Where we are:-
August - Ely to Bedford
September - Bedford to Ely
October - Farewell The Fens, up the Nene and onto the canals. 18th Foxton.
November - between Sileby and Sawley.
Sunday 7th April 2013
Why the Wash?
The idea came from Mike Barrie (nb.Anastasia) back in 2012. I asked about his cruising plans for the New Year and he mentioned heading east and having a go at the Wash.
Would you mind company, I asked, not at all, he said, and that was how easily it was decided. We were going to sea.
Photo courtesy of Paul Balmer – Waterways Routes
My first job was to find a pilot.
Boat club journals and boater’s blogs all pointed to Daryl Hill so after a little scouting around I tracked him down at Wisbech and made a booking for his first window after Easter (6th to 11th April 2013). Kings Lynn was my preferred destination but it’s nowhere near the easiest option when you consider the winding nature of the Great Ouse, the presence of sandbanks at Denver sluice and the shortage of stopping places if things go wrong. Not only that but mooring outside the Sluice wasn’t an attractive option to a party of boats arriving outside opening times.
Taking the Wisbech route only adds a couple of days to the journey and has the advantage of floating pontoon moorings (chargeable) within a secure gated enclosure at the yacht harbour. And it’s good to know that the moorings are overlooked by the Harbour Master’s Office.
Daryl Hill, our ‘Wash Guide’, as he prefers to be known, was happy to take up to three boats in one go but before we knew it the list of prospective Wash crossers had grown from two to six.
The winter of 2012 saw the list diminish as contenders reluctantly declined due to commitments and health problems.
This left Anastasia, Balmaha and No Problem in the party as Easter approached. Things didn’t look too good for No Problem at one stage when the new engine gave Sue and Vic concerns but everything settled down and confidence was restored in the end. It was also touch and go on the weather because east winds had battered the coast for months without a break and we needed calm seas with a relatively gentle force 3 or less.
You’ll be going nowhere, said lock keeper Mike, until the swell has decreased or you’ll be swamped at the stern as you turn from an easterly course towards the coast at Wisbech. He had a point, a two metre swell off the North Sea, all the way from Norway wasn’t going to do any good when it came up behind a one metre high stern deck.
The final week approached and we were in daily contact with Daryl, getting advice and preparing ourselves for what might happen if the weather didn’t slacken off.
Suddenly the forecast changed from vicious easterlies to gentle southerlies. Nail-biting came to an end and plan-Bs were jettisoned as we received the call to assemble at the Boston Grand Sluice entrance at 6:15am on Sunday 7th April.
You’ll be back here by 2pm if the swell is considered too high for your safety, said Daryl. Nail biting and plan-Bs went back on the menu as we funnelled into the lock entrance and waited for lockie Sam’s OK to hit the salty water.
Boston’s lock has three sets of gates and even with the inner pair opened they couldn’t close the back set, hence our wait for the tide and river to level off before departing. She’s plenty wide enough for three narrowboats side by side but only 41 feet long.
Journey time is around 9 hours, possibly less on spring tides and maybe slightly more on neaps. One has to allow about two hours at anchor waiting for the incoming tide to take us up river at the end of the journey.
Around 7:15am the front gates opened and we slipped out one by one into The Haven, Mike with Daryl on Anastasia then Sue, Vic and Paul Balmer (of Waterways Routes fame) on No Problem and lastly ourselves with cousin Roger (nb.Megan). Going down river at canal speed we passed the stump in silence, only cameras clicking to warn anyone we had a convoy heading for the sea.
Thinking it might be a good time to eat before we hit the waves I requested Cooky dish up the bacon sarnies. Daryl let slip that he was a fan of the humble bs so we took pity on Mike, a vegetarian, and delivered ‘packages’ to Anastasia by fishing net.
The pessimists predicted a two day wait for the swell to abate enough to allow a narrowboat out to sea so imagine our surprise when reaching Tab Tower to see a mill pond stretching as far as the eye could see.
We left the coastline behind us as the haze descended onto the horizon and we realised we were all alone. No narrowboats coming the other way, no pleasure craft from the marina, just us and the occasional fishing boat on what was becoming a beautiful sea cruise.
A third of the journey done we began a gentle right turn around Roger Sand and headed into the sun. A slight swell and small waves bumped the boat’s side for a while but nothing high enough to wet the gunwale. We’d had worse on the Thames and Trent.
Sue and Vic’s heads popped up and down from time to time as Paul B took turns at the tiller on No Problem. She certainly looked good cutting through the waves, a tribute to their recent engine change.
