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Smoke On The Water - Crinan Canal!

Crinan Canal Basin - Picture by Author

We left Oban on the 23rd of September and headed for the Crinan Canal. Sadly the winds were super light, variable 3 or less so we motored the familiar waters and marveled at the picturesque scenery.

Crinan Canal Basin - Picture by Author

The Crinan Canal between Crinan and Ardrishaig in Argyll and Bute in the west of Scotland is operated by Scottish Canals. The canal, which opened in 1801, takes its name from the village of Crinan at its western end. Approximately nine miles (14 km) long, the canal connects the village of Ardrishaig on Loch Gilp with the Sound of Jura, providing a navigable route between the Clyde and the Inner Hebrides, without the need for a long diversion around the Kintyre peninsula, and in particular the exposed Mull of Kintyre. There are 15 locks and 7 bridges on the Crinan Canal so in comparison to the Caledonian Canal it is a relative short passage.

Crinan Canal Loch No. 1 - Picture by Author

We had taken the opportunity some days earlier to visit this place whilst on route to Puilladobhrain and I am so glad we did as that allowed us both to understand the booking process and the Covid restrictions. As there was only Gary and I to take Sandpiper through the Crinan Canal, this being are first time and there being no volunteers to open any of the gates, we decided to hire a pilot. Hiring a pilot was way easier than I had anticipated. I simply sent a group text to 4 of the names in the Crinan Canal Skippers Guide and to my astonishment they all came back within a quarter of an hour. If I had realised that the professional pilots would be available and so keen, I may have bartered on price but I took the first offer with no questions asked. I also may have spoken to them all, paying more attention to what was on offer. (More on this later). Booking the canal licence and receiving our timed slot to transverse the canal was an on-line form and also a very easy process.

With our licence and pilot secured we decided to spend the night prior to departure moored in the tiny Crinan village mooring field at the courtesy of Crinan Boat Yard. The town looks out across Loch Crinan to Duntrune Castle and the village has a couple of lovely eateries and a grand hotel. The attraction to this place is evident by the number of well maintained traditional boats on the moorings outside the boat yard. The chandlery was well stocked and as we had arrived early afternoon we decided to treat our smokey engine to some new filters, something that we felt was due. Our engine had given us a few hairy moment over the last couple of months and so we set about giving her some well deserved TLC.

Traditional Boats in Crinan - Picture by author

Fitting the new filters was simple enough, bleeding the diesel system though the priming pump was a ball ache, as this is done by repetitively pushing a small lever with your thumb. Lets turn the starter motor over that will quicken the job up a bit, famous last words! I was happy to help and I turned the engine over as Gary opened the decompression lever. After a while the engine stopped turning over and with that the colour drained from Gary's face. On investigation, what had happened was the raw water cooling system had filled the exhaust with water to the point of coming back into the cylinders via the exhaust valves. As water does not compress the engine was hydro locked!

Gary immediately opened Nigel Calder's book on his tablet and I have to say Nigel and Gary are just geniuses as some how after a few hours we were back up and running. It involved draining the water from the exhaust hoses, opening the decompression lever and hand cranking the engine to pump the water from the cylinders. This soon made us realise that although engines are designed so they can be hand cranked, this proved to be difficult and exhausting. Therefore we would not like to rely on it in an emergency. Confident we had removed the water, we closed the decompression lever and started the engine. I am sure you can imagine I had all my fingers and toes crossed at this point, a few coughs and splutters later and the engine was running. She lives another day!

A twenty minute job he said! Well, that is how boat life goes and some five hours later we eventually sat down to our dinner with a beer and a stunning sunset!

Sunset at Crinan - Picture by author

The next morning we were up and standing at the chandlery door, waiting for them to open, we needed to change the oil just in case water had infiltrated the lubricant. We had spare oil on board but not sufficient for a full oil change. Back at the boat and only 20 minutes to go before our first loch, we were feeling the pressure and so we did the job in utter silence. I prepared the fenders, fender boards and mooring lines forward and aft. Although for a split second I forgot how to tie a bow line. Funny how that happens when you are feeling the pressure.

