Prolonged flooding in early Spring 2014 put paid to our cruising plans for the Thames and the Kennet & Avon so an alternative had to found. Switching to the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal could give us an equally pleasant river passage between Stourport and Gloucester, with unrestricted summer moorings between Gloucester and Sharpness, but minus the frustrations of the shallow, overgrown nature of the K&A in the height of summer.
Starting from the Pontcysylte Aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal our end of winter cruise to Stourport was trouble-free. From here we let the river take us south into GRP cruiser country. Short stops at Worcester and Upton for coffee, ice creams and people watching helped split the river journey into two days before reaching our destination at Gloucester.
She might only be 16 miles long but we found many friends hiding on the 'Sharpy', as some call the G&S Canal. Hardly a mile went past without a friendly wave and an invitation, it's almost as if we haven't been away.
Having established ourselves in the pecking order at Sims and Rea Bridge moorings we soon got back into the routine of short hops to the shops and services and meeting visitors near boaters' car parks.
But after a few cruises down to the end and back, it began to dawn on us that there was more on offer than sunshine and barbeques. "Let's pop down to Bristol" someone said, and so began the research that set our course for the Severn Estuary.
It took some time gathering the relevant information before we felt confident we knew what to do and how to do it. Other boating blogs proved useful but no substitute for making contact with all parties involved and creating a cruise check-list.
I'll refer to the contacts and checklist later, meanwhile here's how we did it.
Rising at 6am on the 12th of June 2014 on a very pleasant sunny morning we pulled ropes aboard and made our way to the swing bridge, our entrance to Sharpness dock.
At 7am sharp (the appointed time) the lower bridge swung open for us and we made our way to the lock, just minutes away beyond the docks, with its home trade ships handling scrap iron and grain.
Tying to the left lock wall we waited as wb Bull Rush pulled up alongside and our pilots came aboard. Tim for us and Bill for them, both boats going to Portishead Marina.
Perfect weather, said Tim, sunshine forecast all day and a gentle breeze, force 2 to 3.
At around 7.30am, just before high water, the lock gently emptied and we were lowered to sea level. The lock gates opened and a series of nods between pilots saw Bull Rush peel away from our side. Tim, our pilot, glued himself to the tiller and we sped off alongside the south pier to join Bull Rush in the heaving salty brown waters of the Severn.
Engine revs up around 2000 soon put us beyond pier-head and into the tide through a sweeping left turn.
Hugging the coast for a while, in the deep water channel, it wasn’t long before our speed increased and the tide turned and pulled us towards America. Morning mist lay across the river, obscuring the horizon so our eyes followed the coastline to the left.
We passed the time by trying to identify the landmarks we knew or thought we knew when we stomped this part of the countryside in our early twenties. We saw the Windbound pub, or what used to serve as a pub before it went out of business, thanks to the introduction of the breathalyser.
Crossing from the southern coast at Oldbury to the Chepstow side we made for a white marker on a hillside. Closer examination revealed a white painted rock amongst the trees, in what looked like someone's back garden.
We admired the Severn Bridge as the mist cleared enough to see this majestic structure, the box girder bridge.
A new concept in the sixties, she was built by raising prefabricated sections and welding them in-situ, one at a time.
As kids we cycled here to watch the bridge take shape and spot the ferryman below carrying people across the river while he was still able to make a living. My little Brownie box camera recorded build progress.
But soon after the bridge we ran into troubled waters. This is where the River Wye discharges into the Severn. It looked a bit like boiling water and my thoughts turned to the possibility of running aground in the shallows but Tim put me right on that, it was a clash of currents and not an indication of depth. We didn't deviate but continued at a pace towards the second Severn Bridge.
Had I been doing this without a pilot then I might have steered further south to avoid what looked like shallow water. If you want peace of mind then it pays to have someone with you who knows what's going on.
At the second Severn Bridge we encountered more boiling water but this time the effect on the boat was more noticeable through its tilting and turning motion.
Tim upped the revs to keep us straight and we raced through, but it was too much for poor Balmaha and the overheat alarm sounded.
