Monday, 13 October 2014

The Gloucester Ring 2014, outbound

By way of explanation: 

The "Gloucester Ring" is a round trip of about 46 miles, departing Lydney in the early morning with a decent flood tide at or near springs, pushing up through the upper reaches of the Indian country that is the "unnavigable" Severn and using the height to cross Llanthony Weir back into civilisation, 28 miles later. After locking into Gloucester docks, there is then a 16 mile return trip down the historic Gloucester & Sharpness Canal to Sharpness Docks. There, you wait on the dockside at Sharpness for the next tide, lock back out into the estuary and cross the couple of miles of water over in the dark to land home once more back at Lydney.

To give credit where it's due, as far as I know, the route was the inspired idea of our good friend John Christie, chairman of the Drascombe Association, skipper of the Drascombe Lugger "Muckle Flugga" and long, long time member of Lydney Yacht Club. He's made the trip a number of times and we first travelled it with him and others back in 2012. This would be our second time around.

Another friend and fellow LYC member Steve Cullis is the skipper of "Green Bean", a ruggedly handsome, hand-made sailing canoe he built himself. The Land Rover of the canoe world, Steve sails Green Bean just about anywhere and through anything. He knows the river well, sailed the Ring with John and us back in 2012 and has done it once or twice himself since. When, back in the summer, he mentioned the idea of doing it again this autumn, Dad and I jumped at the chance. There were some reservations strongly expressed amongst certain members at the Club; concerns about doing the trip so late in the year, all the attendant risks of inclement weather, the potential cold, the dangers of doing it unsupported by a safety boat, and so on. All very well reasoned and undeniably well intentioned.

I appreciate such advice, and the wisdom of experience much greater than mine; we're grateful for it and don't take it lightly. On consideration however, we felt that we were suitably equipped, were practiced in and knew the limitations of our boat and ourselves well. We were familiar enough with the river by now to have some idea of what we were likely to be facing, were long established in the habit of sailing throughout the year and were self-sufficient and more than capable of self-preservation and self-rescue if it became necessary. It was an adventure, and there can't be any adventure without risk, but we felt on balance that we'd mitigated those risks as best as any could, and so going ahead wasn't therefore foolish or unwise.

At least no more so than usual.


We watched the weather with interest through last week, with a low pushing up from the southwest bringing with it stormy gales. We got lucky, and by Saturday the forecast was promising something of a window, albeit one with almost no wind and thundery showers through the afternoon. It was damp, still and misty when we hooked Ondine onto the back of the car around 6am Saturday morning and set off for Lydney. We arrived at the Club an hour later, just as the sky was beginning to glow with the dawn, to find Steve already up and rigging Green Bean, Annabel and Sue preparing their Wayfarer "Windlord" to accompany us, and a couple of other members, Pete and Matt, setting up their canoe as well.

With no wind forecast, both Windlord and Green Bean elected to not rig their masts. Annabel and Sue had some notion of rowing the entire route, but a friend at the club leant them an outboard so they’d have some contingency if they needed it. We could have followed suit and left the spars and sails behind, but the optimist in me couldn't bear the idea of launching without at least the option of hauling sail to hand, and so we fully rigged Ondine and furled the mainsail against the mast. That decision would come back to bite me hard later.

Steve was sailing with his brother Julian, so Green Bean's usual crew Phil was to sail with us. LYC was hosting a number of visiting yachts for "Oktoberfest" (I'm still not entirely sure what that's about) amongst whom was a Drascombe Dabber sailor, Stefan, whom we'd met the year before. He'd sailed up to Lydney for the weekend from his base at Thornbury Sailing Club, and so asked to come along with us as well, aboard Ondine. As he was suitably kitted, experienced and with a good idea of what to expect, we made him welcome. Having four experienced and able sets of hands aboard later proved to be a lifesaver in the upper reaches, after one of us was washed overboard.

With the boats now rigged, we waited on the tide. 8am, and still the river was empty, as muddily bone dry as it only ever gets around springs. High water was due at Sharpness for 10:31 and would be 59 minutes later 28 miles up river at Gloucester. Flow reversal would be around an hour after that, and from then on in, our brief window of opportunity would rapidly close down. Within fifteen minutes the sands had begun to cover with roaring water, and by half eight we were helping Windlord down the steep incline of the slip and into the muddy, turbulent water. By 08:45 we were all away and soon after that into the churn off Sharpness and through to the skipping, leaping waters of Ridge Sands.

Past the whirlpools marking the pilings of the old bridge the waters smoothed out as usual off Purton. We settled ourselves into the boat, the thick cloud overhead beginning to offer just the first hint of clearing, Dad and Phil taking turns at the helm of Ondine. Once past Purton and Tites Point, we hugged the west shore, avoiding the shallows off Slimbridge on the east side. The general plan was to reach Brimms Pill, then traverse the river over to the east side to pick up the channel around the Noose. Conscious we were much, much earlier on the tide than usual, we kept a good eye out on the water ahead.

Under canvas in this area of the Severn, you can usually hear the shoals before you spot them. With the engine running, that wasn't so. We turned out from the bank as planned at Brimms. We could see Green Bean over on the east side who, with her much shallower draft was in no way as concerned about the shallows off Slimbridge as we were, and that seemed to confirm the veracity of our plan. We could see the shoals ahead off to port now; big breaking walls of tossed, angry, muddy waters stacking and tumbling together, and beyond that, the sandbank in the centre of the Noose, as yet uncovered. It's not really the water that worries me in the shoals around these parts; it's what you might hit beneath them.

We were getting drawn in by the flow, and had left the turn to the east bank a little too late, the turn right a little too shallow. The centreboard grounded, and we quickly drew the foils up as the boat began to get slammed around. Dad took the helm, steering with the outboard, and Phil and Stefan moved forwards towards the hurling, bucking bow whilst I secured the rudder. Ondine was still slamming, and twitchy with no centreboard to steady her as the waves hit her quarter. Being the lighter of the two of us, I took the helm and Dad's weight went forward as well, dampening the slamming somewhat, and biting the bow in to give a little more steerage.

In theory, there is a channel that runs from around Brimms on the west bank over to Middle Point on the east, and there you can pick up the deeper water on the outside of the bend and work around the Noose. But the sands are shifting; as a musician is only as good as his last gig, the charts around these parts are only as good as the last tide, and local knowledge only as good as the last trip. There was no channel, just banks of mud and sand threatening to beach and roll us.

We turned away, timing the helm in the chaotic swell, and nosed tentatively back into the shoals, playing the throttle, and keeping the sand banks on our right, at least as well as we could. Visibility was pretty much limited to the bucking hull and the walls of brown water crashing over the bow. Whooping and yelling with the adrenaline of the ride, we picked our way as best we could through the chaos of the shoaling water, Phil's familiarity with the area from his own canoeing and time spent aboard Green Bean invaluable in divining the right path. Within ten or fifteen minutes we were through, and guided Ondine into the more reliable deep-water channel that runs below Hock Cliff.

By half nine we were leaving the Noose, soggy but very much on time and still in once piece. Green Bean was behind us, as was Windlord, and we'd spotted Pete and Matt aboard their canoe making a fair passage of it, avoiding the vicious stuff by hugging the shallows on the inside of the bend.

Expecting the next bit of interesting water to throw itself at us beneath Gardiner’s Cliff at Westbury, it was a bit of a surprise to see the river boil up again beneath the red cliff at Newnham as we rounded the corner past Bullo Pill. Caught beneath the sandbanks on the inside of the bend off The Old Passage at Arlingham, and the waters churning and cascading around beneath Newnham, there wasn't much room for mistake, but we slid smoothly through the one small slither of clear water between the mud and the boil. Further on, Gardener’s Cliff was surprisingly uneventful, and we followed the channel back across from the outside of the easterly bend to the other side of the river without mishap, gliding past the sandbanks to our left. Less than a boat-length away on our right, an eddy in the river rushed back against the tide, an inexplicable, improbable drop of a foot or two between the level of the water racing back past us and our water carrying us forwards in its rush.

Past Framilode there was a straggle of folks on the bank that had gathered to watch the earlier Bore. They waved; we wave cheerfully back, then hailed one of the onlookers to ask how long it had been since the Bore had passed. The reply gave us pause. Five minutes, if that. And we realised that looking ahead, we could just see it cresting around the bend past Epney.

