Posted by: Ray | September 19, 2008

Inverness to Oban via Caledonian Canal

I have now reached Oban on the West coast of Scotland after a fantastic weeks passage through stunning scenery along the Calendonian Canal.  The week was eventful, with further engine overheating on Loch Ness until the original cause was identified and fixed.  

A wet and misty week, although the beautiful scenery was still enjoyed as my crew, Jenni, and I made passage through the canal. Our rope throwing skills improved as we made passage through 60M of canal and lochs, 29 locks and 10 swing bridges. 

Postcard Photo of Oban showing current location at Oban Marina on the Island of Kerrera..

Postcard of Oban Bay showing current location at Oban Marina on the Island of Kerrera..

Jenni had not sailed with me before, so after arriving on Christine Marie at Seaport Marina, just into the Caledonian Canal at Inverness, we stowed supplies (including the replacement tender) and I carried out a briefing on the yacht, safety and our passage plan for the week.  We decided to eat on the yacht and commence our passage the next morning.

Yachts entering the canal are given a  ‘Skipper’s Guide’ that provides useful information on passage through the canal. I had expected to be able to buy a more detailed chart of the canal, but none is available.  In addition there is only one chandlers at Caley Marina that sells charts for the sea areas entering or departing the canal.  Very little information on depths in the Lochs is given in the guide provided and recommended anchorages shown have little information.  I found my Garmin GPS chart fairly accurate, when used with my depth sounder,  on depths when anchoring ….. the depth shoals rapidly and my chart gave me a reasonable indication of what to expect.

Next morning we contacted Muirtown Bridge to advise them we wished to pass through the swing bridge and flight of four locks. They advised us that a large dredger was scheduled through the locks and bridge and that the earliest we could pass would be after lunch. We used the time productively, practicing throwing our mooring lines across the pontoons, then doing some practice mooring and leaving pontoons. We then came alongside the fuel pontoon at Seaport Marina, took on fuel and enjoyed lunch on deck in the sun.

Passing through locks on passage

Passing through locks on passage

After lunch we were called by the Muirtown Bridge to standby to pass through.  We slipped our lines and stood off the bridge until the traffic was stopped, the bridge swung open and we passed through into the first lock that was open for us. Despite our practice throwing the mooring lines, it was not easy. There are no ropes or  ways to make fast to the walls of the lock on a temporary basis, so bow and stern lines have to be thrown up to the lock keeper or crew. Throwing the line 15 to 20 ft almost vertically is very difficult, especially in heavy wet gear. With several crew, one can be put ashore and assist, if necessary throwing a line down to the vessel.  The loch keepers are very patient and helpful …. very appreciated as we gained skills at getting the lines secured, even walking the yacht through several flights at times.

We made passage through the canal at 4 to 5 Kn passing through Tomnahurich Swing Bridge after a short wait and on through Dochgarroch Lock  and into Lochdochfour where the channel is marked by green buoys.

By evening we had passed into Loch Ness. With no wind we raised the main and motor sailed towards our over night anchorage just off Urquhart Castle.  It was a lovely evening as the sun started to set and we increased speed towards our destination.  We were soon approaching the castle and the anchor was made ready.  I made several slow approaches checking the depth that rapidly shoaled from 90m, to 20m, to 4m.  Once satisfied,  we dropped the anchor in 20m using the full 70m of chain plus rope.  Whilst setting the anchor the engine temperature alarm sounded, there was no cooling water from the exhaust so the engine was quickly turned off.  This continuing problem concerned me: the engine on Christine Marie had been very reliable in the 4 years I had owned her.  Clearly, the cause of the original overheating problem (see earlier post Lossiemouth to Inverness) had not been found and would need to be resolved before we could progress further.

In gentle winds the anchor was holding well and we sat on deck enjoying a glass of wine and the views until the sun set.  We enjoyed a meal on board and retired for the night.  In the morning the wind was very light but had changed direction swinging us into 6m depth closer to the shore. I shortened the anchor line to bring us back into 15m. 

