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The Great Glen Challenge 2014

The Great Glen - on a good day!

The Great Glen – on a good day!

It was in May 2013, whilst fishing on the River Dee at Cairnton for a few days, that I suggested to my wife Ruthie that we might fill up the rest of an uneventful week, on the river, with a visit to Fort William and The Great Glen – why should we want to go there she said? In the back of my mind I had a thought that this decrepit old Army Officer/Estate Agent/ Livery Clerk, might have one last go at raising some money for charity. To date, in the last ten years, I had walked across Jordan, Iceland and Southern Spain and then in 2009, rowed down the River Thames from the source to Tower bridge. So, over we went to Fort William and spoke to the Caledonian Canal Authority and started to dream up the idea of a ‘Great Glen’ rowing challenge. In recent years I have found that walking the dog, walking along a river bank fishing, or walking to my peg out shooting, was sufficient exercise to keep me in reasonable shape (some might not agree with that view) however, something a little more challenging was required.
The Great Glen is a stretch of water, of about 70 miles long, running North East from Fort William to Inverness and includes four lochs and four stretches of canal, between the lochs, the whole being known as the Caledonian Canal. The cost of this little transit is normally £82, but after some negotiation with the canal authority, they agreed to let me ‘do it’ at half price. Right, all I had to do now was build a boat, get even fitter than my supreme state, organise the admin and go for it!! I also needed to decide what charities I might support in the process. I decided on Combat Stress, Providence Row, Promise Nepal and Feltmaker Pensioners.

Boat under construction

Boat under construction

In November 2013, I took delivery of a Fyne boat kit for a 15‘ Chester Yawl, somewhat similar to a small naval cutter circa 1800 – very pretty, sleek and quite fast. The kit arrived at my friend, Tony Jefferies’ garage in Hook, in two large boxes. Slowly we started to join the planks, a critical moment; a fraction out of place and you would have a boat like a corkscrew! Once all the planks were at their full length of 15’, the next process was to sew them together with wire and on completing that they were glued together with epoxy, (I never wish to see that stuff again – several ruined pullovers – Ruthie not delighted!). By Christmas the basic form of the boat, recognisable (just) as a boat was finished; then there was the fitting of frames, bulkheads and rubbing strakes.

On the way to Pangbourne

On the way to Pangbourne

By April 2014 the boat was complete with 7 coats of paint and varnish, as well as another two coats of epoxy – a strong and light vessel, finished off with bronze rowlocks and a fine pair of carbon fibre oars kindly donated by Pangbourne College, my old school.

Training at Pangbourne

Training at Pangbourne

The boat, which I decided to call ‘Clemmie II’, was duly loaded onto the roof of my car and taken to the Pangbourne College boathouses on the Thames; with some anxiety the boat was launched – and it floated – phew. The next two months were spent in rowing for at least one hour a day, six days a week and even though I had lost 20 lbs in the previous year, I now started to put weight back on. By early June I was beginning to feel pretty confident that I had done enough training to complete the task, and so, suitably emboldened, Ruthie and I set off for Fort William and the Great Glen. Yet again my old college had come to my aid with the loan of a trailer and launching trolley.

Leaving for Scotland

Leaving for Scotland

Ruthie and I made our way to Scotland by way of friends in Derbyshire and Perthshire and arrived safely, after a rather late dinner party, on the morning of Sunday 15th June.
To reduce the administrative load I had rented a log cabin, that slept four, on the edge of Loch Ness, at Fort Augustus; the cabin had the most sensational views down this enormous expanse of water, that would confront me later in the week.

Base Camp - The log cabin

Base Camp – The log cabin

At this point we were joined by Simon Bartley, The Master Feltmaker, and his ‘helper’ Richard Jennings, CEO of the Company that manufactured the delicious Kendal Mint Cake. Simon was going to walk the great Glen Way and had been training by walking up the stairs in ‘skyscrapers’, rather than using the lift.
Day one. On the morning of Monday the 16th June the sun was shining and the party met up with Nigel Macdonald, Chairman of Lock the hatters, who had very kindly flown up to Scotland to see us off and offer help in getting going!

Launching the Boat at the top of Neptune's Staircase

Launching the Boat at the top of Neptune’s Staircase

There is always a moment of hesitation before undertaking a real ‘challenge’; had I done enough, should I be doing it anyway, was the boat up to it and indeed was it all possible in a week? I had hoped to do it in five days, the time recommended for a two man canoe, the Caledonian Authority noted that it was unusual for the Glen to be rowed by someone, on their own!

