup semifinal. England played Croatia, the team who sent Denmark out of the World Cup, and we planned to watch the match in Fort Augustus just at Loch Ness. Fort Augustus has a “staircase” with 5 locks, located centrally in the town. Compared to Neptune’s Staircase this staircase was more busy, as more boats were going up and down. We had to pump out the holding tank so we missed one of the convoys going down. We noticed, that the pontoons below the locks were well filled up, and if we were unable to get a spot at these pontoons we would have to sail on out on Loch Ness. We therefore chose to stay up over the locks and were promised we could come down with the first convoy the following day.

We found a pub showing the England-Croatia match. Most cheered for England and there was a good atmosphere. There were also a few that cheered for Croatia, but they were Scottish and not Croatians. We were told that they were with “ABE” – All But England. After having first cheered for Sweden, Columbia, and now Croatia, the ABE supporters could finally go happy away as Croatia moved on to the final.

Nessie visiting

Urquhart castle

Thursday morning we were ready for the final part of our trip through the Caledonian canal, which also included Loch Ness. If it really was Nessi we met south of the canal, would it then be back in its home, Loch Ness – and how does it get unnoticed through the locks? The wind was against us, and because we needed to reach Inverness the same day before the locks closed, we motored. I bit more than half way up Loch Ness is the Urquhart castle , which we passed close by. There is a small bay at the castle where we made a quick stop, as June, Frida and Luna had enough will to go swimming even though it was kind of cold. It was rewarded, Nessi herself dropped by to say hello. Nessi is not as green as pictured on drawings and merchandise.

Nessie visiting

We continued up to Inverness. Again we met a “staircase” with 4 locks leading down to Seaport Marina, which was our planned destination. The locks are located at what seems an industrial area, with a lot less people than what were the case with the two previous staircases at Fort Augustus and Neptune’s staircase. Then, just as we were asked to enter the first lock two people showed up, who we actually knew. It was Søren and Merete, who we knew were in Scotland for vacation, and who we had made plans with to meet around Inverness. With the help from a persistent taxi driver and a Scottish Canal office they had found our exact location in the canal. They jumped aboard  and sailed with us down the locks to Seaport Marina, where the lock keeper had arranged for a berth while taking us down the locks.

Ready for the North Sea
Friday it was time for saying goodbye to Liselotte, Luna and Frida, who had done really well going through the locks and adapting to the life on board. To make our departure from Inverness independent on opening hours of the locks, June, Laura and I sailed through the last two locks and over to Inverness Marina, which is outside the canal.

We are now in Inverness Marina, which is a rather new marina with really good facilities. We are preparing the boat, doing laundry, provisioning for multiple days at sea, and wait for Tonny to arrive later this evening. He will be delivered to the boat from the airport by Søren and Merete in their rental car. It seems we have a good weather window if departing tomorrow Saturday, so now we just have to be ready for the North Sea, which will be a completely different kind of sailing compared to the last week.