VIC 32 at Banavie, 28 Aug 2012

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You know the puffer’s coming soon when you see the big pile of coal on the jetty. You know the puffer’s arrived when you hear the Skye Boat Song played softly-discordantly, hauntingly, on his steam whistle as he locks up through Neptune’s Staircase. Boats are traditionally female, but with a name like Vic and that tough gritty appearance, he is no girlie. Built in 1943, Steam Lighter VIC 32 is the last seagoing coal-fired puffer.

It is always a pleasure to see working boats using the canal, and the puffer is one of the very best. He plies his trade (tourists are his cargo now) through the Caledonian Canal every August. This year the rain grew heavier as he approached the top lock in late afternoon. On cue, the Jacobite Express returned the call from the Banavie swing bridge, like two steam-driven tawnies huffpuffing their to-whits and to-whoos. By the time Vic needed to load his coal, the rain was lashing down. The wet coal was heavier to wheelbarrow, and the gangplank slippier than usual to negotiate, but the crew and helpers made short shrift of the bunkering – forty barrowloads into the small hatch each side – it could be disastrous if the hull weren’t balanced!