I suppose that transiting, by yacht, the Caledonian Canal in Scotland should be on most people’s bucket list of things to do before they die. So much is already written about this remarkable man-made passage between the North Sea and the Inner Hebrides, and you will find it hard to read anything but fulsome praise for the experience.Certainly, the sections of Canal themselves with their swing bridges and 29 locks , built by Thomas Telford in the 1820s,are extraordinary pieces of engineering and well worth examining closer. However, if you are simply using the Canal as a highway from one side of Scotland to the other, as we are at present, the experience leaves a lot to be desired. A bit like the Parson’s egg, it is good in parts.
The Caledonian Canal is part of the state owned Scottish Canals, which are also responsible for the Crinan and Forth and Clyde Canals. The whole set up is rather reminiscent of the old British Rail. Officialdom rules here in a most old-fashioned and inefficient way, and is at its worst in the central sections of the Canal which take in Fort Augustus up to Laggan locks. It is said that the minimum time needed to transit the 60 miles is 2/12 days. I think you ought to allow a full 3 days. At more than one moment, especially on realising that in 2 days of our precious holiday we had only travelled the princely distance of 25 miles or so, I rather wished we had gone round Cape Wrath from Inverness, via Wick , Scrabster and Loch Eriboll with all the associated tidal hazards of the Pentland Firth, mountainous seas and adverse onshore winds which are found on the most Northwestern tip of Britain. At least I wouldn’t be as frustrated as I am now with the excruciatingly snail like way of doing things here. No doubt most people would find it quaint and charming, a real antidote to the hectic city life which they have chosen to escape from ; I just see a terrible waste of a brilliant resource, which given a little enthusiasm and efficiency would make the whole experience vastly more enjoyable.
The official operating hours are 8 am to 6 pm, but this does not mean that you can actually lock in and out during these hours. At the sea lock at Clachnaharry, Inverness end, you have to wait for a suitable tide as the lock can only operate 4 hours either side of high water, and as previously mentioned, will not operate at all if it is too windy. Then, you have to radio up and book a slot. The Germans who are past masters at efficiency are always first to arrange things. Best advice is to carefully keep a watch on any German yachts, and mirror their movements! Seriously, you can be kept waiting all day to enter the Canal, as for some reason only 2 yachts at a time appear to be admitted, and the lock keeper there will often detain each Skipper for a full 45 minutes of briefing and well- meaning instruction. As well as taking payment, which in Ranger’s case was £238 for the cheapest one way transit license.
After entering the Canal, if you are lucky you can keep going through the locks as far as you can. It would be most advisable to get through Fort Augustus before the next morning. We had to stop there for the night, and got a horrid shock the next morning when we were informed that there would be no chance of our going up before 9 am, owing to the bridge being kept shut until then, to accommodate the school run. Even worse was the promise that we could have no guarantee of when we could proceed, as the lockkeeper first had to visit every boat to enquire about their intentions, and then devise a pecking order to suit his own preferences.
We had been warned several times of the added hazard of the Caley Cruiser fleet of charter motorboats, and the gross incompetence of those driving them, which is at its most destructive around Fort Augustus. At least this particular lockkeeper did bunch 5 private yachts together in the first locking of the morning, only including one of the dreaded Caley Cruisers, who behaved as expected and duly crashed into the elegantly tapering stern of a lovely yacht. Unfortunately her German Skipper was powerless to prevent it, and naturally very cross. The folks who charter these tourist craft are not really to blame. They are let loose on the Canal with only 15 minutes of video instruction and a quick demo of using a lock, then they are handed the keys and shoved off into a navigationally challenging environment which is filled with hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of floating assets. Very few of them have ever set foot on a boat before!
I would use a tarpaulin to protect the sides of your yacht from the dreadful freshwater weed which you will come into close contact with. It rapidly dries to a glued on mess which is an absolute bugger to scrub off. I really wish I had taken off our fender socks, as that made matters even worse as they collected huge quantities of the stuff.
After Laggan, things improved a bit and we made good progress until reaching the top of Neptune’s Staircase at Banavie, where we moored for the night. Every meal has been taken on board so far, as the eateries en route have not been up to our exacting standards. Absolutely fine if you love frozen chips and chicken nuggets though. Dinners on Ranger have included Rib-eye Steaks with homegrown new potatoes and salad, Chicken Fricassee, Meatballs and Spaghetti in Tomato Sauce, Chinese pork fillet with chillies, peppers and garlic with soft noodles , bean sprouts and bamboo shoots, and lunches have alternated between smoked salmon on brown bread, chicken salad and egg mayonnaise sandwiches usually washed down with prosecco and Badoit. Basically the same as we normally have on the Orwell at home.
The third and final day of our Canal transit was a very different kettle of fish to the preceding days. We got ready to move off on the dot of 8 am, and the lock gates opened for us as we approached at five minutes to the anointed hour. We had actually radioed the lock keeper at Banavie the night before to ask if we could leave in the first flight, and amazingly he said ‘no problem’. There were 3 yachts in total, and the lockkeeping team worked brilliantly, efficiently and speedily so that it took only just over the hour to work our way down the 9 locks that are called Neptune’s Staircase.
We were at the Corpach Sea lock at 10 am! When I asked why things were so much better at the Western end of the Canal, with much glee I was told that each third section is under different management teams, who run the show their own way. All I can say is that the middle section is the least pleasant to be in and the most ridiculously officious and downright insulting. How could anyone not be ashamed of the way one very serious round the world sailor in a beautiful 46 foot yacht was forced to don a life jacket then given a gold star for keeping it on at the next lock?! My husband calmly ignored them all and their condescensions and carried on reading his book throughout.
The sail down Loch Linhe to Port Appin was immensely welcome after the Canal.
We may do the whole thing on our return, but it won’t be something that we will look forward to. Cape Wrath is the alternative.