Lochs, Locks and lots of Scottish Luck
Sailing the 60 miles of the Caledonian Canal in a Wayfarer Dinghy
Welcome to Scotland – as the M6 turns into the A74(M).
Why just sail around Broadwater Lake, always winning the unofficial 2pm race on a Wednesday afternoon, when you could sail from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, experiencing the delights of open water sailing, the Scottish Highlands, the Scottish weather and the Scottish midges.
The Caledonian Canal was constructed by Thomas Telford and completed in 1822. It is over 60 miles in length, from Fort William to Inverness and includes three large inland Lochs (Lochy, Ness and Oich) totalling 40 miles in length, and 20 miles of man-made canal. Within the canal sections there are 29 locks and 10 swing bridges.
Our plan was hatched one such Wednesday in October as we sailed (or crewed) our Wayfarer or Wanderer dinghies around Broadwater.
The planning started and much was required. We found a few reports of intrepid dinghy sailors sailing the CaleCanal on the internet, but these accounts varied from quite well planned to one of complete disasters.
Our first task was to decide how far we should cover each day, linking this to where we would or could stay overnight. Due to the possibility of inclement weather, we chose to sail no more than 16 miles each day and that we would stay in hotels. The idea of getting drenched each day in the boat, then camping overnight and getting bitten by the midges, was quickly dismissed. That said, camping or indeed ‘wild’ camping might have given you more latitude to cover more water on the ‘good’ days – hopefully you might get some good days – but do remember that Fort William is officially the wettest place in Europe and reputedly, in 2017, had only 13 days in the year when it didn’t rain.
From the start we knew that we would sail from South West to North East, hopefully with a following wind, as it would be too much like hard work sailing into a headwind each day. The other important factors to consider, apart from the overnight stops were a) where to put the boat in the water b) where to get it out and c) what to do with the road trailer during the cruise.
Early on a Friday morning in late August the four of us (2 sailors and 2 ‘land crew’) set off from Chorleywood, trailing Wayfarer World (W10408) to our overnight stop near Glasgow Airport. The next morning we were up and off by 7.45am, to drive the 96 miles to Fort William. Come what may, the boat had to be rigged and in the water by about 11am. The entry to the CaleCanal is a sea lock at Corpach, which is of course tidal, and “generally available either side of high water and closed either side of low water”. High water was at 12.39.
Unloading the Wayfarer at Lochaber Yacht Club.
Lochaber Yacht Club to Banavie (top of Neptune’s Staircase) 3.5 miles.
2.5 miles of sailing in Loch Linnie; Corpach Sea Lock; 1 lock then 1 mile of canal before 2 swing bridges (one rail, one road) then Neptune’s Staircase of 8 adjacent locks.
We arrived at Lochaber Yacht Club at about 10am . The secretary of the club arrived to greet us and collect our £20 donation for using their slipway and facilities. The boat was prepared – mast, genoa, outboard motor, fenders and paddles. Just after 11am in overcast weather with a Force 2 wind, we set off in the sea loch of Loch Linnie to motor the 2.5 miles to Corpach.
The keeper of the sea lock had been pre-warned of our passage and we had provisionally booked a slot for 12 noon. As we radioed ahead approaching the lock, two large yachts left the lock both moving on their motors – a sign of things to come? We moored up on the holding pontoon outside the lock, and Ian went to the lock office to purchase the permit for our transit along the canal. £101 for our 4.8m Wayfarer! – but the fee did include a key for the toilets and showers that are adjacent to many locks.
Our first sail of the week…albeit on the outboard, under an overcast sky in Loch Linnie.
Waiting for the lock-keeper to return from his lunch.
The gates of the lock opened and in we motored. Our solitary tiny Wayfarer in this huge lock. Don’t even think of the locks on the Grand Union Canal – these are mega deep facilities, over 150ft long, built for ocean-going vessels. W10408 had been prepared with 15metre bow and stern lines and eight fenders. The lock keeper assisted us securing the dinghy, the lock filled up, and 40 minutes later we moved out into the Corpach Basin. The lock keeper then told us he was going for his lunch and would be back in 70 minutes. More importantly, he told us that we would navigate Neptune’s Staircase that afternoon (our goal for the day). This was the first but not the last occasion, that we realised the lock and swing-bridge keepers control movement on the canal, and are in contact with each other throughout each stretch of the Caledonian Canal.
