Fort William to Inverness, Scotland.
The goal was to become the first registered blind person to stand up paddle board, (SUP), the full 96km of the Caledonian Canal, aka the Great Glen, from Fort William to Inverness over 3 days.
If you have been reading the SUP Blog , you will have seen that SUP has really taken over my life. I had been looking for my next big challenge, when my very good friend, Carl Sawyer, came up with SUP. Shortly after I bought my Coreban Sonic inflatable board from Oceansource.net at the end of April this year, we came up with the plan to paddle the Caledonian Canal. The original plan had been to take this on in Spring 2015, but due to other commitments, Carl wanted to bring the challenge forward to October of this year, 2014. Fortunately I had managed to get a perforated ear drum, so swapped my swimming training for SUP training. (All of this can be read about on the SUP Blog.)
On the evening of October 1st, 2014, Carl, his brother Jason, and friends Dave Butt and Dave Robson made their way north, from Devon, in Carl’s big van. Carl and Jason would be my guides on the water and the 2 Daves would be our support team on land, as well as documenting the trip with both photographs and video. (Look out for Dave R’s film of the trip.) They arrived at my house around 8am and after a quick load of bacon rolls, coffee, and shortbread, (very kindly donated to us for this trip by Walkers Shortbread ), we were off to Fort William. After another food stop there, and registering with the Canal Office, it was time to get our kit ready and get on the water.
At around 12.30, after a wee portage past the first few locks at Fort William, we launched on to the canal, where I got to use my brand new SBS Pro Ultra Light paddle for the first time. (The 3 piece paddle that came with the Coreban is light, but this new one was almost weightless!) We had a tail wind which helped push us along a little. This tail wind slowly picked up as we got into bigger water, and by the time we hit Loch Lochy the tail wind was sitting at around 17 knots, (31kph or 19.5mph). The strongest tail wind I had ever experienced, up until then, had been 8mph and this had blown me off my board several times. As if this speed of 17 knots was not enough, we regularly received gusts of up to 36 knots, (67kph or 41.5mph). The initial goal was to attempt to paddle 96km, but now my new challenge was just to try to stay on my board.
I have a pretty basic paddle stance when I SUP. My feet are square on at shoulder width, and I have a steady paddle rate. Carl and Jason tried to teach me how to take on a surf stance, and pick up my pace when I caught a wave, but I decided for the time being, I’d stick with what I knew and use all of my skills just to keep focused and dry.
The waves were only 2 or 3 foot high, so nothing massive, but when you can’t see them until they hit you, they feel pretty big! This was no time to change my stance.
Day 1 saw us on the water for four and a half hours and covering a distance of 31km. We had started in Fort William and stopped for the night at the end of Loch Lochy at Gairlochy. Just as we stepped on to dry land the weather started to get a bit colder and not long after the heavens opened. The 2 Daves had found a wee hostel to stay in, and Carl, Jason and I spent a rather noisy night in the van, listening to the rain and wind outside, whilst chomping down on the Walkers .
Day 2 was going to be the biggest day for us. We hoped to paddle 50km north from Gairlochy to Dores.
The day started with some mellow paddling along the canal on to Loch Oich, (which looked pretty much like a wider canal), back on to the main canal, through Fort Augustus, and then on to the monster infested Loch Ness. We weren’t expecting to see the Loch Ness Monster, but we definitely did experience some monster conditions.
It had taken us 3 hours to get from Gairlochy to Fort Augustus, and after the previous days’ 31km and strong tail wind, this first part of Day 2 hadn’t been too hard. However, within a few minutes of paddling out from Fort Augustus things had changed dramatically. The wind was now sitting at 20 knots, (37kph or 23mph), with regular gusts exceeding 40 knots, (74kpb or 46mph). This really blew my previous personal best of 8mph out of the water!! Although these conditions were the most challenging I had ever encountered on my SUP, I told myself that I had learnt a lot the previous day and that this was just going to be a continuation of those lessons learned.
It is very hard to describe how it felt when I was riding the big waves, but here goes. Imagine standing on a trampoline as several people bounce on it around you. The goal is not to fall over. Now close your eyes.
