Cruising the Caley Canal

By Andrew Jarret

In a departure from our normal mode of travel, the team swapped boots for boats recently to cruise down the enchanting Caledonian Canal from Inverness to Banavie, near Fort William. Cruising the canal is an ideal way to combine both boating and hiking as there are numerous good walks to be found at various points along the breathtakingly scenic sixty mile route. Indeed, the first section of the canal from Inverness can be circumnavigated on foot and is described in one of the routes on our walks page. The canal, which was opened in 1822, can be tackled from either end but we opted to hire our craft from the excellent Caley Cruisers Ltd at its northernmost point in Inverness.

The company, which started with just the one vessel, now boasts an impressive line-up of over 50 craft of varying sizes and classes. All boats are well equipped but in order to get the most out of the trip we recommend that you opt to hire the biggest and best appointed vessel you can afford.

After arriving in Inverness in plenty of time to do a last minute supermarket sweep, we made our way along Canal Road to Caley Cruisers' marina to pick up our vessel. We were given a Tantallon class boat, the ''Tantallon Castle'' which can sleep 4-6 in centrally-heated comfort.

Friendly, helpful staff gave us a quick masterclass in boat handling along with a list of safety do's and don'ts, most of which were common sense but worthwhile nevertheless. Everyone leaves the marina in convoy for the first part of the journey and it was with growing excitement that we joined the other boats slipping serenely out of the marina towards the Tomnahurich Swing Bridge. Once safely through, we continued along the canal keeping to the strict 6 mph speed limit before arriving at our first lock at Dochgarroch. It is important to keep your speed down while passing through the canal as too much pace means creating too much wake which can damage the delicate flora and fauna along the canal bank.

By the end of the journey we would become dab hands at entering and leaving the locks but even our initial experiences were relatively painless thanks to the cheery lock keepers who kept us right. It is worth pointing out that a crew of at least three is perhaps the best idea for novice parties because it is helpful to have one member at the front of the boat and one at the back allowing the ''skipper'' to remain in the wheelhouse to keep the vessel on course while entering a lock. It can be managed by two (as in our case initially) but this involves a wee bit of running around to secure your ropes.

Safely through Dochgarroch Lock, we then entered Loch Dochfour making sure to keep well away from the weir at the mouth of the River Ness. This is a fairly narrow stretch of water and the correct line is marked out by a number of buoys (green to your left and red to your right) as you travel south towards Loch Ness. Entering Loch Ness, we sailed as far as Urquhart Bay before berthing for the night in its tiny harbour. A courtesy bus operates here to take mariners to the Drumnadrochit Hotel and we clambered aboard to enjoy the hospitality before returning for a largely sleepless first night aboard.

We had made the mistake of tying up with the bow of our boat facing the open water which meant that the waves, albeit only little ones, made an incessant slapping noise against the hull. We learned to position our craft better the next night!
Day two saw us complete our journey along Loch Ness (with no sign of the monster) and pass through the flight of five locks at picturesque Fort Augustus. The lock staircase here lifts your vessel (or drops it on the return leg) a total of 42 feet and the whole process takes around an hour to complete.

Another section of canal beckons and further locks at Kytra and Cullochy are negotiated before you pass the Abercalder Swing Bridge and into Loch Oich. This loch takes around an hour to traverse before the next hurdle - the Laggan Swing Bridge - presents itself. Safely through, we continued cruising down the Laggan Avenue towards Laggan Locks (a flight of two). We arrived in time to pass through and continued on to Ceann Loch and Loch Lochy before turning back and returning to Laggan for our evening berth.

Commercial cruisers are given a key to each of the British Waterways Board toilet and shower blocks along the route and we made good use of the piping hot ablutions at Laggan before commencing our return leg on a damp and drizzly day three. We returned to Loch Oich and made for the small pontoon at Invergarry Castle to pick up Colin, the third member of our crew. After lunching at the Invergarry Hotel we strolled through the woods to visit the ruined castle before climbing back on board. A casual saunter back up the waterway to Fort Augustus meant that we just missed the final lock crossing of the day but that meant we could indulge ourselves in some fine fare at The Bothy Bite and far too much malt whisky at the nearby Lock Inn!

Day three dawned cold but bright and, despite the previous night's inebriety, it was a content and happy crew that hauled Tantallon Castle back down the staircase and under the bridge into Loch Ness. A fellow crew had talked of an excursion to Foyers Falls they had made the day before so we set course for the pier at Foyers on the eastern shore of Loch Ness. The falls, which are around a mile from the pier, will be described in a future walk on this site and are well worth a visit.

As we had only booked a short break, the rest of our day was spent cruising back towards Inverness, stopping once again for tea and snacks at the Post Office cum restaurant cum shop cum general tourist information office at Dochgarroch. During the final stage of our journey we were shadowed home by an impressive-looking trimaran which tracked us soundlessly and eerily like some kind of white sea-going stealth bomber! Back at Caley Cruisers, we witnessed the refuelling of our boat and were happy to accept �15 back from the company as we hadn't used all the boat's diesel during our excellent aquatic adventure.

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Caley Cruisers Ltd

British Waterways Board

Scottish Canals

Some Caledonian Canal facts

The canal was engineered by famous Scotsman Thomas Telford and took 19 years to complete. It was built at the time of the Highland Clearances and helped create employment for evicted crofters. Opened in 1822, it was originally built to provide a short cut between the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean avoiding the hazardous Pentland Firth on the north coast of the Scottish mainland.
The canal makes a perfect place for a relaxing holiday with a choice of picturesque moorings. Not only will you share the waterway with fellow cruisers but you can also meet ocean going yachts, fishing boats, luxury barges and even the odd naval vessel. The canal is one of the most recent to be developed for holidays afloat and has retained its unspoiled character. It runs for 60 miles (100 km) and takes approximately thee days to cruise from one end to the other.
About a third of the entire length is a man-made cutting which links a chain of natural lochs - Loch Dochfour, Loch Ness, Loch Oich and Loch Lochy. The highest point of the canal is 106 ft asl at Loch Oich. From here it flows towards the sea in both directions while the sets of locks raise or lower boats according to the direction of travel.