Drumnadrochit Harbour, Loch Ness

Drumnadrochit Harbour, Loch Ness

After breakfast I contacted Caley Marina who had checked the engine cooling the week before and who had replaced the melted exhaust muffler.  They asked me to moor at Drumnadrochit Harbour, just across the bay, where engineers would come out to assist us.  We started the engine and weighed anchor setting course for the harbour, just half a mile away.  But the engine overheated very quickly and had to be shut down. 

There was very little wind, but full sails were set and with no tide we made 1 to 2 kn during the occasional ‘puffs’ of wind and sailed to anchor off the harbour.  🙂   Jenni loved the gentle sailing.  We had breakfast and later entered the buoyed channel to moor in the small harbour. Mooring and electricity were available here (one of the few places throughout the canal), paid for with tickets from a machine. 

Help Arrives to investigate the engine overheating

Help Arrives to investigate the engine overheating

Several other charter boats and sailing yachts were moored here and we chatted to their friendly crew whilst we waited for the engineers.

The engineers from Caley Marina arrived shortly after lunch and the cooling system was checked thoroughly.  Initial checks (as I had already made) found no problems. The two engineers then used a hose to trace through from the impeller to the exhaust outlet. On the exhaust side of the Vetus water syphon preventer the water was pouring from the exhaust, on the impeller side it blew back. The engineer cleared the blockage with a screwdriver and water was now flowing freely. Unfortunately, I was outside watching the water flow from the exhaust and do not know what had blocked the unit.

The engineers had done a great job and cooling water was gushing from the exhaust when the engine was started. The engine was put into gear and motored astern at cruising revs against the mooring lines for 20 minutes without overheating, all appeared well. 

Passing Urquhart Castle, Loch Ness
Passing Urquhart Castle, Loch Ness


We had wanted to take our time and sail on Loch Ness, but the wind was light and it would be a beat through the loch. We had lost time , so  Jenni and I decided we would press on and motor through Loch Ness to test out the engine.  We left the harbour, passing Urquhart Castle as we set course for St Augustus.



Jenni at helm, Loch Ness

Jenni at the helm, Loch Ness

It was a dull, overcast afternoon, but we still enjoyed the beauty of the scenery surrounding us.   The engine was pushing us along at 6Kn without problem and by early evening we passed Cherry Island on our starboard and were in sight of the buoys marking the entrance to Fort Augustus. 

It was a particularly reflective time for me as I had passed through these waters with my son and daughter, over 20 years earlier. We had cruised through in my 18 ft motor boat, also mooring off  Urquhart Castle that we visited.  I still have photos of Keith and Anne rowing the inflatable to visit Cherry Island, memories I treasure. 

Moored at Fort Augustus

Moored at Fort Augustus

We moored on the long pontoon leading up to the flight of five locks. There is no shore power here or through most of the canal, but other facilities are good. Showers and toilets throughout the canal can be visited using a key issued on entry to the canal. Feeling refreshed after a hot shower, we visited the town and had a traditional Scottish meal at the Bothy Bite before retiring.  


Flight of Locks at Fort Augustus

Looking down the flight of locks at Fort Augustus


The locks operate between 0800 and 1730 Spring/Autumn, so early the next morning I walked up to the lock flight and informed the lock keeper that we wished to pass through the next ‘lock up’. 

Traffic was being ‘locked down’, so we should be ready about 1030, time to explore the town and get in some supplies. It took 1.5 hours to pass through the 5 locks, watched by many tourists as at times we struggled to get our lines up to the lock keepers. After the first lock we stayed ashore and ‘walked’ the yacht from lock to lock.   

Approaching one of the swing bridges on the Caledonian Canal

Leaving one of the swing bridges on the Caledonian Canal

Once through the locks we stopped for lunch on the pontoon at the top of the flight overlooking Fort Augustus. Using the VHF we called ahead to Kytra Lock and informed them of our intention to pass through and that we intended to reach Laggan by evening.  The lock keepers are very helpful, letting the lock keepers ahead at Cullochy and Laggan know we were on passage to pass through their lock and swing bridges.


Sailing on Loch Oich

Sailing on Loch Oich


The speed limit on the canals is 5Kn, but  enjoying the scenery we cruised at 4Kn or less until we passed through Cullochy swing bridge into Loch Oich. There is a dangerous weir here, but it is well buoyed. Cruising slowly behind two motor boats and another yacht, a light breeze from the NE on our stern, we  let out the headsail and sailed gently through the wider section of the loch.  It was peaceful without the sound of the engine., the way to enjoy the lochs if time and wind permits …. but no other yachts were seen sailing during our passage through any of the lochs.  

