Sail Caledonia 2017 was enlightening in lots of ways; and it made me think more of the myth of the boat as an island, a symbol of freedom and independence. The more we cruise on Loch Ness Barge, the more I realise that our kind of boating on the Caledonian Canal is the product of teamwork and collaboration, interdependence on a large and small scale. The canal system is dedicated to moving boats through a narrow passage of water, locked into the land. This canal, our home waters, is dependent on complex coordination between lock and bridge keepers, large boats and small boats. The large boats often cannot easily pass each other in the canal reaches, but there is a nominated radio channel for all communication. However the large fleet of hire cruisers do not have radios and can be relatively inexperienced and unaware of protocols for moving through the canals. The larger boats (Loch Ness Barge is one of them) often run to timetables and deadlines set at the beginning of the season, but these timetables can be disrupted by weather conditions, engine or lock system failures and so all these systems have to be relatively flexible and based on constant communication by radio.
Sail Caledonia is also a system in itself; people book up to a year in advance to take part in the race and the support boats shepherd the fleet through the Great Glen to a strict timetable of a different mooring every night, a journey as well as a race, from West to East through Scotland, through 29 locks and 10 swinging bridges.
Within the Sail Caledonia fleet, there is a system of interdependence. The boats that race help each other within the locks, those with engines tow those without. The support boats support each other, with Ros Crana as the mother ship and ‘Safety’ RIB as the coordinator of all. Loch Ness Barge is too large and cumbersome when on the move to do anything useful during the racing, but we can carry extra equipment on her upper deck, wet gear in our engine room, fragile musical instruments lie in a row on the sofa in the saloon. Ros Crana is the boat that has taught us most and continues to teach me; systems of working and maintaining our engines, ways of skippering and a wonderful feeling of fellowship. This year a new boat joined called Ros Donn, and her skipper Ian was an incredible support on our worst day travelling during Sail Caledonia.
Not only was the weather dark and blustery, but we had the most locks and bridges to navigate in one day. Knowing we had a long distance to travel and many deadlines to meet, we had to move at our top cruising speed for much of the day, entering the narrows by a weir just before Abercalder Bridge we had a strong following wind and one engine suddenly failed. The bridge was swinging, the traffic on the road waiting and we could not turn around with only one engine in a narrow channel. Holding the wheel hard against the pressure of the one remaining propeller, I used one hand to radio the lock keeper, I could see the next lock had small cruisers in it, and was still shut and I couldn’t easily stop or steer with only one engine and the wind speeding us onwards. The lock keeper said he had another 5 minutes of filling the lock before he could open the gates, and that he would tell the cruisers that we couldn’t steer and to get out of the lock chamber as fast as possible and stay out of our way in the channel. My safest way of stopping would be to use the stone wall of the lock, with the lock keeper to take the ropes. I was extremely pleased that the racing fleet were not ahead of me filling the lock chamber as seen below;
Ros Don heard my troubles on the radio and told me he would give me room to manoeuver and stop anyone coming near while we were stopping. We managed to slow down in the lock with a series of quickly learned skills I had never tried before, and the final part of the interdependence came into perfect focus; our wonderful crew on the barge:
Juliana came up onto the upper deck and was my eyes, telling me distances and changes of speed and direction in relation to the unseen approaching wall (normally I would walk to the rail, but with only one engine, I could not leave the wheel, as the pressure on the rudder requires one hand, and the constant change of revs on the throttle requires the other hand).
Adrian was alternately in the engine room trying to sort the problem, and on deck preparing with David for using the ropes to slow our speed as we approach the lock gates.
David was the anchorman on the stern warp; the most important brake we have when in this situation. All of us have worked together on Sail Caledonia for 5 years and our understanding of each other and the boat has grown over that time.
The drama was averted, we managed to stop without using the lock gates or the wall for a crash landing, and that was due to all of us working together. The lock keeper couldn’t let us stay in the lock chamber, the rest of the fleet was approaching and could not get past us in the narrow lock chamber to reach Fort Augustus by closing time. Again Scottish Canals communication and coordination cleared all boats from the approach to the next lock at Kytra, so we had the jetty and the lock chamber as options to help us to stop at the end of the next section of canal. The lock keeper Linda radioed to me that all was clear, and we moved out onto the canal again. Acceleration is no problem with the wind behind us, steering is easy with one engine in forward drive, and we had 20 minutes to try to sort out our engine failure before having to slow down again on the approach to Kytra lock. Adrian, the star of the day, fixed the engine in the last hundred meters from the lock. The approach is notoriously difficult combining a sharp bend in the canal, leading into a wind tunnel for westerly gusts.
While we were struggling with the immediate problems, Ros Crana was trying to re-jig the accommodation and kitchen arrangements for the evening in the event of us being stuck in Kytra (which has no road access and is some distance from the evening mooring) and Ros Don was keeping everyone informed of our progress on one radio channel so that I could concentrate on communicating with the lock keepers on another.
As I listened to the relief in the voice of the Ros Crana skipper, I realised that we do have a central role at each mooring, even if during the day we lumber along like an ungainly duckling in the wake of the mother ship. Our boat is one of the main spaces for relaxing in the evening, and this year the Billy Can Catering has been using our galley for producing breakfast and part of the evening meal, all the safety boat crews stay aboard each night, so we would be missed if we failed to arrive. I had an enormous feeling of fellowship in knowing we were useful, but also knowing that everyone was trying to help us when things go wrong; we are a flotilla, a floating interdependent community.
… and I must not forget another vital element; music floating across the lochs from our deck. Mark the piper is part of the glue that binds us all together, making us laugh, making us dance, making us appreciate the wonder of the landscape around as the notes drift outwards