Burghead & Findhorn CRC’s Great Glen Adventure


We received five entries for the SCRA Cruising Log competition this year.  The joint winners were Queensferry and An Eathar, but the three remaining entries were all highly commended.  We intend to publish them all, as they will be a real inspiration for anyone wanting to use a boat on the sea.  Here we have a Great Glen adventure from Burghead and Findhorn.

Autumn 2016 saw the first germ of an idea for a wee adventure up the Great Glen in our skiff, Tarbh Uisge.  Whilst at the canal basin at Benavie, Caroline had picked up a map of the Great Glen canoe trail.  She pondered about the possibility of rowing the trail, then put the map in her pocket and promptly forgot about it.  A few weeks later she received a text from Hazel.  Hazel had been partaking in an odd beer or two on the train to an Autumn rugby international when she decided that we really should row the Great Glen.  However, it was not until January 2017 that our various ideas started to become a reality.  We knew St Andrews had already rowed the Great Glen and so contacted them for advice.  Andrew Rendle was incredibly helpful, and in true skiffie spirit, sent us lots of invaluable information.  Thanks must go to Andrew as he really helped kick start our own planning.

We assembled a planning group composed of Hazel, Caroline and Aus.  As you can imagine, much tea, coffee and many, many biscuits were consumed in these planning meetings.  We quickly set a date of the first May bank holiday weekend – mainly hoping the midgies wouldn’t be out in full force yet!  Issues we had to consider were firstly, where we’d be able to safely go ashore to swap crews.  In an effort to try and establish this, Hazel and Aus headed down for a day to recce the area.  They managed to identify most areas, but a couple, on Loch Ness were a little dubious – more about this later.  However, they did successfully manage to find the Inshore Lifeboat Station just north of Drummnadrochit.  The folk there kindly agreed we could moor there for our second night.  Other issues we had to work on were that we didn’t have enough of our own rowers able to commit to the whole 3 days of rowing and we were also having trouble finding someone with access to a safety boat.  This was when we decided to extend an invitation to our lovely skiffie neighbours from Findhorn to join in the fun.  5 of them boldly stepped up to the challenge, and even better, also brought a rib with them! Now we were all set with enough rowers and a safety boat too – yeeha!

We also contacted the Scottish canals folk during these planning stages.  They were really helpful, despite most lock keepers over the weekend looking dubious every time we rowed up to the lock in our skiff.  However, we soon won these keepers over and even received several compliments going through the locks – mainly due to our skills of manoeuvring the skiff within the locks. 

Day 1 – Friday 28th April – Fort William to Gairlochy

Our very over-excited band of merry rowers all arrived at the car park of the Moorings Hotel at Neptunes Staircase, Benavie at 9am.  Thanks to some lovely west coast hospitality, Hazel arrived a just a little later.  After a quick briefing we all set off to launch.  Despite having spent the previous 3 days in bed with the flu, Attie somehow also managed to get himself and his rib ready to launch.  His white face and the beads of sweat on his forehead gave us all cause for concern but he was determined to keep going and get out on the water.

All hands were needed to lift Tarbh Uisge out onto the pontoon where we were able to launch her easily into the canal at the top of Benavie locks.  She was then kitted out with oars, ropes (very important for navigating the locks!), fenders, maps, crew lists plus rower’s kit bags.  We had all done our best to only bring the minimum onto the boat – almost!  Jax did a sterling job of keeping Tarbh Uisge off the pontoon edge whilst we helped an ailing Attie with the rib.  He was still looking poorly but he was catching the excitement of the group, despite having lost his car keys somewhere in his car!  His wife, Sian, was tasked with the finding of the keys which proved no easy task. 

