I spent the Easter holiday on a little boat making my way up the Caledonian Canal from Loch Lochy to Loch Ness and back again. It was a very relaxing way to visit the Highlands (well, for the most part anyway)! It was a great experience although I’m not sure I would rush back to do it again – at times it was on a par with spending 5 days in a wobbly caravan! This website shows a map of the Caledonian Canal if you want to keep track of our progress – http://www.westhighlandsailing.com/fortaugustuschart.html
We had an early start driving up to the boat yard at Loch Lochy. We had stayed here four years ago in a little chalet and it just so happened that the boat yard was right next to it so it was nice to be back in a familiar place. By the time we got our gear on board and had our (very brief!) tuition, it was well into the afternoon so we decided not to venture too far. You can only operate boats on the canal during the daylight and the locks and swing bridges only operate until 5.30pm so we didn’t want to get stuck between pontoons when the light faded.
By the time we got to the first swing bridge (Laggan) it was just passing 5.00 and the bridge keeper had already headed home (a little early I might add) so we spent the night moored next to it. Our boat was fairly small and would have easily fit under the bridge, but we are not allowed to pass through without the bridge keeper’s say so as the water levels can change (as our instructor told us, the bridge keeper is God and we must obey him!)
Dinner was a cottage pie which I had prepared the day before so just needed to be reheated in the oven. Sounds easy but the tiny gas oven wasn’t much use and after 2 hours of warm air blowing over the pie, it was (just about) hot enough to eat. The rest of the night was spent playing games and having a bit of a drink (well, we were on holiday!) After I successfully dominated the world it was time to smugly clear away the Risk board and go to bed.
After a chilly night I awoke to discover the boat was covered in snow! We had to sweep it away before we set off because it was really slippy, which was one of many new experiences on our trip!
After breakfast we paid the bridge keeper a quick visit to make sure we were allowed to pass under and then headed off along the canal towards Fort Augustus. We made our way along the longest stretch of canal – passing through Cullochy Lock and then on to Kytra Lock (my favourite lock as the keeper was especially friendly – although I have to say that all of the lock keepers we met were very friendly and helpful). We then sped along(!) the last few bends and moored up at the top of the Fort Augustus Locks. There are five locks in a row here which is the longest we would encounter. It takes roughly an hour for boats to pass through the staircase so we would have to wait our turn as boats were already on their way up.
After some lunch of bacon and egg rolls (which was quite a struggle in our tiny kitchen) we were revitalised and ready to tackle the locks! This took a lot of strength and teamwork as we had to hold onto the ropes as the water level descended and then pull the boat between each lock. The pulling and steering was quite difficult because the undertow could pull the boat away from us and if we didn’t hold onto the rope tightly enough it could have pulled us in (although I think the lock keepers would have come to our aid before it got to that stage!) Although the process took an hour, the time passed quickly because there was a lot to think about.
Once we made it to the bottom the plan was to head straight into Loch Ness for a bit of exploration and maybe try to catch the monster with our fishing rods. Alas it wasn’t meant to be as the weather had been a bit stormy all morning with showers, hail and wind so the water was a lot more choppy than any of us had originally realised. After about 5 minutes of being thrown from side to side and hearing the crockery knocking about below deck it was time to retreat back to the safety of the pontoon at Fort Augustus. This in itself was a challenge as the wind and current would pull the boat wherever it fancied, leaving our captain to fight at the helm whilst we shouted helpful(!) instructions. After an exciting duel we finally managed to bump along close enough to the pontoon for someone to jump off and pull us in. Another boat soon appeared behind us as they had obviously changed their mind about heading further north as well. After our ordeal we thought we should try to help them pull their boat to safety as they seemed to be having even more trouble than us in their larger boat (they were bouncing off all of the surrounding boats and even managed to take a little chunk off the front of ours!)
So we were staying put at Fort Augustus until the following morning when hopefully the weather would improve. In the meantime we recuperated with showers and a fabulous dinner at the Lock Inn where I had delicious fish and chips. We spent the rest of the night playing games on the boat and I felt a little light-headed from the rocking (although the wine maybe didn’t help!)
The next morning was glorious which allowed us to venture out into the vastness of Loch Ness and get our fishing rods out. Unfortunately we didn’t catch any monsters (despite throwing sweetcorn in the water to tempt them!) but we did see two Tornado’s flying overhead. I saw them approaching from a distance but they didn’t make a sound until they were directly overhead when the loudest whooshing deafened us – they are so impressive!
After giving up on the fishing we ventured back up the locks to start making our way home towards the boatyard. It seemed to be more difficult going up the staircase than going down, which was maybe because we were much closer to the sluice gates this time and got the brunt of the torrent of water against our boat. We had to hold on really tight to the ropes because the boat kept trying to get away from us!
We ventured back along the canal, taking it in turns to steer the boat through the meandering bends and passed through Kytra Lock. The lovely lock keeper gave us all gold stars as we waited for the water to rise as she was pleased that we all had our life jackets on (although our captain had made a mockery of this reward system by forgetting to wear his life jacket for most of the trip!)
We moored just past the lock as it was such a quiet and picturesque setting – the water was like glass, it was so still. This was one of the most relaxing points of the trip as we were able to have a gentle amble along the canal before dinner, and spend the rest of the evening enjoying a glass or two (or three) of wine.
The next morning we realised that we had completely run out of water which was a strange concept seeing as we were surrounded by it! We had refilled at Fort Augustus but then hadn’t passed another tap on the way…bad planning methinks! The next water point on our map was at the Great Glen Water Park so we made that our next port of call. However, upon arrival we were met with a bathroom style tap tied to a metal pole – not the usual garden style tap suitable for the hose connection we needed. And so we were destined to go without water for a bit longer (luckily we managed to do our dirty dishes using what was left in the kettle)!
The only other source of water detailed on our map was back at the boatyard which we would need to reach early the following morning anyway. So it was decided that we would moor up a bit early and just enjoy the last of our holiday without any more sailing.
This turned out to be a brilliant idea as it meant we could enjoy our final meal at the Eagle Barge Pub – a fantastic establishment which we had visited on our previous trip to the region four years ago. It is run by a husband and wife team (Janet and Paul) who have had the boat for seven years now. We popped in in the afternoon for a wee drink and booked our table for later that evening. This gave us enough time to freshen up and pack up anything we wouldn’t need the next morning.
That evening I had one of the nicest meals I can remember. It was fresh salmon steak served with a bounty of beautifully cooked vegetables and I think it is safe to say that we were all very happy customers! After our meal we moved along to the comfy couch next to the bar to enjoy another drink and pet the owners’ lovely Alsatian, ‘Beau’ – and we became fast friends after I found his favourite spot to scratch!
We awoke early the next morning – possibly due to the sounds of the other boats being prepared by the dockyard workers or maybe just in anticipation of going home. It had been a lovely few days but I always look forward to going home to my own bed (especially when I have been sleeping on an incredibly thin mattress!)
I love this part of the country and it won’t be too long before I return. I know my partner would instantly fall in love with the Eagle Barge Pub so I’ll make a point of taking him there soon.
I want to say thank you to all of the lock keepers we met along the way – for showing us what to do and helping us when our boat misbehaved. I also want to thank Janet and Paul for making our last evening the best of the trip – their brilliant hospitality and gorgeous food is worth travelling back for!
If you have any exciting stories about your Easter break trip then please share it in the comments box below 🙂