Friday, September 29, 2023

ABC 2 - The Crinan Canal and the Clyde Puffer

The second of what may be an occasional series for "ABC" the Magazine of the parishes of Chesterton, Little Chesterton, Middleton Stoney and Wendlebury. Jan 2024 edition. With some additional pictures.

My track approaching and through the Canal in 2021.

Entering the Canal at Crinan.
I was storm bound in the Port Ellen marina Islay, had failed to reach St Kilda and was too late to get to a sailing event starting in Wales, so I decided to compensate by going through the Crinan Canal, a trip often recommended.

The canal runs for 9 miles between Crinan and Ardrishaig providing a short cut avoiding the often dangerous Mull of Kintyre, easing the trip between Glasgow, the Scottish islands and the coastal villages. 

The route was surveyed by James Watt in 1771 and built between 1794 and 1801 at a cost of £11m in today’s money, it opened in 1809 after being bailed out by the government following problems with the banks and a poor water supply. 

The canal can accommodate boats up to 88ft x 20ft with a freshwater draft of 8’ 10” (saltwater draft of about 8’ 5”), less in dry weather.

Steam vessels started to use it in the 1850s, the most common type in the late 1900s would become the Clyde Puffer; those of a certain age may remember the BBC series based on the short stories of Neil Munro, “The Tales of Para Handy” the devious skipper of the Puffer “Vital Spark”. 
Clyde Puffer VIC 32 (right) in the Crinan basin of the canal.
Originally the type was used only in fresh water, mainly the Clyde and Forth canal, and did not have condensers, steam went straight to the funnel which resulted in puffs of steam and smoke and a puffing sound. The name stuck when condensers were installed to recirculate fresh water so they could be used at sea. These vessels, a generic type rather than a standard design, made a huge difference to communities in the Islands and elsewhere, especially those without a good harbour. Flat bottomed, the Puffers would be beached on a falling tide and using their own derrick offload supplies and load with products to be exported then float off on the next tide.

During WWI Puffers were used to supply warships and in 1939 the navy needed more self-powered lighters to service the fleet. Rather than design anew, to avoid using major shipyards and for quick results the existing Puffer designs were used and orders placed with numerous small yards many of which had experience building them. Over 100 were built and were known by their VIC (Victualling Inshore Craft) number. Most of the surviving Puffers have had their steam engines replaced by diesel engines, VIC 32 pictured above in the canal is one of the few retaining the original coal fired steam engine.
Passing the second swing bridge after leaving Crinan.
Now canal staff operate the modern powered gates of the locks at each end of the Canal and the seven bridges, apart from that you are on your own to operate the eleven manual locks. That requires two people (now three are mandated if you don’t have a “Pilot”), one on the boat and one ashore. Being single handed I hired a “Pilot” who took and cast off my mooring lines, operated the lock, then went ahead on a push bike to do the same on the next lock.

In Lock 13 heading east and waiting for a boat in lock 12 coming
the other way.
The full story of this trip anti-clock wise around GB starts here, the passage through the canal with more words and pictures is here

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