Finally, at 11.20am we were ready to go – somewhat later than scheduled.   This first leg of the journey allowed us to see lots of the local wildlife, including pied wagtails, swans, many ducks and even a peacock!  It took just over 1 ½ hours to reach Gairlochy locks and this was where our late start came back to haunt us.  We had arrived during the lock keeper’s lunch break so we had an enforced 40 minute wait until he came back on shift. Keen to get going, the fresh crew were then even more frustrated as we had a further wait whilst boats came through the lock in the opposite direction.  Gairlochy lock is very deep, and once the skiff finally entered, with new crew on board and shoreside crew holding the ropes, Hazel said it felt like they were in a giant cave as they waited for the water to rise.  We were all relieved to successfully get through our first lock and Tarbh Uisge looked great as she moved out onto Loch Lochy.  Sian was supposed to have been in the skiff but unfortunately the car keys were still proving elusive, so she swapped crews and decided to have a really, really, good look in the car!

Loch Lochy was our first experience of how useful the wind could be.  As coastal rowers we are  all acutely aware of how the wind can make life difficult.  However, we struck lucky and the wind pushed us along nicely up the loch.  With Aus shouting ‘encouragement’ from the rib, our next crew change destination at the Letterfinlay Hotel soon came into view.  The burger van parked in the layby was put to good use by crew shoreside waiting for Tarbh Uisge to arrive.  It was also where those elusive car keys were finally found! The skiff was guided to shore by Helen in full view of some rather bemused and curious tourists.

Car keys finally located meant Sian was finally able to hop in for the next rowing leg.  Attie was alone on the rib for the first time that day, but the rowers kept him amused with multiple rounds of I Spy! 

With the Laggan Locks negotiated and a pretty bit of canal rowed, the next crew change was at Laggan Swing Bridge.  Off we merrily rowed into Loch Oich.  This is a very scenic, narrow loch.  However, despite being over 3m high, 1m wide and bright red, the cox (who shall remain nameless!) managed to steer the Tarbh Uisge right into one of the huge navigational bhoys – a fact that we still bring up 6 months later –  it’s doubtful they’ll ever live that one down. 

The end of the day was at Cullochy Lock.  Unfortunately the late start and the enforced lunchtime stop meant we arrived later than planned so we were unable to get through the lock.  We therefore had to moor up at some sheltered pontoons just before the lock and wish Tarbh Uisge goodnight.

Day 2 – Saturday 29th April – Cullochy Lock to Urquhart Bay IRB Station

We all breathed a large sigh of relief when we returned on Saturday morning to find Tarbh Uisge safe and sound.  We set off in the early morning sunshine with everyone feeling very chipper.  Our boat manoeuvring skills were much admired by the loch keeper at Kyra Lochs – so much so we were all given gold star stickers for our life jackets!  Little did the keeper know that the cox had put the tiller on back to front and that was why the boat shot out to the middle of the canal so quickly!  Once the steering hiccup had been rectified, a nice row was had along to Fort Augustus, meeting up with the shoreside crew on the tow path as we approached the impressive set of 5 locks.

 

This is where the Friday’s late start came back to haunt us, again!  As we had reached Cullochy lock too late to get through it the previous night, we had a delayed start whilst we got through it  that morning.  We had therefore reached Fort Augustus later than anticipated, and yes, you’ve guessed it….just as the lock keeper was going for his 1 hour lunch.  Added to this, we had missed the downward passage of the locks and so we were left with a wait of over 3 hours.  This spelt disaster for our day, as waiting that length of time would mean we wouldn’t have time to row up Loch Ness to our mooring at the Inshore Lifeboat Station before it got dark.  No one wanted to be stuck out on Loch Ness in the dark!  As we were assessing our options, the only non-rowing member of our group piped up with a rather good suggestion: ‘Why don’t you just carry the boat & rib down past all the 5 locks and launch them at the bottom straight onto Loch Ness?’  Whilst this would certainly save us waiting over 3 hours and get us on the move again, this was in fact no easy task.  Imagine Fort Augustus on a sunny bank holiday weekend…it was hoaching with tourists and there was us, manhandling a skiff and a rib down the path for several hundred meters past locks (and shops, pubs, cafes etc!) all the way down to Loch Ness!  However, with a lot of clever manoeuvring, a lot of grunts and several near misses we made it and successfully launched a fresh crew of Nessie hunters out onto Loch Ness.  We had saved ourselves about 2 hours and were rightly proud of our problem solving skills!