We slowed, very reluctant to risk catching up with it, and advised Green Bean and Windlord via the VHF of its proximity. The next few miles were spent passing surfers hauling their boards up the banks having enjoyed the wave, a blissfully blue and warm sky now above us. Past Longney Cribb, then the Severn Bore Inn, the ski club and the lonely, solitary salmon fishers' hut, the river calmed and we made good time, the river becoming tranquil, bucolic as it rushed beneath us, carrying us along.

A good part of the charm of this journey is the changing face and character of the river as you climb on into her upper reaches from the wild, wide reaches of the estuary into the narrower stretches of willow-hung banks before Gloucester. We passed a solitary workboat, hull deep under the burden of the JCB digger it was carrying, punching back into the face of the galloping tide, heading back downriver to Bullo or perhaps beyond. It was a contradictory, industrial sight amongst the otherwise arboreal, timeless scene of the river.

photo courtesy of "Green Bean"
There are three low bridges past the parting, in the last reach before Gloucester, too low to pass with our masts up. I passed the helm over to Dad, leaving him to guide Ondine tentatively through the flotsam and jetsam trailed in the wake of the Bore, whilst I took down the gaff and mizzen and made them tidy and stowed the rudder on the cockpit floor. The engine was on little more than tick-over, a necessary precaution against the dangers colliding with any of nature's copious litter in the water that had been washed up or tore down by the violence the tide and that big bore wave still not so very far ahead. Relaxed beneath a warm, blue sky, I poured myself a cup of coffee, mulling over our timings and when best to take the mast down.

An eddy beneath the dark surface water, some unlucky, rogue turbulence, stole steerage from the boat for no more than a second or two. Ondine pirouetted gracefully, for a brief instant feeling like she might come back, and then slid gracelessly, senselessly, inevitably into the grasp of the overhanging trees.

The river bit.

Old Man Willow pushed maliciously at the top of the mast; the Severn plunged mercilessly, relentlessly into the side of the hull. Ondine began to tip. The engine flared in a last bid as Dad gunned the throttle to try and get some grip and steerage, then choked and died as the brown water surged over it and began to cascade over the side of the boat. To the symphony of cracking, splintering branches, I scurried up to the higher gunwale, the brown river now seeming a distant drop beneath me.

I have some small experience with capsize, though never in Ondine as she’s too much of a lady, and you get a feel for the sweet-spot, that pinprick moment of no return. We were so very nearly there. Intending to vault over on to the now emerging centreplate, I knew that if I could at least balance the boat there, I might stop the mast from sinking, the plate from collapsing irretrievably back into the case, and if so, she might pivot away from the bank and yet come back up. We could worry about getting the water back out into its proper place in the river then.

Instinctively knowing where the balance needed to be, Dad, Phil and Stefan followed me up. I looked back down to see Dad loose his footing, fall back and roll sideways out over the side to land facedown in the water.

"Grab him!"

Phil and I dove for the low side, reaching, Stefan threw his weight up at the high side, uncompromising, instinctive, determined. As Dad's weight left the boat, there was cracking in the upper branches as the mast tore free. Phil caught Dad, I was a fraction behind him with my grasp as the side of the boat popped back up out of the water in liberation and release, and Ondine tore free and began to get thrown unconstrained and out of control along the bank by the tide, branches jagged, spiked and mean hurling themselves at us like javelins.

Dad was still face down in the water, not moving. Ignoring the boat I reached out to turn him. He came face up, looking quite relaxed and faintly bemused.

"The new dry-suit works really well" he said, as he grabbed the side of the boat and hung on.

"We need to get the boat under control,” advised Phil or Stefan, I'm not sure who. We couldn't pull Dad in over the side now that about a foot of freeboard had been restored and were getting smashed and battered along the bank. I left Phil holding Dad, and Stefan and I braved the whiplash and javelin hail of willow to grasp at the greenery to try and halt our tumbling. At first, the branches and leaves shredded in our hands, but we grabbed and twisted enough green willow to hold us and just clung on as the whole weight of the river took an elephantine hold of the boat again. The transom sunk dangerously low into what was now an aft bow wave; Stefan, seeing the problem, moved his weight forward and away, and restored the balance of the semi-swamped boat.

photo courtesy of "Green Bean"
Green Bean had seen our peril and had punched back into the tide to stand off mid-channel, watching and waiting.

