Poli Poli began Friday, moored safely on an otherwise empty side on pontoon in the Caledonian Canal not 500 yards from the bottom of Neptune’s Staircase… a series of eight individual locks, built in 1811… the longest staircase lock in Great Britain. Over the course of the eight locks, it lifts boats 64 feet/ 20 metres. It can take nearly two hours to ascend the staircase. Designed and built by the master himself… Thomas Telford.
Photo above, Toby on Neptune’s Staircase the evening before. You can see the actual Caledonian Canal below the staircase… that is Poli Poli in the distance moored up to a pontoon . Note the big white mooring hooks.
We… that is Margaret, Chris and myself were up at seven after a night of rain. Mountains and hills on all sides covered in cloud and mist…. a silvery greyness enveloping the landscape. Certainly no view of the highest mountain in Great Britain… ie Ben Nevis away to the east.
Following a quick breakfast of cereals, fruit, bread rolls and various jams, we then got the boat ready to move off. The Sea Lock office at Corpach, where we had entered the Caledonian Canal asked us to be ready to move by 9am’sh. We contacted the Neptune’s Staircase lock office at Banavie by VHF radio and advised them we were ready to move and awaiting their instructions. A most pleasant female Scottish voice informed us that we had to wait until a very large motor yacht had come through, passed us and had entered the first lowest lock.
We had spied this vessel first at Oban on the waterfront…. a huge white, but not quite of ‘super yacht’ size with the name ‘Monaco’ on its sides and stern. We spied it a second time moored in the Corpach Canal Basin just after the entry into the Caledonian Canal from Loch Linnhe.
The motor yacht ‘Monaco” ….taking up nearly the full width of the canal passed us at about 9.30am and after going through both the road and rail swing bridges… entered the lowest lock of the staircase.
The swing bridges closed and we waited. The Scottish lady then told us to leave the pontoon, hold station and move to the lowest lock after the two swing bridges had opened for a second time. We entered the first lock at about 9.45am
Each of the eight locks is the same size… 180 feet ( 55m ) long and 40 feet ( 12m ) wide. They are huge…. and if you are going ‘up’ the staircase you enter with the water level at its lowest point… so much so that the lock walls appear gigantic…. black in colour but not too slimey ( unlike the Crinnan Canal ).
Photo above shows Poli Poli entering the very first lock in Neptune’s Staircase on the Caledonian Canal. You can see Monaco the big white motor yacht in lock two above.
The methodology of entry and departure from one of these enormous locks is not simple. Poli Poli goes into the lock with fenders out, fender boards in place and three sets of long mooring lines at the ready. Chris looks after the bow line and T looks after the engine, bow thrusters and stern line.
Once inside the lock, T throws up the stern line to a lock keeper who puts its eye over a big metal hook. When T, way below tightens this line and puts the boat into gentle reverse, it brings Poli Poli, in most cases to a gentle stop. Using the bow thrusters to prevent the bow swinging away from the lock wall… the lock keeper walks forward and catches the bow line thrown up by Chris on the foredeck. The boat is now held in place, and in most cases, cannot move forward or backwards. We then tie a loose midships line to the metal ladder to pin her to the lock wall.
After the lock keeper closes the two huge gates ( each gate weighs 22 tons ) behind Poli Poli, he then starts very slowly to open the gates to the front…. firstly by sluices under the gates… then the gates themselves, so that Poli Poli slowly rises up the sides of the huge, cavernous locks. The boat’s engine has been switched off… and crew including skipper move quickly and constantly along the side deck shortening the three lines as the water level in the lock increases.
In our case it was always port side to the wall and we were the only boat going into each lock. After a while from being way way below, rainwear clad onlookers, the boat arrives above the wall and you can shake hands with large numbers of German tourists who have just arrived on a coach trip. We had our photo taken many many times over by onlookers watching the spectacle.
After the water inside our first lock has settled…. there is huge turbulence as the lock is filled with millions of gallons of water from the lock above… decisions have to be made as to which lines come off first and in what order… depending on the swell in the lock chamber. Get this wrong and you could end up with the boat straddled sideways across the lock and no way of righting her!
