Friday, April 30, 2010

Uh… Wick

[Kyle]The time came for us to leave Helmsdale. We used a trip across town to drop off our recycling as an excuse to take a farewell stroll through the little village we have come to like so well. I always get a little melancholy upon leaving a place I like, particularly if I have no plan to return in the foreseeable future. I feel so fortunate that, with our lifestyle, we are able to see and spend quality time in places off the normal tourist path that we otherwise wouldn’t ever see. The harbormaster, Alex Jappy, stood on the opposite break wall and wished us bon voyage. He also said he was sorry we had to go to Wick.

The sail was very nice. We stayed within a mile of shore, where a tailwind and a following current pushed us past cliffs of red stone capped with green turf. We flew full main and screacher. There was one brief period of about thirty minutes in the middle where the wind just wouldn’t decide which direction to blow from or how strong. We would get the sails set and as soon as the boat started moving, everything had to be redone or undone, but it passed. Soon after, the wind returned to a nice reliable tailwind for the rest of the way. The rain that we thought we would be spending the day sailing through held off until we were secure at the dock.

Right at the low tide, just before the current switched, we arrived at Wick. The harbor is enormous and heavily blockaded against the North Sea swell. It has the feeling of a big fort that has been flooded. We motored through a small entrance into the harbor, then through another small entrance into an even better protected inner harbor. It was completely calm and flat in there.

Before we arrived, Maryanne had phoned the harbormaster, Malcolm, to tell him we'd be arriving after hours and to ask where he wanted us to tie up. He told her anywhere would be okay. Once we powered through the second entrance and the inner harbor spread out before us, we understood. We need not have worried. The entire marina had less than a handful of fishing boats and us. We picked a slip in the middle of a completely deserted finger of slips and tied up.

Wick Harbour - still early in the season

Malcolm, who otherwise had things to do that night (it was 7pm), graciously came out to give us a gate and bathroom key so that we would not be trapped aboard the boat. With our new freedom we decided to have a quick orientation walk around Wick.

I finally understood what Alex Jappy meant. Wick is bleak. Wick is grim. This place, particularly in an overcast sky, feels like half Dickens novel, half Batman’s Gotham. Three and four story buildings made of gray stone loom over gray streets. No window boxes or spindly trees interrupt the transition between gray building and gray sidewalk and gray asphalt. Or, for that matter, even the heavy gray sky. The eeriest thing about the place is that it’s so empty. A place this size should have way more people milling around but it just doesn’t. I had a certain uncomfortable feeling of conspicuousness as we roamed the preternaturally quiet streets all alone. It seemed the perfect setting for a Stephen King novel. I told Maryanne I wouldn’t have been surprised to turn a corner and find Shawshank Prison standing there before us. Even though it’s not, the place seems covered with coal dust. The recession has hit especially hard here. Every business that we saw looked as if they needed three more customers today or they would be going out of business tomorrow.

The thing is, In spite of all of this, I kind of like Wick. It doesn’t take long before that feeling of isolation turns into a certain comfort about having the whole place to ourselves. This place could not possibly be on any sensible tourist’s itinerary, yet I felt a certain privilege at being in this neglected corner while all of the other tourists are busy snapping pictures of The Scott monument in Edinburgh.

Many years ago, before I even met Maryanne, The first night I ever spent in Scotland was in Wick. This was not because I wanted to see Wick, particularly. I was headed for the Orkneys. The ferry left before the train arrived, so I needed somewhere nearby and randomly chose Wick. I got in late and left early. I never got a look at the place or a sense of it, but I was excited at returning nonetheless, the circle being complete and all that.

It’s not all depressing. Everybody we’ve met here has been super nice. On our first walk, a man called out to us from the sidewalk of a nearby pub and asked if we were the Americans. News travels fast, huh? It turned out he was working on a survey boat called the Chartwell and had seen us come in. He and Maryanne talked shop for a bit (she had done seabed mapping for her last dissertation) and then he gave us a five minute run-down of what’s worthwhile and what we should skip within the town.