The start of the row

The start of the row

Clearly, the most critical factor in completing a task like this, was the weather, as I would find out later in the week; however, for the time being the wind was set fair – either very little or in my favour from the South West.
The Canal proper starts at Corpach, just West of Fort William, but there are no places to launch a small craft like Clemmie II and the first major hurdle to negotiate would be the set of nine locks, at Banavie, called Neptune’s Staircase; it can take anything up to six hours (just sitting in the boat) to raise yourself about 150’ to the level of the canal. So, I put the boat in the water at the top of the Staircase rather than at the bottom, thus saving a great deal of wasted time – apart from anything else, the authorities are not that keen on having little boats taking up valuable space in the locks. Off I went with a flourish of good lucks from the shore and soon I was out of sight from the spectators, but not from the 4,406’ of Ben Nevis looking down on me. There was a gentle breeze of no significance and it was a joy, at last, to be on my way.

The canal at Moy

The canal at Moy

Along the boat eased with that satisfactory swish when all is going well. Within a few hours I had passed Muirshearlich, Loy and Moy, where I got out and stretched my legs and had a chat with the swing bridge operators and consumed my first Banana and Scotch egg for lunch. In the afternoon I completed the canal route to Gairlochy where I negotiated my first lock and entered Loch Lochy. Just round the corner from the lock was a shingle beach, where I dragged the boat onto the shore for the night and telephoned the long suffering Ruthie – to come and get me.

On the beach at Gairlochy

On the beach at Gairlochy

Day two started with hardly a cloud in the sky and fortunately no wind. I eased away at about 0900 hours and had the most sublime row down Loch Lochy, there was hardly a ripple on the water and I secretly hoped it might stay that way!

Loch Lochy

Loch Lochy

Ben Nevis was still visible in the distance and I first experienced the sensation of being totally alone in a large expanse of water, where time seems to have little meaning and the shoreline drags by with the passing of every hour. The scenery was quite superb and by lunch time I had arrived at a point where the main road (A82) came down to the water’s edge and a suitable beach made it possible for me to meet up with Ruthie and share lunch.
The rest of the Loch soon passed by and the canal re-entered at Laggan, where there is a further loch and then a general mooring pontoon and, believe it or not, a floating ‘pub’. I dragged the boat out of the water onto the pontoon, stripped it of anything worth stealing (although a very unlikely happening) and made my way to the ‘Eagle Barge’, and met up with Simon, Richard and Ruthie. A long day but I now felt we were getting there and that if the weather held, I would be the luckiest oarsman in Scotland.

Lunchtime Loch Lochy

Lunchtime Loch Lochy

Day Three – Wednesday. The next leg of the journey was to experience Loch Oich a couple of miles North West of Laggan Locks. Today the sun shone – again – but the wind promised to be considerably stronger than Tuesday. I had now learnt that whatever my XC weather forecasted for the day, there was likely to be little relationship to the actuality on the ground/water. The wind would start from the NE and then change, very quickly, maybe to the SW, if I was lucky; today was one such day and no sooner than I thought I was going to have a tussle on my hands, the wind changed and became a great assistance. On entering Loch Oich, the waves started to become a little more aggressive and nothing like the Mediterranean flat of the previous day, this was becoming a bit of a ‘very minor’ surfing event, but no bad thing, given the distance to travel – today. The pathway through the loch is narrow (about half a mile wide) and quite shallow in places, but not a problem for me.

The floating pub at the end of Loch Oich

The floating pub at the end of Loch Oich

At the end of Loch Oich there is the Aberchalder Swing bridge and Lock Cullochy; this is the start of another 6 mile stretch of the canal itself. Lunch was eaten at Cullochy and the usual Banana, scotch egg, cold sausage and pork pie, soon replaced those spent calories (I keep on telling Ruthie that you can’t row the Great Glen on a lettuce leaf!) from Collochy you proceed along the canal to Kytra and thence on to Fort Augustus, the scenery was still amazing with the hills sliding down to the water’s edge on either side of me.

Leaving Loch Oich

Leaving Loch Oich

On arrival at Fort Augustus there is a further mini Neptune’s Staircase of six locks that locks you down, though the town, into Loch Ness. Here again I decided to trailer/portage the boat down into Loch Ness and save another few hours sitting doing nothing much. Once down at the bottom we took the boat to be launched at the site of our log cabin at Old Pier House, just outside the village; in pre-war days this was a railway station where passengers caught a ferry to Inverness, rather than use a very basic road that was slower than taking the ferry.

Top of Lock system at Fort Augustus

Top of Lock system at Fort Augustus

Day 4 – Thursday. I awoke at about 0300 hrs in the morning and saw an Otter playing in the Loch below the house, and on opening the door onto the terrace two Otters rushed away across the water, squealing and making a right hullabaloo, a memorable moment. Later that morning! We launched the boat into Loch Ness and I rowed about half a mile round to Fort Augustus, to look up the ladder of locks – a very pretty sight.

