Loch Ness family flotilla
That monstrous thing, sibling rivalry, reared its ugly ahead amid the majestic Scottish Highlands, recounts Kevin Green.
The competition began long before we'd even got on the water with my little sister racing up from the south of Scotland and me racing down from the Highlands. The prize: being first in Inverness to choose one of the two charter yachts we’d hired. Sister won that race, so when father-in-law Jimmy and I arrived we were told our boat was the Leisure 23 appropriately named Ben Nevis, rather than the newer looking Virago Voyager (Stathpeffer). Hmm. The next blow was the crew allocation and mine would be a mixed and hairy bag: Hamish the border collie that sis had rescued from a failed sheepdogs’ pound, father-in-law Jimmy and brother-in-law Colin. None had sailed yachts before, which is understandable if you happened to be a border collie with psychiatric tendencies. Our rivals on the other hand had on board my brother, sister and friend Mark who’d all done a bit of sailing.
Our plan for the trip was to spend the week sailing a return trip along the 100km length of the Caledonian Canal. If the August weather and prevailing winds permitted, we’d make our way through Loch Ness, Loch Oich and finally Loch Lochy, near Fort William. Several sets of locks divide the lochs and the waterway is an important route for commercial fishing vessels heading to the west coast, as well as cruising sailors.
These long, deep lochs run along a geological fault known as the Great Glen that divide Scotland in half with the Highlands to the north and the Lowlands to the south – a handy barrier for our warring nation through the ages; especially after the 18th century Jocobite uprising when the area was fortified, thus the place names beginning with “Fort”. Back to the present, the competition would be a family match race for the week with little sister very keen to get one over on salty sea dog big brother. Departing Dochgarroch in the evening, our flotilla motored the three miles to Loch Ness House Hotel and the first locks of the trip where we spent the night. August nights are long in the Highlands with daylight until around 10pm. Setting off with a 10 knot following wind, we had a glorious sail to Dores where we sailed on to a mooring for lunch and looked at the magnificent views of cascading mountains running down the loch. In the warm sunshine, we ran goose-winged for the afternoon towards Urquhart Castle where we hoped to visit the famous stronghold of the Robert the Bruce who held court there after the successful Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Nowadays, it’s a popular place for tourists wanting to spot the Loch Ness monster.
Locking through Fort Augustus
But the small jetty at the castle was on a lee shore in the gathering wind so we pushed on to the busy marina at Fort Augustus, where we rafted up at around 08.30pm in plenty of daylight. The 27 miles of sailing had given us a good appetite so the fish and chips in the Poachers Inn were much needed. The busy pub was full of yachties and locals, and we fell in company with the crew from the clam fishing boat Marigold. They had made themselves noticed by steaming into the lock with an inflated latex sex doll dangling from their mast and during the rowdy evening that followed in the pub, were offering introductions to the doll, or Dolly as they named her. Declining the attentions of Dolly, our drunken crew stumbled its way back aboard. During the night, the wind continued to rise and the motion woke me in my quarter berth. Coming on deck in lashing rain, Jimmy and I put a couple of extra warps on the boats to hold us until morning when we'd tackle the locks. Fort Augustus has three sets of locks and the crew must walk the boats through. A great excuse to chat with other cruisers and Hamish the dog enjoyed hearing his barks echo through the deep locks. The locks are all mechanised and mostly manned, and operate at set times, so it is often necessary to wait. They are also big and accommodate many small boats, so normally they operate only when a number of boats are waiting.
Locking into Loch Oich was a beautiful trip after passing through Kytra and Cullochy locks, the latter has a bridge which cars use. On board Ben Nevis we all took turns on the helm as the light breeze pushed us along towards Invergarry moorings which proved to be full, so we pushed on to the Great Glen Water park and Laggan Bridge where welcome showers were taken, followed by a riotous ceilidh on an adjacent motor boat with the alluring name of Love Bird. Yarns were swapped about the glorious weather and the lack of that killer Scottish insect the midgie, as the litre bottle of Famous Grouse whisky went down.