The harbormaster, Malcolm, who, like everybody else, is surprised that we plan to spend more than one night in Wick, couldn’t be friendlier. We are already being treated like long-lost family. Without us even having to ask, he gave us the best deal he could for our stay. Our initial conversation with him reminded me of the guys in Crosshaven, Ireland. He can’t do enough for us. We need diesel - no problem. How about kerosene for the heater (hard to find) – he’ll get it. We need a part – he’ll bring it to work with him tomorrow. The guy on Chartwell said he asked him if there was a grocery store nearby and Malcolm’s response was, leave him a list, it’ll be waiting for you on the dock tomorrow.

Feeling like we really needed to pace ourselves with all that Wick has to offer, we got a late start and headed for the Old Pulteney distillery for an afternoon tour the next day. We were, of course, the only two in attendance. The tour was really well done- definitely one of the best we’ve seen. All of that experience with tours means we had a good time stumping our guide (who was very sweet) with questions. Actually, Maryanne asked all of the good questions – “How does the length of time you leave the wash in the washback affect the quality of the flavour?) I got left with the bottom of the barrel questions – “So… these floors….cement, huh?” Maryanne: “No, Dear, it’s Concrete. Cement is just the binder. It’s mixed with sand or gravel and water to make concrete.” {Maryanne: I just wanted to say that this never happened, my husband has a very over active imagination some days... :-) }.

“Right, where’s the tasting room? That’s a good one.”

Old Pulteney Distillery, where we felt the pull to partake in a tour and a tasting

It is a very nice whisky. I had been looking forward to it since first tasting it on the Caledonian Canal at The Eagle pub in Laggan a week earlier.

Following that, we had a more detailed orientation stroll around. The sun was out along with a few more people and Wick seemed slightly more cheery. We found a nearby grocery and, with careful shopping, managed to get a dinner of a giant loaf of bread and a big salad for only 50p. The cheapskate in me likes that.

[Maryanne]I intend to fully explore Wick and the surrounding area. And I shall have a busy schedule to do it all (and the other jobs for the boat) while Kyle is off at work. Already we've discovered links to many famous names.
  • Thomas Telford is prominent again (he designed and built Pulteneytown, the harbour area of Wick - he even built the channel that transports the water from the local loch to the distillery; a man with priorities).
  • There are also two LS Lowry paintings of wick scenes. Lowry was the artist referred to in the '77 song "Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs" by the one hit wonders Brian & Michael.
  • Writer Robert Louis Stevenson visited (indeed he wrote of Wick, "Wick. You can never have dwelt in a country more unsightly than that part of Caithness", and "... it is one of the meanest of man's towns, and situate certainly on the baldest of God's bays.")

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


[Maryanne]Helmsdale is a small village, the modern form of which was purpose built in the early 1800's by the local land owners (The Earl of Sutherland); a place to move tenants from their straths as part of the Highland clearances (once the gentry discovered that sheep farming was more profitable, and those darn Highlanders were in the way!). The Sutherland family which owned the area (although lived in London) decided to create the harbour and use the population they moved to the village to create a fishing industry. Helmsdale harbour became the biggest herring fishery in Europe (catching over 40% of all British caught herring. In its day it was a very busy harbour indeed. The old harbour, along with an even older castle ruins was pretty much lost once the "new bridge" was built to accommodate the A9.

Pretty little Helmsdale

The original bridge (still standing, and still in use) across the river was designed and built by Thomas Telford (yes, the same guy that designed and built the Caledonian Canal - we are seeing a LOT of Telford's work lately! The town even has it's own railway station and 2 football teams. There was a short lived gold rush nearby (you can still pan for gold and might even find a bit of gold dust for your efforts), and as we've mentioned before there is impressive salmon fishing here too. Despite all it seems to offer, it feels very much off the beaten path. When we arrived Kyle struggled to understand some of what the Harbour master was saying (despite it being a mild Scottish accent). I joked Kyle was still learning Scottish, and the harbour master warned us that there was Scottish, and then there was "Helmy"; we had much to learn.

