Nairn Marina to Inverness Marina (the start of the Caledonian Canal) – by Mark Green (via our Facebook page)
The 4am alarm warbles across the floor of Nairn Sailing Club, rousing us from a light sleep – the almost perpetual light at this time of year this far north, and the knowledge that we’d be up early stunts the quality of our five hours of sleep. We hastily pack away our roll mats and sleeping bags, swig a quick cup of tea and lug our personal packs and equipment bags to the boat, suddenly aware of how little water there is in the harbour.
“You sure about that local knowledge about the depth? Three foot at four hours after high water looks a bit tight…”
“We’re at three and a half hours after high water, so in theory we’ve got some tolerance…”
But despite erring on the side of caution and casting off bang on 5am with a theoretical half an hour of safe water depth to spare, we went aground almost immediately.
As we pushed off the mud and edged out of the harbour into the river, passing two swans and their signets, we ran aground again. Oops.
We realised with horror and a growing sense of urgency that there was far less than the 3ft depth we’d been advised. So much for local knowledge! All four of us scrambled out of the boat and began dragging Lexi May across the pebbly river bed towards deeper water, with the very real possibility that in less than 60 seconds we’d be completely grounded for the next 6 hours, resulting in missing our tidal window to get to Inverness, not to mention the embarrassment of the boat being stranded mid-river.
With the stream running fast and the crucial water rapidly draining away, we all heaved Lexi May’s weighty keel across the river bed, adrenaline overcoming sleep deprivation, urging our aching limbs to spring into action.
Lexi May began to move, crunching across the stones, until with great relief she began floating again. Phew! But we still hadn’t cleared the drying sandbar at the entrance… With a lookout at the bow to guide us around the shallows into deeper water and with nervous glances at the depth sounder we kept going, the middle pair pulling hard to push the boat on, racing the precious little remaining water to a safe depth.
Half a mile out with three metres under the keel we finally relaxed. Close one!
We paused to munch breakfast snacks and laugh about our exit from the harbour, then paddled on into the morning mist which rapidly gave way to thick fog with less than one hundred metres visibility. Making for shallow water rowing avoid bigger boat’s heading to Inverness, we hugged the shore, hearing but not seeing waves breaking on the beach.
After an hour rowing through damp, clinging fog with zero visibility, the gloom finally began lifting, giving way to bright sunshine. Perfect conditions to observe two seal colonies in the final approaches to Inverness Firth. As the sun rose higher the sea flattened off to a near mirror like consistently, reflecting the beautiful mountainous borders, almost perfect rowing conditions. The arrival of three dolphins gliding under the boat and popping up alongside the boat completed our eventful, final paddle in the demanding North Sea, which had severely tested us.
The Caledonian Canal lay ahead, the steady east to west downwards slope marking the halfway point in our challenging journey. We were about to start descending, heading south on our way home…