Traveling the Caledonian Canal

**Thank you to our Admin, Mark, for contributing this well written account of his travels aboard Detour!**

The Caledonian Canal connects the east and west coasts of Scotland from Inverness to Fort William, about 77 miles. It was opened in 1822 after 19 years of construction. It includes 3 lakes, including the famous Loch Ness.

It’s geologically interesting: it follows the line of a major fault created about 380 million years ago, originally much farther to the south thanks to continental drift. Most of the route consists of lakes, Loch Ness, Loch Oich, and Loch Lochy; Loch Ness being the largest, longest and deepest. So only about 22 miles of canals and locks had to be created, usually running parallel to rivers.

There are 29 locks; 28 of them were in use when we traveled through. We started at sea level in Inverness. Each of the first 15 locks would raise the boat between about 5-10 feet. We reached our highest point in Loch Oich, 106 feet above sea level.

This route is also popular with motoring tourists, as well as backpackers who walk the entire route. There are several small towns along the way, along with castle ruins, opportunities for hikes along the shore, and, of course, the locks.

We started on Tuesday, the 23rd of August, by entering through the sea lock at Clachnaharry, in Inverness.  We met with the lock keeper to pay our fees, receive keys for the facilities available along the way (bathrooms, showers, laundry, etc.) and receive a map and general instructions. After going past one swinging bridge which opened for us (there would be many of these) and one more lock, we docked at the Seaport Marina, just before the first flight of locks.

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Often the locks are in isolated places along the canals, but in three places along the route they are grouped together in flights. Our first group was the Muirtown Flight, in Inverness, and consisted of 5 locks, one right after the other. There are no pools of water separating them: as you exit one lock you immediately enter the next one. As a result, the use of the locks is scheduled with the lock keepers, because there could be boats coming down the locks, and you can’t go both up and down the locks at the same time.

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Especially in busy times, there could be more than one boat entering the lock. The locks are fairly large and could accommodate a number of boats. As it happened, we were always the only boat in the locks.

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These “staircases,” or flights, are tourist attractions! There are often many people watching you and your boat, taking pictures, and sometimes chatting with you as you wait for the water to rise. It was quite a friendly atmosphere. As someone who used to go to the Ballard Locks in Seattle (and would also take out-of-town visitors there), I completely understood this. It was fun to be “part of the show” for a change. The lock keepers were also very chatty folks and we heard a number of interesting stories.

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A few lock keepers told us we were “flying the wrong flag.”  To explain — s/v Detour flies the American flag at the stern since it’s registered in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (though it has yet to visit its home port). As a courtesy, you usually fly on the mast the flag for the country you are visiting — in this case, the British Union Jack. Well, there is some England/Scotland separatist sentiment these days, especially after the Brexit vote, so the hint was that we should be flying the Scottish flag instead.

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Typically the boat enters the lock and uses two ropes to secure bow and stern to the lock — typically starboard as that is where the lock tenders usually are. Because you are entering in low water, the lock keepers are far above you, so you need to throw the rope up to them or hand it to them on a boat hook.  The lock keeper hooks the rope onto a bollard on top of the lock wall, then hands the rope back to a member of the crew to tend while the lock fills.  Once you are in the first lock, the lock keepers ask that you have two crew come off the boat to handle the ropes atop the lock wall, tending ropes by taking up the slack as the boat rises and then walking with the boat to the next lock.

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One needs to walk carefully — the water level difference is minimal in the lock that was just raised, but often very high in the next one. It takes about 8-10 minutes per lock. At first, the water rushes in and you have to take some care so that the bow does not swing around and contact the lock walls (or other boats, if there were any.)

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It took us roughly one hour to traverse this first flight of 5 locks. You look back to the first lock and realize just how much you have risen!

After this, we had several miles of motoring in the canal before we reached the Dochgarroch lock and then Loch Dochgarroch, and then shortly, Loch Ness. Finally the wind was in our favor, so we were able to sail for a couple of hours to our anchor spot, right next to Urquhart Castle, one of the most scenic spots where we stayed overnight.

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On the next day, we spent some time touring and hiking at Drumnadrochit, before motoring southwest on Loch Ness to the small town of Fort Augustus. We spent overnight here before traversing the next flight of 5 locks, which placed us in the next canal, headed for Loch Oich. After 2 more canals, we were in the lake and eventually tied off to a pontoon dock near Invergarry Castle.

We were now at the highest point in the canal system, so the very next day, Saturday the 27th of August, we traversed Lock #16, our first lock headed down instead of up. After two adjacent locks at Laggan, we motored down Loch Lochy, eventually anchoring at a convenient spot, where we took the dingy ashore for a very enjoyable hike. After the hike, we continued a short distance to Gairlochy for the night.

Going down the locks is a bit easier than going up. The water is emptying from your lock, so there is much less turbulence. It seems to maybe take a little less time, but I suspect that is an illusion. But when you are going down, you need to take care to play out the two ropes, bow and stern, as the water level goes down.

The next day was in the canal, starting from Gairlochy and stopping at Banavie, just above the largest flights of locks of all, known as Neptune’s Staircase, a total of 8 locks. We would stay at this pontoon for several days, as we had several things to do: acquire a rental car for a trip to Glasgow airport, hike Ben Nevis, and acquire some provisions before venturing onto the salt water.

Finally on Tuesday, the 30th of August, we scheduled our departure with the lock keepers and traversed down Neptune’s Staircase. Again we were the only boat in the locks and this took slightly over an hour to accomplish. We then had two more swing bridges to bypass, one of which was a railroad bridge, then two more locks near Corpach, before we tied up at a pontoon in Corpach for the night, before heading into the salt water of Loch Linnhe.