Helmsdale, as a place name, conjures up a Yorkshire location for Maryanne, not Scottish sounding at all (Glens are much more Scottish sounding than Dales)! However it seems Helmsdale is based on old Norse, and hints at its Viking settlement past. The area has been named Helmsdale since the 13th century.

[Kyle]The weather was such that we knew we were going to be based in Helmsdale for a couple of days before decent sailing conditions for moving on North. This provided a perfect opportunity for a guilt free sleep in; we got up mid morning and were pottering about the boat, drinking coffee and enjoying a lazy breakfast when the Harbour Master showed up to collect his fees. We were in luck; he offered us a special rate, with 2 nights for the price of one. He didn’t know the exact rate for us, so after a bit of small talk Maryanne asked him if it was OK to go to his office later to pay the dues? A look came over his face that made her think that was not good, she asked is there something you needed to do? Would another time be better? He sheepishly lowered his head and said no, they weren’t very busy at all right now. Once we finished with our long slow breakfast, we paid our dues and then did EVERYTHING there is to do in Helmsdale (well, practically everything; we did not play golf).

The first thing I did, of course, was to look at the steepest road I could see from the boat, and head off to climb it. Maryanne gave me “the look” but followed along anyway, providing me with wonderful company. As we climbed our way upwards to get longer and longer views of the surrounding area.

We spotted this little cutie on our morning hike - take a good look at those feet, he did not seem to want to move off the sun heated road surface, and who can blame him eh?

Once satisfied that altitude progress was no longer possible on our current route, we turned around and made our way back to Helmsdale where, now hungry, we visited what is (reputedly) one of the best Fish and Chip shops in Britain (or one with great marketing at least). Clarissa Dixon Wright, of Two Fat Ladies fame, says that La Mirage in Helmsdale is definitely in my top six. I’m not sure I would put it in my Top 6 but it was food in a too generous helping, inexpensive, and we were hungry – problem solved.

After our late lunch, we headed for the Timespan museum, and spent a few hours there. There we found exhibits covering the history of Scotland, particularly the Sutherland region, and Helmsdale in particular, there was also some impressive glass work in an upstairs gallery. It was very well done and we learned a great deal; we were both impressed with the quality of the exhibits given such an off the path town – they were doing a great job and we were glad to enjoy it. Tired from the hike and the standing around looking at exhibits and art work, I was ready to call it a day, but there was one more thing I wanted to do. We had noticed the beginning of a coastal path heading North and wanted to discover just how far it went. We stopped by the visitor center looking for a map or guide for the trail; here the lady that popped up apologized they were out of printed maps, but she would draw us one for a circular hike that started along that same coastal path, climbed Navidale Hill, and returned via the West of the town.

We stopped by first at Footprint, it was low tide and we wanted to check on the water depth. All was well, Footprint seemed to be the only boat completely afloat. We picked up a soda and a granola bar to keep us going. On our way out, we spotted the Harbour Master standing on the break wall, and went over to find a crew dredging. The water was so shallow that they just drove a dump truck and a digger out into the river and start digging. Neither of us had ever seen such a dredging operation (normally it is done from a boat or barge), and the Harbour Master assured us that they should not normally be able to do it this way either! Dredging was long overdue it seemed. We made a mental note why it was important NOT to leave anywhere near low tide.

Dredging operations at low tide - Yikes!

