May 2013, Caledonian Canal and Wick
Over the winter, we decided to should invest in a wind turbine. Up to now we have always been reluctant because the vertical axis turbines were not very effective, and the horizontal axis (conventional) turbines are not silent. There is nothing worse than the peace of an anchorage spoilt by the whir of a turbine. However, a new larger vertical axis turbine is now on the market (right), so we decided to give it a go. It is not small, and at 9kg quite heavy, but it is safe when running so does not need to be positioned on a long pole out of reach. The logical position was attached to the starboard side of the push pit, but as that is raked backwards it needed various thicknesses of wooden block to clamp the pole vertically forward-aft (thanks to brother-in-law Benomy, and work colleague Jon for raiding their oak cut-off collections for us).
In the run up to the launch, we had allowed a couple of extra days to our preparation schedule for the installation work. We also had to vary the normal B&B accommodation we use in Connel to get all the nights. The pub in Connel, the Glue Pot is now under new management and the food has improved several fold. Monday night is pizza night and this includes a haggis, black pudding and bacon offering (left). While sleeping one night in the B&B, we were awoken at 2am in the morning by someone running up the gravel drive, it was pouring with rain at the time, we heard the porch door open, then close and the individual then ran back down the drive. In the morning, Tim went out to get something from the car before breakfast and discovered 3 dozen eggs in the porch - apparently from talking to the proprietors egg deliveries often happen in the dead of night.
Our other preparations went according to plan, raising the mast was as stressful to watch as as usual, but there no hiccups, and we were afloat on the morning of the 14th May. The weather was perfect if cold, and we had an excellent sail up Loch Linnhe to Fort William. However the night-time temperature was a bit of a shock to the system as there is no heating on board, so as well as sleeping bags and pyjamas, we both had on fleecy trousers, and two fleece jumpers. Next would have been wooly hats as a night cap.
Our goal had been to be afloat in time for our 20th wedding anniversary on 15th May, and we spent an enjoyable day on the Caledonian Canal. First traversing up Neptune's Staircase (a flight of 8 locks raising us 62ft above sea level), where we provided the entertainment for other tourists come to see the staircase. From the top it was a gentle chug along the canal to Gairlochy with fine views of the Ben Nevis range of mountains - with the summits in cloud as usual. At Gairlochy (below) we went for a walk along the shores of Loch Lochy to visit the tiny church of St Ciaran's (see more pictures). This was followed by dinner on board, washed down with a bottle of Moet Chandon brought along for the occasion (right) - the perfect end to a lovely day.
Next stop along the canal was Laggan Locks, where we stayed for 3 nights. The rationale being that we were waiting for suitable winds to be forecast that would take us from Inverness to Wick. Laggan was as a good a place as any to while away the time with walks and listening to the cricket (first test against New Zealand at Lords). An added motivation was the Eagle Barge (right) permanently moored at the locks, where they had 4 cask ales from the Leven Brewery. Inside there is a restaurant and kitchens forward, and aft is the cosy bar (left) with squashy leather arm chairs and a much needed wood burning stove.
With the forecast starting to look promising, we continued on northwards, arriving at the top of the Fort Augustus flight of locks early in the afternoon, having missed the 10 wickets to fall on the morning of the fourth day of the test match - typical. Here there was a long wait while two lots of boats came up the locks. However we were entertained by the nearly tame swallows that nest under the wooden jetties along side the canal. They were flying around the boats, and swooping under and over the pontoons, perching on the railings, chattering to each other and collecting mud for their nests. Then Lord of the Glens (below), a cruise ship that shuttles between Oban, the Inner Hebrides and Inverness via the Caledonian Canal, steamed up from the south, and jumped the queue for the locks. There is just enough room in the lock for it! There was plenty of room though at the pontoons at the bottom to tie up for the night when we eventually got down them, and the very popular "Canalside Chip Shop" provided excellent fish and chips for dinner.
Loch Ness was so uneventful it was dull - a slow motor through the swirling mist with the auto helm doing all the work, but with breakfast on the way, the time passed soon enough. Then a couple of locks, a road swing bridge and a short flight of locks brought us to Seaport Marina in Inverness by mid afternoon. The forecast was perfect for the passage to Wick the following day, with F4/5 winds offshore on the beam - the fastest point of sail. We were restricted by the tide to leaving the canal sea lock at around 10am, and finally tied up in Wick 13 hours later. Long passages are not our cup of tea and we were tired and cold on our arrival in the dark just before midnight. However, sailing teaches perseverance, and at least we were sailing so it was a fast passage. When we had done the trip in the opposite direction in 2010 it was under engine and had taken 15 hours. We had been surprised not to see other boats making the same passage as conditions were very good. However, over the next few days the wind strengthened considerably and we were glad to be tied up safely in Wick.
We entertained ourselves with walks while waiting for suitable winds to go on to Orkney. It was hard work walking against the gale force winds as we ventured along the coast to see Castle Sinclair Girnigoe (left). This was built by the Earl of Caithness in the 15th Century with additions through to the 17th century, before being seized by Cromwell's troops in 1651 and used the major stronghold in the north for nine years before falling into ruin. These days a trust is working to halt the decline, and preserve the remaining structure, but for us it formed a welcome respite from the wind.
Caithness is famous for the Flows, a huge expanse of wild peat bog, and a haven for wildlife. A large area is protected as a nature reserve managed by the RSPB. It is accessible via a long single track road, and thankfully for us, also by train. It was a fascinating trip across the rolling grassy fields full of sheep and cattle, then out across the flat expanse of the bogs. It is excellent habitat for Hen Harriers which did not appear for us, but we saw Red Deer, and lots of smaller birds. The highlight however were the tiny sundews, with the specimen pictured being about 1cm across. They grow on the top of the moss catching insects in their sticky "dew". Thankfully it was too windy for the midges to be out, but in mid summer they must be plentiful.
Our next goal is to move on to Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, when the conditions are suitable to move on.