Changing Faces Day on Sail Caledonia 2017


In support of the organisation Changing Faces , whom Adrian has had contact with in his work, we told the Sail Caledonia fleet about the awareness day and offered a stack of facial transfers for people to wear.  There was a huge response from everyone, and it was a big race day across Loch Ness.  Here are some fabulous photographs taken by Jean to document the day

Wearing a transfer was particularly interesting for Jean, as she was the one who works hard behind the scenes, driving the minibus full of camping equipment, organising logistics, picking up fresh food.  As a result she came into contact with many people during her working day.  She reported afterwards that many people were shy about asking what was on her face.  Jean is very good at talking to people; so she was the perfect person to spread the message of the awareness day!

Changing Faces says; ‘We promote a culture of confidence, positivity and acceptance around disfigurement. We campaign for face equality in schools and at work while challenging misrepresentation and discrimination’

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This boat is not an island!

loch ness crew

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.

ros don_ian

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;

lock wings

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.

ros crana_mother ship

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

gairlochy piping

jules and david sax serenade

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After 2 days on the move, we have arrived in Banavie.  We take a walk in the woods between the canal and the river; this is a precious slice of land that lines the Caledonian Canal banks, trees planted to bind the improbable construction have grown to a cathedral-like height and wonder.

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Locks and Bridges

I wrote recently of the dreams that are attached to boats and every time we cruise the length of the Caledonian Canal it amuses me how constrained this journey is and yet the common perception of our life aboard is one of freedom. There are so many locks and bridges, each only opens if it is within Scottish Canals’ working hours and only if each lock keeper is contacted first on the radio. There is freedom, but the freedom is mostly in a more subtle way than is usually understood; moving the boat along the lochs and canals is a freeing experience governed by wind and weather, by crew and by deadlines that are mostly weeks away, not hours away. I often don’t have a use for wallet or keys for days.


Going up the locks is a slow process and the locks at Fort Augustus are very performative and sociable; people walk up the towpath and peer into your boat and ask lots of questions. Still the best observation in 7 years is ‘what are you?’, said after following our progress up the entire flight of locks over a period of one and a quarter hours. The man who asked this had peered into the windows seeing onto the companion way to the upper deck which shows floor to ceiling book shelves – a travelling library maybe? He then looked at the saloon and all the ex restaurant space with table numbers still listed and a bar with menu board – a cafe maybe? But the crew were wearing boiler suits, one cowboy hat and stubble, the skipper a woman, a dog asleep on the deck amongst flower pots, wearing a life jacket, so the boat fits no known category. I could not answer his question; what are we?

Adrian and Mark shared the steering up Fort Augustus locks after much persuasion. Adrian, conditioned by my feminism, has a fierce desire to facilitate as many as possible tourist photos of a large steel boat driven by a woman. Instead I enjoyed the foredeck work, using the foreward warp to stop the bow swinging out with the turbulence of tons of water rushing down the staircase of locks. Since the boat is over a hundred tonnes all the weight is controlled by friction through the bollards and cleats, a bystander said I looked very strong. They refused to believe that my climbing muscles were not controlling the movement of the boat; they could see my strong hands and arms. Another asked about the age and purpose of the boat and we had a great conversation about the islands on the West coast of Canada where he was from and I have always wished to travel. A glass blower knew Adrian and took her lunch hour following us up the locks, the lock keepers were asking our destination that evening and chatting about Sail Caledonia (we are acting as a support boat for this race in two weeks time). I found out that Linda (the lock keeper at Kytra lock, the next along the canal) was expecting us there for the night and that her elderly labrador was still alive; this is how news travels along the canal. Star, our boat dog is the same age as Linda’s dog and gets a lot more chat from her than the humans aboard.

The other thing that controls our movement through the Great Glen is the quantity of road bridges that span the canal. Each of these must open and close within a highly specific time; cars have priority in our culture and boats must hurry through, to keep delays on the road to a minimum. Sometimes this is more difficult than it sounds; the bridges are narrow and often have either a strong wind channeling through this constriction or many boats from both directions trying to fill that small allotted time for the bridge swinging.



Loch Oich is the watershed (the highest point on the Great Glen) so the locks from Laggan onwards are ‘staircases’ down, not up. The turbulence is less, but the sensation is strange; the landscape disappears, steep walls rear up shedding water from small holes in glossy wet stone.


This image is of Gairlochy lock, Ben Nevis dwarfed suddenly as we sink, disappearing behind the lock, small in comparison to a woman and dog walking.

Adrian misjudges his timing to jump back aboard from the high walls and has to run beyond the road bridge to rejoin the boat further on; the wind is fierce suddenly as it channels through the deep lock trench and I have difficulty picking him up from the pontoons designed for small boats, trying not to crush the structure as the wind skids the shallow draft barge sideways.