We followed the path along the coast and in a fairly short time were rewarded with views of Navidale Bay with its cobbled beach, kelp filled sea (much exposed at low tide) and a backdrop of cliffs. The path backed on itself and climbed the hill to an old cemetery set beside a picturesque stream and with beautiful sea views. The path then briefly joined the A9 road, and broke off to head up Navidale Hill. The trail started on a grassy path lined thick with gorse bushes. Early on we reached a junction not indicated on our hand drawn map; the choice was to continue along a mild slope, or climb fast and steep up the hill, naturally I chose straight up, Maryanne reluctantly followed. The path took us directly to the top of the hill, above the gorse line and into the heather and peat. Views of the village below, the valley and the coastline made it well worth the effort. Maryanne found a path to the west and forged on, but as we left the gorse and approached the top progress was made difficult due to buffeting by very heavy winds. Winds were so strong that we had trouble staying on the trail. The wind, fortunately blowing up hill, kept pushing us off the trail and into the heather; we had to struggle (even with gravity on our side) to make it back down. We had no wind instruments (both of us wished we had our little portable meter) but we both felt the wind had to be at least 60mph – we could barely stand in it. We forged along the ridge top for a while, until it became apparent that the trail was leading too far away from the town, and still making no effort to descended – it could be heading for the west coast as far as we could tell, we’d made a wrong turn. We backtracked, and with great effort in the wind, returned to our original junction to find the correct trail, a nice wide grassy trail, walled by thick gorse in full yellow flower again. A mile or so later we found ourselves deposited on a proper road, leading back into town. Having hiked much more than we planned that day, and feeling no guilt now for our earlier Fish and Chips, we happily made our way back to Footprint, and flopped down on our settees for a well needed rest.

Late afternoon Hike - coast and hill tops - windy, windy, and with plenty of gorse

Northwards and the North Sea

[Kyle]We made a point of getting up really early to get out of the Clachnaharry Sea Lock at Inverness as soon as it opened up. The lockkeeper was especially accommodating and even told us he’d be happy to let us through at 8:00, when he showed up, instead of the ‘official’ opening time of 8:30. The wind was now forecast to be light and I knew we needed as much time as we could get for the long sail to our next stop at Helmsdale.

The firths, and then the North Sea itself were completely windless. A slight swell rolled in from somewhere distant and the water heaved up and down like mercury as we motored over it. It was several hours before there was enough wind to justify putting out full main and screacher. Once we did, we alternated between zero on the speed wheel and just under a knot. At least it was quieter without the engine. We had a lot of time to kill because Helmsdale is only accessible at half-tide or above, which was not supposed to occur until just before dark. We distracted each other from the noise of the slatting sails by reading to each other in turn until it got close enough to half-tide for us to need the engine again so we could get there in time. We were advised to look out for Bottlenose Dolphins - who are at their most northerly limits here in the Moray Firth, but we saw none; seals though did appear regularly, and in the calm conditions it was easy to see them idling around and enjoying the calm day.

Despite scare stories, we experienced a too calm North Sea, and arrived with the evening sun for our first views of Helmsdale

The harbor at Helmsdale is very shallow and very small, requiring careful piloting and full-rudder turns to negotiate our way to the single free spot. Once inside, we found ourselves very well protected by huge break walls on all sides. Filling the harbour otherwise are small fishing boats (apparently mostly lobster boats) and a restored older, traditional "Fifie" boat - sail powered, wide, low fishing boats. Footprint looked enormous compared to the local fleet, it seemed very odd for us to be the big guy in the pack.

Traditional Fifie Boat... Update, actually probably NOT a Fifie... but pretty nonetheless!

Footprint safely tucked into the harbour, and the old customs building (now the Harbour master's office)

We did a short walk around the village before darkness fell. Helmsdale is actually very quaint and quite pretty. The brochures do describe it as "one of the prettiest harbours in Scotland", but we've seen such things many times before and don't choose to always believe such marketing; "one of" is far to vague for Maryanne to take seriously. I originally only chose it because I wanted a stop between Inverness and Wick so that it could be done with day sailing. Helmsdale is the only remotely decent harbor between these two towns. I wasn’t really expecting much. It is a two-berth town miles from anywhere with a population of just under a thousand. The only mention we have seen of it is as a base for salmon fishing excursions. The River Helmsdale is reputed to be the best salmon fishing river in Britain. There are plenty of opportunities to hire a ghillie and have a go yourselves.

There was something I really liked about Helmsdale, though; it’s complete lack of traffic, its feeling of remoteness and its quiet, unhurried pace. Mostly, it’s because it’s set in a beautiful gem of a valley, the hills rising high on either side. Navidale Hill, behind the village, is covered with prickly Gorse, whose flowers turn the whole hill bright yellow.