We manhandled the boat’s stern into the bank, and I returned to the work of trying to help Phil recover Dad back aboard whilst Stefan held us in. Out of immediate danger, everybody continued to remain calm and work unhurriedly, conserving strength and stamina, calculating and evaluating the various ways out of this mess.

Green Bean shouted a warning of inbound debris, and I took a turn holding the boat whilst Stefan grabbed an oar to fend off what turned out to be an on-rushing half a floating tree charging us down with 8 knots of tide behind it.

Eventually, we worked Dad around to the transom, and wedged between the muddy bank and the boat, still out of depth in the river with no footing, we finessed him ingloriously and ignominiously in over the port quarter. In all, he'd probably been in the water for about twenty minutes, but was quite comfortable and relatively unruffled thanks to the protection of his dry-suit and buoyancy aid. The mortal danger now passed and only the puzzle left of how to retrieve ourselves from the entanglement of riverside foliage, I climbed out onto the bank, now desperate for a pee.

We turned our attention to the swamped outboard. Being so early on the tide, we still had time to make the crossing of the weir despite the delay, even if we had to row, but rowing would mean an end to our journey once we reached Gloucester if we couldn't get the engine started again.

I pulled on the start cord. And pulled, and continued until I could smell that I'd flooded the engine. We removed the fuel line, and pulled the engine dry. Phil took over, and his longer arms and fresher strength carried the day. The engine coughed and choked once, like a flat-lining patient jerking and gasping, shocked beneath the surgeon's paddles, and then on the next pull, spluttered and roared valiantly to life once again.

As a rule, I dislike engines; noisy, smelly things. For that one however, I make an exception. She's a four horsepower, noisy, smelly thing of proven stubborn, rugged, utterly reliable beauty. And I love her.

We gathered ourselves. I took the helm. Still endangered by the overhanging trees, still half-swamped by the tide, with full-throttled indelicacy I pushed Ondine back out into the flow. Mid-channel, we eased back, and then began to pump. We fed Dad sweet coffee and chocolate; although to be fair, still beset by the analytical calm that had characterised all of Ondine's crew throughout the entire incident, he probably didn't need it. We insisted, he didn't complain. Much.

courtesy of Green Bean's Dad

The parting now coming up, I kept the helm, whilst Dad directed Phil up on onto the bows to release the forestay, and he and Stefan lowered the mast. Into the right hand channel towards Llanthony weir, the untravelled river became narrow and choked and we pushed our way gently through the crowding willow. We crossed Llanthony Weir around noon, pretty much bang on the perfect time despite the fun and games of the last hour. The weir pool was obvious only by the open space, the weir itself hidden deep beneath the tide, its line marked only by a lost, uprooted tree pushed disconsolately up against the middle of it.

Steve had called ahead to Gloucester lock and told the lock keeper that Green Bean was coming up the river with another boat and would want to lock in.

"It's all down river to me, mate," replied the lock keeper, but assured us he'd have the lock gates open and waiting for when we arrived. We reached the lock gate to find it closed against us. We idled expectantly, but seeing no movement, pulled up to Gloucester Quay to wait patiently. And waited patiently a little more.

In the end, we sent Phil up onto the wall to go and enquire. It transpired that the lock keeper was waiting on a narrow boat or the like called "Green Bean" to come down river, and hadn't clocked that when we'd said "up river" we'd really meant it and hadn't just been confusing ourselves with the unusual change of flow caused by the tide. Apparently people do. On realising his mistake with some good natured amusement, he cheerfully locked us in.

By 12:30 we were moored up on the dockside, awaiting word of Windlord and the guys aboard the canoe. Sat ashore outside a sandwich shop in gloriously warm sunshine, we were drinking hot drinks, and trying to eat fancy toasted cheese sandwiches without scalding our mouths.

An impossible feat, I believe.


Anonymous said...

Your Dad's a trooper. Your boat, too. No permanent injuries--a good ending.

tatali0n said...

Thank-you. He does, at times, seem pretty unstoppable :)

alex bowling said...

Well done, great adventure too squeeze in at the end of the season.