Our solitary tiny Wayfarer in the sea lock at Corpach.
The lock keeper duly returned well-fed and took control of the situation. We were to accompany two larger craft through this first lock, the mile of canal, the two swing bridges, then the eight locks of Neptune’s Staircase. The two other craft went into the lock first on the port side – a sea-going ‘gin-palace’ cruiser and a 30ft+ yacht. Once they were secured, we entered the lock on the starboard side. This was good news for us, as one of our worries beforehand had been the risk of being crushed in the locks by larger vessels. Our bow and stern securing ropes were thrown up to our land-crew who duly tied us up. We were also advised not to advance too near the front of the lock. We soon found out why, when the sluices were opened and the torrent of water caused lots of turbulence near the front lock gates. The outboard, as with all engines, was turned off in the locks to avoid petrol fumes.
By early afternoon, the sun was out and off we set following the two larger craft, motoring the one mile to Banavie, the two swing bridges and Neptune’s Staircase. It is forbidden to sail in the canal. We had a 3.5hp outboard – Ian was sitting on the aft locker holding the outboard’s tiller and the dinghy was slowly filling up with water! This was caused by the helm’s weight pushing down the rear of the Wayfarer, which in turn caused the transom flaps to open. The only way to counteract this was for the crew (who had nothing much to do anyway) to sit as far forward as possible on the bow deck, in an effort to keep the boat horizontal.
At the bottom of Neptune’s Staircase.
Within 20 minutes we were approaching Banavie. Firstly, the rail swing bridge that takes the West Highland Line from Fort William to Mallaig, then the A84 road swing bridge. The two swing bridges and the lower lock of Neptune’s Staircase are literally side by side, so were all opened simultaneously. We knew of the potential problems of Neptune’s Staircase, as it operates a one-way system. If you were to arrive at the bottom lock at the ‘wrong’ time you could have to wait 90 minutes or more for ‘downward’ traffic to clear the 8 locks.
The sluices were opened and we begin the eight lock staircase.
Almost at the top. Our land crew securing us after hauling us through the previous seven locks.
As mentioned previously, the lock/swing bridge keepers are in contact with each other. From the moment we arrived at the first lock beyond Corpach Basin, all the Canal staff on this stretch knew all three boats were on their way. Once through the swing bridges, our ascent of Neptune’s Staircase began, with our land-crew ladies securing us in each lock, then literally pulling us through to the next one – much to the amusement of the lock-keepers and the various onlookers gathered. 90 minutes later, by now about 4pm, we arrived at the canal basin at the top of the Staircase. The Wayfarer was secured to a pontoon, using a 6ft cable and lock, and we retired to The Moorings Hotel adjacent after a long day.
Setting off from Banavie in the early morning sunshine.
Banavie to Corriegour Lodge Hotel, Loch Lochy. 15 miles.
7.5 miles of canal including 2 swing bridges and 2 locks, then 7.5 miles of open water sailing on Loch Lochy.
Off we set along the canal in glorious sunshine, still with just the mast, genoa and outboard. The Wayfarer had been fitted with a self-furling genoa (courtesy of Ralph Roberts) which we thought we might use in the canals if a) we had been out of site of the lock-keepers and b) the wind was in the right direction. In the event, we never used the genoa in the canal, nor indeed did we ever have to lower our mast to get under a swing bridge. W10408 was kitted out with an ingenious system for lowering the mast, using a pulley on the forestay and a lowering rope coming back into the cockpit – again an idea from Ralph Roberts. As we continued to motor along the canal, we changed to steering the boat using it’s own tiller and rudder. This meant the helm’s weight was much further forward and we stopped taking on water.
The Moy swing-bridge keeper sees us through.
The swing bridge at Moy was duly opened for us as we approached, the keeper leaning on a fence with a bemused smile as we motored by. Just before the first of the two Gairlochy locks (with a swing bridge sandwiched between) we saw a huge ocean-going barge, used as floating accommodation for outdoor activities in The Great Glen. The barge had been waiting to accompany us through the two locks and swing bridge. Again, the lock-keeper took control. We waited outside until this massive craft – it took up nearly all the length of the 150ft lock – had been secured, then in we went. This lock was so deep the lock keeper lowered his own ropes for us, to which our land crew duly hung on to.