The following morning, with heavy heads we dawdled along the picturesque Laggan Avenue locks and its swing bridge, stopping near the Blakes charter company to clean up the boat, which by this time had decks covered with black and white hairs. Hamish the collie took the opportunity of some shore leave while we cleared up his mess before locking through to the last of the great waterways, Loch Lochy. After a breezy morning’s sail we tried anchoring for a lunch stop. Anchoring is difficult on these incredibly deep lochs (Loch Ness is a staggering 740 feet at its deepest.) but nevertheless I tried anchoring Ben Nevis on the north side of Loch Lochy before giving up after several attempts of dropping the hook on the pebble-strewn bottom between the lochside and an islet. Shore leave was on the crew’s mind by this time after a few days on the water, so on the pretext of going shopping for fresh venison, the flotilla sailors thought of making grocery enquiries in the Letterfinlay pub, an obvious place for fresh venison. While they were away foraging, I noted the wind back 180 degrees to blow from the south-west. With the tipsy but venison-free crew on board, we had a magnificent close-hauled match race to Dorlochy. With Strathpeffer gaining ground, the crew of Ben Nevis grinded hard as we tacked our way across the loch, watching the water shoaling on the jagged rocky bottom, before tacking back out. But all this tacking didn’t suit poor Hamish the collie who lay in a seasick state on the cabin sole and let out the occasional howl, which Jimmy, rather unkindly thought funny. The two had not exactly bonded as crew: the odd expletive curse from Jimmy as Hamish's big bushy tail thwacked him yet again in the face was returned in the form of snarl from the big collie. Perhaps Hamish had heard Jimmy laughing at his distress or maybe it was one of Hamish’s neuroses (he had several, including a fear of human feet, probably from kickings during his sheep-dog training) but what ensued certainly had the crew of Ben Nevis chuckling: with the noise of pots cascading around the cabin, Jimmy went down to investigate only to be repelled by a rather angry Hamish who feared he was being attacked. A miffed father-in-law returned to the cockpit, skin intact but minus a shoe while Hamish now made chewing sounds down below. The remainder of the 20 mile sail took us through the grandeur of the Great Glen, with cascading formations of pines falling into the deep peat-coloured loch waters, interspersed with the occasional cottage peeping through. We celebrated our arrival with bottle of Bulgarian cab-sav and some tuna-bean hotpot. The local cemetery was chosen for our evening stroll, to look up names – some Campbells and my mother's clan, the Mackays.
Awaking to yet another clear morning, we passed through Dorlochy locks to motor two hours to our most westerly point of our trip, Banavie, where we walked to Neptunes Staircase. They are a series of nine locks in the Caledonian Canal, built by Thomas Telford in 1847, that connects Loch Lochy to the saltwater Loch Linnhe and the beautifully wild west coast cruising grounds.
In the distance, the skyline was filled with the imposing bulk of the 4406ft Ben Nevis, Scotland and the UK’s highest peak. On our return journey back up the length of the Caledonian Canal, we came across a big old vessel, Scott II, which turned out to be an ex-icebreaker that had been turned into a restaurant by its Glaswegian owner. The icebreaker’s bridge now doubled as a refrigeration area, according to the owner, who entertained us with his guitar playing before cooking us a delicious freshly defrosted meal. But our dessert came by road in the shape of our mother, Flora, who had made the journey around Ben Nevis to greet us with home-baked scones and cakes. As the evening wore on, a shower of rain came down off the mountains and the crew dispersed to their boats. But Jimmy went to sister’s boat. He was gone for a while. The showers passed and darkness fell around the two moored yachts, bobbing quietly alongside the pontoon. Suddenly, the air was torn by a loud splash followed by shouts, then barks from the semi-alert Hamish. The shouts became expletives and a black holdall with a Titanic-look about it drifted past, followed by a tartan beanie, usually worn by Jimmy. Non-swimmer and father-in-law Jimmy had fallen in the ice-cold loch and was in need of immediate rescue. Thankfully, he somehow made it to the shallows and with a temper as bad as any imagined Loch Ness monster, was pulled out, stripped down and heated up back on board Ben Nevis. He confided, while shaking with the onset of asthma, that sister had plied him with the infamous Grouse whisky in yet another attempt to incapacitate the crew of Ben Nevis
. But Jimmy survived the plunge to enjoy the return sail up the lochs to Inverness in what was a glorious week of Highland sailing, with many a good yarn enjoyed on the way. And the result of the match race? A draw, of course.
Skipper's Guide, published by British Waterways Scotland,
which is given out to all boats entering the canal. It can also be
downloaded in pdf format from www.scottishcanals.co.uk Navigationally
it tells you all you need to know.
www.scottishcanals.co.uk Loch Ness skipper's guide
www.clyde.org Clyde Cruising Club
www.imray.com Imray charts
www.ba.com British Airways
www.calmac.co.uk Caledonian MacBryne ferries
www.Visitscotland.com Scottish Tourist Board
www.sailscotland.co.uk Scottish Sail Organisation
www.asyc.co.uk Association of Scottish Yacht Charters
www.scottishmarinas.co.uk Scottish Marina Association
www.whyw.co.uk West Highland Yacht Week organisers
www.ryascotland.org.uk Royal Yachting Association (Scottish branch)