I wrote in 2003: The Great Glen Raid was, for the three years 2000-2002, a rally for sail and oar craft from Fort William on Scotland’s north-west coast to to Inverness on the east, through the Caledonian Canal, most of which consists of lochs, as opposed to locks. The term ‘Raid’ was coined by its organisers, a non-profit French body called Albacore, as shorthand for an independent sail-and-oar expedition. The same event continues today with different management, under the name Sail Caledonia.Read More
On making enquiries about the 2002 Raid via the local Enterprise Board (one of its sponsors) I found myself in contact with Bill Sylvester, the board’s chief executive and a then boatless sailor with dinghy racing experience; this was an opportunity too good for this crewless skipper to miss, my son Mike being unavailable, so Bill and I made it a date for late May.
The north-easterly route through the Great Glen can be, and indeed was to prove, demanding and exposed. Wind is generally on the nose or tail, any strength in it presenting the discomfort of beating or the risk of broaching in the considerable waves which can develop, especially on Loch Ness. In fact there were seven capsizes, but on the smaller Loch Lochy, the previous year. Bunny was the smallest boat there by a good couple of feet, her acceptance being in doubt until the organisers were satisfied by her sturdy lines, ample freeboard and decking, and internal lead ballast, and persuaded of the (combined!) experience of her crew. By this time, mindful of the running repair found necessary at Morbihan, I had endeavoured to replace every worn or potentially troublesome fitting or piece of cordage on her.
The fleet was craned into the water at Corpach, just in from the western end of the canal. As we made ready afloat a nearby skipper asked me of Bunny ‘Is that a Victorian gentleman’s canoe yawl?’ I should have had the presence of mind to respond ‘No, on the first two counts’, but I never think of these things until afterwards. That skipper turned out to be George Trevelyan, who has campaigned his ageing Montagu Whaler Collingwood, with crew of up to a dozen or so, across Europe. She was the previous year’s Raid winner and, at 27 feet, this year’s largest competitor. George lives a few miles from me, near Henley, and there each Wednesday night I am now one of his galley slaves as we exercise Collingwood‘s successor, a modern replica New Bedford whaler, Molly, on the Thames. This takes place all year round, in conditions ranging from balmy to Shackletonian, the later compensation being an earnest review of technique at the Anchor pub.
The fleet of thirty or so Raiders spanned a broad spectrum including a Hebridean Sgoth and an Orkney Yole (both substantial clinker double-enders); Ian Oughtred’s Jeannie II, a Norwegian-inspired clinker ply double-ender, still under construction on her arrival; some GRP Drascombes; Ofelia, a beautiful Swedish incarnation of an old Hartlepool pilot boat design; another Swedish family boat Suss, resembling a large cold-moulded Merlin Rocket; two luggers from King Alfred’s School in London, designed by Nigel Irens and notable for their ability to field any number of masts to taste; and one or two ‘development’ types in both high- and low-tech materials.
Day One involved a figure-of-eight leg ‘at sea’ in waters off Fort William, the aim being to verify the seaworthiness of boats and crews. There was hardly any wind, but we got Bunny round without resorting to the oars. Day Two began with the ascent of ‘Neptune’s Staircase’, a flight of eight locks, followed by a timed canal row by the skipper for six miles (his crew claiming tennis elbow). Bunny is easily rowed but presents the problem of what to do with the helmsman, the tiller obstructing the central location he needs to take to balance the boat. Bill had either to stand astride the tiller, or unship it and sit on the aft deck, steering crudely with cord tied to the rudder head. I think the answer, not yet implemented, is a detachable perch on the aft deck bridging the sweep of the tiller.
There followed a fast run down Loch Lochy of about ten miles, in force 4-5. Fortunately, only the day before the Raid began Bill and I had made a pole for the jib at his home in Inverness. A preventer would have been handy, but we made do with a crew member holding out the boom. Despite carrying three on this leg, we got a palpable surge of speed on each overtaking wave as it got beneath Bunny‘s ample (perhaps ‘powerful’) hindquarters. The 20-foot Ofelia recorded a maximum six knots or so over the ground (here more or less synonymous with ‘through the water’) on her GPS, and we were keeping pace with her. On a run there was little to choose between the disparate fleet of boats, and this made for quite a protracted social occasion. Our third crew was a journalist from Sailing Today, which was to give the Raid good coverage, and Bunny a full-page photo.
Day Three on Loch Oich, only about four miles long, gave us our best finishing position. Winds were light and variable. After a spot-on racing start we held second position (behind a far larger boat) right up to the last 50 yards, when we were just pipped by the stealthy Ian Oughtred and another boat, to come in fourth. We dropped the main before sailing into a pontoon berth under jib and mizzen, under full control naturally, to be pleasingly complimented on so doing. We were next to Ofelia, whose Swedish skipper declared he loved every part of Bunny except THAT! – pointing to the tip of her bowsprit. Here, in recognition of my dubious close-quarters handling, and the ruggedness of the galvanised cranse iron, I had appended a fluorescent yellow soft plastic ball to both warn and protect other craft. This was soon to go in a collision (fortunately one where Bunny played a passive role), to be recovered from the water by another boat and giving me cause, for the first time in many years, to ask for my ball back.