The enormous accommodation barge with us in the lock at Gairlochy.
Just beyond the second lock was a pontoon which we tied up to – at last, to rig the boom and mainsail and prepare to sail off into the open waters of Loch Lochy. On leaving the pontoon we followed the red buoys marking shallow water to port. Unexpectedly, and contrary to the forecast, the force 2-3 wind was coming straight at us from the north, so we beat our way up the first two miles of the Loch.
Beating our way into Loch Lochy.
At last, open water sailing in the Scottish Highlands.
Securing the boat at the pontoon at Corriegour Lodge Hotel.
We were sailing in glorious sunshine, in simply stunning highland scenery, with not another sail in sight. Then the wind died. Nothing. So we reverted to the outboard for the next 2.5 miles. Loch Lochy is mostly about a mile wide, and we chose to sail down the centre of the loch, thinking that there would be more wind there than at the sides. At last the wind picked up, this time in our favour coming from the south/south west. We goose-winged for the next 2 miles, trying to figure out which was the Corriegour Lodge Hotel from the few white buildings on the starboard side of the loch, until we saw our land crew waving at us from the beach near the hotel. We had chosen the Corriegour, mostly because of its location on our ‘cruise’, but also because it had its own private pontoon.
The road trailer.
We didn’t want the land crew to have to tow the trailer each day, so we initially thought we would take it halfway to Inverness at some point, then drive back and collect it once we reached Inverness.
Fort William to Inverness is 60 odd miles, so two 60 mile round trips? In the event, on day one we left the trailer at the Lochaber Yacht Club during the day, then took it to the Moorings Hotel Car Park at Banavie. We left it overnight there, and through day two, when we drove from Corriegour to collect it. Then a stroke of luck, as the owner of the Corriegour said he would keep it and take it up to Fort Augustus (where he had some land) and store it for us until we rang him to arrange collection.
The Wayfarer tied up for the night.
Setting sail with a reefed main in readiness for windier conditions.
Corriegour Lodge Hotel to Fort Augustus, distance 14 miles.
3 miles sailing in Loch Lochy: 1.5 miles of canal including a lock and swing bridge; 4 miles of sailing Loch Oich; 4.5 miles of canal including 2 locks and a swing bridge, then at Fort Augustus a 5 lock staircase and road swing bridge.
As we rigged up on the pontoon, we estimated the wind to be a good Force 3 at the waters edge, so probably a 4+ in the middle of the loch. We put one reef into the mainsail and cast off. Once in the middle of the loch it became quite choppy with waves about 2 feet high. We broad reached up the loch – this was real sailing – for about 2.5 miles to where the loch narrows before the canal. By this time it was a Force 5, so we turned into the wind and dropped the mainsail. Not for the last time, did the south-westerly wind funnel down the lochs building up at the north-easterly end.
Very gusty as we approach the channel before Laggan Lock.
We sailed into the buoyed channel on just 2/3rds of the genoa, then as we got nearer the lock reduced the genoa to nothing – the wind and waves alone were powering us along towards Laggan Lock. The wind was literally blowing the sail-less boat into the lock, hence the need to have a firm hold on the stern line on the lock side, and for us to fend off the lock walls using the paddles. On completing the lock procedure, our land crew hauled us to a pontoon just beyond the lock – the keeper of our stern line slipped on the grass bank, and for a minute we thought we were going to haul her into the water and overshoot the pontoon – all powered by the wind… thankfully, she regained her feet and all was safe!
The A84 swing-bridge at Laggan is opened for us, as we motor through.
Beyond Laggan Lock and back onto the outboard, in the distance we could see the A84 Laggan road swing bridge. Already opened up for us, with queues of cars and coaches waiting (and people taking snaps of us), as we majestically motored through.
Loch Oich was slightly disappointing after the wide open water of Loch Lochy. Barely 400 yards wide with low-lying land and woods on both sides, as we sailed goose-winged using the main and genoa. Aberchadder road swing bridge was opening for us as we arrived, as with all locks and swing-bridges we either radioed ahead, or our land crew ladies arrived before us and advised the keeper about our impending arrival.
Secure at the top of the lock staircase at Fort Augustus.