Five minutes prior to our booked canal entrance time, our pilot messaged me to say that the loch crew were ready for us, he checked our preferred mooring side and told us to proceed towards the loch. As we motored around, our pilot was standing on the loch side waving his hands in the air and I immediately thought, Oh no, what the hell does that mean?''. Actually it was simply our pilot making him-self known to us, I think I was a bit anxious at this moment.

The pilot was clearly a very knowledgeable man and in that I had no doubt. Gary and I assumed that a canal pilot would board Sandpiper and guide us through the process. We knew we would have full responsibility and would be in control of our own vessel but with the pilot on board we would be able to gather information of the local waters, learn how to operate the lochs, gain more clarity and be able to ask questions etc. This perception was based off our understanding of the pilotage of ship vessels in ports, where pilots board the vessel and advise the captain from the helm/bridge. Our expectations of the pilot role was mis-aligned from the very start, a silly assumption on our behalf. Our pilot gave us a quick brief and then did the leg work of the lochs, traveling between them by cycle or car so the opportunity to get clarity or ask questions was very limited and banter was not very forth-coming either. This may sound like we were not enamoured with our pilot, this is quite the reverse, we simply reflect on the fact that our assumptions had led us into not doing enough preparation into what to expect. As the quote goes, "Assume and it will make an ass of you and me." I know that and I have no excuse. Asking questions to gain clarity is something I do without a problem but I miss judged the timing to do this and therefore put myself under more pressure than necessary. Every day is a school day and one thing is for sure I got a much easier day than our pilot once I grew in confidence of how to navigate lochs.

Reflections on the water - Picture by author

The first few lochs came thick and fast and so the learning is steep. Some of things I noted in my journal for future reference are as so;

  • Hand the mooring lines up with a boat hook

  • Make sure the stern of the boat is well passed the sill line

  • Never cleat your lines off, but pay them through by hand in a controlled manner

  • Have a fender close to the bow

  • Wait for the water to settle before exiting the loch

I also had a knife to hand on my life jacket just in case and we also had a marriage saver, in the way of blue tooth communication head sets - what a fantastic investment these have been!

The beauty of the loch is simple stunning and to be honest we were blessed with little to no traffic. The loch depth had our hearts a flutter on a few occasions, watching our depth sounder skim 2 metres was a little scary. Time to breath in and become lighter haha! The first section had sea to the left and high reeds to the right with a few quaint cottages peering above. Soon the wide basin at Bellanoch came into view, a small marina and one where if the smoky blue engine was not faring too well we would abandon the trip. Sure enough she was smoking but not to the point we needed to abandon. Eventually the first lock and houses at Cairnbaan were reached. The canal has a total of 15 locks and we soon reach the summit at 21 metres above sea level, now all that was required was to head downhill. It took 6 hours to traverse the canal and we only once ended up sideways in the loch, my fault, I missed the line! We also saw the cheekiest red squirrel play on top of a loch gate unfortunately I missed that photo opportunity - sorry.

Ardrishaig Horses - Picture by author

We arrived at our final loch in bright sunshine and the friendly loch keeper pointed us in the direction of our pontoon for the night. We decided to make use of the overnight stays which are part of the licence but due to having a pilot we needed to do this at the end of the canal in Ardrishaig. A small town with a few attractions, hotels, restaurants, local convenience store and a launderette. The Egg shed is said to be worth a visit but was unfortunately it was closed when we were there.

Would I travel the Crinan Canal Again? The canal is one of Britain's most beautiful shortcuts and one I would like to do again but with more than 2 onboard and a less stressful engine situation.

Next time I will share A story about Heated Toilet Seats and Mud Baths

Take care until the next time xxx


Tanya Moxon, a lady with a deep-seated fear of the sea but here she is pushing back on conventional life and enjoying a full-time life upon the open seas. Tanya is the founder of Fearless Feat Ltd, a leadership coaching company who supports others to perform at their best.

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