Finding the next crew change point was always going to be a challenge (as mentioned earlier!).  However, a strengthening wind took the decision out of our hands as it was certainly not going to allow us to come to shore without serious loss of paintwork.  The decision was made to ditch that crew change and that a suitable landing point would have to be located further on.  Luck was on our side once again and after about 5km the shoreside crew had found a suitably sheltered area for Tarbh Uisge to come ashore.  The next set of Nessie hunters soon got going and let’s just say the banter on the boat was ‘lively’!   They had a fine view of Urquhart Castle from the water and posed beautifully for many a tourist photograph!  The skiff’s overnight accommodation at the Inshore Lifeboat Station was reached before dark and a weary but proud set of rowers set off back to Fort Augustus for dinner.  The day had thrown up some potentially disastrous problems but we had overcome them. 

After showers and changes of clothing we all re-assembled and found a kind pub, who despite not fitting us all inside, was happy to put on their outside heaters so we could all sit out in the beer garden – yes, beer garden, in April, in Scotland!  Despite being really quite chilly, the food was good and the beer plentiful – so much so, our banter appeared to overwhelm a stag party who moved to more quieter surroundings.  Let’s just say a good night was had by all.

Day 3 – Sunday 30th April – Urquhart Bay to Inverness

During the hilarities of the night before Caroline had received some texts from Boatie Blest (her old club) who were up north hoping to row at Portsoy.  However, a strong easterly wind had put an end to that plan and they decided to head over to Loch Ness to accompany us on our last day up Loch Ness and along into Inverness.  We had very ‘iffy’ reception so communication was somewhat difficult and our ‘plan’ was that hopefully we would bump into them on the water somewhere on Loch Ness – and we did!  It was a choppy Loch Ness that greeted us when we set off and some strong rowing was required to get the skiff up to Lochend.   We beached both skiffs here for a good catch up before we set off on the final stretch of our adventure.  Although excited to be nearing the end of our expedition we did have to concentrate so as to keep away from the weirs – we didn’t want to disappear down the river Ness instead of the canal!  We successfully made it to the last lock of the journey at Dockgarroch.  Then the last leg of the journey to Muirton Locks seemed to take forever.  The landscape was flat and becoming more urban and infinitely less scenic. 

There was a bit of excitement as the A82 swing bridge was opened just for us –  many of us had been stopped there plenty of times in the past for boats to come through, so it was nice to be in the boat rather than waiting in the car!  As the two skiffs reached Muirton Locks there was a lot of whooping and cheering!! 92 miles of rowing done and dusted in 2 ½ days – not bad going at all.

So what did we learn from the trip? 

  • Thankfully, due to our copious planning meetings, the trip overall went smoothly.
  • Fort Augustus was a great central place to stay. There were plenty of accommodation options and lots of choice for food and drink. 
  • We felt we didn’t need a safety boat on the canal sections but it was certainly good to have back up on the lochs.  
  • Be careful how many rowers you take. If we had had any more folk there would have been too much waiting around shoreside and not enough actual rowing. 
  • Unsurprisingly our biggest downfall, which dogged us the whole of the weekend, was ‘timing’. The late start on Friday morning continued to be felt all weekend. 
  • Pay attention to lock keepers lunch breaks, which way the locks will be opened and how this will inevitably impact on the row.
  • More attention should have been paid to the number of cars being used to ferry folk around. There was a lot of car ‘faff’ at the start and end of the trip and this also added to timing issues.

Overall, we had a fantastic adventure.  This was our first non-regatta trip away and it was lovely to share it with our friends from Findhorn.  Many thanks go to Aus, Hazel and Caroline for putting a fine plan together, Findhorn CRC for additional rowers and the rib and Boatie for keeping us company on the final day.  All in all, a very do-able adventure in lovely surroundings.   All that remains is to decide where to go next year…….

 

 

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