Voyager on the Caledonian Canal

To the editor: On a cruise from the west coast of Scotland to Norway in our J-46 Cielita during July of 2007, we had the ideal opportunity to transit the famous Caledonian Canal, which cuts right through the middle of Scotland from Fort William at the head of Loch Linnhe on the west, to the city of Inverness on the east. For the bluewater sailor this is a truly unique and delightful experience, well worth the time and expense.
We contacted the lockkeeper on the VHF from our anchorage nearby and entered the sea lock near Fort William just after 0800. Once inside with the gates closed behind us, we were very cordially welcomed at the office to pay the rather stiff fee and state our intentions. We were given a guidebook and a map of the canal and a few pointers about transiting the 29 locks and 10 swing bridges, and off we went.

The total length of the canal, which includes the entire length of Loch Ness, is about 60 nautical miles, and the passage takes a minimum of two full days. The speed limit is five knots, and a three-day transit time is recommended.

The canal was completed in 1822 and was designed to serve as a shortcut for commercial vessels between the Atlantic and the North Sea. About one-third is man-made, and the rest is made up of a series of lakes. The highest point on the canal is 106 feet above sea level. Since there is an abundance of fresh water flowing in from many streams and rivers, there is never a shortage of water, and, accordingly, the canal need never close for lack of water to operate the locks.

Today the canal sees very little commercial traffic but is used quite heavily by pleasure boaters of all sorts, from kayaks to large yachts. Many Scots spend days and weeks on this system of locks, canals, and lakes in their small powerboats, where there are many small towns along the way and beautiful scenery to enjoy. Unfortunately, we were in a bit of a rush to get through, as we had crew joining us in Inverness on a tight schedule. But we would otherwise have liked to transit the area at a more leisurely pace and take in some of the local culture and historic sites.

Unlike the Crinan Canal, where the locks are almost all of the do-it-yourself variety, the locks along the Caledonian Canal are all manned by very pleasant and competent lockkeepers who take your lines and manage all the gates. There were only two of us aboard at the time, but we never felt the need for more hands. And we rarely had to wait for long before being locked through. On one occasion, we did have to wait for the lockkeeper to return from lunch. And on one other occasion, we had to wait for traffic coming the other way to be locked through one of the multiple-lock (as many as eight) ladders or staircases, as they are known. But these brief waits are all part of the fun.

The locks are operated seven days a week between 0800 and 1800 during the summer months and five days a week during the winter. So when evening comes, one has to stop along the way. This is easily done, as there are docks and piers available everywhere, as well as bathroom facilities, including showers. We spent one night about half way along where food and drink ashore were only a few feet away.

And then there is Loch Ness, 22 miles long, no more than 1.5 miles wide, and 1,000 feet deep. We searched hard for the monster but were unable to catch any sight of it. However, we were able to enjoy a delightful sail down wind for the entire length, with beautiful mountain scenery on both sides.

We were disappointed when we finally reached the end at Inverness and wished we had had more time to enjoy the passage. All in all, the Caledonian Canal is a delightful experience and a wonderful shortcut for any vessel traveling between the east and west coasts of Scotland.

— Ned Cabot is a retired physician living in Boston when not voyaging aboard his J-46.

By Ocean Navigator