By Dee, to Sea
One Monday on the South Stratford
Amazingly it's a year since I hurriedly put together my first edition of Ripples and, looking at it again, the page which stands out is the roll of Life Members. There were ten names last December there are thirty three now!
You may remember in the last edition I made a reference, after Dave Leach's letter, to events unfolding in the Irish Sea involving Ian Bottrill and NB Eye Bee. Well, the story behind those events is included here, in From Dee to Sea, straight from Ian's typewriter.
It's been a strange end to the year for me as we have, unfortunately, had some illnesses in the family and Susan is in Clacton-on-Sea with her sister leaving me in charge of preparations for Christmas. So I'll finish now by wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and get back to my shopping lists!
I would like to start by wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and to advise you that before the end of this year we should see the final issues, principally regarding water quality, resolved between the Environmental Agency and ourselves. This then leaves the way clear for our solicitors to complete the purchase of all the parcels of land, which has been arranged for some time. However we have been advised by our solicitors not to purchase the land until the Environmental Agency have given their consent.
An advertisement has was placed in the European Journal this month requesting interested contractors, who wish to tender for the project, to contact Babties.
After discussions with various parties it has been decided that the scheme will be built via a partnership arrangement and the final decision, on which contractor will be chosen, will be known by the end of January.
Work on the project is scheduled to finally get underway in April 1999 and to be completed by the middle of 2000.
There will be a comprehensive article about the Ribble Link in the February issue of Waterways World giving all the details, and lock positions, along with several photographs.
Unfortunately some of the pledges which we received have now been withdrawn therefore we need to replace these with others. If you wish to help please contact myself or Chris Gulley. We will need to spread this help over the next few years and will be requesting that all pledges are received through a landfill operator.
On looking at a map I realised that I had never been on the tidal section of the River Dee except to paddle in the clear water at West Kirby. A plan formed in my mind: to go through the locks at Chester, straight down the Dee to West Kirby, and wait for the tide to change then to go out about a mile offshore to miss the sandbank at Hoylake then turn north, pointing the bow at Blackpool Tower, and go in a straight line to the River Ribble then up to Preston Dock. That will surprise them, I thought.
It would be seventy miles on the rivers and sea, an early start and late finish. I needed to make sure the engine and drive were in perfect condition.
I arrived at Chester after five days cruising from Marple and stopped at the Northgate moorings. Having forgotten the camera I went to Argos for one as theirs were the cheapest. Later I cast off and went through Northgate locks to the lower basin, and British Waterways office there, to pay for my lock passage.
"Its seventeen pounds fifty, and we should have had forty eight hours notice." said the woman.
"I came to arrange it two weeks ago!" I protested.
That settled, she made arrangements for a lock keeper to come to the boat with the details. I needed to set off early, on a high tide, to get as far as I could, before I ran out of water, then wait for the incoming tide, to help me round the coast. The forecast was good, but the wind had built up, and that was my main worry.
When the lock keeper eventually came along, he said "Seven thirty, O.K.?"
"Eight o'clock." I countered and he came, exact to the minute, the following morning.
Knowing that the locks were little used, I went to examine them, and oil the paddle gear. The river gates were worst, no ratchet on one gate, and the pawl rusted up solid on the other. It was eased off with hammer and oil. There were no cotters in the paddle racks making it impossible to raise the paddles for a test, and to flush out the rubbish from the lock. A small fishing boat was tethered across the lock entrance, as though forbidding canal boats to enter the river.
And so, soon after eight on Tuesday morning I started up the engine, moved slowly along the basin past the dry dock and swung sharp left to go round it to the first of the Dee locks. I was surprised to see three British Waterways men at the lock. Progress was slow, as the channel was the overflow for water coming down Northgate locks, and someone was using them.
The last Dee lock was double length as the road bridge passes about three feet above the canal, and boats have to duck down, for clearance.
At this point British Waterways stopped for a tea break and it was quarter to ten, not nine o'clock, that I finally got out on the river, just in time to see that fishing boat being rowed away. The mud bank, which was half way across the lock entrance, felt as hard as stone as I nudged it with the bow
I had seen that the river wasn't filling below a certain level when the tide was out which meant that mud flats or sand banks were holding the water back. I hoped that it was a long way off and increased speed in a wide and empty river. I soon came to an office building on the banking, next a footbridge then miles of straight cut just like a canal. I could see signs of industry in the distance. Then came the bridges at Queensferry, the modern concrete A494 and the old blue wind up one with a few small boats hiding underneath. The newish piled quayside at Connah's Quay came next with the steelworks on the other side. I came to the new bridge and a bend in the river where the waves were increasing in size, a few white tops showing, and I was still miles from the sea. I decided to stop at the steelworks jetty to wait for change in weather. After a while the waves reduced but it was still three hours to low water so I cast off and continued down-river.
Fishermen in a small boat shouted across "Where are you going?"
