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Caledonian canal, summer 1993

Fort Augustus
Waiting to go down Fort Augustus staircase

A 1-week trip from Caley Cruises at Inverness to Banavie and back, total about 120 miles and 24 locks, plus over 1000 miles of driving.

The big difference with the Caledonian is that most of it is not a canal, a great part of its length is through three Lochs, including Loch Ness. The banks are nowhere in sight. The boats carry a sheet anchor and distress flares. And of course, it's always raining.

Mooring is possible only at certain places, and some, such as the Clansman pub, charge. This results in a game every evening, where you try to arrive at your intended evening mooring before anyone else; if you lose, you might have to pair up, or moor to the next lock. When we were there, there was adequate mooring at Fort Augustus (both ends) and at Banavie, and (in August) we managed to moor where we wanted, but saw others who couldn't. It's all worth it though for the rugged landscape and the experience of taking a small canal craft over a big, choppy inland sea. In the evening, there is a silence unknown to the city dweller.

The locks are all mechanised and manned, and operate at set times, so it is often necessary to wait; they are also huge and accommodate many small boats, so normally the locks are worked only when a decent number of boats are waiting. The canal is used by some big boats, which may share the locks. On the long staircase locks at Fort Augustus the boats are tied together and worked through with ropes rather than engines. No bridges need to open for a small boat (provided the dinghy was taken off the roof for our boat).

There isn't a good supply of pubs and restaurants, but you take what's there, which was good in parts.

One of my favourite moments from this trip, as a hirer, was overhearing a posh yachting gentleman asking the lock-keeper at Fort Augustus where the pumps were - you know, the pumps that pump the water out of the locks. At this point, the lock-keeper decided he had something else to do.

Oh, and did I mention the rain? The barmaid in the pub at Banavie claimed it can rain for 6 weeks at a time up here.

Diary extracts...

