Sailing lessons from Loch Ness


My recent week-long trip along the Great Glen, as part of Sail Caledonia, was a great opportunity to really get to know Scratch, my Walkabout (kind comments from designer John Welsford), and to improve my sailing skills. Here are some of the things I discovered. (Image © Dimitris Prokakis)

My normal sailing area is the Firth of Forth. I usually only have a couple of hours on the water, so I rarely sail to anywhere in particular. Depending on the wind direction, I tend to either tack upwind for a while and then return, or reach back and forward. I rarely have to worry about my upwind sailing ability – or have the chance to test it against other boats.



Gaining on Oughted Whilly Boat Storyteller (Image © John Macpherson)

Sail Caledonia was a different story. Narrow lochs and a specific destination to head for – either the race course or supper, or both! I soon discovered my upwind sailing skills were not great. Thanks to the iPhone, an email to the Welsford Builders Forum soon resulted in some useful advice. The only piece of advice I could act on at the time was to keep the luff very tight. I knew that, but for some reason had allowed things to get a bit slack. I was also given useful advice to add, and use, telltales, and ways of lacing the sail to improve tension. I'll explore these in due course.



Medusa and Lapsus racing in the driving rain. I'm crewing in Lapsus where I learnt a few tricks (Image © John Macpherson)

After this, rather annoyingly, I only had one opportunity for upwind sailing! That's slightly unfair; I could have entered a race at the south end of Loch Ness on the day we were waiting at Fort Augustus for the wind to ease. However, I decided to crew for Bart in Lapsus rather than risk struggling in rather wild conditions – more of this in a later post.

Apparently, whatever the wind direction across the country, the wind in the Great Glen is always either up or down the Glen. As the wind was generally south westerly, between F3 and F6, we were blown up Glen like peas in a peashooter. A great opportunity to test the Walkabout's downwind sailing ability. In a word – superb.



Oughtred Caledonian Yawl Elsie on a run (Image © John Macpherson)

In two races, all running or broad reaching Scratch steadily gained on and overtook most of the boats in her class. The only boat that we couldn't catch was the much larger Caledonian Yawl, Elsie. To achieve this performance we needed the stronger winds, in lighter airs some of the other boats gained ground.


Looking north east up Loch Ness (Image from Nasa)

Loch Ness is a big body of water – 27 miles long – and with the wind pushing up the glen, waves build up quite strongly. On the Thursday we were to sail the whole length of the loch in two races, before and after lunch. The wind was very light at the start, although forecast to rise later, so I set off without a reef. I sailed off the pontoon and the short distance down the canal onto the loch, rather than rowing which is my normal way of leaving dry land. In the event the wind was so light, I drifted very slowly towards the start line and, even with lots of tiller waggling, got there after everyone else had left.

The wind soon rose and we made good progress down the loch, steadily gaining on the rest of the fleet – except the three boats Lapsus, Medusa and Somervind, which had chosen to do the 'Loch Ness Challenge' – a longer race to the head of the loch, back into the wind, and then up to the head again. (Only Medusa completed that race, the others found beating back down the loch too much for more than a short time.)



Scratch, downwind under full sail. Given the forecast, and the fact no rowing was planned, I was in my drysuit. (Image © John Macpherson)

The course was a zigzag up the loch, running and broad reaching, finishing at Urquhart Castle. I felt pretty good about my performance here – the wind by now was F5 with gusts, and a swell of 3 feet or so had got up. Broad reaching towards the castle with full sail was exhilarating. If I'd been sailing alone I'd certainly have reefed by now, but I was racing and in second place – and there were safety boats out with us.



Hurley, a Drascombe Longboat, heading toward the finish line below Castle Urquhart (Image © Steve Sim)

The finish line was beyond the castle in the bay, after crossing it I had to tack up to the beach below the castle. With the castle, promontory and trees the wind was very flukely, and I had to sail back out into the loch into the full force of the wind as I tacked in. After racing with Lapsus the day before, I was confidently sitting up on the side deck with the tiller extension (hiking stick) in hand. I made it on to the beach, managing to keep the mast out of the trees. Despite the perhaps more extreme sailing to come later that day, this part – the last broad reach, over the line and up to the beach, is the bit of sailing in the whole trip of which I feel most proud.



Lunch below Urquhart Castle (Image © John Macpherson)

After lunch, Martin, Sail Caledonia's head honcho, briefed us about the change of plan. The wind wasn't now forecast to ease in the afternoon, the waves at the north end were 3 – 4 feet and choppy. The final leg of the race was cancelled. Instead we were to sail up the loch keeping together and close by the safety boats.

I furled the mizzen and reefed the main. I also shifted my bags to bring the weight a bit further aft and made sure my drogue (sea-anchor) was ready to deploy in case I needed to get the sail fully down. The drogue would not only stop us drifting to fast, but also keep us head to wind, and waves, while I got the sail down.



