The Caledonian Canal – on the way up

We had been talking about our passage through the Caledonian Canal for months and on Sunday 25th September we set out from Ballachulish full of expectations. The timing of our departure from Ballachulish had to be carefully timed to precede the inflow starting at 8:30am and be in time to catch the tidal flows through the Corran narrows so that they were in our favour. With the winds force 4 gusting 6 it was a windy choppy start as we were nearly head to wind leaving Loch Lever under the Ballachulish bridge so we waited until we were through the narrows and had passed all the over falls before we reached calmer waters and were able to head into wind to raise the sails. We were cautious and put one reef in the main.

Approaching Ballachulish Bridge leaving Loch Lever; a rainbow arched over the entrance of the Corran Narrows to the NE; strong winds and choppy seas coming from the SW up Loch Linnhe and passing through the Corran Narrows

We were soon approaching Corpach Basin way ahead of schedule with these strong winds and tides with us. We had spoken to the lock keeper Donna on the phone and she greeted us and took our warps as we reached the holding pontoon. Lock keepers take lunch between 12.00 and 1.00 and she worked out that we should wait until just after 1.00 when they would take us up the first two locks, then another wait for the descending boats to arrive before tackling Neptune’s staircase.

Arriving at Corpach Basin reaching the shelter of the sea lock

img_3539Our Caledonian Canal experience was about to start – next stop Neptune’s Staircase

Entering Neptune’s Staircase with the overspill preceding the filling of the first lock; Ros holding the bow warp during the rise and then climbing ashore to tow Milo through to the next lock.

A rhythm ensued. Ian on the helm at the stern threw the stern warp to the lock keeper who passed it round a bollard, stopped forward progress and passed it back to Ian. Then Ros, with the bow warp coiled, threw to the lock keeper. This was heavy and the locks were deep and so this warp rarely reached the lock keeper’s outstretched arms and fell back into the lock water. Thankfully the lock keeper usually had another warp on shore, which she was able to throw down to Ros on Milo to make sure that she was secured before the lock gates were closed. Once the gates were closed they opened the upper sluice gates to let water into the lock from the lock above – this caused quite a whirlpool in the lock so you had to be very careful to hold your lines securely to stop Milo turning around. However Ros came into her own when we ascended the 8 locks of Neptune’s staircase. She disembarked and walked along the tow path, pulling Milo along like a horse. Ros actually meant, as if she were pulling a horse, but I pointed out that in the olden days it was the horse that pulled the barges along the canals, so it could mean that she was the “horse”!! Neptune’s Staircase is a staircase lock built by Thomas Telford between 1803 and 1822, it is the longest staircase lock in Britain. The system was originally hand-powered but has been converted to hydraulic operation today which makes their operation much more slick than the earlier experience we had going through the Crinan Canal.

img_3587Entering the last lock before reaching Loch Lochy at Gairlochy.

After Neptune’s staircase we moored for the night in Banavie, eating on board. The next day we entered Loch Lochy and set sail across the loch with two hours of relaxed sailing on a dead run often goose-winged.

Goose-winging is a relaxing way to sail particularly on an inland loch

The sail along the loch was beautiful and we enjoyed looking at the peak of Ben Nevis in the distance and imagining Andrew and Adam and four young boys summiting the day before.

img_3573The boys Albie, Hugh, Percy and Patrick after their summit of Ben Nevis (sent later by Adam)

Ian was anxious as we approached the pontoon at Corriegour Lodge because of the water depth and the shortness of the pontoon. Ultimately we did manage to berth and we had 0.9m clearance under the keel – as it was non tidal – this was not an issue.

img_3601The rickety and shallow pontoon at Corriegour Lodge hotel and restaurant.

The view down the Loch was stunning, but marred by the heavy and noisy traffic on the road, which ran along the shoreline. After sprucing up as best as possible we disembarked and made our way to the restaurant. We were made very welcome by the host in the coal-fired sitting room where we ordered our food for the evening. Ian chose Aberdeen Angus steak and Ros cod and samphire. We later enjoyed the comforts of the dining room and after finishing our meal chatted over coffee to some of the other guests staying in the hotel (from Germany and Australia) who were very enthusiastic about their travels in Scotland and didn’t once complain about the weather. We made our way back to Milo and Ros said that she planned to swim in the Loch before leaving next morning.

img_3605Wild swimming the next morning

It was now near the Autumn equinox and daylight here in Scotland is from about 7.00 in the morning to 7.00 in the evening. The trees are just beginning to turn and Ros was reminded that on the island of Mull the leaves on the trees were only just beginning to unfurl when we arrived there in the middle of May. Just over four months for the deciduous trees. Slowing down along the canal, battling the elements and sleeping when it is dark, feels very different from our modern way of life in Bristol. But a wood-fire on Milo would have been welcome as we sat through hours of rain at Laggan Locks waiting to set sail and we are already fantasising about lighting our wood-burning stove when we return to Bristol on Sunday.

img_3599-1The top of Loch Lochy with the Corriegour Lodge Hotel about central and Laggan Locks in the top right hand corner where we weathered out Force 9 overnight storm force winds.




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