Sat 1993-08-21
Drive to Inverness, starting at 2h. Rain at first in the dark, but sunshine after dawn and hot at times. Lunch in a pub, then get on boat at 14h30. Separate 'domestic' and 'navigation' instruction, the latter very good. Boats have Volvo diesels and steerable props, very manoeuvrable, but difficult to keep in a straight line. Go in convoy through the first lock (14 of us), then on our own. Stopped for the night at the "Clansman" pub - 5GBP/night mooring in a little harbour. Mooring only in set places, so see lots of the same people every evening. Boat is a bit cramped, not in width, but fiddly, eg no draining board and cupboard doors clash with steps to aft deck. Gas has to be turned off every night and the fridge re-lit in the morning, and only a small radiant cabin heater. We do have flares, emergency signal/spotlight, anchor, drag anchor. Sitting here as it gets dark, we can feel the boat moving on the swell, and the water gurgling and lapping around. Eve into the Clansman for one. "Fernie Castle" is the boat's name.
Sun 1993-08-22
Start about 9h, straight out of the little harbour and SW along the Loch. Cool and a little rain. Pix of Urquhart Castle from the water. Arrive at Fort Augustus at 12h15. Locks are shut 12 to 13h, and a long pontoon is filled with waiting boats. Lots of gongoozlers of course. Lunch in the "Lock Inn", then wait for the locks, well after 15h when we went in, basically waiting for one to come down. All got up (about 18) in 2 lots, in successive chambers; we tied alongside some non-English speaking people. Usual canal private/hire divide is here cruiser/yacht, though the yachts don't seem that more competent. Mooring is limited and we're travelling most of the way in convoy. Stop at a small jetty just beyond the lock at Cullochy, along with one of the several friendly crews from our boatyard. Eventually joined by two more boats coming along after the lock closed at 18h. Make good progress on this waterway, except for lock queues. But locking is easy - the lock-keeper catches all the ropes and the hydraulics does all the work. A little sunshine later in the day and a little more rain - while we were out for a walk. A deserted croft by the canal, the house derelict and a field alongside growing what looked like a self-set cereal. The silence is the strange thing. You can hear sounds miles away, it's a quality I've probably only experienced here and in the Swiss Alps.
Mon 1993-08-23
Main theme of the day - rain; with very occasional dry spells and less frequent sunny bits. Through Loch Oich, threading our way between the red and green buoys, then some more canal, then locks, then Loch Lochy. Moored at a jetty, and to Letterfinlay Hotel for lunch. After lunch a bit of a wind, and waves on the loch. Then through a few more locks, now with fewer boats as we get spread out, to moor for the night sharing a jetty with another boat, near Glen Loy lodge (to which we did not go). Moored at 15h45, so after a bit on Sat and two clear days we're very nearly there, and we're going to have to arrange four slack days for the return. Probably speak to more other crews up here than on ordinary canal trip. Eve on boat. Pix of us moored and surrounding mountains with clouds. Discovered a good way to get onto jetties: holding both ropes and getting off at the stern. Water at swingbridge at SW end of Loch Oich, needing very little.
Tue 1993-08-24
Potter down the remaining bit of canal, to arrive at Banavie 10h. This last bit actually looks like a canal, vegetation on the banks, narrow, bends. Walk up and down the staircase; watch a couple of fishing boats and a yacht come up. Lunch at the "Lochy" - a place built like a blockhouse, concrete blocks and no windows, just a door with a wooden pub sign over it. Natural light from skylights only. On an estate; these are the outskirts of Fort William. But competent, polite and talkative behind the bar (Fay), talking authoritatively to the customers about gas mixes and dispense systems (though the beer was standard CO2-pressure Tartan). Food, but my "king rib in a bun" was microwaved in a bag - and served in the bag (but only 90p). Set off back after lunch, along with some of the Friday changeovers, so we're still a day up. Ben Nevis looms over the place, its head in the clouds. The pub barmaid reckons it can rain for 6 weeks non-stop in this area. Very cold at first; warmer later, but not brighter. Stop at the Loy aqueduct, where we were last night, only an hour or less away. Experiment with the dinghy - which was odd, rowing a completely floppy boat with no real desire to go forwards rather than sideways. Then a walk along a track through a Forestry Comm Christmas tree farm, looking over the valley to the opposite mountains, where they were chopping down the big ones. Laze the rest of the day. A little rain eve, just so we can say no day so far without rain.
Wed 1993-08-25
Along to the first lock. A wait, but well-filled when we got in. Second lock is just after, then the flotilla entered Loch Lochy. Stopped again at Letterfinlay Lodge for lunch, they had a power cut and could only serve soup and cold food - but still good. A bit of wind in the afternoon (coming from NW across the wide part of the Loch) was making the going a bit choppy and made mooring difficult at Well of the Seven Heads on Loch Oich. Shop here for beer, whisky and staples. Short walk through forest along loch-side. Well-packed lockfull coming off Loch Lochy, mostly the type that shout instructions to everyone but themselves. The attitude seems to go with plastic boats. Sunshine, especially later in the afternoon, but the obligatory spell of rain as well. Water at swing bridge before Loch Oich.
Thu 1993-08-26
Cold morning, but bright. Across the rest of Loch Oich and through the locks into the canal section. About 8 boats in convoy by this time. Pass and photo a multi-masted sailing boat. Moor above Fort Augustus flight, just before 12h. Wait till 13h to enter the top chamber, then till 14h for the lock-keepers to come back from lunch and start working us down. Just over an hour to go down, by when down to T-shirt. Talkative lot in lock, including private yacht owner (who asked the lock-keeper how the water was pumped out of the chambers - not used to sailing on canals!). Lunch on board before descent, then moor for the evening below the flight and spend aft lazing and shopping. Quiet after the tourists have gone, except for the clock on the abbey alongside chiming every quarter, and the trip-boat going past.
Fri 1993-08-27
Start off early across Loch Ness. Dead calm at first, but a breeze getting up and at the far end, where the loch narrows, it was quite choppy. Also a mist appeared to be dropping behind us, but this lifted again and the sides were always clear. Took about 3.5h to get all along and into the canal section again. Though dull, not cold in the morning and later warm and sunny. We did not visit any of the moorings along the sides; there aren't many of them and there is competition for the good ones at Urquhart Bay. Moored for lunch just before the last lock, then moved on when 3 boats had collected. Moored at the boatyard 16h, just right, as we were re-fuelled while they were getting out the Friday starts, then taken alongside for the night. An hour or so later, the rush started and nearly all boats were in, with many staying overnight. We went for an Indian with family we've seen on and off all week. Coffee on their boat afterwards.
Sat 1993-08-28
Home. Mostly hot, sunny day, 536mi (862km) drive back. Fuel usage was 18 UKgalls, which was thought to be very low - it's 120mi there and back, so 6.7mi/UKgall = 42l/100km. Their record is 130gall for 2 weeks. Got 22L back from the fuel deposit.

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