Still in the canal, at Kytra lock we had a short wait for a couple of motor cruisers (the hired variety, common on the CaleCanal) to join us. We found out that the ‘skippers’ of these craft are given just half an hours tuition before being let loose in the lochs, canals and locks! Every reason to keep well clear of them, whilst transiting the locks? A few more miles of canal before the rooftops of Fort Augustus came into view. Fort Augustus is a busy tourist town, the only largish place on Loch Ness, so there were plenty of tourist onlookers as we descended, on our own, the five lock staircase then through the adjacent swing bridge, then onto a pontoon just before the canal opens out into Loch Ness.
Again our land crew hauled us down through these five locks, raising many a smile from the assembled tourists and lock-keepers. This made our passage much quicker, as without our own help, the lock keepers would have had to take our lines and secure us. It was here that the lock-keepers told us that sailing dinghies were rarely seen on the Caledonian Canal. Probably because of the potentially bad weather conditions on Loch Lochy and Loch Ness – to the point that they would dissuade you entering the Lochs in bad weather. After all, there is no one to come and rescue you…
We moored up for the night on the pontoon to the port side just beyond the swing bridge, the pontoon further towards Loch Ness on the starboard side would have been more exposed if the wind shifted to a northerly overnight.
The swing-bridge is opened up for us. Loch Ness stretches out before us tomorrow.
17 miles of open water sailing today!
Fort Augustus to Drumnadrochit Harbour.
17 miles of open water sailing on Loch Ness.
Still warm and sunny… could it continue, as we set off under full sail? For the next four hours we sailed on a run in a Force 1-2 whilst admiring the magnificent scenery of Loch Ness. As in the lower parts of Loch Lochy the further into the loch we sailed the more the wind decreased, so we again reverted to the outboard for a few miles. At one point we were ‘buzzed’ by a large military turbo-prop aircraft flying just a few hundred feet above the water down the length of the loch.
As the castle on the promontory at Urquhart came into view in the distance, the wind picked up again, so at least we were able to provide a decent shot of a sailing dinghy to the many tourists lining the castle walls and banks. We could see the flashbulbs going off from some distance. We were the only sailboat out –the few cruising yachts we saw were all using motors. We rounded the headland at Urquhart and across the bay we could see Drumnadrochit harbour. The Wayfarer was secured in a sheltered position overnight on the quay, well away from any motor cruisers! We had covered the 17 miles of Loch Ness, mostly under sail, in just over 4 and a half hours. There is an overnight charge here of £10 (coins only) payable at a ticket machine on the harbour side.
As we had time, we decided then to retrieve the road trailer from just north of Fort Augustus, and take it to the yard at Caley Marine in Inverness, our final destination. There were no hotels near the harbour, so we stayed the night at the Loch Ness Inn in Lewiston, Drumnadrochit, about 5 minutes drive away.
Under full sail in Loch Ness.
Drumnadrochit Harbour to Caley Marine, Inverness. 15 miles.
8.5 miles open water sailing in Loch Ness; channel into Loch Dochfour (1 mile); 5.5 miles of canal including one lock and one swing bridge.
A dot in the ocean – or a speck in the loch?
Towards the top end of Loch Ness.
Yet another glorious sunny day, but we knew it wasn’t going to last! We set sail in lightish Force 2, but again the winds increased the nearer we got to the north end of Loch Ness. This could have been because a) the Loch and hills either side narrow here, or b) the impending low (we could see the blackened sky towards the south) was catching us up, or… c) both? It was here we saw the only other sail in our five days in Scotland… even then, just a genoa on the bow of a cruising yacht.
Approaching Dochgarroch lock on Loch Dochfour.
As we approached the narrows, marked by channel markers, the wind had lifted to a Force 3-4 and we were sailing on a broad reach as we entered the 50m wide channel into the pretty surroundings of Loch Dochfour. We dropped the mainsail just before the weir on the starboard side, and sailed on just the genoa into the beginning of the canal and up to the lock at Dochgarroch. Again, our land crew were here to assist us through the lock – the stern line being essential as, again, we were literally blown into the lock. Here, for the first time in six days in Scotland it rained – just a bit. There were good facilities at the Jacobite Centre so we stopped for lunch, albeit sitting in the smartish restaurant wearing our sailing tops and boots.