In most cases it is the bow line which is released first ( bow then controlled by the bow thrusters ), then stern line followed by midships. Engine is on, and Poli Poli with a gentle push from the bow thruster against the wall, moves off when the lockkeeper motions us forward, into the next lock. Each one of these manoeuvres takes about 20 minutes.
We had rain from first light, which then turned into a very annoying drizzle from the moment we departed the pontoon earlier. The cockpit tent and sprayhood had all been removed, so all boat surfaces were wet. We were all dressed in oilies.
In the second lock bad luck struck. Chris, whilst the boat was stopped and pinned with the three lines to the lock wall, taking photos on his mobile, slipped and came down heavily on his knee.
Chris was helped to the cockpit where it was soon very clear that he had done something quite serious to his knee and was in some considerable pain. We administered a cold compress of sorts out of a face flannel…. and whilst T had to get on and manage the departure from lock two solo, Margaret did her very best to comfort Chris.
By lock three it was very apparent, even to the non-medical specialist that with the swelling and a big lump which Chris said was a ‘bone in the wrong place’…. that there was a serious injury. Chris could not bend his right leg and certainly could put no weight on it.
In lock three, T informed Tommy the lockkeeper that we had a serious problem and there was a possibility that Chris had dislocated his knee. Tommy fully understood and assisted T who was now managing the boat and locks solo. By lock five, T decided that the Canal authorities needed to be informed as it was clear we would need paramedic and ambulance assistance as Chris was now in considerable pain.
This was done by VHF radio from Poli Poli. The Scottish lady mentioned earlier ( we later knew her by her name… Gillian ) then held us in lock five and attended the scene. Tommy the lockkeeper made a 999 call and an ambulance appeared at the lock side within 10 minutes. This was followed by the arrival of the Scottish Canals Harbourmaster.
Chris was attended to by one of the two Ambulance paramedics… who administered pain relief by way of a gas cylinder and conducted a thorough examination of Chris’s now swollen knee. With my help in assisting the paramedic, Chris was lifted out of the cockpit and placed on the ambulance bed trolley. The paramedics had decided that the best course of action was to transfer Chris to A & E at Fort William Belford Hospital. Margaret accompanied Chris in the ambulance to the hospital. T remained on the boat and after discussing matters with the harbourmaster, Gillian and Tommy…. T took Poli Poli through the three remaining locks to a mooring on the wharf just beyond the final lock.
Two hours later it was confirmed that Chris had suffered a serious dislocation of his knee. This was rectified in A&E in Fort William but there was concern re his x-ray and that he would be admitted overnight, then transferred to Inverness General Hospital ( 60 miles away ) the next day Saturday for further scans and a possible operation re torn tendon/possible bone splinter etc.
Margaret returned to the boat at Banavie by 4pm. Both Margaret and I then visited Chris in hospital in Fort William at about 6.15pm where we delivered his kit bag and personal possessions. He was in good spirits after receiving excellent care and treatment plus the necessary strong pain relief drugs.
For all ….. family, friends and followers please understand why this was not published yesterday evening. Chris has now been transferred to Inverness General Hospital where he will undergo an operation for a torn tendon. Chris anticipates being discharged from hospital by Tuesday. He will then be collected and taken home to Northamptonshire by close family.
Both the NHS at Fort William Belford Hospital, the Ambulance Service and Scottish Canals represented by Gillian and Tommy plus the Harbourmaster all assisted Chris plus Margaret and myself in both a professional. kind and reassuring manner. We cannot speak highly enough of their care and consideration and in the calm way they dealt with a difficult situation.
We have decided to remain at Banavie ( top of Neptune’s Staircase ) for the next few days. We have a good berth on the wharf here, the showers, toilets and laundry plus access to water and shore power are close at hand. We have a new crew member joining Poli Poli next Thursday the 9th August. I am sure everybody will wish Chris a speedy recovery and safe return to his home for recuperation in Northamptonshire.