"West Kirby." I replied.
"What are you going to do for water?" they asked.
They evidently knew the river, for shortly after the new power station, and within sight of Flint Castle, I felt the bottom rubbing. I turned to port in an effort to clear the sand bank, but the river banks had stopped moving, and I was grounded, right in the middle of the river. I watched the bow dip as the tide receded. I could see the sandy bottom near the stern so got the ladder to climb down and put my wellies on. I splashed about on my own personal island and took some film. Hundreds of seagulls settled on the next sand bank and then I saw a dog chasing them. It turned and I realised that it was a fox. It had come across deep water on that side of the river. One sand bank near Flint seemed to extend all across the river. In the distance, through the field glasses, I see could men in small boats moving. These later passed close by following the zigzag course of the river. The tide turned, and the bow started rising. Too late to make for West Kirby now, I decided to go back to Connah's Quay for mooring. As I went up-river I noticed maintenance men in yellow jackets on the new bridge and I had read only weeks past that bridge was maintenance free!
When I got near to Connah's Quay and turned into current I ran into sand bank and had to back off.
Two men appeared on the quay and shouted "Come in further down."
I set the bow angle, and on tick-over, made it sideways to the next ladder down a perfect manoeuvre to be proud of. One man climbed down, asked for a rope, took the bow one and threw it up.
"Leave your ropes slack," he said "there was a twenty one foot tide here."
I thanked him and asked "Do you have a boat here?"
"No, we are the coast guards." he replied.
"How did you know I was here?" I asked, surprised.
"We were watching you from the bridge."
The boat rose with the tide and I slipped another rope through a mooring ring. I kept awake whilst the tide receded and went to bed only after the creaking of timber announced that I had settled on the bottom and the boat had remained upright.
Wednesday morning. A flat calm river, eddies showed the tide was running in fast so I needed to get going whilst the tide would lift me over the sand banks.
I had a quick breakfast and a shave, checked the engine, started up and cast off. Again I went under the new bridge, passed the power station and got level with Flint. the coast guard had said that a channel was buoyed after Flint, but to keep well clear of the shore near there, due to mud banks. I was nearly half a mile offshore when the boat slowed and mud came up, turned sharp right, saw the sun reflecting off the first buoy and I wonder on which side to pass as it's painted red and white. Another buoy was showing through the mist and a green wreck buoy was showing to the right. The river was now over two miles wide.
The tide had turned but I still seemed slow as the banks were so far away. I spotted the old Scottish ferry, grounded near Llannerch-y-mor, then Mostyn docks. I could make out, through mist, Hilbre island off West Kirby and made for green buoy before realising it was another wreck buoy, with flag, and steering clear.
I had intended to stop at West Kirby for the tide to change however I had not checked for a place to anchor or run aground safely. With this in mind, and the good weather prevailing, I decided to carry on into the sea. The flat calm had been replaced by long rollers, the boat dipped up and down, but was quite stable. About a mile offshore, I turned north to follow the coast. It took ages getting past Hilbre Island against the tidal flow, and I realised that I was in for a long haul. An hour later Hilbre still looked close but when I passed a red buoy I knew that I was in the south Mersey channel and kept looking for ships. It was clear though and I crept slowly across to a green buoy. I could see from the water pulling the buoys that the tidal flow against me was at least four miles an hour. Through the glasses I could see the tall buildings of Liverpool. I seemed to be moving slowly across the mouth of the Mersey but next time I looked I appeared to have gone back and started again. This happened twice before I realised that as there was no Blackpool tower to line up on, the boat was swinging and I was heading further out to sea.
After another hour more red buoys appeared and I could see a ship in the distance. I debated whether I could get across Crosby channel before I was run down. The green buoys on the far side seemed a long way off, and I was sure that the ship now had a bigger bow wave. I went for it, the gap was closing rapidly now, the ship growing on my starboard side, then relief as I reached a green buoy. A large tug pulling a lighter passed behind me and when I saw Formby Point I noted it had taken me three hours to get across Liverpool Bay. I could see miles of sandy shore and moved in closer but couldn't identify the area. I was starving and wondered how much diesel I'd got - I should have filled up. Another hour and Southport came into view and the far bank of the Ribble. I couldn't get up the Ribble at low tide so decided to stop at the beach for a meal and wait for the change of tide. I turned directly for the beach, slowed down to tick-over, came to a stop about one hundred yards out. The bow was swinging so I went to the front and put the anchor over to steady it. Had much needed food before a man came wading out.
"Have you broken down?" he asked, "The coast guard wanted me to check."
"No, I've just stopped for a snack."
