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The journeys of the Narrowboat Indigo Dream

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Archive for September 16th, 2008

Escape from Sharpness (2)

Posted by indigodream on 16 September, 2008

The offshore View….

Foggy morning in Sharpness

Foggy morning in Sharpness

Oh what a cruel early start. We had 3 different alarms set for 6am and yes, they did manage to wake us. I did have time to fit the bilge pump (slight snag – the outlet was a different size but is there anything you can’t fix with loads of duck tape?!) . I even managed the last-minute pre-flight checks but it was all very fraught!

We thought we’d be locking out with the cruiser ‘Welded Bliss’, but they came down the towpath at 6.30am to say that they would not be joining us. Why? Because of the fog! Conditions were perfect – the dry weather, the light winds blowing the same direction as the tide, water still as a millpond – everything we needed, apart from THE FOG. We thought Welded Bliss was very sensible – you couldn’t even see the swing bridge from our mooring (about 200 yards).

Where's that lock?

Where's the lock????

Nonetheless I set off – it was early after all, and as far as I knew it might have burned off by breakfast time. The sky was blue and clear above us – it was only foggy at ground level. I got to the swingbridge around 7am and barely needed to pause as a BW guy opened the bridge with perfect timing. Even though it’s a short distance, the trip down the dock was quite awkward. With the boat central in the dock I could only just see the walls either side; the huge dock buildings were just vague shadows. And where was the lock? The BW guy on the swing bridge said just go on the end. But where is the end? Which side is the lock on? Initially I though it might be on the right but at the last moment I saw what looked like a lock gate on the left.

Note: If you do this in the fog then the lock is on the left NOT the funny looking basin on the right.

Waiting in the lock

Waiting in the lock

Ken, our Pilot, had already been in touch with Sharpness and asked that the boat was not dropped down ’til he arrived and looked at conditions. At first we couldn’t see the Pier Head building from the lock then the fog cleared a little and it emerged, then the fog closed in again, then we got a tantalising glimpse as the sun tried to break through. But as Ken arrived the building vanished again. After a bit of consultation and advice from Avonmouth (the word was that they could see the Second Severn Crossing – we certainly couldn’t!) the decision was made go for it. The Lockkeeper closed the gate and started lowering water levels when a boat parked up just outside the lock said “wait for me – I’m booked”. Everything then took so long – filling the lock up, getting the second boat in position – we eventually got out of the lock at 8:20am. Is that important? Well, yes, ‘time and tide wait for no man’ as they say, and the last lock entry into Portishead, 20 odd miles away, was at 11:15am. We HAD to get to the marina as Sue and the dogs had vetoed the idea of wading across the mud if we got stuck outside.

Moving out into the channel

Moving out into the channel

Out on the Severn the fog seemed to get worse. Ken reckons that as the tide drops, air gets pulled towards the River and so the fog lingers longer. It rang true as Sue (in the car) found blue clear skies and not a hint of fog just a mile or so away from the river.

Ken was ok with me driving but gave me strict instructions not to lose sight of land so we charged down the river no more than 200 metres away from the coastline.

Ken has an amazing knowledge of the river – at one point he said “ok time to cross to the other side, turn right here”.

Off I headed into the pea soup but where was the other side? Would I hit anything?

Ken’s instructions were “keep the sun behind you”.

But what sun?

“Ok” he said “that vaguely brighter bit of fog, keep that behind you. Short while later, get the sun over your left shoulder and keep going that way till you see a beacon, well 2 beacons.”

Ken the interpid pilot

Ken the interpid pilot

Sure enough a while later we were almost exactly central between the two beacons. Who needs gps, chart plotters, sophisticated calculations of river and tide flow etc when you have a Ken telling you to keep the bright bit of sky just behind your left shoulder?

Eventually we got to the other side and ran parallel to that. Every so often Ken would command a left turn (“get the sun on the beam”) which I think meant on your left and we would seem to be leaving the comfort of seeing what looked like a parallel shore line. But no, suddenly there would be land again on our right exactly the same distance away.

The original Severn Bridge

The original Severn Bridge

We hovered under the old Severn Bridge for a while – 1500 revs to stay in roughly the same place – whilst Ken mused on whether it would clear or not and waited for the toll booth to open 🙂

After 10 minutes we decided to just go for it (“head for that bit of driftwood”). This time my instructions were to have a beacon comfortably on my left and, sure enough, Ken spotted it long before I did and said “turn so that the sun is just there”. Of course we went right through the correct arch of the second Severn crossing avoiding miscellaneous rocks, sand banks and heavens know what.

From there it was a bit clearer. Ken pointed out the

The new Severn crossing

The new Severn crossing

entrance to the Avon and off we sped to Portishead where the nice people were holding a lock for us. The lock itself is awesome, high as a cliff and no paddles – the lock-keeper just opens the gate to let water in so it fills a bit fast..

Approaching Portishead

Approaching Portishead

So, my verdict on the journey:

  • 2 hours 10 minutes at serious revs so not too long.
  • Wind behind us, gentle tide made driving easy.
  • Swells and swirls are something to watch in places but nowhere near as bad as what you get when a gin palace goes by at speed on the Thames!
  • Doing it in fog means that you can’t get worried on width but also means you see nothing (and can’t take photos of the great views).
  • It was easier than the tidal Thames.
  • Very Important: Do not even think of going unless weather conditions are right, make sure you have a pilot. Reading other people’s accounts I suspect that down is easier than up.

The Onshore View….

Emerging from Sharpness Lock

Emerging from Sharpness Lock

I have to say that I honestly wasn’t worried about Richard’s safety on this trip. He’d planned it well and I was certain that the pilot would see them safely down the river. But with the morning so rushed, and the fog so thick, I did wonder whether our cursory farewell and quick peck of a kiss on the towpath would be our last ‘goodbye’!

Of course it wasn’t! To start off with, I had the chance to catch up with him at the lock – I drove round with the dogs and while we were waiting for the pilot he made me some excellent coffee. This was very welcome – it was too early and cold for being up and about. I was reassured by Ken’s wry confidence and said goodbye again so that I could go round to the viewing point to take photos of the departure.

A goodbye wave from Sharpness Basin

A goodbye wave from Sharpness Basin

My job was to try to get photos of the trip – as it happens, the fog put paid to that, but if you’re in ever in the same position then here are the best viewing points:

Sharpness: as you drive into Sharpness there’s a mini-roundabout – turn left down a lane signposted ‘picnic area’. You get a great view of the basin and dock-entrance there. If it weren’t for the fog I’d have got a great view of the river as well.

1st Severn Cossing: Severn View Services on the M48 – drive up to the Travelodge then walk up the path past the glass-clad office building to the viewing point. Great view normally – wouldn’t have known there was a bridge there in the fog if it han’t been for the traffic noise!

The Severn Bridge and Indigo Dream hovering beneath

The Severn Bridge and Indigo Dream hovering beneath, honest, the bridge is there somewhere....

2nd Severn Crossing: From the services take the A403 signposted “Severn crossings visitor centre” – three or four miles down there’s a village called Severn Beach – turn towards it and follow signs to Severn Beach railway station – Station Road runs down to the river’s edge where you get a fine view of the bridge (but not the boat which had gone though 5 minutes previously and was lost in the fog downstream).

I gave up at that point – the boat was ahead of me and the visibility was so poor – I just headed off to Portishead.

The dogs had a thoroughly stimulating morning – we stopped freqently and they got to rummage around lots of new places and got into a staring match with a cat in Severn Beach – top entertainment if you’re a greyhound!. We encountered an injured

Injured sparrowhawk

Injured sparrowhawk

young sparrowhawk on the Severn View footpath. The dogs were very good – they spotted the bird first but didn’t touch it, and they moved away when I told them to – amazing. I know that it’s ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ but I didn’t feel right to walk away from the injured bird without trying to do something. I did report it to the RSPCA but they were useless (long story). Luckily I ran into some local people who knew of a nearby owl and hawk rescue centre and promised to contact them for help.

The trip to Portishead took ages – whatever you do, don’t listen to your satnav – get off the M5 at junction 19 and take the main road into town – enough said! To Portishead town council – put up some decent road signs – your town’s a maze!!

I eventually caught up with RIchard, having driven round in circles for what felt like 30 hours. The pack was reunited and we spent a lovely sunny afternoon in the marina – no fog here! The dogs caught up on their sleep, we checked the boat out, chinwagged with other friendly boaters and marvelled at the mud-banks outside the lock. The word on the water was that Gloucester Dock was going to open the next day as the water levels on the river had dropped abruptly – we avoided the temptation to go back up the tidal Severn in order to meet our original crusing plan…..

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Escape from Sharpness (1)

Posted by indigodream on 16 September, 2008

Getting Ready…..

Tranquil Sharpness

Tranquil Sharpness

As Sue mentioned in the last, we’ve decided to go down the tidal Severn in order to make it back to our winter moorings before the lock closures.

Although Sue has accused me of using the weather as an excuse for a grand adventure, the tidal Severn really is a good option. Honest. Would I lie to you……

Of course, it would be a big adventure (shhh, don’t tell her I said that) but only if Indigo Dream arrived in one piece so I did a lot of research before finalising the plan.

To start off with, Gloucester Harbour Trustees do a really excellent information pack

This had loads of practical guidance as well as useful phone numbers. The pack’s great but sometimes you just need to talk to a human being to get a feel for the thing. Here’s the order I did it in:

  1. Sharpness pilots – tel. 07774 226143 They offered advice on the feasibility of the trip, offered reassurances about our safety (which I could pass on to Sue) and advice on local conditions over the weekend (which were expected to be perfect). For a narrowboat on the estuary you’re looking for flat calm water – usually achieved by a light wind blowing in the same direction as the tide (downstream in our case). They also told us the time of the tides so we could plan our days (and set the alarm clock) appropriately. The cost of a pilot is £160.
  2. Sharpness Pier Head – 01453 511968. You need to book your passage through Shrpness low bridge (swing) and through the lock in advance. 24 hours in advance in the case of the bridge. They tell you when they want you to come through the swing bridges – normally 2 hours before high tide but took pity on us and allowed us come through 1 hour before high tide at 7am.
  3. Sharpness Dock office – 01453 811862. We got through to these guys when the pier head was closed – very helpful.
  4. Portishead Marina – 01275 84194. That was our first destination. You can get to Sharpness to Portishead in one tide but not as far as Bristol. You have a choice of sitting out the low tide in a smart marina or on the manky mud outside. We chose the marina! You do need to book your lock into the marina and arrange a berth with them. Costs £16.50 for lock fees and mooring between tides.
  5. Bristol City Docks Dockmaster – 0117 927 3633. We booked our lock passage and got lots of advice on how to time our journey from Portishead. We wouldn’t have a pilot for this bit (though you can book one if you want) so their hints and reassurance were great.

STOP PRESS: There are also guidance notes published on the Bristol site here. They look a bit scary so don’t tell Sue.

I have to say that through every stage of this trip the pilots, lock-keeprs and dock-masters were exceptionally knowledgeable, competent and helpful. They were also pleasant and amiable. What a good combination.

With this team behind us even Sue finally agreed that the tidal Severn was the best route for us. I’ve been taking lessons from Blue – work it so that it’s her idea then she can take the blame if it all goes pear-shaped. I’ve learnt a lot from that dog!

I spent the evening before the adventure doing my pre-flight checks –

engine – check

purge tank and filters – check

secure all moveable and breakable items – check

seal up front vents – check

personalised life-ring – check

splice on extra rope lengths – check

bilge pump working- oh b*^^%r! The bilge pump was knackered, size 12 boot knackered. We never noticed before because the Vetus Stern Gland simply keeps our engine compartment so dry. I managed to pick up a new bilge pump from the helpful Matt (in Stroud) at 10pm but by the time I got back it was time for bed – it had been a busy day. Fitting the new pump would have to wait for the morning – if the bilge pump wasn’t fitted then we always had a bucket for bailing……

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