The Loch Ness sleigh ride (Image © Derek Wales)

As soon as I left the shelter of the castle we were hurling up the loch as a great pace, heading for the southern side as the waves were reportedly less severe over there. The instruction to keep close to the rest of the fleet was impossible to follow – we were flying and I was already fully reefed. I think most others were under jib or jib and mizzen.



Scratch from Hurley as I overtook. I don't remember quite so much whitewater. (Image © Derek Wales)

The swell was quite impressive, but Scratch handled it beautifully so long as I kept my weight right back. One time, I can't remember why, I moved forward a bit, and the bow was buried in the back of the wave ahead of us – but even so the surface of the wave remained below the level of the deck.

It was never actually alarming, but I felt I was right on the edge of my ability here, this was definitely learning by doing. But after a while, I started to feel more on top of things, especially as Scratch's seaworthiness became more and more evident.



I think another set of reef points would help keep the speed down. (Image © Derek Wales)

Given the speed we were traveling it wasn't long – either that or time was flying – before I needed to broad reach across to the northern side to avoid getting trapped in the bay at Dores. We then continued towards the narrows which lead into Loch Dochfour. I spotted one of the big sightseeing boats heading out of the narrows. Not wanting to find out how much space we both needed, I reached across towards Lochend.


Despite the intense concentration I was enjoying this immensely. (Image © Derek Wales)

Once the cruiser had moved on, I decided to head back towards the narrows. The wind was F5/6, the waves 3 – 4 ft and very choppy as we were getting near the head of the loch. Tack or gybe? Tack or gybe? I saw one of the safety had headed over to check on me. No standing rigging, let the mainsheet go all the way out – a gybe will be fine. I gybed. As the boom went across, the tiller caught on my body as I passed it behind me, and – over we went.

Thanks to the capsize test a couple of days before I was not alarmed – especially as the safety boat was nearby. They soon gave me a line and made sure nothing important was floating away, took me on board and gently towed Scratch, floating on her side to the shallows. Given the waves, and the lee shore, they felt that would be more sensible than me trying to right and bail out Scratch. I think I could have, especially with the drogue to slow the drift and keep her head to wind, but I was happy to rest.


The fleet at Loch Dochfour (Image © John Macpherson)

Once in the shallows, in a little sheltered bay, we took a line to the trees, and I bailed her out, raised the sail, and sailed on to another little bay at the head of Loch Doch Four where the fleet were gathering.

Even as I was surfing Loch Ness, feeling very pleased at how well I was doing in these pretty wild conditions, I thought to myself…


pride comes before a fall. Indeed it does, and before a capsize. (Image © Derek Wales)

Lessons learnt – and things to think about

  1. Scratch is powerful and fast downwind, especially in stronger winds. Keep weight aft.
  2. Perhaps too fast in F5/6, I was in control all the time, but near the edge. A second set of reef points perhaps.
  3. Keep the luff really tight for upwind sailing. I've since re-arrange the downhaul cleat to make this easier.
  4. Consider fitting telltales.
  5. The gap between the end of the boom and the tiller was too tight, making it difficult to put the tiller across when keeping out of the way of the boom when gybing. I've since shortened the tiller by 6 inches of so, a definite improvement.
  6. I've since been quite strongly advised that the Fleecy Buff and Tilley Hat combo is not a good look.



About Osbert Lancaster

Creating ripples to foster sustainability. Seeking solace & clarity on the sea by sail & oar.


  1. Nick Vowles

    Hi Osbert, I am enjoying the blog.I see you mention a drogue a couple of times. What sort do you have, and have you found it useful so far?CheersNick

  2. Anonymous

    Hi Nick <br/> <br/>Glad you’re enjoying the blog! <br/> <br/>The drogue is in the boat yard and I’m at home, but from memory it’s made by Plastimo and this size was for ‘boats up to 16 ft’. Something like this <br/> <br/>I originally got it to use with my sailing canoe. I mainly use it when returning to the beach through breakers. I put the drogue over the bow, to keep the bow to the waves and then row ashore backwards. I also use it to keep the head to wind for reefing etc. Keeps the boat steadier than heaving to. I’ve never had to use it in an emergency but it should keep the boat head to wind and slow her drift if the wind is too strong to sail. Cheers <br/> <br/>Osbert

  3. Nick Vowles

    Thanks for the reply. I think I shall have to get one and give it some trials out on the North Sea. I am pretty new to dinghy cruising and like the idea of having multiple options for landing/slowing/ reefing the boat in differing conditions.Nick

  4. Hi Osbert

    Thanks for posting all this great info about your experiences with Scratch. I am considering building a Walkabout and I’ll be using it mostly on or around the Norfolk Broads for several-day cruising trips.

    One thing I’m wondering about is how well Scratch points to windward now that you have had time to refine her setup a bit. I will be doing a lot of narrow river work some of which will be upwind in busy waterways and two things will be important for me at these times…

    1 good pointing
    2. quick and easy tacking, even in choppy waters

    … given that there is no foresail and the daggerboard/centreboard is offset.