Looking up the lock ladder at Fort Augustus

Looking up the lock ladder at Fort Augustus

I had planned to row the Ness in two days but I soon realised, having set off for Drumnadrochit, that the weather was going to have other ideas. All, as usual, started calm and orderly, but no sooner than I rounded the first headland than the wind backed and started to blow straight down the Ness, from NE to SW. After a couple of hours, two bananas, countless cold sausages and, of course, Kendal Mint Cake, I knew I was never going to make it to Drumnadrochit and somewhat exhausted made landfall in a small cove at Invermoriston, about six miles from Fort Augustus.

Launching at Lock Ness - Simon in the foreground

Launching at Lock Ness – Simon in the foreground

All the potential landing places along the loch were marked ‘private – absolutely no landing’; however in this instance the Clerk was having none of it and I beached the dinghy at Invermoriston. On the beach at Invermoriston I walked up through the Scots Pines into the garden. The gardner was a friendly Englishman and I explained what I was doing, to which he replied, ‘’that’s quite alright I can see you are not a hooligan and the boss is away for the next nine days’’. Ruthie was summoned and off we sped back to Old Pier House. We had now dropped one day behind schedule and I was either going to have to row virtually the whole length of the Ness in one day or take it easy and use up one of the extra days by way of contingency. We all went out to dinner that night, to relieve the cooks, and had an adequate dinner by the water’s edge in Fort Augustus

On the beach at Invermoriston

On the beach at Invermoriston

The following morning, Day 5 – Friday, I set off from Invermoriston and had a comparatively uneventful row to Drumnadrochit and Urquhart Castle. The previous day’s experience had shown me what a thoroughly difficult piece of water Loch Ness can be. Firstly, it is completely unreliable with regard to weather, and secondly it was the most unwelcoming, foreboding, black and treacherous expanse of water that I have ever come across.

Urquhart Castle

Urquhart Castle

It was nothing to do with a monster but out in the middle you felt very alone – you probably wouldn’t believe that it is over half a mile deep and holds more water than all the other lakes in the UK put together. Notwithstanding these reservations, it is still very magnificent and awe inspiring, the land was now starting to flatten out a little. Urquhart Castle is situated on the Southerly side of the Dumnadrochit bay and here again I had to beach the craft right under the Castle on their private beach; the staff were helpful and showed me how to break into the grounds, when I returned the following morning.

Almost out of sight - leaving Drumnadrochit

Almost out of sight – leaving Drumnadrochit

Day 6 – Saturday.

I decided on an early start today and Ruthie, together with Simon Bartley, dropped me off for my final leg to Inverness. Ruthie then drove Simon to the airport to come South.
Now the fun was going to start! At 0830 hrs I slid off the beach below Urquhart Castle, the water was flat and little sign of wind, I thought this is a piece of cake and held that thought until the Castle became a pinprick on the horizon and the first headland appeared over my shoulder.

The Ness looking South West

The Ness looking South West

All of a sudden the wind started to freshen from the SW and slowly increased to about force 4; whilst there was no immediate thought of alarm, I did for the first time don my lifejacket.

Loch Dochfour - the final view of the Great Glen

Loch Dochfour – the final view of the Great Glen

Loch Ness can, under the severest weather conditions, produce waves 10’ high, but I was more than happy with the present ones of about 2’; the freeboard on the boat is about a foot, so even very small waves look quite impressive, especially when the wind produces white horses on them!

The finish

The finish

I started to look about for places to land, should it be necessary, but none came into view, and even the pleasure boat jetty at the Clansman Hotel was highly unsuitable. I made the decision to row like the blazes and hope for the best. I passed Abriachan and Dores, the boat not feeling that comfortable in the following sea. At last the wind and water abated and I eventually entered Loch Dochfour, just SW of Inverness.

The prize - a 12lb salmon caught on the River Dee

The prize – a 12lb salmon caught on the River Dee

Only a couple of miles to go and the challenge would be complete. The finish line may not have been as public or dramatic as Tower Bridge in 2009, but the sense of achievement was every bit as fulfilling. I had rowed about 70 miles in 20 hours, over 6 days and had taken approximately 24,000 strokes with the much loved carbon fibre oars. As I write this the sum raised stands at about £24,000- just about £1 for every stroke!

The long suffering Ruthie "Don't come back till you ‘’and don’t come back until you have finished"

The long suffering Ruthie
“Don’t come back till you ‘’and don’t come back until you have finished”

I am greatly indebted to all those who have contributed financially- friends, family and Liverymen. Also to Louise Waller, who helped by setting up the donation page, which made the whole process so much easier. But, most importantly, I want to acknowledge the contribution of my wife Ruthie; without her it would have been far more difficult. Her practical support and encouragement every step of the way made this great adventure possible. By way of a treat, after over 2 months rowing and 5 months building the boat, I went over to the River Dee and caught two Salmon – God really was on my side this Summer!
Jollyon Coombs
August 2014

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