The very low Tommy swing bridge.
Our final stretch of the canal took us the last few miles towards the Tomnahurich (Tommy) road swing bridge. As described previously, the Wayfarer had been adapted so that we could lower the mast if necessary to avoid delays at swing bridges. It would have been useless here, as the clearance between the bottom of the bridge and the water must have been less that two foot. Not even a paddle boarder lying flat on his board would have got under this bridge.
The skies darken as we motor the final miles to Caley Marine at Inverness.
With the dark sky looming up behind us, we motored the final mile or so to the slipway at Caley Marine – just half a mile from the North Sea. Our land crew ladies, our wives Annette and Susan, were there to meet us and had the launch trolley and road trailer ready…. then the heaven’s opened and it rained stair-rods Scottish style. So the sailors (only) de-rigged the boat and prepared it for the 550 mile journey south the following day. Needless to say, the rain stopped an hour later just as we finished. The guys at Caley Marine were really helpful throughout, and charged us just £20 for using their slipway and storing the trailer overnight.
PLAN A only?
When we planned this trip, we only ever had a Plan A, but every day we sailed we realized how fortunate we were as the weather was kind and we completed our journey. If we had booked to go to Scotland the previous week, we would have been lucky to put the boat in the water at Loch Linnie, and if we got that far, the lock keepers at both Gairlochy and Fort Augustus would have dissuaded us from venturing out into Loch Lochy or Loch Ness, with metre high waves etc. Ok, you could simply sit the weather out, and hope you could find somewhere to stay at short notice (alright if you are camping), but the biggest problem once you started would be retrieving the dinghy from the water if you had to abort the trip. The official CaleCanal Skippers Guide shows just five slipways along the entire 60 miles from Fort William to Inverness.
We prepared for everything we could think of, including the Scottish midges, which we never saw. But there is a limit to how much you can prepare for extreme and unpredictable weather, when sailing a dinghy in this part of Scotland. As it turned out, we felt lucky to have completed the journey. Nonetheless, it was immensely enjoyable and a great experience.
Ian Slade (Helm) and Ted Kinsey (Crew)
WAYFARER WORLD W10408
We took or adapted the boat to include:
- Self-furling Genoa
- Main sail with two lines of reefing points
- Top-of-the-mast inflation bag
- 3.5hp outboard motor
- 10 litres of fuel
- 15 metre bow and stern lines
- 2 paddles – for paddling, but we only used them for fending off in the locks.
- 8 (2ft) fenders, for the locks and pontoons
- VHF radio to communicate with the lock/swing bridge keepers
- Mini pack of distress flares
- 2m bike locking cable and padlock, to secure the boat overnight
- Bungees and Tyga clips for securing stuff in the boat whilst sailing
- Spares bits of anything – the only chandlers in this area is Caley Marine in Inverness.
- Clothing for every weather condition. Full waterproofs to suntan oil!
- Anti midgie stuff. Avon Skin So Soft lotion and a Smidge insect-proof head net each.
CHARTS and GUIDES
Map of the Inland Waterways of Scotland: Imray Publishers ISBN 9781846235221 – invaluable
Caledonian Canal Skippers Guide downloadable pdf from www.scottishcanals.co.uk
The Calendonian Canal (for Boaters, Walkers, Cyclists): Anthony Burton. Aurum Press ISBN 1 854 10 554 X
OS maps. Explorer 399 Loch Arkaig; Explorer 400 Loch Lochy; Explorer 416 Inverness, Loch Ness.
- Lochaber Yacht Club www.lochaber-yacht-club.co.uk 01397 706307
- Caledonian Canal 01463 725500
- Corpach Sea Lock 01397 772249 or 07917 348025
- Caley Marine, Canal Road, Inverness IV3 8NF 01463 236539
- Scottish Canals www.scottishcanals.co.uk
- The Moorings Hotel, Banavie, Fort William PH33 7LY www.moorings-fortwilliam.co.uk
- Corriegour Lodge Hotel, Loch Lochy PH34 4EA www.corriegour-lodge-hotel.com 01397 712685
- The Loch Ness Inn, Lewiston, Drumnadrochit IV63 6UW www.staylochness.co.uk 01456 450991
- Ralph Roberts www.aeroluffspars.co.uk 01508 538522