Wednesday, 26th June: Crinan Canal
The Crinan Canal takes you from Loch Gilp, in the lower reaches of Loch Fyne in the Firth of Clyde through the Kintyre peninsula to Crinan Bay at the top of the Sound of Jura. The Crinan Canal Company was formed in 1793. It took many years to build the canal, and to get it right before it opened in 1801. It had to be closed for a few years for repairs and was opened again in 1817. The canal is nowadays used by pleasure craft, and it saves you about 80 miles of sailing around the Kintyre peninsula. The canal is about 9 miles long, has 7 bridges and 15 locks. The summit reach is 64ft above sea level.
We set off from our anchorage in Loch Gilp and were tied up in the Ardrishaig sea lock by 8am, ready for the 8:30am lock opening. Two men approached and gruffly admitted that we had done that well. We got the feeling that praise rarely left their lips, so took that as a good omen. Having told them we were inexperienced on canals, and that we had never been through Crinan Canal, one of them proceeded to tell us in great details of all the things that can go wrong, and incidents and accidents of the past…. We walked over to the basin on the other side of the lock. It was pretty full of moored boats, ready to come out or start their canal journey.
The lock keepers arrived a bit later on and so did another big boat which had clearly expected to go through. As we had very much booked ourselves in, well in advance, we felt sorry for them, but it’s not a big lock, and the lock keeper agreed with us that the other boat would have to wait. We are a big boat for the canal (though well within its limits) and have a deep draught, so we tried to ascertain from the keepers that the water level had indeed been raised and that we would be ok. All they would say was ‘we are aware of your size, make sure you stay in the centre of the waterway at all times’. They were clearly not taking any responsibility!
The canal has staff to deal with the main sea locks and the bridges along the way. The literature makes it clear that although staff may be able to help you at the locks, this cannot be expected. We had taken the precaution of hiring a pilot. Dominic asked the advice of the canal office when we booked in two days ago, and they said Micky and Mark Williamsson ‘have received good reviews’. It turns out they are a father and son team, who work together. They were really nice blokes, friendly and knowledgeable, and as it turned out an absolute necessity for us.
While we went through the sea lock, Mark and Micky, together with the salt-of-the-earth bloke, helped one of the keepers to take three other boats through the next lock. We waited our turn, and then the same crew took us through into the canal proper. The canal was quite busy, so there was a bit of waiting around, when boats come in the other direction. The longest wait was by Lock 9, about an hour. The last boat passing us had left the sluices open, so the group in front of us had to sort this out and then wait for another boat to come our way, in order for the water level to rise.
The routine was that Mark and Micky tied us up, and let us lose from the bollards, pushed the lock gates and wound the sluices, and assisted with bridge openings and closings. They also went ahead when possible, to start opening the locks. Dominic had devised a way of winding both the warps with the winches, so when necessary he could control them both. I was making sure the warps were ready and would throw them up to Mark or Micky on the lock side. I was also continually adjusting the fenders as we went down or up in the locks and had to push us off the lock wall each time we left. Dominic steered the boat throughout and kept the warps in control. This all sounds easy peasy lemon squeezy, but in reality, it is all quite hard work. It has to be done quickly and at exactly the right time, to save both your own and other boats. When the locks open there can be a fair amount of turbulence in the water, especially for smaller craft. I found it difficult to throw the heavy warps up several meters in the air for Micky to catch, but by the third lock I had it sussed. Dominic had to concentrate on keeping our boat from harm, including the wind turbines that could not be allowed to hit the lock walls. In the uphill locks, you go up quite slowly, but in the downhill ones you fall really quite fast. Dominic steered us beautifully along the canal, having to concentrate hard on keeping to deepest part. In places we were looking at the depth meter with our hearts in the throat!
Having said all this, the Crinan Canal is a beautiful experience. Especially, if like us you go through on a still and sunny day. Between the groups of locks, you go slowly through green countryside, with occasional cottages by the side. There is a small road all along the canal and we saw lots of cyclists and walkers use the path on the other side. There are also several pontoons that you can tie on to and stay for a few hours or overnight, for a bit of sightseeing or a pub visit. (As we had a pilot, and they had raised the water level for us, this was not something we could do.)
Micky and Mark were with us until Lock 13, as after that there are two manned bridges and two manned locks at the Crinan end. We can’t emphasise how nice they were, and how important they were for our successful transit.
We reached Crinan basin coming up for 4pm and it was quite crowded and the sea lock already had three boats in it. The lock keeper shuffled everyone around and motioned us to come in. Definitely a tight squeeze! When we finally motored out into the sea, we both heaved a deep sigh of relief. We had done it. Idun was without even a scratch. As soon as possible, we hauled the jib, turned the engine off and sailed off out into the waters of the west coast of Scotland. On a skerry in front of us, we saw a seal and its fluffy pup sunning themselves. The pup lifted its head, and watched us as we wafted past. Lovely!