Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Gloucester Ring 2014, the return

We sat contentedly on the West Quay of Gloucester Docks, munching our lunch in the balmy, autumnal sunshine outside the toastie shop. We'd had word from Sue and Annabel that they'd reached the lower parting and were on their way and by 13:00, Windlord had locked in and come alongside to join us. We'd had no word of Pete or Matt in their canoe.

Counting Llanthony Bridge in Gloucester and the Low Level Swing Bridge at Sharpness, the canal is a 16 mile journey through 18 bridges of various heights. With her masts down, Ondine would slide beneath most of them without any need for them to swing open, but we couldn't confirm the clearance of the Low Level Swing Bridge at Sharpness in advance. The clue was in the name, and so it wasn't usually a question. Anything wanting to lock out into the estuary beyond was usually of a size where the clearance of the bridge wasn't even a consideration. The Pier Head at Sharpness suggested we arrive, see if we could fit under without assistance and if not, ask them before 6pm to swing the bridge for us.

Before departing Gloucester, Dad and I spent a little bit of time tidying up Ondine, checking her over, and removing the multiple festoons of willow that had stowed away aboard following our earlier encounter with the bank. Mercifully, it looked like nothing had been damaged except our dignity and pride. 

A little before 14:00 we left the dock, cleared Llanthony Bridge and were on our way, Green Bean ahead of us and Windlord, the girls valiantly and stubbornly determined to row for as long as they could, falling behind.

None of the rain promised by the forecast for the afternoon had offered itself yet, but the sky to the south was darkening with ill intent. There was a chill in the headwind that you always get when under power, especially on the canal, which is often elevated above the surrounding land and can feel very exposed. I was warm and snug in my foul weather gear, however.

So late in the year, traffic on the canal was light. Approaching Netheridge Bridge, a large working boat passed us heading up to Gloucester and we squeezed in tight to the bank to avoid her. By 15:00 we were past Sellars Bridge and making good time, but the darkened sky was now lit by lightning, and the first few drops of rain began to fall. Phil had mentioned that he kept his narrow boat on the canal and, approaching Saul Junction, we accepted his gracious invitation to stop and step aboard for a break and a cup of honeyed tea. We radioed ahead to Green Bean to advise them of our intentions and agreed to meet them at Phil's boat.

The cabin of the boat was deliciously warm from the earlier sunshine. We forgot the rain and relaxed with drink in hand for a bit. 

We re-emerged to continue not much more than thirty minutes later, but the threatened rain had passed and the sky was clearing. We passed Saul, Patch and then the Purton Bridges without mishap, Green Bean in sight just ahead, the sky now blue and the lowering sun glorious once again. 

By 17:00 we were on the final stretch to Sharpness, running parallel to the river. The surrounds were tranquil and lazy. In contrast to the turbulent violence of the morning spent on (and in) the waters of the Severn, the river laid out like a picture postcard off to our right, now quiet and deceptively sleepy with the ebbing tide.

We slid gently past the remains of the old Severn Railway Bridge, looming like Tolkeinesque sentinels on either bank of the canal in the low slanting, ambering sunlight. Then we were there, Sharpness Docks laid out before us. We followed Green Bean into the left arm of the docks, passing beneath the first bridge and watching them slide effortlessly beneath the Low Level Swing Bridge. We edged up cautiously towards it, but the clearance proved generous and all my worries groundless. A few minutes later we were moored alongside the dock outside the gates of the lock.

We watched the sun set over Lydney and Dad cooked up a simple supper of bacon rolls on the dockside, deliciously washed down with hot, steaming tea. 

Our friend Allan from LYC contacted me to say that he and Dave had decided they'd launch the Club's safety boat "Braveheart" once the tide was sufficiently in, and come over to escort us back. The escort was unexpected and unasked for, but the additional company of Allan and Dave very welcome. Contact had been made with Pete and Matt and it was confirmed they were safe and well. It transpired that instead of turning right at the Lower Parting to cross Llanthony Weir, they went left, crossed successfully at Maismore Weir and then came back downriver under Westgate Bridge to arrive at Gloucester and pull out there.

Around 18:00, Sue called from Windlord to report that they'd been enjoying the peace and solitude of rowing so much they hadn't yet started the outboard. They'd just reached the halfway point at Saul Junction, so still had another eight miles or so to go. 

Locking out was scheduled for 21:00, the plan being to moor up on the pontoon in the outer tidal basin and wait for the tide and the perfect moment to cross. A little before 20:30 we heard the sound of an outboard. The engine cut out, and then with the shadow and faint lights of Windlord appearing out of the distant gloom, Annabel and Sue rowed up to join us at the dock.

With the three boats ready to go, a little before 21:00 the lock keeper Des opened the sluice gates and water exploded into the lock basin whilst we looked on, just a little bit shocked and awed by the ferocity of the maelstrom below. The locking fee for Sharpness is £25 per boat, but Des cheerfully told us the Docks had agreed a special, one-off "Gloucester Ring" offer of three for one especially for us, and charged only the one fee.

The gates opened, we motored in, and rafted up alongside Windlord against the lock wall. Des let us down gently and waved us off into the night. We entered the outer basin and secured ourselves up against the floating pontoon to wait on the tide. 

We discussed the options for crossing. High water was due at 22:50 and the tide was still in full flood for the moment, a surging torrent driving up river. It was a question of balance; leave too early on the tide and you ran the risk of being washed up a significant distance, past Wellhouse Rocks and out over the Ridge Sands. Leave too late and the risk of getting washed down past the harbour breakwater in the full force of the ebbing tide was equally uncomfortable in the dark.

A little after 22:00 I received a message from Al to say they were launching Braveheart, and a short while later she emerged into the basin from the darkness beyond carrying Allan, Dave and (another) Steve.

As we discussed the options, Dave made the very salient point that even if high water was at 22:50, the flow wouldn't reverse for another fifteen minutes after that.  At 22:30 Braveheart ventured outside the mouth of the basin to have a look, and returned soon thereafter with the not unsurprising news that the flow was still running strong. We began to make preparations to depart.

An almost full moon was riding high in the cloudless heavens when we pushed our way out of the dock and into the flow of the tide at 22:45. The current grabbed us as we tracked across the wide expanse of river. The two red, vertical lights at the end of Lydney Harbour's breakwater gave us our course, but remained stubbornly distant despite the labours of our engine. We could see Windlord and Green Bean behind us off our starbord quarter, and Braveheart shadowing us to port.

As the far bank drew closer, the river's flow began to loose its tyrannical grip. Green Bean, closer in to the shore, started to pull ahead, and we could now make out the dark, shadowy outline of the breakwater gradually creeping closer. On a moonlit, cloudless night, your eyes adjust sweetly to the gloom and you can make out most details around you on the gloaming water. The head lamps and hand torches of others though can then be, however well intentioned, a rotten nuisance, bankrupting your carefully hoarded night vision in a careless instant. 

Trying not to be irritated by the unwelcome, uninvited blindness we laboured on, staring out into the darkness, calling directions back to Dad at the helm. Green Bean made the shore, landing at the top of the flooded slip and being carried up by a host of welcoming, friendly hands as we ghosted in gracefully to her side, our keel-band grinding on gravel as we touched, safe home. Windlord was not far behind, landing next to Ondine as I helped carry Green Bean up on to the grass. Next, we hauled Windlord onto her trolley and pulled her up and out the way, before I backed Ondine's trailer down to the water's edge and we winched her on.

Finally, with her three wards clear of the slip and safely ashore, Braveheart landed, and, some forty-eight miles and fifteen long hours after we'd started that morning, the Gloucester Ring was complete.

No comments: