Traveling the Crinan Canal

*** Thanks to our Admin, Mark, for sharing his (and Detour’s) experience on the Crinan Canal; fortunately they all made it through without me! ***

The most interesting thing about the Crinan Canal is that you operate the locks yourself as you travel through. The Crinan Canal was originally built a few years earlier than the Caledonian; it’s also much shorter with about half as many locks. It’s 9 miles long, with 15 locks, compared with 77 miles and 29 locks on the Caledonian. Another major difference is that while the Caledonian connects 3 lakes together, there are no lakes along the Crinan.

It’s easy to see why this canal was constructed; it eliminates a long trip around the Kintyre Peninsula.


We entered on the west side, at Crinan, about 10:54 on Monday, the 5th of September. As usual, while in the first lock, we went to the lock keepers office to pay the fees, receive a map and get instructions. A sharp 90° left turn in the canal led Detour to the first lock, operated by the lock keepers.  After the first lock, we were on our own with a few miles to motor before we would encounter the first set of locks, the manually operated ones. The canal is very narrow here, seemingly carved out of the side of the mountain. We could view the river with its low tide mudflats below us.

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Then we came to the flight of 5 locks that would take us to the highest point on the canal. We docked the boat on the pontoon below the first lock and walked over to figure it out and get started.

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You’ll recall that there are flights of locks on the Caledonian, where when you exit one lock you are immediately entering the next one. That was not the case here; there was a pool of water in between each pair of locks. This makes it much easier to boats going the opposite direction to pass each other, as you only have to wait in the pool for the boat to clear the lock. As it happened, we were the only boat in either direction.

The water level in the first lock was higher than us, because the last use of this lock was going up, the same direction we’re going. So we had to open the two sluices to drain the lock. This is done by attaching an L-shaped handle to a hydraulically operated screw that moves the sluice gate up or down a total of about 2 feet. As you crank it open, the water boils out, creating a lot of turbulence. This takes 5-10 minutes, depending on the difference in water levels. There are two sluices, one in each gate.

The gates come together at a point, in the middle of the lock, and that point is always pointed upstream, against the natural flow of the water. So it’s impossible to open the gates until you have the water levels the same.

Each gate has a long wooden beam, about as long as the gate itself. You push or pull (pushing with your lower back is recommended) in order to move the gate from the closed to the open position, or the reverse. They are very reluctant to get started and even when they are moving, it’s never very fast. Once open, each gate fits into a recess into the wall, and the way is clear into the lock.

Brian would slowly motor the boat into the dock, while Bruce and I waited far above. At the right time, Brian would throw us the bow and stern lines and we would make the boat secure.

Then we close the two gates behind the boat, the same gates we’d opened moments earlier, and also operate the hydraulic cranks to close the sluices. If you don’t close the lower sluices, then the water would just flow through the locks. Then we walk to the upper gates for that lock and open the sluices slowly, one at a time. The advice was to open the sluice on the side opposite the boat, and slowly, so as to minimize turbulence. This floods the water from above into the lock, again creating a lot of turbulence, so we open only a little bit at a time. Usually one of us operated the crank, while two others tended the lines to ensure that the boat would not swing around and hit the canal walls.

Once the water level equalized, the upper gates could be opened, again with a lot of pulling and pushing those wooden beams. The boat would cast off and motor slowly into the pool between this lock and the next. We would close up the gates again, and lower the sluices so as to leave the lock ready for the next boat. Then we would walk ahead to the next lock and repeat the entire procedure.

On the day we traversed the canal, there were no other boats present. It can happen that you might be traveling together with another boat, in which case you will pack into the lock as best you can. If there are boats traveling the opposite direction, then you would meet and pass each other in one of the pools between the locks.

We operated a set of 5 locks, closely spaced, that took us to the highest point. It took us just over two hours to operate and traverse this set of locks. We had only three crew members, so it was Brian driving the boat and Bruce and I above operating the gates and sluices. It was easiest to stay on shore and just walk to the next lock when it was time. More crew would make the job go a bit faster, but not that much, because most of the time is spent waiting for the water to fill the lock.

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We motored for a few miles along the narrow and very scenic canal; trees and flowers alongside almost close enough to touch. Then we came to the next set of locks — 4 of them, plus a bridge, that would begin to lower us back to sea level.

We did the same operations as described before. Going down takes a bit less time and it’s easier on the boat, since the water is emptying out of the lock, so there is no turbulence. These locks were spaced further apart, so there was usually about a 200-300 yard walk to get to the next one. I usually stayed behind to close up the gates and the sluices before walking to the next lock. We got through this set of 4 locks in just over 70 minutes.

After grabbing some showers at Cairbaan just below the 3 locks, we motored a few more miles to dock overnight at the small town of Lochgilphead and walked the half mile to the grocery store to replenish.

The next morning, we had 3 locks to operate ourselves, plus two swinging bridges to pass — those are operated by bridge keepers. Also in this case, the lock keepers at the east end knew we were coming and helped set up the first lock for us.

At the final lock, re-entering the sea, we turned in our registration and locked through, this one operated by the lock keepers. This was also the only lock on the entire trip, where we had an additional boat with us.

It was quite a workout and education to operate the locks, as well as a lot of fun. I knew how locks worked and watched it being done on the Caledonian Canal, but it’s entirely different to run the operation yourself.

Lunch on deck just after exiting the Crinan Canal.

Lunch on deck just after exiting the Crinan Canal.