We returned to Footprint for the night felling pretty chuffed about our little find, this little off-the–beaten-path jewel that we would call home for the next couple days.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Last mile and Preparing for the open ocean

Views in Inverness - the last half mile or so of our passage

[Maryanne]We left Caley with new batteries, and a bigger credit card bill, and set off to do the last mile of the canal - not much to do in a day. We wanted to be ready at the last sea lock for an early start the following day. We took it easy, and enjoyed reflecting on our first passage of the Caledonian Canal.

We reached the other end - the Inverness entrance to the Caledonian Canal

[Maryanne]So – we are about to leave the Caledonian Canal and head out into the North Sea. We have nice new charts, and plenty of supplies and one very peculiar problem – we have too much alcohol aboard! When we enter Norway we are limited to 1L of wine and 1L of spirits each. We don’t drink too much, but a quick stock takes found bottles of whisky, rum, gin and vodka, among others, which we need to use or lose; I’m suspecting we should be able to find some new friends soon.

A few facts about the Caledonian Canal

[Maryanne]From our handy guide to The Caledonian Canal (given to us by one of the Lock keepers)
  • Opened in 1822, and designed by Thomas Telford, the son of a Scottish shepherd. Telford also designed the Menai suspension bridge (in Wales). Despite little formal education, Telford became so esteemed an engineer he was the founding president of Britain’s (now World-renowned) Institution of Civil engineers.
  • 106’ (32.2m) climb from sea level to the “top” in Loch Oich
  • 29 Locks, 8 Road and 2 rail bridges (15 locks up and 14 down – when travelling from Fort William to Inverness)
  • 60 miles long with 22 miles of man-made channel.
  • The average maintenance guy mows 8km of canal side grass a day!
  • Neptune Staircase lock keepers walk up and down the locks as the boats traverse, a total hike of 15km on a busy summer day.
  • The Great Glen can be transited by Boat (via the canal), Boot (via the Great Glen Way) or bike. The Great Glen Way (120km, 72miles) attracts 10,000 walkers each year. There are a number of cycle trails off the main way to challenge any level of mountain biker. The main road crossing the same route is the A82.
  • The canal is used annually by up to 2000 boats (many rental boats can be found on the canal every day, while Footprint just passed through).
  • The canal uses 41 million gallons (187 million litres) of water a day; enough for every person in Scotland to have half a bath. Each locking is enough for 10,000people to take a bath. All still a small portion of the water draining (and raining) into the basin (most water bypasses the canal, travelling via rivers and weirs).
  • Modern shaped wheelbarrows were “invented” (along with a host of many other useful engineering stuff) during the building of the Caledonian Canal; well there was a lot of soil to shift!
  • The canal is twinned with one in Canada (Rideau Canal) and one in Sweden (Götta Kanal, also designed by Telford).
  • The canal took much longer to build than planned (it was 12 years late), and was much over budget (£900,000 – twice the original estimate). By the time it actually opened the British navy no longer needed a protected route from Napoleon’s fleets (Napoleon having been long since defeated) and modern, larger steam powered boats were too deep to fit in the canal designed for their predecessors. The canal was never the commercial success it was expected to be, but soon became a hit for travellers, tourists, and recreational users. Queen Victoria was one of the first tourists to day-trip on the canal (in 1873), and this much influenced others of the era – a huge boon to the local economy.

There - now don't say I never tell you anything!

Loch Ness

Loch Ness, and some of the other traffic on the canal
This one a AWS Ocean Energy generation unit!

[Kyle]So we finally got to sail across Loch Ness. The wind was not forecast to be up to much, so we put up the screacher so we could catch what there was. I was determined that we were going to sail at least a mile in that loch, even if it took all day.

Once we got out there, the wind was actually blowing from the northeast at about ten knots. It was the wrong direction, but I didn’t mind the idea of tacking for a bit until it died down. It would be a nice way to see each shore. The wind managed to stay steady all day and we managed to sail the entire length of the Loch by tacking into the wind. Our track looked like we were very neatly trying to sew together the two shores of the loch.