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The spring migration West and duck eggs

spring is a time of reckless abundance;

gorse fills all views from the wheel house as we cruise to Dochgarroch from Muirtown


Dochgarroch is where the river Ness meets the canal and so water is everywhere

dochgarroch approach

a duck swims past the boat with 10 ducklings in tight formation, I try not to think of the fact that I know they will mostly make a nice meal for something predatory.


Later, as I water the thirsty garden aboard Loch Ness Barge, I wonder if I will find 6 duck eggs like last year. None are in the plant pots and I am partly disappointed and partly relieved. Last year we found the nest when we were already on the move and therefore without the dilemma of whether to make the eggs into breakfast or to try to transfer the nest to the bank where the mother might find them.

loch ness mist

We set off up Loch Ness in a soft grey watercolour light with almost no wind. Adrian, Mark and I are so in tune with the sounds of the boat engine, her hull and her systems that we all notice that our starboard engine is faltering a tiny amount now and then. This is a kind of relief as we have been discussing this problem as something we think is related to dirty fuel tanks clogging the filters on the fuel lines to the engines and starting to hinder the flow of fuel. We have just changed the port engine filter and cleaned that fuel tank, the starboard one is due next. This might confirm our theory. We change the filter and the problem disappears.

The weather gradually changes, the mist and cloud rising, the light strengthening. As the sun comes out, Mark starts resealing the saloon wall joint to the deck and I start to scrub off a winter of green slime from the decks, Adrian is steering. As I crouch down on the foredeck by the huge coil of rope looped over an old windlass, I spy our spring quota of duck eggs. There are 2 blue-ish eggs nestled against the long soft bristles of the broom I brought back from Mauritius, tucked behind the windlass. A few pieces of string and some other debris make up the sum total of the nest. Again the eggs have traveled far from the mother duck by the time of the discovery and are transferred to the fridge.

nest in broomeggs

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Dream Boats

dream boat in the makingToday a few friends sat drinking coffee aboard Loch Ness, all of us live aboard our boats and all of us have invested huge amounts of time, emotion and money in our dreams for these boats. Discussing how absurd some expenditure is, usually brings us around to our own hopeful investments. It occurred to me that boats seem to have a disproportionate quantity of dreams attached to their futures, and these dreams cause some wildly irrational choices but also some wonderfully creative and light-hearted additions to the looks and functions of the boats. All our boats have spent more time being worked on than they have spent cruising the waters of Scotland.

Charlie has a Chinese junk that had a psycho-drama filmed aboard it last year. The choice of the boat for this bizarre fiction did not just stem from the boat itself, but the way the boat embodies the desire to travel to exotic places without leaving its mooring and also how the boat has taken on some of the eccentricities of the owner, it is an individualist’s boat.

Mark has a wooden ex-fishing boat lying ashore being replanked (the exceptionally high tide representing a freak of atmospheric pressure when he beached it gave him as much a view of the bottom as possible but has left him unable to refloat his boat again for a year). His boat is introduced to all potential partners; the boat seems to act as a filter for relationships; the dreams of travel to far off places that Mark has all the skippering skills to carry out, are dreams carried in a boat that cannot float. Each potential relationship must respond to the romance of the idea of the future journeys and survive the reality of the stationary present; all cabins canted over on the shore.

Loch Ness Barge has a similar kind of conundrum; it is spacious inside and we use it for events that cover a large spectrum of interests.  Many people stay aboard, many feasts are eaten, celebrations take place, the boat has become a fertile ground for imagining and dreaming. However good her accommodation is for these events, the main object of all the work and money invested so far is her engine room… and still we can only travel to the other side of Scotland (a journey that takes one and a half hours in a car). I have come to the conclusion that a lack of symmetry is common between the scale of things and the scale of the dream of things. Loch Ness Barge embodies a particular kind of dream; a domestic unit travelling through a landscape on a water way that allows the plant pots and crockery to remain in place. Everybody thought she would never move again once she stopped being a dredger. Her previous owner ignored this restraint and created a fantasy resembling a Mississippi river boat aboard the deck of the dredger, and assembled much of the rig in the engine room, but his dream ended before she ever cruised with any conviction. This start gave us a determination to finish his set up and enable the dumb barge to become a self propelled boat even if we never reach the other side of the Atlantic to blend into the Missippi river scene. It is all in the scale of dreaming, not the scale of the journey.

Another good example of the power of dreams is the Greenpeace boat Beluga 2 seen here in Loch Dochfour as we cruise out of the canal by Dochgarroch and head towards Loch Ness. Her bow has a rainbow painted on it, her rig is wildly eccentric and old-fashioned, her function is to aid political ideology and environmental campaigning rather than personal dreams, but her look has the same romance as our private dream boats and this changes things.



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Bike Film Night coming soon – 19 December

Any ideas for films for this festive night?

contact Nicky on


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