Crinan Canal and beyond

Whilst I am far from unhappy with EE it has now become apparent that ‘Everything Everywhere’ isn’t quite factual and finding mobile wifi is going to be a challenge going forward. I suppose this isn’t really a surprise so I am just going to have to work a bit harder and search out good cafe / pub wifi when I need to.

After a fantastic few nights in Portavadie I was making a plan to sail the 7 miles to Ardrishaig which is the point at which you can enter the Crinan Canal. I had a set back when a Swedish guy told me that I really shouldn’t be contemplating doing it on my own and that my boat would be too wide. I pointed out that the maximum permitted width on the canal was 6.2m and that Fiesta is 5m so it shouldn’t be an issue. However, he insisted that it really would be a problem. If he was right then it would mean an 80 mile trip to go south, around the coast and back up to Crinan instead of 9 miles to Crinan by canal! However, by a stroke of good luck I immediately bumped into a very helpful Scottish couple who invited me on their boat to talk about the canal. They said ‘Och fook nooo ya wee c*nt! The maximum is 6.2m so you will have nee problem’. They also had a solution regarding making the transit on my own. Basically the canal staff are on station to provide assistance with the locks which is just as well because unlike any locks that I have been through before, these ones are all old school manual ones. However, sometimes the canal staff might be busy doing other jobs around the locks so there is a company called Yot Spot who you can enlist to provide assistance with the entire canal transit which is fourteen locks. All this for a £50 fee. So, a no brainer and no more problem. I called Yot Spot and booked myself in for the next day. The staff at Yot Spot are all young people who are fantastic, friendly and utterly competent at operating the locks and make for a really easy time going through.
I sailed up Loch Fyne to the sea lock at Ardrishaig and once I had paid for my transit license I was locked through to the inside basin where I met up with the Yot Spot people. Once you have bought your transit license you can proceed and either transit the canal as quickly as possible or take your time and spend up to four days doing the transit. You can moor up at any of the pontoons along the canal, relax and enjoy. There are two main areas to stop at, the first being Cairnbaan where there is a Hotel / pub and Crinan where there is also a hotel / pub, cafe, walks and other things to do before exiting the canal and heading back into the big bad sea!

Having been through the canal I can now say that it would, in theory, be possible to do the transit single handed but with fourteen locks the procedure for each lock would be as follows:
Enter the first lock and stop the boat next to the ladder inside the lock wall and climb up with both the bow and stern lines in hand. Secure both lines but not tightly because they need to be adjusted from the boat end. Climb down the ladder and jump on the boat assuming that it has not drifted away from the lock wall owing to the lines not being tight. Tighten the lines, climb back up the ladder and shut the lock gates behind you. Walk to the lock gate at the other end of the lock and open the sluice gates and then make back towards your boat quickly so you can tighten both the bow and stern lines as the boat rises with the water level. When the level has been reached, secure the lines, get off the boat, open the gates that you are now going to go through and get back on the boat and motor on through before stopping at the pontoon, mooring up, getting off to shut the lock gates, getting back on again, motoring the 100 yards to the next lock and repeat!
So yes, it is possible but also an exercise in driving yourself round the twist together with a very realistic chance of cocking it up in one of any combination of ways including of course getting very wet and facing total humiliation.
Yot Spot got me through the first four locks really smoothly and it was worth the £50 just to see how it is done properly. Two of them handled the shore work and one of them came with me on Fiesta to handle the bow line so I could look after the stern line. Perfect, fun and easy.

On entering the canal you find a world of greenery, peace and tranquility. It felt like such a refuge from the windy and rough loch that I had sailed up in order to get there. I was instantly fascinated and so intent on taking photos of my new world that after navigating successfully past rocks, through currents, waves and overfalls for the last 1200 or so miles I ran aground about 100 yards after the Yot Spot guys got off the boat! Thankfully I bounced off the shallow gravelly edge of the canal, looked all around and sighed with relief that no one was there to see such a schoolboy error! I’d like to say that the edge of a canal is very difficult to make out against the back drop of solid earth but no one would believe such bulls*t and nor should they! Right Mark, you prick, concentrate…..

The canal was truly beautiful and made even sweeter by the fact that the sun was well and truly out as Fiesta, Max and I trundled along only chancing going anywhere near the edge again when I had to squeeze passed someone coming the other way. It was about 2pm when I realised that I hadn’t eaten anything all day but putting Fiesta on autopilot while making lunch was not a possibility. About a quarter of a mile later I spotted the roof of a petrol station down the green grassy bank next to the canal. Perfect, I moored on a pontoon which was right there, walked down the slope and into the garage where I bought a sandwich, climbed back up the slope and carried on along the canal! Being able to do that felt very odd as did seeing Fiesta on the confines of a narrow canal but I was loving it.
I stopped at Cairnbaan, enjoyed the pub, relaxed and walked up a very steep hill to look at some ancient stone carvings which provide a rare glimpse at the graffiti styles of three thousand years ago. These carvings lay undiscovered for thousands of years and have excited many historians but to me, what a let down!! I stood there, got my breath back, said ‘F*ck, really? Is that it’? No wonder people walked past them for three thousand years…..