It was almost impossible for either of us to enjoy any of this fine sailing because the weather went Scottish on us. From the moment we cast off in Fort Augustus, it got colder and colder and rainier and rainier. Since we were going into the wind, it felt even worse. The clouds lowered and lowered until we could only make out the bottom 30 meters of the hills until they disappeared into the scud. Our charts said the hills on either side went up over 400 meters. “It must be pretty around here”, we thought.

We had to tack just often enough that there wasn’t quite enough time in between to go inside and put on more warm clothes or heat up something warm to eat or drink. By the far end of the loch, I couldn’t feel my extremities and I was shivering pretty badly. Once the engine was warmed up for the canal at the other end, the most important item became crank the heat way up. Never has heat felt so good.

We got through the necessary bridges and locks and tied up at Caley Marina in Inverness about half an hour before they closed. This meant we could pick up our batteries and get them installed that day. I really wanted to get that done because I wanted to run our Espar heater without having to worry about killing our one remaining house battery. New batteries come fully charged!

From Caley, all that remained for us of the canal was a short section filled with locks and bridges. They keep saying it’s going to be sunny, but it keeps raining. To be fair, it’s not really raining hard enough to get wet unless you stay out for a while and the sky does have kind of a semi-bright patch where the sun could be. One of the lockkeepers squinted up at it with me and proclaimed, “Aye, tha’s sunny.”

Fort Augustus

[Kyle]We took a day off from travel and spent an extra day in Fort Augustus. It was super cold the next morning so it took us a while to get up the motivation to climb out of the nice warm bed. Once we did, though, we decided to be fit and healthy and go for a run along the Great Glen Way towards Inverness.

It started with a really steep climb out of Ft Augustus to a nice viewpoint of western Loch Ness. Just after that, Maryanne timed out but I kept going for a while.

Sights from our run on the trail

After leaving the canal towpath, The Great Glen Way joins up with what appears to be mostly logging access roads. The parts of the roads where cutting hadn’t taken place were nice, but the trees blocked any view. Once at a clear-cut area, I could see the Loch alright, but the road itself was a horrible mess. The sunshine that we started in had turned into a cold, sideways rain and the lack of trees for protection made those parts of the run awful.

I was pretty surprised that despite the difficult hill running I actually didn’t feel too bad when I got home. After a nice hot shower, I was a new man, except I was pretty hungry. No problem. One of the canal side restaurants was offering soup and crusty bread for £2.90. That’s how they get you in the door. Once inside, everything smelled wonderful and, as I said before, I was hungry. We got out of there for a bit over £2.90, but it was worth it.

After dinner we invited a lone sailor from another boat over for tea and conversation. Wow! It turns out he had been pretty much everywhere. He has sailed across every ocean in the world. A couple of years ago, he even completed the Northwest Passage over Canada. Last year, he got arrested by the Russians after an aborted attempt at the Northeast Passage. On his way back to Norway, ice forced him into close enough proximity to Russia that they nabbed him for being where he wasn’t supposed to be. Since he hadn’t planned to land in Russia, he figured it wasn’t necessary to bother them about being in their waters.

He took up sailing because he “was getting on a bit” and thought it would be less strenuous than what he was doing before: technical mountaineering. He had lots of those stories, too.

Other sights from Ft. Augustus - the old monastery (now converted to apartments), and the old trellis footbridge across the river Ness - waiting repair before usable again.

Friday, April 23, 2010

On the Way Back Down

Picturesque Fort Augusta's flight of locks lead us down to the swing bridge and finally Loch Ness :-)

[Kyle]Our day started going northeast bound in the company of a couple of rental canal boats is we transited the short stretch of the canal between Loch Lochy and Loch Oich. We went through a swing bridge and then were out on the open water of the highest loch on the canal. Loch Oich is relatively small and shallow. It is only about 2 miles long and has a narrow channel that has to be followed very carefully. The scenery is stunning, though. The shore passes close by and the loch as studded with lots of pretty little pine covered islets.

At the other end was another swing bridge (for the same road – the A82), a couple of locks a mile or so apart and then a short section of canal before the Fort Augustus flight of five locks.

