Sailing the Raft - Part 1 1/01/2019

Updated: Aug 21

A project boat in Edinburgh that started a trip through all of the Scottish Canals...

The catamaran 'Katie Anne' was not quite an ocean going voyager... Maybe with a little more money spent on her she would have been (and people have crossed the Atlantic in a Wharram designed Hinemoa 23 - which is what she was), but who needs thousands of miles of ocean when you have the West Coast of Scotland? ​ When I first found her on a beach in North Queensferry in Edinburgh, she certainly looked like the sub £1,000 price she had just cost me. Not a lot of money for a boat these days, and one may have felt prudent to ask what else was wrong with her for that price, but I needed to be at sea again. ​

The owner had assured me that she would easily float on the tide and I could just sail away. Just like that. So, after the emergency repair to one of her timbers that held the two hulls together, and the use of four men and a lot of planks to lever her the 20 yards into the water where the spring tide actually came, she was ready. Ready to cross the river that is, to South Queensferry. And I was going. I desperately had to be sailing again, and nothing was going to stop me - even a boat that needed more ‘cosmetic repairs’ than was surely healthy. Everybody including my bank balance at the time had told me that this was not on the cards right now but the call of the sea is a wild one, and so I rang my long suffering friends and they agreed once more to come and work on a boat that they secretly thought would surely involve the coastguard at some point...

After my cheerful band of workers had sat discussing what would happen should the hulls part company, the splintered crossbeam was first for consideration. We opted for an over-engineered set of wooden splints screwed and bound along each side of it. As there were three other crossbeams in good condition, we decided this adequate for the voyage I had in mind. Next was the rigging. Wharrams traditionally have rope standing rigging which is tied in place, but I didn’t like the look of the condition of the binds that held the shrouds, so they were replaced with galvanised shackles from the local DIY superstore (cheaper than the stainless ones from the chandler). These were the two jobs that I was grateful for completing later in the trip when the wind came. The sails were so stretched that we were sure that they actually came from a vessel 10’ bigger, but although there was little we could do about that, replacing some of the running rigging helped the general picture. The outboard only needed its plug cleaning and a little coaxing before it eventually allowed itself to be press ganged into service, and the boat would be fine. ​Finally after three days of combined imagination and many visits to the superstore to get her into some sort of order, she was ready (I use the term very loosely) for sea. Some say she could have used a lick of paint, but I opted for a more natural look and tactically placed ropes and equipment over the worst areas. And now it was time. I planned to work every canal in Scotland and the wild West Coast up to the Moray Firth. This had been my escape that I had planned for some time.

I took the direct route of sailing up the Firth of Forth to Grangemouth, then joining the Forth and Clyde canal which would take me right across Scotland from East to West and leave me in Glasgow. The Forth and Clyde canal is the only canal in Scotland on which you need to be able to drop your mast to transit it, and also the only canal where the staff travel from loch to loch by van with you for the entire trip if you transit out of high season.

Thus we had the occasional history lesson with the loch keepers (who were the friendliest and most helpful people you could ever wish to meet) as we ambled through scenic countryside, nature reserves, and even suburbia before being ejected at the other end in Bowling, on the Clyde river. Using a crane this time to raise the mast was much easier than when my father and I dropped it at the yacht club when we entered the canal (anybody within earshot may have heard some unusual Dutch phrases...), and I left the boat here for a short time before starting the next leg. When I did return I soon realised that the boat had become infested with some sort of red ants that I spent the night sleeping with, but as I was still alive when I awoke I figured they were harmless... although rather itchy. That very next morning, I began my short sail out of the Clyde and towards Loch Fyne alone. Single handed is always a great adventure, spiritually uplifting and at the same time challenging. It certainly pushes your ability as a sailor, and hones your skills dramatically, but the afterglow is great. Sailing down past the Cumbrae islands with the sun setting and the dolphins out to guide me, I was happier than ever to be alone out there... if you give her a chance nature will provide just about everything you need.

Carrying on around Bute in a building southerly was exciting. Normally a force 6 would not be too much of a concern, but when you are alone and have both of your hands and feet desperately trying to hold the boat together it becomes somewhat more so. I must have looked like a human starfish to the crew of the trawler that passed with blank expressions. It was at this point I realised that the rig was not as good as it could be, and that some bits of the boats woodwork didn't take kindly to being lent on as they simply crumbled away. Nervous? A little. However, once I was heading NNW I had the wind and waves behind me again and I felt better. A little rum kept my spirits up and once again I was given gentle winds and a beautiful sunset to finish the day; sailing into Ardrishaig in the evening, and just making the loch basin before they closed the Crinan canal for the night. Here I must give tribute to my Grandmother and the centuries of seafarers before me who taught us a simple truth; you can survive much with rum and biscuits. Some say that the Crinan Canal is the prettiest (although shortest at only 9 miles) in Scotland. I would still reserve that title for the Caledonian Canal which offers everything, but it is certainly beautiful. You have to work a bit at this one as there are very few loch keepers and you are expected to work the lochs yourself. I managed to acquire my brother for the day on the promise that we would not at any time be going out to sea. As it was we made the whole canal in one day.

The previous night when I moored the boat and lay on the grass alone to drink my wine and read my book, I was to learn just how bad the 'midges' could be. These tiny insects fly in hordes and bite humans like mosquitoes. The only way to survive the damn things is to avoid them at all costs. How the local folk live with them has since been a wonder to me. I dived into the nearest pub as a shelter and decided that as it was full, this was the sensible thing to do. It had been a tiring day so it took me half way through my first pint to notice something was different in this bar... ah yes - there were only women here. It was a hen party. I was making my apologies and leaving when I was told that as I had already bought a drink I might as well stay...

“​There is pleasure in the pathless woods, there is rapture in the lonely shore, there is society where none intrudes, by the deep sea, and music in its roar; I love not Man the less, but Nature more."

Lord Byron

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