    I’d really appreciate your experiences in those areas before deciding if a Walkabout is right for me.

    Thanks very much.


    • Osbert Lancaster

      Hi Neal

      She points much higher now I know the downhaul needs to be really tight. However, all my sailing is in open waters and I don’t race (except on Sail Caledonia) so I can’t compare her to other boats. Also, I have sailed very few other boats so I can’t compare from that angle either.

      For my uses I’m very happy with how she tacks; I back the mainsail if necessary. I don’t believe the offset dagger board is an issue at all. But I don’t think short tacking is what she’s designed for. If I was sailing on the broads (on my wish list!), my initial assumption is that I’d get the oars up when heading into the wind on a narrow river. But I actively enjoy rowing. I know some sad people see rowing as a fall back when they really can’t sail.

      However, you should probably ask the question on John Welsford yahoo forum – outline what you want to do and get John’s view on whether this is the best boat for your needs. Apart from the sleeping arrangements I suspect Walkabout is over specified for the conditions on the broads (in terms of dealing with rough water etc).

      If you decide Walkabout is the boat for you, I might be interested in selling Scratch, but whether I do depends partly on how sea trials go with my new Drake – just waiting for paint at the moment.

      • Hi Osbert

        Thanks very much for your reply. It’s always so helpful with these things being able to talk to someone who’s ‘been there’ before in terms of experience using something.

        From John’s description the features that seem ideal for me are sleeping arrangement (haven’t seen any other open boats which offer uncluttered sleeping space), ability to step and unstep masts from within the boat, no standing rigging thereby keeping setup relatively simple and yes! easy and efficient to row (sailing is my preference but I have no problem complementing it with rowing where required and don’t see it as a ‘pain’ but all part of the experience).

        As far as selling Scratch is concerned I’d certainly be interested to talk again on that if you do decide to sell in the near future so please let me know (I think you have my email address?). I haven’t bought the plans yet so I’m not committed to building my own as yet.

        All the best.


        Thanks again for getting back to me on this and good luck with your new project. Sounds good.

  5. Osbert Lancaster

    You’re welcome! Might be worth looking at Houdini and asking John re relative sailing performance. I believe high peaked sails are an advantage on the broads due to the banks creating a wind shadow – Houdini’s single taller, sail might help here. (Though rowing won’t be fun).

    I’ll let you know re sale of Scratch.

  6. Neal

    Hi Osbert

    Sorry not to have replied sooner.

    Thanks for your comments and advice. I have been giving some serious thought to the issue of buying vs building a Walkabout.

    I have decided it’s definitely the right design for my needs but I would like to build one myself (as opposed to buying Scratch, if you do ever sell her, as tempting as that idea is) as I think I would learn a lot from the experience.

    So… my point is. .. Do you still have the Walkabout plans and would you be prepared to sell those. Happy to give you a fair price for them.
    Can discuss by email if you prefer.

    • Osbert Lancaster

      Hi Neal

      When one buys boat plans you’re normally buying a license to build one boat; that’s the case with JW’s designs.

      Understand your rationale – have fun! Btw are going for daggerboard or centreboard?


      • Neal

        Hi Osbert

        Yes I wondered if that might be the case. It was just a thought.
        Regarding daggerboard or centreboard that’s one important thing I can’t decide on.
        I’ve sailed boats with both and each has its pros and cons.
        I know you retrofitted a centreboard because you had jamming issues with the dagger.
        Perhaps you could kindly tell me 2 things about your centreboard that would help me decide if you don’t mind…

        1. When the centreboard is fully down does it reach a completely vertical angle (as the dagger would be) or does it remain slightly swept aft under the boat?

        2. How does the fore and aft width of the two boards compare and also the depth into the water when fully down in each case?

        I know that a narrower deeper profile is helpful for faster turning and easier tacking and I wionder which board has more of that characteristic.

        Thanks for your help.

      • Osbert Lancaster

        It wasn’t so much the jamming per se, it was the coming to a dead stop thing! The jamming was secondary.

        I’d need to look out the plans, but from memory they were much the same shape and angle, but I can do that later. Worth asking John his thoughts on the yahoo group, especially regarding fast tacking performance, as I’ve not done that kind of sailing. My understanding is that’s not part of the design brief for this boat, but tell John your sailing waters and needs and he’ll give you good advice.

      • Neal

        Oh.. and FINALLY (sorry)… When you had the daggerboard was it possible to have it fully raised under the boat but still in its case (ready for quick deployment) without it catching on the boom

        Many thanks again.


      • Osbert Lancaster

        Killer questions! Nope. You can have it partially raised, but I rarely bothered – either out or in. I could have fixed up the bungee to hold it better, but when partially raised it had a tendency to slowly float upwards.

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