View from Callen Lock

View from Laggan Lock


We moored for the evening on the east side of Laggan Loch where there are lovely unspoilt views ahead across Loch Locky.  After our evening meal on board we paid a visit to the local pub and restaurant.


Pub at Callen

Pub at Laggan Lock


The Eagle Barge Inn, run by Janet and Paul who gave us a warm welcome.  Inside the barge it is cosy and the decor is attractive.   We stayed late, enjoying the company and wished we had booked to eat there.


Entering Loch Locky

Entering Loch Lochy



The next morning we passed through the loch and into Loch Lochy.  There was no wind and the loch was like a mirror, reflecting the clouds that hung low down the sides of the mountains.  It was a strange stillness, but very scenic.


Loch Locky

Loch Locky


To me, this is the most attractive loch passed through on passage from the east to west coasts of Scotland linked by the Caledonian Canal.  It is surrounded by mountains and at times we caught glimses of Ben Nevis ahead and to the west of us.

We needed to reach Corpach by evening and had radiod Gairlocky where there are two locks separated by a swing bridge to pass through. We anchored for lunch at the west end of the loch, letting the lock keeper at Gairlochy know of our position.  Enjoying the views, we had just finished lunch when we heard the weak call on the VHF from Gairlochy.  They wanted us to proceed immediately to the lock to ensure we would make entry into the Corpach Basin before they closed. 

Moored Corpach Basin

Moored Corpach Basin


By dusk we had passed through the remaining locks and swing bridges to Banavie. The lock keepers were ready to help us down Neptune’s Staircase, a flight of eight of locks, then through a swing bridge and two further locks into the Corpach Basin. Moored for the evening we were ready to lock through the Corpach sea lock early next morning.

When I entered the canal I had expected to be able to purchase charts and pilots for the passage to Oban at Corpach. An error, as Admiralty charts are only available at chandlers at Calley Marina and at Oban.  I managed to borrow charts from a yacht that had entered the canal and during the evening I prepared the passage plan to Oban. The route was entered into the GPS and the WP, along with the GPS chart were checked against the borrowed Admiralty charts and my Almanac.  Important buoys, dangers and landmarks were entered into the log along with tides at Corpach and Oban. 

Ben Nevis from Corpach Lock

Ben Nevis from Corpach Lock

The next morning the  weather forecast was S/SW, F4/5 increasing 6 at times. Seas slight or moderate, occasionally rough later. Local sailors at Corpach told me the passage to Oban would be sheltered and should not be a problem. I noted the more exposed areas to the  SW on the passage, where we might meet rougher seas.

In a lively SW wind we left the mooring and made our departure through the Corpach sea lock shortly after opening at 0845.  Keeping in the buoyed channel we pased Fort William and set course westwards through Loch Linnhe towards Corran Narrows.  

Leaving Corran Narrows, Loch Linnhe

Leaving Corran Narrows, Loch Linnhe

 Despite the overcast skies, the passage back out to sea, through Loch Linnhe to Oban, was equally as enjoyable as through the fresh water lochs and canals.  Travelling in the shadow of Ben Nevis, we passed many small islands and inlets, with some stunning scenery.   I was pleased I had spent time preparing the detailed passage plan as I ticked off WPs, buoys and landmarks as we made and entered course changes into the log throughout the passage. 

Approaching Oban Marina, Kerrera Island

Approaching Oban Marina, Kerrera Island


 Passing through Corran Narrows and later to the east of Lismore, we passed Appin Port and were soon to the west of Maiden Island entering into Oban Bay. By 1530 we were moored at Oban Marina in Ardanthive Bay, Kerrera. 

My thanks to Jenni for her help on this passage and to the friendly, helpful lock keepers and staff throughout the canal. A great weeks cruising, completing a further 85M passage and achieving my first years goal. 


GOOD NEWS, charity totals now over £1300.  Please help push it towards my goal of £3000.  Every little helps.

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            Rethink                   Marie Curie                   RNLI        



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