Maryanne and I had been to Fort Augustus many years before and loved it. It is still a beautiful little village, all centered around the flight of locks at its center. On each side of the canal are lots of cozy looking stone buildings with brightly painted trim, mostly pubs.

The day was beautiful and sunny and the village was filled with tourists milling around with smiles and looks of wonder on their faces. While we were waiting for the next scheduled locking down, I went for a little walk around and, in the process, became acutely aware that all of these people were milling around to kill time before the next locking down. The show was about to start and we and two other boats were the stars. Don’t screw this up, I thought.

It was actually a lot of fun. As we were tending our lines from the top of the lock walls, tourists would come up to us and ask us about our boat. Since the other two boats were fairly worn –out looking (different) canal rentals, Footprint, who was the biggest boat in the lock AND flying the flag from a far-away country, got by far the most attention. We got peppered with questions: “Did you sail all the way over from America? How long did it take? Were you scared? Where are you going next?” I could hear others talking about Footprint amongst themselves. It is nice to get a little credit every now and then.

At the last lock, we were lowered down to the level of Loch Ness. We tied up at the pontoon and went for a look. There it was – Loch Ness. I had to just stand there and stare at it for a while. For the rest of the day, as we wandered aimlessly along the trails and through the pretty little town, I was in a daze. I kept thinking to myself, “I sailed to Loch Ness. I actually sailed all the way to Loch Ness.”

Kyle takes a good look at Loch Ness; no monsters today!

Our Day Off

[Kyle]At 1am, when it was raining in sheets, I went to go use the head. As I walked past, I checked our battery monitor and found that it was reading 10.8 volts at 92% of charge, which is not supposed to happen unless something is pretty wrong with our batteries. I went back to bed and slept on it and decided that one of our two house batteries must be faulty.

{Maryanne: Kyle tossed and turned so much that in the middle of the night I eventually pulled an electrical manual off the shelf and helped trouble shoot our battery issue - on dud battery was our combined effort of a diagnosis}

In the morning, I decided I needed to get everything out and have a better look with our voltammeter. This, of course, meant that we did not have access to battery power until the whole thing was sorted out. That meant we had no heat. It was now snowing outside – yes, snowing. I put on everything I had and got to work on the problem. Tony Smith once told me that I didn’t need heat. Scotland was not that cold and, besides, by the time I made a cup of tea, the boat would be nice and warm. I made a whole pot of coffee and the inside temperature did climb – all the way from 4.0 to 4.3C (39.2 to 39.74F) – not exactly shorts weather.

After a little bit of diagnosis, I determined that one of our house batteries was no longer able to hold a charge. I then reduced our two battery house bank to one battery and we were back in business. The heat was back on. Everything would be okay for the next couple of days until we could replace the batteries, so long as we didn’t go more than a couple of days between charging.

The day was alternating between sleet, hail and snow, so both Maryanne and I busied ourselves with various jobs. What I had intended as a nice leisurely day off in which to explore was turning into a freezing day of chores. The whole thing left me feeling pretty demoralized. What had I gotten us into?

Loch Oich

Eagle barge/pub - nice place for a wee dram

Around 5pm, the precipitation stopped and the sun started peeking through the clouds and it warmed up a little. Maryanne and I both jumped at the opportunity to get off the boat and go for a hike along the south side of the canal and then Loch Oich. Fresh air and a little exercise always makes me feel better. On the way back, we stopped at the local barge-cum-pub – the Eagle - for a wee dram. Their selection was very good and on the advice of the barmaid/owner, I selected a nice one called Old Pultney. The distillery is in Wick, which is on our way. I’m going to have to make a point of attending that tour.

Afterward, for a light dinner, Maryanne made mushroom soup from the recipe given us by the Oyster Inn in Connel. De-lish-us! The turnaround of my day was now complete.

More of the Great Glen

Moy farmer's footbridge, and one of the many aqueducts that were built for the Caledonian Canal

[Kyle]Our car never did materialize that day. Laddie just wasn’t up to it. Feeling a bit trapped, we decided to go for a walk along the canal to the Moy Bridge, about five miles distant to make ourselves feel a bit more productive. Along the way, we made a few side trips down various paths that looked interesting. One had lovely views of snow capped Ben Nevis (Britain’s highest point) across the adjoining river. A couple of others led down to the bottom of aqueducts the canal passed over.