Day Four was the first on Loch Ness, at 22 miles by two or so and very deep, the largest single volume of fresh water in the UK, and virtually sterile, disappointingly for monster hunters. Force 4-5 on the nose, and we beat into it under full sail for all we were worth, Bill’s inclinations having overcome mine as regards reefing. I believe, in fact I’m sure, we would have made better progress to windward with a reef in the main and with the boat, and particularly the centreboard, more upright. Unfortunately I was soon without a tiller extension as the ring on the clevis pin attaching it to the tiller head snagged on my clothing and pulled out the pin itself, which disappeared somewhere in the boat; this left me unable to get my 16 stones (220lbs / 100kg) right out where it was needed. As a result we were ‘lee rail under’ for about four solid hours, during which time we passed five boats, larger than us (as they all were), and all of which subsequently were obliged to turn back or accept a tow.
To be fair, we too would have taken a tow soon; even at our fair lick the leg was to take us a month of Sundays. The decision was forced on us when I finally bungled a tack, accidentally jamming the mainsheet full in on the turn, and instantly capsized us in a by now force 5 wind. I groped around underwater to free the mainsheet, then we set about righting Bunny. Bill took to the centreboard, and I made to roll in as she came up. As she did so, however, the stern 425lb buoyancy bag, secured only by tapes through loops on its seams, quickly squeezed out through an improbably-small gap and bobbed away down the loch, in a scene strongly reminiscent of the 60s TV series The Prisoner. Bunny sank rapidly beneath me by the stern, a disconcerting sensation, the bow bags arresting her descent with just a foot or two of her stem out of the water. Although we were not far from shore, the bottom falls away steeply to about 800ft, so this was a very disturbing development. Bill and I felt in no serious danger in our automatic lifejackets, given the proximity of the shore and the arrival of the safety boat before too long; however the incident did call into question, in my mind at least, the practicality of an automatic inflatable jacket in situations where some personal manoeuvrability is needed in recovering a capsized boat. I felt distinctly hampered by mine, which imposed the typical reclining orientation on me, by comparison with, for example, a buoyancy aid having foam filling front and rear. This feeling was not mollified by my reading more recently that lifejackets of this type, by holding the wearer’s face to wind and sea, have been implicated in a number of drownings in conditions somewhat rougher than ours on the day. A moot point, anyway.
Bunny was dragged to a rocky shore by the safety boat to be bailed out before, aboard the organisers’ motor cruiser, we changed into the dry clothes we carried in waterproof drums on board, and towed her unmanned to the next scheduled stop as we recovered our circulation. Incredibly, there were no losses from the boat (the buoyancy bag and a wandering floorboard having been retrieved by the safety RIB) nor any damage except to paint and pride, but a swim in Loch Ness, even in June, is not so warm as you might think. We were very glad at the end of that day of our berths aboard Fingal, a 100ft-plus converted trading barge, complete with hot showers, laundry, drying room and food cooked for us. Today Bunny‘s stern buoyancy bag is secured by a comprehensive lacework of webbing, the load shared between a dozen or so substantial eyescrews. As for the mainsheet, in fresh conditions it is now re-routed at the exit from its block so as to be unjammable, whether by intent or by accident.
Day Five (the second half of Loch Ness) presented a more gentle beat. The wood screws securing the bumkin bracket were found to have pulled out of an aft deck beam, perhaps as a result of the beaching and manhandling the day before. This gave us a surprisingly lacklustre performance under main & jib only. Eventually I found I could lash an oar along the quarter and tie the bumkin down to that. Once this was achieved we quickly passed five other boats, demonstrating the power contributed on the wind by the mizzen, despite it being slightly blanketed on this point by the helmsman. After the finish line we had a further beat down the wide canal, passing another four or five boats doing the same.
These two days had been my first lengthy experience close-hauled with Bunny. On this point of sailing Bill and I noticed a couple of things about her: Firstly, the mainsheet alone, running from the block on the centreboard case to a point two-thirds of the way from the mast along the boom, was incapable of getting the boom inboard enough; it was necessary for the crew to manually haul the boom in whilst the helmsman took up the slack in the sheet. The only alternative I can imagine is a mainsheet horse bridging the tiller aft, but the magnitude of the problem hardly merits this measure. Secondly, the middle third of the main, vertically speaking, for a couple of feet behind the mast, was distinctly backed by the jib, about which we found we could do nothing at all; for example adjusting the jib sheet travellers did not help. This seems to be inherent in the gunter sail plan; whether other 3/4-rigged craft experience it I don’t know. A mashtead rig would get the effect, if at all, at the top of the main where it would matter less. Perhaps we should have eased the sheet a bit and pointed lower.
Day Six had us rowing, manhauling and locking through a few miles of canal. Day Seven, the last, was my 50th birthday; if this turns out to be ‘mid-life’ I have a long sailing career ahead of me. We raced on the Moray Firth in force 4-5, a cautious downwind leg followed by a beat back. The bumkin bracket was by now temporarily fixed with a roofing bolt. We had the main reefed for the first time as we didn’t know quite what to expect out there. In strong winds it can be tricky to reef a gunter sail, since you have to drop the yard in order to reposition the halyard on it. I think it might be possible to design a solution involving an extra masthead sheave and a bit more cordage. It proved a boisterous sail, one of the King Alfred luggers capsizing, and Collingwood under her huge white lugsail, complete with George on the trapeze, hands laced behind his head in supreme insouciance, was a sight to behold. Bunny shipped only spray despite being driven very hard.
At the final reckoning Bunny was placed seventh in her class of 18 boats up to 22ft or so in length; she had attracted admiring comments throughout the week for her design, build quality and general turnout. The satisfaction of this novice in completing the Raid and confirming Bunny‘s seaworthiness was a warm feeling indeed.