After two lovely relaxing nights at Cairnbaan Fiesta got a spit and polish and I rode into town for supplies in readiness for the arrival of QBE Canada. I had delayed my entry to the canal by a couple of days because I knew it would be special and wanted Sarah to experience it too. She had flown up to Glasgow on Friday night and was enjoying a three hour bus ride to Lochgilpead which is a town right beside the canal. In fact the petrol station that I bought my lunch from was in Lochgilpead so I turned Fiesta around and motored back to the same pontoon and managed to intercept Sarah as she walked towards the canal from the bus station. Unfortunately the bus broke down so the three hour bus journey turned into four and a half but she had made it and was still smiling.
It’s always lovely to see Sarah but following a conversation we had the night before when she was at the airport, this time it was even more special. I hastily made my way towards the bus stop so I could help with her bags. She had with her an incredibly special cargo of single malt whiskies and I needed to ensure that the loving embrace of reacquaintance lasted convincingly long enough before reaching for the main prize.
I needn’t have worried about trying to be convincing. It was clear Sarah had other things on her mind too. No, no not that – she was desperate to see Max so we made for Fiesta where I witnessed a truly emotional reunion followed by the usual continuous stream of positivity that you get from Sarah. ‘It’s soooo beautiful, it’s soooo pretty, I love it, oh my god, I LOVE Scotland’ etc etc etc.

Once we were settled on Fiesta, we went back to Cairnbaan where the Yot Spot guys were waiting to get us going through the canal again. Yot Spot got us through the next five locks and then the canal staff took over and pretty much flushed us like a giant white turd through the final five locks in super quick time (they said record breaking time) down to Crinan.
What a fantastic experience going though the canal and arriving at the Crinan basin where we stayed for two more nights with only one more lock separating us from the rest of the West Coast of Scotland!
Everyone we spoke to in Crinan was incredibly happy, friendly and chatty. We visited the lovely bar in Crinan Hotel, met the totally charming owners and looked at Vic which is the last surviving coal fired ‘Puffer’ and is now run as a Trust on this part of the coast.
Men of a certain age with an interest in boats, old school engineering, getting their hands dirty, drinking ale and farting (the last two being my assumptions) pay a substantial amount of money to go aboard for a few days and graft on the boat. Despite the cost I think you’d be hard pressed to find a bunch of blokes that looked so enthralled and happy to get their rocks off and into the puffer, tackle the brass onboard and fill up the old boiler. Sounds pretty good doesn’t it. No wonder they are booked up well in advance…

We were treated to an unbelievably beautiful sunset and red sky on our last night in Crinan and locked out of the fresh water and back into the sea on Monday morning.
We set off northwards and crossed a bit of water called the Dorus Mor which was our first true taste of a tidal race. It was flat calm with a gentle breeze and looked totally benign until we were right upon it when the swirling water became obvious. With the tide coming in, which our departure was timed to coincide with, the water is forced up the Sound of Jura and funnelled into a relatively narrow part where it then relieves itself through the small gap that is Duras Mor. We were moving at about 5 knots but once in the grip of the tidal race our speed went up to 12 knots and we were swept though. The auto pilot worked overtime to keep us on a straight line and we sped along for the next 10 miles amongst swirling water, overfalls and truly stunning scenery. Honestly, the further I progress on this trip the prettier and more jaw dropping it all becomes.

Following advice from a guy we met in the canal we made for an island called Easdale from which Easdale slate originates but is now known for two things. Firstly, it’s the home of the Stone Skimming World Championships and secondly, its f*cking beautiful! Well worth the nerve wracking approach to the sheltered harbour. Having studied the invaluable pilot book you approach via a wide, safe and deep bay then you carefully line up an old ruined pier with the back end of an island that you can see a few miles away through the gap and enter via a 20 meter wide channel with crystal clear water and big rocks looming up from the depths about four feet under the boat. I found it really scary but you simply must trust in what you have read and that you have read it correctly and push on over the rocks and into the safety of the well protected harbour that awaits. Once in the harbour you can still see rocks below but they are now a much safer twelve of fifteen feet under the boat. We walked around the island which took about half an hour stopping to look at the beautiful old quarries now filled with aqua marine coloured water, we skimmed some stones and had dinner in the local pub which must survive principally because of visitors as the total population of the island is 65.
We enjoyed another stunning sunset followed by a lovely peaceful night in the protected harbour. In the morning the sea was glassy, the sky was blue, we put ten pounds in the honestly box for our mooring and left Easdale bound for Oban.

A friend of mine called Jamie who is Scottish but lives in Essex and who’s Dad has a boat at Crinan told me that Crinan is the door to the West Coast and that is where it becomes truly epic! I already know what he said is right. Scotland was beautiful at the other end of the canal but at this end it seems to have reached another level…..

Waiting for a boat to leave the sea lock at Ardrishaig so I could start my journey through

P1040161Moored up at Cairnbaan and continuing the journey through having picked up Sarah

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The Puffer and the queue to unload into the the old boilerP1040299P1040287P1040297P1040309Old men and dogs – Sarah can’t resist eitherP1040318

Jamie’s old man’s boat in the basin

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Sarah watching all the action unfold and a view of Crinan basin

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The view from the Crinan Hotel at 11pm…..P1040278Leaving Crinan and the tidal race that carried us up to Easdale IslandP1040352P1040362P1040372P1040376Appraoching Easdale, back a bit Sarah and a bit more, one of the old quarries, moored up in the harbour, the view from Easdale looking South and another beautiful sunsetP1040377P1040388P1040399P1040405P1040382P1040423

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