Back into calmer waters we reduced revs, ran off hot water (for 5 minutes) and were soon back to 1800 to 2000rpm with no complaint from the engine. Calorifier temperature (probe situated half way up the tank) dropped from 69 to 50 degrees in 5 minutes and the cooling effect went all the way back to the engine.
I put the overheating down to warm river water and a high anti-freeze mixture in the engine cooling system. Pushing the engine at 2,200 rpm up the Trent from Keadby to Cromwell in winter gave us no problems so it has to be something to do with the combination of river temperature and a 30% antifreeze mix.
Regarding the water turbulence, had there been no pilot or no warning of this effect on the surface water I would have considered shallow water again and panicked a little. But there is no way to get away from it, the whole channel below the bridge was heaving and boiling so one just has to endure it.
Tim's explanation for the rough water was it is due to the interaction between fast flowing tidal water squeezing between rocks and flowing over a scalloped sea bed. There's plenty of water beneath us but the water tumbles and turns as it rushes over the rough sea bed and produces whirlpools on the surface. Some, so the story goes, have slowed down at this part of the journey and finished up pointing the wrong way, such is the power of the sea.
Just a thought - we were sailing on Spring tides and this effect might be less noticeable on Neaps.
We made Portishead Quays Marina two and a half hours after leaving Sharpness, in time for the second locking.
I am grateful to EwnHaCul's Severn cruise blog (May 14th 2014) for the coastal photo shots that helped identify the lock entrance at Portishead Marina. The red arrow is pointing to the lock but it's not at all clear while still some way off, even with good visibility.
Following the pier wall one can eventually make out the lock gates and the three vertical lights on your portside. It's just a matter of waiting for the lock to empty, discharge its outgoing boats and for the lights to change sequence from three reds to green/white/green.
The gates themselves lie in shadow with the sun behind but once they open you can see the mooring pontoons on either wall and the rest is straightforward.
While the lock filled we paid and parted company with Tim. We were grateful to Tim for an excellent sea cruise, with lots of advice and interesting pointers along the way. Pilots like to steer, whether that’s ships or boats but I’ve heard that they will relinquish the helm for a while on small boats where concentration isn’t so intense. Personally I was grateful to sit it out, ask questions, take photographs and distract him with small talk and, for once, get both hands on the bacon butties.
A quick trot up the steps to admin' in the control room overlooking the lock and, £21 lighter, we entered the marina and tied to the end of 'C' pontoon.
A five hour wait for tides gave us plenty of time to explore the chandlery (very small) and Portishead's stone pier, next to which work was underway for a new lifeboat station.
At 4pm wb Bull Rush, a small angling boat and ourselves dropped back through the lock onto a rising tide, without pilot this time.
A brief call to Bristol Vessel Traffic Services (Bristol VTS) on VHF ch.12 got us acknowledged as being in transit from Portishead Marina to Bristol Docks and there followed a report from them on sea state, wind and shipping movements.
Apart from missing a couple of tugs outside Portbury Docks and a ship coming up behind us from seawards there was nothing to worry about before reaching the north wall of the River Avon.
The book says make for the north wall to the Avon, getting close-in before turning upstream (to the right). This is good advice because at low water we could see that the mud banks rose steeply from the centre channel, which runs close to the wall, so that cutting corners could cause some embarrassment.
Until we were sure which pier or wall lay between Avonmouth Docks and the River Avon it was best to head for the right hand wind generator and wait for the gloom to clear which it does once abreast of Portbury Docks. The square brick building with a flat roof (Bristol VTS offices) makes a good target for the right hand turn into the Avon.
Half a mile upstream of the River Avon's north wall is where some boaters anchor to wait the tide as an alternative to laying over in Portishead Marina.
I can see the point of this as it is sheltered, the water is well behaved and the centre channel is deep, even at low water Spring Tides. Had the journey been on a Neap tide I might have considered this or the alternative anchorage outside Pill Creek, a bit further upstream, after the M5 bridge over the River Avon.
There is no point doing this for time's sake because the journey to Bristol Docks is a short one on a rising tide and the lock gates won't open any sooner for the early bird. We managed the Portishead to Bristol journey at little more than tick-over, such is the rate of incoming tide on what is a relatively short journey.
Passing under the M5 motorway at low tide the River Avon is wide and benign. The tide is just discernable by the passage of flotsam on the outside of bends.
The cruise up the Avon to Bristol was a pleasure. Pill Creek on the right hand side, the base for Bristol pilots in years gone by, has silted up over the years and the old slip and ferry landing point are harder to distinguish now.
The creek at Seamills, on the left, comes next though there's little to be seen from the river.
This is the exit for the River Trym, the same as in Westbury-on-Trym, one of the nicer places to live within Bristol's boundary.
As you pass Black Rock on the left, a sloping geological rock formation that has little in the way of greenery covering it, you can just see the west tower of the suspension bridge above the trees in the distance. It's here that one calls Bristol City Docks on VHF ch.14 or by 'phone and announces one's passage passing Black Rock, bound Bristol Docks.
The reply is coded by a Bristol accent and informs you which wall to approach once within the lock. This will depend on who else is using the lock that day but my experience is you will tie to the right hand side next to the lock operator's kiosk.
At pootling speed we made the lock at Bristol Docks in one and half hours. We were greeted with a warm welcome and the wonderful news that the Harbour Master's office was closed for the night (no one to take our mooring fee after 5pm).
From the lock we chugged along the left wall to avoid sailing dinghies and alighted on the finger pontoons at Oporto Quay. This is where the little ferry boats buzz to and fro across the harbour with foot passengers. There is nothing to stop you mooring on the right hand side before SS Gt. Britain where the bank steps down from a path in front of houses. Mooring rings are plentiful but there are concrete 'bumps' on the edge that are difficult to fender-off so be prepared to grind against the 'bumps' every time a boat passes.
Incidentally, the alternative to paying the Harbour Master is to stop at Netham Lock at the far end of the Feeder Canal, just before the River Avon and settle up with the lock keeper there. Expect to pay around £30 to £35 per night for a 60 foot nb. Payment is by cheque or plastic.
We spent ten days messing about on the Avon, including a couple of days at Hanham pontoon moorings which have been upgraded since we were last here in 2009. School kids come down to the pontoon in the afternoons and sit, chat, dangle their feet in the water but there's no trouble and by dusk all is quiet again.
Cruising through Bath, up as far as Dundas Aqueduct, gave us enough time to dump our engine anti-freeze and replenish with fresh water ready for the return journey.
Back in Bristol we paid Netham Lock for one night in the docks and did all the tourist sites around the floating harbour. We marvelled at all the young people who filled the pubs and bars in the evenings. The museum at M Shed was on our list of things to do because we grew up here and most of what we saw was common place to us when we were kids.
The Matthew was doing trips around the harbour and her steering by joystick rather than wheel was most interesting.
At 6.20am, just before Spring tides on a new moon, we locked out of Bristol and passed down the Avon to Portishead,. We motored at tick-over until we reached the Bristol Channel. A 90 degree swing to port as we passed Bristol VTS pier-head (south wall of Avonmouth Docks) was followed by a short hop across the mouth of Portbury Dock to Portishead Marina.
A few minutes hovering outside until the lights changed to green+white+green and we were locked in, raised to marina level and moored again on 'C' pontoon. All done by 8.30am.
Five hours later and another £21 lighter, Portishead Marina's lock discharged us into the sea in the capable hands of Carl from Gloucester Pilots. There's no need for me to bother with the VHF, Carl does the necessary with Bristol Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) on VHF ch.12.
We motored north until we had crossed the shipping lanes and then changed to a northeasterly direction towards the 2nd Severn Bridge.
Just outside Portishead Marina we encountered the City of Cardiff, a 2000 ton dredger, but once past her we met nothing on our way to Sharpness.
This was another sunny day, with slightly choppy seas and a breeze in our faces. We passed the boiling waters below the 2nd Severn Crossing and hardly anything jumped off the shelves onto the floor. A couple of photo-frames at most and those didn't break.
With similar engine revs to our trip down river there wasn’t a hint of overheating, in fact our calorifier temperature was 5 degrees cooler on the return journey so it does pay to dump the antifreeze and get the best cooling effect possible by using plain water.
Further north, where we began the switch from the Welsh coast back to the Oldbury side, my eye caught sight of what looked like a tsunami heading towards us. I asked Carl the meaning and he explained that the wall of breaking water was the effect of the tide hitting the sandbank and rising to form a breaking wash over it. This wall of water was actually receding from us, not coming towards us but we couldn't tell that from the boat. Once again I was glad to have someone aboard who knew the weird effects of Spring tides in the river.
I had read somewhere that it was wise to prepare for the final turn into Sharpness but I hadn't appreciated just how far ahead one should get ready, neither had I realized how strong a Spring tide could be at the pier-head.
My version of how Carl described the procedure is: put a lick of paint on the end of the pier as you pass it whilst pointing in the direction of the lock. Don't make the mistake of finding yourself well out to sea and don't leave the turn until after the pier has passed or you will be in trouble.
When I asked why we seemed to be rushing from Portishead to Sharpness rather than taking a leisurely cruise I was told that pilots like to get past the pier-head while the tide is still low because the flow through the pier structure is at its weakest. Leave it another hour and the flow increases through the pier's legs and the cross current encountered on the last 1/4 mile becomes a battle. Loss of power here, for example through overheating, could lose the fight against the tide. Neap tides with slower flow might present less of a problem.
Less than three hours after leaving Portishead we were knocking on Sharpness' door and by 6.30pm we had passed around the pierhead, through the outer harbour and were safely inside the gates and rising to dock level.
Would I do it again? Yes, of course, over and over again. There’s nothing like it for excitement and the pleasure of knowing that good preparation puts one’s mind at rest.
Would I take a pilot? Yes, if I was feeling rich enough or if I was threatened with mutiny by you know who, otherwise I'd go without. There's no mystery to it, a few quirks but all is fairly predictable and providing the boat is well prepared there's nothing to get in the way of a really enjoyable cruise up or down the tidal River Severn.
For those who like more detail, here’s what I discovered:
First - boat preparation, You must prepare your boat.
See the published check list at Gloucester Pilots (http://www.gloucesterpilots.co.uk/services/leisure/)
Roof - stuff on the boat roof must be tied down or be prepared to lose it. Worse case is a load shifts when the boat rolls and you finish up with a permanent list. I wouldn’t carry a lot of coal up top, but on the floor inside might be an advantage.
Fuel – one must check the fuel tank for muck and water. The pilot will ask you about this. It’s easy enough to make a tank bottom sampler from the top of a pump soap dispenser attached to a 2m length of ¼” neoprene tube. Tape the tube to a stick and hold it on the bottom of the fuel tank as you pump the dispenser top. Any crud will be sucked up the pipe into daylight and into a jamjar.
Might seem a bit obvious but have you enough fuel for the journey?
Engine – get it serviced with fresh filters (oil, air and fuel) and drain the water separator.
Carry spare drive belts and be prepared with tools to change one, though I doubt anything will happen in 3 hours to compromise the trip if anything other than the waterpump belt breaks on the journey.
Give your engine at least an hour at 2000rpm to ensure it is capable of achieving speed across open water and for that all important turn against the tide to enter Sharpness Lock if going up the Severn.
Consider replacing antifreeze with fresh water for summer trips. Tell the pilot when you book him if you have engine rev restrictions, he can make allowances.
Fresh water - take half a tank of fresh water so that the bow is higher whilst retaining enough to dump some over the side if overheating occurs.
Bow – make sure the cratch disperses splashes over the side or else seal the front facing doors and vents and open the bow scuppers for drainage. The pilot will ask you about this.
Life vests – ensure all crew and passengers have (and wear) life vests. Pilot will ask you about this.
VHF – you don’t need to carry one if you take a pilot with you all the way. Technically you could make all arrangements by mobile phone or in theory you could make the whole journey without calling anyone at all providing you have pre-arranged your lock-out (departure) and the lock-in (arrival) at the other end.
Portishead lock will open if you hang around outside at the quarter-past and quarter-to the hour locking-in times and Bristol might do the same if you arrive at their published locking-in times. Bristol VTS will see you on their radar and provided you keep to the correct channels for movements on their patch they probably won’t bother you.
I’ve heard skippers notify Swansea and Milford Haven Coastguard of their sailing intentions but most, including pilots, don’t bother. If continuing to Cardiff or Swansea, intentionally or by accident, then you can initiate a call to the coastguard on VHF ch16 and switch to VHF ch67 for routine traffic (your report).
A VHF set is not essential but it is useful even though most calls can be made using a mobile ‘phone. If you don't have a licence there's nothing stopping you listening to a cheap hand portable VHF set with scanning facility (for your choice of channels) in order to hear what everyone else is doing. If all goes wrong and you miss Portishead then it might be fun listening to Swansea and Milford Haven Coastguard talk about you as an unidentified vessel off Clevedon or Weston-Super-Mare drifting towards the Irish Sea.
Anchor – make sure it has enough rope and chain for the anchor to lie flat on the sea bed. Should it be secured fore or aft? There doesn’t seem to be a hard and fast rule on that. If it’s secured aft then you’ll slow down until you stop. If it’s secured fore’d you’ll spin round and be dragged backwards until the boat stops. If your rope is too short then you probably won’t stop, the current is so strong you’ll continue but at a slower pace. Best not to think of it I say.
Ropes – you need 15m fore and aft in Bristol’s lock to reach from the boat up to rings on chains and back to boat. If you have less than 15m and you enter the lock well before high tide then they will take the loose end and bowline it to the dangling chains and you will have to take in the slack at the boat end as the lock fills. It’s not a problem and I wouldn’t go to the expense of splashing out on a new 15m rope if I had a good quality 10m already fitted. However, leaving the lock on Neap tides, outbound onto the River Avon, might be a problem as you’ll start off with plenty of rope but run out of it as the lock empties. Not that it matters too much because the lock empties so gently and the worse that can happen is the boat wanders away from the lock wall. No need to stop engines in the lock, unless it's so noisy no one can hear the voices on the wall above. We kept our engine running and no one complained.
Life ring - tied to a long thin rope and kept on the roof could be useful if someone falls overboard.
Ladder – a rope ladder or rigid ladder, ready to deploy, is useful for getting back onboard if someone falls in. You can’t walk to the river's edge and climb out.
Getting onboard from deep water has always bothered me, even on canals. How do you pull someone onto the boat when they are weighed down with wet clothes? Better to have a rope ladder ready on the roof, secured at the top end and ready to un-roll to reach down to the boat's baseplate level.
Food - bacon butties and tea/filter coffee seem to be acceptable currency these days with officers, crew and pilots.
Cruise arrangement (Sharpness - Bristol, Bristol to Sharpness)
Check weather forecasts as far ahead as possible. Look for weather trends giving winds of Force 3 and less (Wind Finder and XCWeather websites are helpful)
Spring tides give fastest journey, allows time for problems (overheating, alternator belt breakage, sea mist and fog) and ensures you meet destination locking times. Springs give higher tides and better clearance when accidentally cutting corners over rocky ground (Sharpness to Severn Bridges).
Neap tides have less rise and fall, slower journey (harder on the engine), better suited to planned anchorage between passage sections. Check the tide tables when planning the journey (see Portishead Marina's handbook). Don't forget to include the hour difference between British Summer Time (BST) and Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) when reading tide tables.
Lock keepers and pilots have their version of tide tables on which they base their gate opening times.
If intending to take a pilot between Sharpness and Portishead call the pilot office a week to ten days ahead, give destination and date preferences, answer their boat and crew related questions and note all their safety requirements. The pilot you speak to will enter your name on a list and will tell you when next to call them (nearer to departure day). Don't assume that you have made any arrangement, this is your introduction call and they treat you as potential business at this stage. They seemed reluctant to talk money at first but it cost us £190 in 2014 (cash or cheque on cruise day).
Make sure they know you understand it's your responsibility to book the Sharpness lower bridge swing. They will inform Pierhead of their intention to take a boat out at Sharpness but you also need to clear this with Pierhead when you request a bridge swing into the docks.
Bridge swinging will take place a minimum of 30 minutes before locking out but they prefer to have you in place earlier and will probably ask you to make passage an hour before. Bridge swings are not permitted during darkness.
Pierhead will decide when locking out happens. Narrowboats will make passage about 30 minutes before high water, however, cruisers can handle a wider range of tides and speeds so they can expect flexibility. Inbound ships can mess up outgoing lockings. Be prepared to exit even earlier if inbound ships are expected.
This is important: pilot bookings are subject to 'bumping'. Commercial pilotage takes preference and despite reserving a pilot you have no security. A later ship booking can result in your pilot booking being postponed. When tide and weather windows are tight this can be a huge disappointment. You can prepare mentally by monitoring ship movements to and from Sharpness on the Ship-Finder and Marine-Traffic websites.
There is no Gloucester pilot office for you to visit, they (currently four pilots) work from home.
Portishead to Bristol and vice versa is easily achieved without a pilot. The journey takes about 1.5 hours. Pilots are territorial, don't ask a Bristol pilot to take you to Sharpness.
Sharpness outgoing passage - Lower Bridge swing
Call CaRT (Sharpness Pierhead) to inform them that you have booked a pilot and request a lower bridge swing in time to make the locking out onto the Severn. They will give you a time to pass the lower swing bridge. Don't be late or they will cancel the arrangement and you will lose your locking out slot and your pilot.
Make the booking a couple of days (or up to a week) ahead. They should also know your lock requirement from the pilot's booking of the lock-out. If going without a pilot then book lock and bridge swing at the same time.
If departure is delayed by weather or pilot availability then keep CaRT aware by re-booking the bridge swing. Mess up the bridge swing arrangements and you will lose your tide.
CaRT will not swing the lower bridge during darkness so an early start onto the Severn may not be possible. Your CaRT Licence will be checked. No licence means you may be denied transit. A full licence entitles you to 16 lock transits per annum.
High water at Sharpness is 43 minutes after high water at Portishead (see Portishead Quays Marina brochure for Portishead tide info).
Portishead Quays Marina
If you are stopping over between tides or staying overnight then book your arrival and departure with the Marina office. It doesn't hurt to book a couple of days ahead to make sure they have space for a narrowboat. Confirm again the day before arrival.
Book departure too, they will tell you if there are special arrangements or restrictions due to number of boats using the lock on the day of departure for Bristol or Sharpness.
Read the marina handbook (available online) but don't trust your understanding of the first and last lock times at Portishead Marina, ask them to state these times when you book your locking-in at the marina. The lock opening window varies with Spring and Neap tides, for example high water +/- 3.5 hours. Because of the modern lock construction Portishead Marina's lock can happily manage boats before and after high water but the seaward approach dries out at low tide so don't miss the last locking.
When waiting to lock-in at Portishead (qtr past and qtr to the hour) one needs to keep an eye on the spreading sand banks. Give them a wide berth. There are sailing boats tied to buoys off the sea wall between Portishead and Portbury, they sit on the mud when the tide recedes, don't assume they are afloat at low water and go to join them.
Portishead Quays Marina try to place narrowboats on the end of pontoons nearest the lock where they don’t pose a threat to plastic (eg. pontoon B overlapping positions 9 and 10, pontoon C positions 11 and 12, pontoon F positions 9 and 10).
Here you remain in view of the traffic lights that indicate lock ready for departure.
Plenty of turning space exists at the end of the marina furthest from the lock so don't be afraid to go past your allocated pontoon after leaving the lock, turn in the pond after passing all the pontoons and return to your allocated mooring.
Back tracking a bit, on arrival at Portishead Marina keep well clear of the lock until the lights change in your favour ( three vertical lights showing green+white+green). Expect outbound boats on every locking out and allow space for them to follow the pier side until they reach open water, whilst you keep away from the exposed mud banks on your port side. Inside the lock tie your boat very securely fore and aft to the port side floating pontoon and while the lock is filling you have time to climb the steps attached to the wall (beware the slippery lower steps and muddy handrail) and once out of the lock climb the outside staircase on the side of the lock control building to the offices immediately above the lock. The water filling the lock looks worse than it is, providing you tied firmly to the pontoon before climbing the steps to the office. The pontoon on the right side has no steps on the side wall so you can't leave your boat while the lock is filling and do business at the office.
Portishead Quays Marina staff are very helpful and friendly they will take your fee (temporary layover or overnight stay) and give you a map of the pontoons with your mooring position marked. Make sure you have the security gate code or you won’t be able to return to the boat after leaving the moorings for a walk.
The minimum charge we found for short term layover between tides was £21 but overnight will attract a price per metre rate (see page 34 in the online PortisheadQuays_Handbook.pdf booklet).
If you don’t register your arrival while the lock fills then perhaps moor on the fuel berth immediately outside the lock on the left or opposite on the ‘events’ pontoon on the right and then visit the office.
When planning to leave Portishead Marina, book your departure with the control room above the lock. They will give you a lock-out time but do not leave your mooring until the lock lights signal 'Ready' (see Handbook).
Once within the lock tie to the floating pontoons on either lock wall and experience a very gentle descent to sea level. Gates open without warning and boats leave according to which is clear to move off.
For Bristol follow Portishead pier (on your left) until clear of it then head towards the pier outside Portbury docks on the right (keep the wind turbines near Avonmouth in front of you) and keep away from the sandbanks along your right hand side. Once clear of Portishead pier call Bristol VTS on VHF ch.12 and when acknowledged announce your transit between Portishead and Bristol. They will warn you of shipping and tug movements but keep an eye out behind you for that unmistakable bow shaped shadow heading for your stern at 15knots.
Once past Portbury Docks pier head for the wall that juts out from the River Avon, you are safe from other vessels unless you meet another boat leaving the Avon for the marina or heading out to sea where the usual rules of the road apply. Don't be fooled by ships on your port side appearing to turn across the tide as if to enter the Avon. They are probably turning against the tide ready for an approach to Avonmouth Dock which is the far side of the wall you are heading for. Don't get confused, Avonmouth Docks south wall is the same thing as the River Avon's north wall.
If heading for Sharpness then take the pier wall from Portishead Marina and once clear make a turn towards South Wales (due north) and head directly across the shipping channel. Once across the channel turn northeast and head for the Severn Bridges. You should have checked in with Bristol VTS to announce your intentions and receive news of ship traffic and weather conditions. Other than that you have nothing to do until you get close to Sharpness when you have to check in with Sharpness Pierhead on ch.13 if you don't have a pilot onboard who does it for you.
Bristol City Docks
Make your own arrangements with Bristol Docks, whether inbound or outbound. They will give you lock opening times and expect you to keep them updated if plans change. Call a few days ahead to get their statement on when you should arrive. Lock openings are restricted to within about three hours before high water.
Don't assume the rule applies that high tide at Bristol is 10 minutes later than at Portishead, Bristol have their own version of the tide tables.
Approaching Bristol Docks from Avonmouth/Portishead you should call "City Docks Radio" on VHF ch.14 (or telephone) to announce your passage as you pass Black Rock. This gives them time to prepare for your arrival.
How to locate Black Rock in R. Avon for calling City Docks Radio? – it is on the port-side going upstream and is just within sight of the Clifton Suspension Bridge west tower.
On arrival you'll find dock staff will provide help with taking your ropes and tying up to the lock side.
When locking-in is done you are expected to find a place to moor in the harbour or to continue through the city to the River Avon and on to Hanham Lock.
Stopping in the harbour (Bristol Docks) incurs a nightly charge. See the Harbour Master (office on the right after passing out of the lock and floating harbour) if you arrive before 5pm or pay the lock keeper at Netham lock the next day, if he is on site, as you pass out of the Feeder Canal onto the River Avon.
There are few moorings on the Avon between Bristol and Bath but we were never completely stuck for somewhere to stop overnight. Hanham's pontoon mooring has improved on what we encountered in 2009. Be aware that on Spring tides the weir at Hanham is topped and flow reverses all the way up to Keynsham. It might affect the way you tie up to trees if that's something that appeals. .The rise and fall is only a couple of feet but it is worth remembering that the flow isn't always towards the sea.
You could do worse than check the website "Wanted - idiots guide to locking into Bristol Docks" on the Yachting and boating world forums website for an independent account of the journey into Bristol. Ewn Ha Cul's blog is also helpful for the journey through Bristol.
Sharpness incoming passage - Lock and Lower Bridge swing
Call Pierhead by phone to book yourself inbound on your chosen tide and ask for their window for lock opening times. There is no point in arriving late unless you are happy sitting in the outer tidal basin until the next lock opening. High water at Sharpness is 43 minutes after high water at Portishead and the journey takes about 3 hours in a narrowboat, slightly longer on Neap Tides.
Pierhead will assume you are passing through the docks onto the Gloucester & Sharpness canal but make sure you have their agreement just in case they plan to delay your dock transit because of shipping movements within the docks (H&S one assumes). Departure may be delayed until the following day if your arrival happens after CaRT secured the bridge for the night. If the latter then expect to be placed on the wall immediately outside the lock's inner gates until the morning.
CaRT are responsible for the lower swing bridge and the lock at Sharpness, they have passed control of dock operations to Sharpness Dock Ltd and although you have free passage through them you should not stop or moor anywhere within the docks.
Pilots travelling between Portishead and Sharpness will call Pierhead to arrange locking-in on arrival and will keep them updated on your boat's progress towards Sharpness, but it is your responsibility to make an inbound booking for that tide.
Pilots have an arrangement with Portishead Marina to leave a car there while they take boats to and from Sharpness so don't feel sorry for them or think they have a lot of walking to do after you drop them off.
Discuss your plans with your insurance company before making any arrangements.
Tell them cruise dates when known, this goes on your insurance record.
They may insist on you taking a pilot or be satisfied with two experienced boat operators onboard. They will expect any pilot to be registered, qualified and insured.
They will ask if you have life vests for all crew and passengers. They may ask if you have VHF. They may ask if you have charts. They may ask if you have an inshore flares pack (if they insist then these can be purchased from 'salt water' chandlers). They may ask for an extra premium to cover the increased risk. You might ask if they cover salvage costs.
They will insist that you comply with all instructions issued by relevant authorities (outgoing lock-keepers, etc). They are certain to insist that the journey happens with a maximum wind forecast of force 3 or 4.
Bristol Port Company "Vessel Traffic Services" 01179 822257 and VHF Ch12 (call Bristol VTS)
Give your transit intentions as you enter the area and get weather conditions and shipping movement information.
Bristol Docks 01179 273633 and VHF Ch14 (call City Docks Radio)
Book ahead inbound to Bristol Docks, give ETA and get lock-in time.
Give position at Black Rock when inbound from River Avon and get advice on lock status and listen to lock mooring instructions (whether tying to port or starboard side inside the lock). Book ahead if outbound to Portishead. You will leave the lock before high water.
For information on pilotage services (Bristol to Portishead and vice versa) contact Bristol Pilots Partnership, licensed River Avon Pilots, on 01179 823081.
Gloucester Pilots 07774 226143 (Sharpness to Portishead and vice versa)
Book pilot (7 to 10 days ahead). Pay £190 by cheque or cash while on the boat.
Portishead Marina 01275 841941 and VHF Ch80 (call Portishead Quays Marina).
Book ahead your lock-in for lay-over between tides or overnight stay and get lock opening times and lock mooring instructions. Download marina handbook and tide tables.
Sharpness Pierhead (CaRT) 01453 511968 and VHF Ch13.
Book ahead your intention to lock-in or lock-out onto R.Severn and get Sharpness lower bridge swing time.
Wind Finder (for Portishead forecasts)
Ewn Ha Cul: https://ewnhacul.wordpress.com/2014/05/14/all-at-sea-again/
"Wanted - idiots guide to locking into Bristol Docks"
Booking arrangements and contact details and prices were accurate in June/July 2014)