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Issue 23 - Wacky races

Scotland Magazine Issue 23
October 2005


This article is 12 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Wacky races

Sail Caledonia is funsailing with a difference. Maxwell MacLeod joined the other motley crews for a few days of mindless hedonism

It’s early on a rainy Sunday morning in the Scottish Highlands and more than 50 shouting yachtsmen are gathered around (and indeed in) Neptune’s staircase, the remarkable series of canal locks that lies near Fort William.

The subject of the yelling sailors’ obsessive shouting is their 16 wee immaculately presented sailing dingies that are being tossed and bounced around roughly in the rushing waters as the lock fills with water, raising them 20 feet or so in 10 action packed minutes.

Their shrill voices call urgently against the mad roar of the waters. “Donald can you loose that painter? See, it’s snagging on Marcel’s cleat... Peter you’ll need another fender aft... Henrick, you’ll need to hold her off the wall with a boat hook...” But it’s friendly, happy, shouting and there’s a good deal of laughter mixed in.

The boats are fabulous, many designed by their owners and in many cases have been home built (usually in around twice the intended time frame) in garages and even spare rooms across Europe.

There’s the green one bought by the Edinburgh doctor from a famous boat builder (Iain Richardson) in Orkney.

Another is a just finished traditional Basque fishing boat, its paint hardly yet dry, its owner constantly mopping out his precious new baby with a sponge.

Then there’s a Dutch boat named after the builder’s pretty girlfriend and six big ‘Drascombes’ – rugged family boats much favoured by those with both limited budgets and clumsy teenage sons.

The sailors’ plan is to have nine casual yacht races all the way up the 60 odd miles to Inverness in a week long orgy of thrills, spills and a good deal of sheer nonsense.

Typical of this is the legend that last year one of the contestants anchored half way through a race to brew up some tea. He’s back again this year, still being teased about the incident, but giving as good as he gets.

The ‘Sail Caledonia’ Expedition is not a cheap holiday. Few of the Europe based skippers will return home having spent less than £1,000 during the week though they will have seen little luxury for their money.

Not that they will suffer much. There will be a restaurant boat in constant attendance to keep them stuffed with top quality food, safety boats and even a luggage van.

While some of the sailors will camp on the canal bank (or even in tents over their boats) others will overnight in comfortable hotels costing anything from £25 to a £100 a night.

But in the main, these are wealthy people who can easily afford such indulgence. One’s an Irish company director, another one of Scotland’s whisky barons, while the Edinburgh doctor with the Richardson boat is so sought after for his advice that one of his more desperate patients arrives by car at the canal side and is given a consultation on the grass.

Overlooking the bustling scene is Neil MacLeod, formerly the business manager for Lochaber tourist board and now a respected consultant on luxury activity holidays.

He explains the trend: “During the last 50 years we have consistently seen both the very rich and the very poor holidaying in Scotland, with the middle market choosing to take package holidays abroad where the weather is more reliable. The wealthy used to come here to shoot things, the less well-off just to enjoy the free pleasures of the outdoors.

“The key difference is that today quite expensive activity holidays have taken off big style and we are seeing more and more wealthy people coming here to walk, climb, sail, mountain bike or ski and staying in top class accommodation as they do.” Of course the less well-off can also do these kinds of things but they have to stay in tents, eat pasta and they may not see so much hot water.

They like to bravely say they are having a better time, and they may be right.

“The quality of the experience is usually user led in both markets. Few naturally miserable people have a good time in the teeming rain particularly if they are under physical stress. Others thrive in such conditions.” Soon the fleet of dingies is moving up the canal under oar, being started in pairs by one of the key organisers, Martin Balcombe.

Twenty years ago Martin was an actor from the south of England who took an expensive sailing holiday in Highlands. He loved it so much that he soon moved north and now runs an activity holiday company with his wife.

Such stories of these activity holidays being life changing are not rare. Back in the 1990s an engineering lecturer called Mike Humphries, then in his mid-40s, gave up a successful career in London after one single activity holiday in the Highlands and bought himself a half smashed charter boat which he turned into a thriving business.

Today he co-ordinates science based expeditions for the wealthy (through Earthwatch), offering high earners the chance to work hard alongside scientists undertaking projects such as whale or eagle counting.

Watching the boats set off is another man whose life has been changed by this trend. In 1985 Peter Macmillan, now 46, was a jobbing carpenter working in an Edinburgh hostel for the homeless which he heard was being closed down. Using money borrowed from friends he set up the hostel to serve the needs of backpackers, many in their mid 20s and with recently acquired degrees.

Today he owns eight private hostels (the Macbackpacker chain) and has more than 400 beds in Edinburgh alone.

“The new trend to luxury activity holidays is fascinating,” he observes happily, as well he might because as he has made several millions from it in less than 20 years.

“What people don’t realise is that many of my hostellers are in fact relatively big spenders because of the activity holiday boom.

“They may scrimp on their accommodation but quite often they spend more on their daytime activities than they do on their beds.

“I often have clients who spend a paltry £15 on a dormitory bed and then blow twice that doing river rafting or a guided ravine walk followed by a night in the pub… it makes me sick!” Peter’s hostels, which offer dormitory style accommodation, do indeed cost around £15 a head but many of his clients add on a minibus tour at around £65 for three days which will take the hostellers on a Scotland wide tour to some of his other Highland hostels.

In the 20 years since Peter started his hostel more than 200 other private hostels have been established some of which, such as Jeremy Inglis’s legendary budget hotel in Oban, offer prices as low as £8.50 a head – and that’s for a single room!

Other ways of enjoying activity holidays in Scotland include hiring an expedition guide, such as Peter Butterworth, who will set up a bespoke expedition usually using hire bicycles and a four wheel drive vehicle with a bicycle carrying trailer.

The generous hearted Butterworth, known for his almost irritating ability to build even the most complex of holidays, tells me: “My prices vary. Last week I had seven young American kids who wanted to keep the price down so I set them up with hire bikes and hostel bookings. I imagine they spent around £50 a day per-head all in.” Perhaps the trend is best defined by Neil MacLeod (who I should admit is this writer’s brother): “The core truth of it is that destination Scotland is rapidly becoming a place for adventure, not sunburn, indeed we are promoting Fort William as Britain's outdoor capital.

“Ten years on the chances are you will have almost entirely forgotten that snooze and booze holiday in Tenerife, but as for that day you spent white water rafting at Pitlochry or the week you spent with those crazy Europeans sailing in their homemade boats up to Inverness, those memories will be with you forever. I know which choice I prefer.” And he’s not all talk either. Neil has already booked for the Sail Caledonia next summer.

Pray for me, I’m going along as his crew.

The next Sail Caledonia will take place in early June 2006.

Those wanting to either enter their own boat or hire one from the organisers might like to check the web site at write to Martin Balcombe, C/O Corpach Boatbuilders, Corpach, Highland.

Those wanting a similar challenge, though without all that annoying water, might like to consider either the a massively popular long distance walk which takes place in June or one of the many established cross Scotland walkways.

Typical of these is which offers a spectacular walk from Inverness to Fort William. Those wanting cheap accommodation in the area, or round Scotland bus tours in alarmingly cheerful small mini bus parties, should review, which has hostels in both Fort William and Inverness.

Other similar organisations include Haggis Tours.

Those wishing organised bicycle tours with a difference would do well to contact the ever affable Peter Butterworth, whose esoteric bicycle tours are run from 29 Blackfriars Street, Edinburgh