After 1,350 miles and a little over 3 months I’ve made it to the East Coast. I’m not going to win any prizes for pace, I grant you, but then speed was never one of the objectives!
The last couple of weeks has seen me move from the most northerly point of my journey on the west coast to my most northerly point on the east coast. Now, as the ‘crow flies’ this is a distance of about 58 nautical miles, or one long day’s sail. So the fact that it’s taken more like three weeks, demonstrates either a very circuitous route or a rather relaxed approach to covering serious mileage! I’ll leave you to work out which one!
My last blog from Mallaig saw Sarah and I about to embark on a marathon driving session to support my old colleagues from Kier in their Three Peaks Challenge. This was very successful and raised a colossal amount of cash for charity. It was great to catch up with all the guys and play a part in this great event, albeit somewhat of a minor part! The teams doing the hard work did exceptionally well with nothing more than a few aches and pains to show for reaching the summit of the highest peaks in Scotland, England and Wales.
We left the team in Liverpool to hire a car and get ourselves back to Mallaig whilst the rest of the team drove themselves the rest of the way back home. Although we left the hotel in Snowdonia shortly after breakfast, the final leg of the journey (which was a brief row across Mallaig harbour) wasn’t completed until midnight. Quite a marathon of our own!
The next deadline we had was to meet up with my parents who were joining us to do the Caledonian Canal. We had arranged to see them at the west end of it so Sarah and I headed off from Mallaig to retrace our route south via Tobermory and Oban to Fort William. We seemed to have spent several weeks moving north or south, by one means of transport of another, between Oban and Fort William. Thankfully it’s stunning and I don’t think I’d ever get bored of it!
Having a couple of days in had, we decided to have Caol Ila lifted in Oban and scrub her rather grubby bottom. Her speed had dropped off over the past few weeks which I suspected was due to the veritable cornucopia of wildlife which invariably attaches itself to the bottom of boats and causes drag. A quick lift and pressure wash should greatly improve matters.
Unfortunately Oban marina is possibly the least efficient place I’ve ever spent time. They had completely failed to book the lift despite several phone calls and consequently couldn’t do it when we arrived. To add insult to injury, the entire island that the marina is on had run out of water so no showers, no toilets and no washing facilities. Needless to say, this affected my ability to settle our bill in full when we left! Oh well, hopefully we would have an opportunity to shower in Fort William before my parents arrived – more for their sake than ours!
The run up from Oban to Fort William was pretty straightforward once the route was plotted between the myriad of islands that occupy the eastern end of Loch Linnhe. A few fairly narrow gaps before the loch opens up! We had been told that the amount of rain that falls in a loch is greatest for long lochs with high mountains at the inboard end. Loch Linnhe is the longest sea loch and has Ben Nevis at the end so no points for working out exactly how damp this trip was! Visibility was also rather poor for much of it.
We made it up to Fort William and just squeezed into the final sea lock of the day. This was great news and had us in the canal system. The following day, my parents arrived up from Newbury and joined us for the week we had allowed ourselves to cross Scotland in.
The run through the canal itself was fairly uneventful. It starts with Neptune’s Staircase which is a series of nine locks – hard work on the crew who have to walk the boat between locks but interesting to do. It didn’t help that the rain made the whole event a fairly damp one. However, the weather did improve from there and there was little more rain.
In all, the trip through the canals took about a week. It can be done significantly quicker but we were in no rush and stopped regularly. The longest loch on the canal route is Loch Ness. Although I had high expectations of seeing the famous wildlife, surprisingly I was disappointed. We did have a good sail across though and the cruising chute got quite an airing with the wind coming mainly from astern.
We made it to the eastern end at Inverness, where first my parents departed to go back and spend some time on their boat. The following day Sarah also returned home to resume the necessity of wage earning. It had been a great 5 weeks but eventually I guess real life inevitably catches up with you.
With two locks still left to tackle, I headed off on Tuesday. Doing locks on your own is a bit of a juggling act. Ideally you need to be at both the bow and the stern simultaneously, to feed the ropes out as you descend. It didn’t take long, however, to get a routine going where I eased one line and then dashed along the deck to the opposite end of the boat where I repeated the process. I was slightly concerned that I would do something stupid and end up giving the inevitable crowd that had gathered something to laugh at. However, thankfully there was a Norwegian boat sharing the lock with me who assumed the mantle of entertainment provider.
This boat was being skippered by a chap in his mid forties who had managed to have two very Scandinavian looking, rather young ladies as crew. Not wishing to cast aspersions on the skipper, one might charitably say that he had been slightly negligent in his assessment of their sailing abilities. A cynic, however, might comment that they were clearly chosen for their ability to sport a bikini rather than handle warps and lines!
As lock levels start to fall, the rush of thousands of gallons of water exiting the lock tends to cause a little turbulence. This isn’t a problem to a boat which is well protected by fenders and securely attached to the lock side. It is more of a problem if your bikini clad crew on the foredeck forgets to hold onto the line. Within seconds, the Norwegian boat’s bow started loosing touch with the lock side and rapidly took up a position with her bow pointing directly at Caol Ila. The lock keeper was on the opposite side manning the controls and couldn’t help and I had my hands full dashing forward and backward attempting to be in two places at once. A stream of what I can only assume to be Norwegian expletives erupted from the skipper at a similar rate to the water leaving the lock. This clearly flustered the bikini clad crew at the opposite end who, wanting to be of assistance, dropped her line to support her friend. The boat now had no lines attached and was completely at the mercy of the turbulence. More Norwegian expletives, more dashing about on deck and more entertainment for the crowd (which seemed to be building)! Finally, the lock keeper left his controls and managed to get a couple of lines to them. Order was restored, much to everybody’s relief. Caol Ila had descended without incident or embarrassment, entertainment had been provided by someone other than me and I was out of the Caledonian Canal.
Once out of the canal system, I intended a 25 mile run up the coast to what I hoped would be a comfortable anchorage. The weather was fine, the wind was in the right direction and there was very little swell running to make things uncomfortable overnight. As I arrived in the bay, however, the weather gods clearly decided to have a bit of fun. The wind veered 90 degrees so it was straight on Caol Ila’s nose and picked up markedly. Within minutes the swell also increased and was coming directly into the anchorage. With nowhere else to stop close ahead, I was left with no alternative but to ‘turn tail’ and head back 10 miles to a more secluded place. Very frustrating! Obviously, once I had got back and lowered the anchor, the wind died back off again and the sea went back to being a millpond. Sometimes, I swear the weather does it to me deliberately.
I’m now in Lossiemouth, having sailed another 25 miles yesterday. It’s a lovely town with a great marina; only slightly marred by the steady stream of Tornado GR4 fighters which take off from RAF Lossiemouth with a depressing frequency. With Caol Ila still needing her bottom scrubbed I’ve decided to have her lifted here. The staff seem significantly more organised that Oban’s! We’ll see tomorrow!