Carl paddled over to me to check that I was OK, and told me that he also found these conditions challenging. I don’t know why, but this made me relax and made me feel much better about things.
For the next 4 hours we battled through the waves and wind. Carl and Jason were giving me tips as we went along, and I even managed to catch a few waves and surf them. I couldn’t see when the waves were coming, so had to learn to recognise them by feeling them ride under the board. It wasn’t just a case of feeling a wave lift me, but more a specific skill of working out when the wave was directly under my heels. At this point, I could start to paddle really fast and then enjoy the wave. If I paddle too early, I would fall down the front of the wave. If I paddled too late, then I would fall off the back of it. (When I say “fall”, I didn’t actually fall off my board, just the wave. Only one of us fell off his board on the whole trip, but I’m not going to embarrass Carl by telling you which one of us it was. Doh!)
My Coreban Sonic board is 12 foot 6 inches long, and about 31 inches wide. This made my board a bit more sluggish in these downwind conditions compared to Carl’s Redpaddleco Elite measuring in at 14 foot long and just 27 inches wide, and Jason’s Jimmy Lewis M14 measuring in at 14 by 28. The longer, narrower boards make it easier to catch and ride the waves. However, with my lesser skills, if I had gone any faster I probably would have ended up swimming!
Around 4.30 we met up with the support team on the loch shore. I had tried to work out how long we had to go at this point, and had hoped it was only about 45 minutes. Carl thought it was probably double that. Unfortunately the 2 Daves told us we still had at least another two and a half hours to paddle. This meant that either we would arrive at Dores in total darkness, or we weren’t going to make Dores that night.
This was tough news to take, and I decided to carry on paddling whilst the others chatted. I was the weakest paddler of our group, so knew that it wouldn’t take long for the others to catch me when they had finished their meeting.
20 minutes later Jason and Carl where with me. We talked about our option and decided that there was only one thing to do. We were still going to go for Dores, and if it meant paddling in the pitch black, then that was what we would do. By this time the wind had really dropped and the only power that was pushing us forward was our own. Jason spotted that there was still some wind in the middle of the loch, and if we paddled out to that, that may help give us some speed.
I think we were all feeling quite low at this point, and we all went into our own little worlds to try to keep motivated. Jason started singing at the top of his voice, I had a wee quite sing to myself and Carl started to visualise his “happy place”. Fortunately for him, the view ahead actually had some resemblance to where he was thinking of. His description was good, and in fact, we all joined in on this and this helped to pick up our mood.
20 minutes later, as it was getting dark and pretty hard to see much more than outlines, Jason spotted something in the distance. The south shore of Loch Ness is pretty baron of habitation. What Jason could see looked remarkably like a house, then it looked like several houses, then it looked like a village. He grabbed his mobile phone, went online, (in the middle of Loch Ness), and yes, what he was looking at was Dores, our destination for the evening. It was just over a mile away, but it was Dores. With a spring in our stroke, we headed off towards Dores, the 2 Daves, and most importantly, the pub! It was 6pm and we had been on the water for eight and a half hours. We deserved a beer.
Day 3 was going to be a short paddle. Just 15km from Dores to the last lock on the canal at Inverness. It was just as well that it was a short paddle, as the previous nights’ beers had mounted up, along with several whiskies. With heavy heads, we climbed aboard the SUPs and headed to Inverness.
There wasn’t much wind, so we just took our time. After 2 or 3km we left Loch Ness behind us and entered the canal that would take us to the end of our trip.
A few hundred yards from the end, I heard Carl putting on his dry cag. The weather was warm, so there was no need for a cag. I then saw him playing with the camera on the front of his board. Why did he want to film the last little bit. Then I heard the Velcro on his cag as he tightened everything up. I knew what was coming. The best plan of action was to get away from him, as I knew he was planning to get me wet. I put in a final spurt, but it wasn’t enough. As we reached the final pontoon, he came along side asking to celebrate the finish of the trip with a handshake. I tried to pull away but to no avail. Within seconds he had grabbed my hand, leapt on to my board, and we were both heading into the water. The mission was complete!
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Carl, Jason, Dave B and Dave R for a superb job done. An absolutely awesome team, of which I was very proud to be part of.
I would also like to thank the companies who helped make this trip possible: