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Boat Blog: The Odyssey 2015 – Day 35: Part 1

Posted by indigodream on 10 November, 2015

Rewind to Tuesday 6th September

Approaching Brunswick Lock...

Approaching Brunswick Lock…

Liverpool to the Manchester Ship Canal

Note: We’ve already photoblogged our passage across the Mersey!

We had a huge day’s cruising covering three very distinctive waterways, so I’ve split the blog into three parts. We will blog about the technical aspects of booking the Liverpool Link, Mersey and Manchester Ship Canal at the end of the Odyssey posts.

The day started for us at 5am – everyone was congregating for coffee and a briefing at 6am, but we needed to be up a bit earlier to do the last minute preparations for the trip, contact the Coastguard (we had filled in a CG66 a few days earlier) and walk the hounds. The latter was essential as there would be no wee breaks for the hounds until we reached the River Weaver. The hounds, especially Ollie, were deeply unimpressed by the early start. The Coastguard, on the other hand, was amazingly cheerful!

Having enjoyed three very fine days in Liverpool, we were shocked to see that the docks were shrouded in thick fog. It was a shame, as conditions were otherwise perfect – we’d planned to traverse the river on a neap tide, when the high tide level was expected to be 3 METRES below its maximum; there wasn’t a breath of wind and the river was flat calm.

Waiting in Brunswick Lock...

Waiting in Brunswick Lock…

The crew was assembled and suitably coffee’d and pastried by 6am. It was strange to have a pilot on board – we would normally do the crew safety briefing ourselves, but Stuart Wood was very much in charge, though Richard took the helm for a large part of our passage along the mighty Mersey.

We weren’t sure we’d be allowed on the tideway in such poor visibility, but I think that we all expected the fog to lift as the sun rose. We therefore set off just after 6am with great anticipation. We enjoyed our cruise through the dock system and the busy Brunswick Marina before entering Brunswick Lock. Thankfully Stuart knew where it was, there was no way would we have found it in the fog as you have to wend your way to the far right of the dock!

Top tip: when entering Brunswick Lock, aim for the floating pontoon on the left hand side when going out, not the right hand one as it is way off line.

The control for the river transit is Mersey Radio, not to be confused with the “Mersey Radio” that broadcasts classics like “Bob’s love songs”. Our transit onto the Mersey was booked for 6.15am, though they seemed quite relaxed other than a little bit of a moan over the radio from the lock keeper! They were less bothered about our booked time as much as our timing in relation to the passage a giant fuel ship called “Maingas” . At this point, the benefits of having an experienced pilot really showed – control instantly recognised Stuart on the radio, knew we were in safe hands and just kept us informed.

We had a little wait in the lock, which gave Richard time to muse on the lock gates as a metaphor for Liverpool’s fall and rise – in the 1960, when the docks were closed, the Brunswick gates were left open and the docks filled with silt and sewage right up to Albert Dock. There was a real danger that the dock buildings would be demolished and replace with a car park. But instead, new lock gates were installed and the accumulation of crap (literally!) could be dug out, allowing Albert Dock to be developed into the vibrant waterfront we now know and love. The lock is now busy with traffic to/from the estuary and Liverpool is buzzing – a lesson for politicians – keep your lock gates intact!

The wait also gave us time to look around and compare it with some of the other big locks that we’ve visted – particularly Limehouse…

Brunswick versus Limehouse: Brunswick Lock has sector gates similar to those at Limehouse (possibly narrower i.e. 7m versus 9m); we think that the Brunswick gates were built before Limehouse. If you don’t know what sector gates are then there is a nice animated graphic here and a write up of their repair here. As at Limehouse, the Brunswick gates were built inside a wider dock entrance, but unlike Limehouse, the lock chamber itself is the original width – around 80′ – the gate is not central to the chamber, this explains the offset of the right hand pontoon. The draw and turbulence when sector gates open is considerable – it’s arguable whether Brunswick is more turbulent than Limehouse (which has its moments!) but we were glad that we’d taken Stuart’s advice to moor well back on the pontoon (around 3 metres from the front) as there were many strange eddies as the water settled.

We felt a thrill the lock gates opened and we got our first sight of….well, nothing very much. Contrary to our hopes, the fog was as dense as ever and that’s all we could see! Our pilot estimated that the visibility was around 50 metres – it felt a lot less as we entered the wide water of the estuary and started our crossing. Our first move was to get straight across the river before turning upstream towards the Manchester Ship Canal.

Our first view of the Mersey - at least it was flat calm...

Our first view of the Mersey – at least it was flat calm…

Richard took the helm and, at first, it was difficult to heed the pilot’s instructions of “steer across the river in a straight line” as there were no landmarks – just the fog. The pilot gave the useful tip to “watch your wake”, as long as the wake was straight we were on course. Indigo Dream’s engine enjoys a good burn, so there was a plentiful wake to guide us. We missed a trick here, Richard’s tablet has marine charts and can be set to display which way you are heading; it’s not perfectly accurate but far more precise than trying to follow a wisp of mist or trying to judge if the wake is straight as it vanishes into the  murk. . .

I was a bit nervous about the lack of visibility, we were very tiny indeed on this tideway, even though we’re equipped with the requisite navigation lights. However, there was no big traffic on the river – I hadn’t realised that huge tankers like Maingas are not allowed to move unless they have around half a mile of visibility. Stuart’s view was simple, it was a great time to cross as there would be no-one else out there!

There was not a breath of wind, and the fog formed a chilly blanket – the hounds wanted none of it. Archie was persuaded to pose briefly, but even he was soon tucked up inside with the central heating. I joined them – the deck was quite full and I got as good a view of the fog from the warmth inside as from the deck outside! Every now and then we had a bit of excitement as the ghost of the shore came into view, and one interesting discussion about the urgency of moving to port as a sailing ship moored on a buoy suddenly emerged from the murk.

Concentration :-)

Concentration 🙂

With nothing big on the move and absolutely flat calm waters, we had an uneventful trip – the only thing that was missing was the view of the grand estuary that we had just traversed. Such a shame, as Richard had exactly the same experience when he travelled down the mighty Severn back in 2008!

We were soon outside Eastham Lock; Stuart recognised the navigation buoys so he knew exactly where we were (which is more than we did!); he’d also been talking to Eastham Port Control to ensure that they would let us into the lock while tanker Maingas deliberated on whether they would join us. A pilot was essential for this trip – not only for his knowledge of how navigate a fog-bound estuary but also for his status in negotiations with the various controls – being the ex-Chief Pilot, Stuart had considerable influence in getting us on and off the river/ship canal.

There are two locks at Eastham – we came in via the 80′ wide and 600′ long chamber, we think that is the biggest lock in the country! The lock is so big that we could not see the far lock gate through the fog. There are many reasons why you have to carefully inch a narrowboat into a lock – at Salterhebble it was because the lock chamber was shorter than the boat; at Eastham, in the fog, it was because it was so long we couldn’t see the far end!

We had a bit of a wait, as there was still some discussion about whether Maingas would join us. But the fog didn’t clear and we locked up by ourselves in very grand fashion – needless to say, it takes a long time – the lock takes a lot of water!

Once the top gates had opened, we expected to be on our way – it was still very foggy, but we’d just crossed the Mersey, so the Manchester Ship Canal held few terrors by comparison. But Ship Canal control wouldn’t let us proceed – they thought they had a ship coming down the canal, but it was 10 miles away, and had, in fact moored up! We had to wait an hour or more, moored on the high wall just outside Eastham Lock. We could have hoisted the hounds onto the shore for the necessary but they seemed quite relaxed. Although it felt as if we’d just completed a days cruise, the passage from Liverpool to Eastham is less than 10 miles and we’d only been on the water for a couple of hours!


Ghosts in the mist...

Ghosts in the mist…


The river was eerily empty - we were the only boat on the move in the murk..

The river was eerily empty – we were the only boat on the move in the murk..


Turn to port skipper, now, to port, NOW....

Turn to port skipper, now, to port, NOW….


Stuart at the helm...

Stuart at the helm…





I'm sure Eastham Lock is around here somewhere...

I’m sure Eastham Lock is around here somewhere…


Ok, we found the entrance to Eastham Lock, now where are the top gates??

Ok, we found the entrance to Eastham Lock, now where are the top gates??


Paddles open - we're on our way to the second waterway of the day...

Paddles open – we’re on our way to the second waterway of the day or the third, if you count our transit of the docks…..



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