He turned, and I saw Lifeguard on his back. A group of children came wading out, and asked if they could come aboard, I put the ladder down, and invited them on. Later, as the tide turned, I didn't realise that the weather had changed also. I filmed a young couple wading out into the waves about a quarter of a mile away and went forward to raise the anchor, but the boat was sitting on it. I had asked the lifeguard where I was, and he had told me that it was Ainsdale. Waves started banging on the stern and when I looked over the back I saw that the sea was a mass of unending waves. I pulled up the anchor and started the engine. I tried reversing but the skeg kept bumping on the sand, and the wind held me to the shore.
I thought "What if I do get off into deeper water and try turning the boat?" The waves were already two to three feet high. Enough to tip the boat over if it was side on to them. I decided to bump along the beach to a gully about a hundred yards away. The waves were building up, and the spray was giving me a soaking as waves hit the boat. About this time, a group of men appeared.
"We're Southport lifeboat." they announced. "We'll pull the boat round, and use your anchor to hold the bow to the waves." One was on the phone to the coastguards, and said the forecast was for winds gusting up to force seven. "We strongly advise you to leave the boat."
Seeing my reluctance they promised to bring me back after high tide. They offered to take anything ashore that I needed. I quickly disconnected the colour television and passed it to a surprised lifeboat man, next the video camera and repair manuals for the engine and gearbox, and lastly a suitcase of clothes. I put my life-jacket on and the canopy over the front cockpit then climbed overboard with my money stuffed into my back pocket. I felt that I was abandoning my best friend. My most vivid memory was of the waves soaking the parts I had kept dry, until now, no wonder I looked miserable on the official photographs.
The lifeboat men waded into the waves, hauling on the bow rope, and carrying the anchor into deeper water, however the wind was increasing and the anchor rope broke with the storm. They then brought their own anchor and ropes. We went back to the boat, around midnight, to a scene of devastation. The front cover had burst open with the waves, and the boat was flooded to a depth of about two feet, the rudder was bent to one side, the skeg bent and twisted. The engine, gear box and diesel flooded, cupboard doors ripped off, batteries, pumps, field glasses and food ruined. A light fitting shaken off the roof, every bit of paper and cardboard disintegrated. Rubber, from the carpet backing, was on the middle shelves in the food cupboard. The black and white television was floating along with cartons of milk.
The lifeboat crew, using a four wheel drive vehicle and a long rope, drew the boat further up the beach on each high tide no matter what the time was, until the sand was firm enough to get a crane and waggon on the shore. Finally, at low tide, the boat was lifted onto a lorry and taken to Hesfords, near Lymm for repair. What a way to get material for a story!
I am indebted to lifeboat man John Shawcroft, who provided so much help, a bath, and a bed for a couple of nights.
It was a peaceful pleasant morning as Sandpiper slipped quietly from her mooring on the Avon and headed back upstream. It was early enough for there to be only one Japanese tourist watching us as we lifted through the lock and back into Bancroft Basin and the canal.
All went well until we reached lock fifty where we were aware of a problem. British Waterways have temporarily repaired a sagging wall in the tail of the lock with steel plates and the protruding bolt heads have reduced navigable width. Another boat was about to come down.
"Oh, its the old couple again," we thought. The man had already caused a queue to form a few days earlier by penning his boat, and his wife, into a lock and then going off to the sanitary station with empty water bottles and a, presumably, full porta-potti.
As the boat, appropriately named Home Maid entered the lock Graham and I exchanged glances, "This boat is too wide," was the unspoken thought which passed between us.
"I believe there's a problem here", said the owner as he walked towards us.
We pointed out the protruding bolt heads, "Anything over six foot ten beam can't get through", we told him.
"H'm," he replied casually, "I've had trouble at this lock before, a tree once fell across my bow". He then produced his video camera and proceeded to film the offending bolts.
Lock emptied and gate open he instructed his wife, who was sitting calmly at the tiller, to move out. Obediently, she did so, for about two feet, then crunch! They were stuck! Instructions and replies about alternately revving and reversing flew backwards and forwards between husband and wife until he finally accepted that they were indeed stuck. Out came the video camera again to record the event. Fortunately, a British Waterways worker was close by and with the aid of a rope attached to the towbar of his truck the boat was pulled back into the lock and raised into the pound above where it was short enough to turn round.
Eventually, it was our turn to enter the lock, we knew that we could clear the bolt heads as we had already done so in the opposite direction, but wait, we were catching the edge of the gate! All the previous bumping and banging had dislodged an already rickety gate hinge and it took the combined efforts of ourselves and two other crews to get the gate open the last six inches to get Sandpiper into the lock.
Excitement over, we cruised gently northwards through the leafy Warwickshire corridor, "But what's this!"
As we approached a bend an oncoming boat was diagonally across the cut whilst the helmsman frantically discarded his clothing and slid off the stern into the water.
"Oh no!" we thought as we tried to take evading action, "They have someone overboard".
Not quite. Our parting view, as we slid past, was of a rather portly gentleman clad only in mud splattered 'white' underpants standing on the offside bank with a drowned sheep at his feet. Not wishing to give the kiss of life to a sheep we kept going.