We seemed to walk forever. We kept thinking the Moy Bridge would be just around the next bend but it kept not showing up. We were walking right into a cold wind that we were dying to put at our backs. Eventually, of course, we did find it and it was worth the walk. In both of us, it conjured up immediate memories of the beautifully maintained and painted bridges of the Erie Canal. The Moy Bridge is the only remaining bridge that was part of the original canal. It is used to provide access for a single farmer. The bridge is separated into two halves that are each operated independently by hand crank. The tender opens one side, and then rows a boat to the opposite side to open the other half. Now that’s a lot of work.

Early the next morning, we finally managed to pick up our car for the quick trip to Dunstaffnage to pick up our mail, top up on propane and do a few other things we always try to get done whenever we have the luxury of a car. It was a beautiful morning and it was really difficult to stay focused on the short list of errands and not to stop at every park and scenic viewpoint along the drive.

As cruisers, however, we are always beholden to either the weather or the tides. The forecast for the day was pretty much the opposite of the day before: nice in the morning and horrible by dusk. I was keen to get going as quickly as we could in order to make as much distance in the canal before it hit.

We managed to cast off just after Noon. We enjoyed effortlessly gliding over our long walk of the afternoon before. The Moy Bridge keeper cheerfully opened for us even though he had just closed after the passing of a canal cruiser going the other way. After Moy, we found the Gairloch lock wide open awaiting our arrival, lifting us up to the level of Loch Lochy.

The wind was picking up from astern so we jumped at the opportunity to get the mainsail up and get a nice, engine-free push across the eight mile loch. Loch Lochy is gorgeous. The hills of the narrow glen arc upward 2000 feet on either side, starting at thick forest and ending up lapping at the bottoms of the clouds scudding overhead. As we neared the other side of the loch, we were finally overtaken by the predicted cold front. The wind picked up and the outside temperature went down 5C in 20 minutes, making it unbearably cold.

Kyle motoring along the canal - what scenery!

With the help of the wind, we actually made it across the loch in less time than it would have taken us under power. The keeper at the Laggan Locks wasn’t quite ready for us, but managed to get open in a hurry. It wasn’t quite early enough to avoid the drizzly beginning of the rain. I could almost hear the poor guy thinking “There’s always one”.

The locks at Laggan raised us up to the level of Loch Oich, the summit of the Caledonian Canal. From here, all of the locks will be down until we reach the North Sea.

We tied up at the pontoon just at the head of the locks right before the wind and rain really starting pummeling us. Our plan for the evening became pretty clear: Stay in. Eat something warm. Gaze out the windows and be glad we weren’t out there.

We were doing just that when we noticed a group of very wet, very miserable looking canoeists arriving from the other direction, paddling into the teeth of the wind and rain. They pulled up to the rocks on the opposite bank and made a very dangerous looking climb ashore. In a short while, a large man in yellow rain gear who appeared to be in charge showed up and started barking at the group to do one thing or another all without moving an inch himself. All of the poor, wet, miserable canoeists were then ordered to unload a massive amount of gear from their boats. It appeared this was in preparation for portaging their boats to the bottom of the locks by nightfall. Those poor people. We did not like this guy. We hoped it was just so they could get everything into their nice, warm hotel rooms so it could all dry off. At the end of the unloading kerfuffle, the big yellow guy ordered the most miserable looking person to stay behind and tie all of the boats together. Then he pulled them out of sight with one long line, hopefully to keep them safe while everybody had their nice, warm meal in the local pub.

We found out later that they were on some sort of course and were doing all of that to get some sort of certificate. The big yellow guy was their instructor. He booked a room in “The Bunk House” – a 50 something foot mono-hull behind the local barge/pub. The students all had to go pitch tents.

Footprint docked by the "Eagle" barge/pub at the top of Laggan locks