But what’s that on the horizon in front of us? Would we have company on the way home?
Through the binoculars we could see a general cargo vessel of about 2000 tonnes, something V and I were familiar with when working the coastal trade on tankers.
This was the EEMS DART, fresh out of Bremerhaven, sitting at anchor and awaiting Monday’s tide before entering the Nene, bound for unloading at Sutton Bridge.
Enough excitement for one day, we left deep water and headed southwest to tie up to a buoy on the edge of a firing range. No firing today and the seals are out on the sandbank, well they were until we arrived and they charged off into the sea. But lovely for us they came back to have a look at the intruders.
We couldn’t have asked for a better day, although it was cool the sun was shining, the sea was so flat you could have played snooker and there was hardly enough breeze to blow out a candle.
A couple of hours passed with stories and tales of a nautical and aeronautical nature and then all too soon we were off to Wisbech via Sutton Bridge.
Crew had hardly put ropes ashore when familiar faces were spotted on the jetty – Mike and Jo from Sarah-Kate with a champagne reception !!
Get that gate open and let them in….. break out the glasses and fill ‘em up.
Big thank you to Mike and Jo for putting the final touches to a wonderful day.
Photo courtesy of Paul Balmer – Waterways Routes
Well we’ve done it, adventure over, the Wash has been conquered. Where shall we go next year? Actually Mike (Anastasia) has an idea but it will take a bit of research before we are sure we shall manage it.
As we didn’t find the Wash information readily available I’ve included some notes that might help others in the future.
On the inbound tide we were made aware of tidal streams. “Crab this way, then crab that way” were the instructions on our approach to land. Tides rarely flow in straight lines when sandbanks are encountered especially in a bay like the Wash. Strong streams cut across intended tracks and local knowledge of the way tides behave is invaluable.
It is recommended that narrowboats have a full tank of diesel, almost empty water tank, and the only clutter on the roof being the stuff that you are prepared to lose over the side.
Life vests must be worn by all members of crew and all passengers.
For convoys a marine band VHF radio is essential to listen for pilot’s instructions. Those without an operator’s certificate will just have to listen and wave arms to acknowledge. Pilot takes his own VHF and flares (no, not 1960s trousers).
Walky-talkies can be a very useful addition for general natter between boats. That sort of thing might be “Look at that football on your right”. “That’s not a football that’s a seal”.
Or, “Watch out for that green buoy, if you don’t change course it will hit you broadside in a minute”.
An appreciation of buoy markings helps when deciding which side to pass if the tide catches you unawares. Apart from hazard buoys you'll see red cans and green cones though not always as many and as regularly spaced as you might expect.
The anchor: bow or stern? No one insisted it was on the bow or on the stern. Between us we had a mix of both.
It goes without saying that the diesel tank needs to be purged of water and diesel-bug just before the crossing and it helps (as in our case) to check the fan belts for splits and cracks. We carried out an oil service the week before and checked the coolant level in the days leading up to the crossing. Oh, and one shouldn't forget to tie a line to the life ring (as we nearly did).
Clear shelves and tables of loose objects just in case the wind picks up and it’s a good idea to use that 'sticky matting' stuff on the stern hatch for keeping binoculars and cameras from sliding overboard.
Speed: on a calm day the engine may not need to exceed 1500 rpm but one must expect to maintain cruising speed for five continuous hours on the outgoing tide and two hours on the final approach to land.
1800 rpm might be necessary if the weather deteriorates (and for dodging buoys) but no one seems to expect more than 6 mph through the water, at the very outside.
A GPS device with a coastal chart is useful because one is out of sight of m for some of the journey. Phone signals may be weak but we were never completely out of contact.
Seals and sandbanks: the occasional black football floating a hundred yards away is probably a seal's head. At low tide they can be seen sprawled across the exposed sandbanks and though panicked by approaching boats they are curious enough to swim close enough for cameras with zoom lenses.
Clothing needs to be wind as well as rain proof. Consider head, hands and legs if a cold breeze is expected.
At 41 feet long Boston lock is too short for most narrowboats. It can handle three abreast but it's a case of waiting until the outgoing tide drops the water outside the lock to match the height of the river inside.
At Dog in a Doublet (outskirts of Peterborough) the lock is more than long enough for narrowboats and can take three abreast. Coming upstream (from Wisbech) with the tide one should expect a journey of up to 3 hours. Daryl said it could be done in two and a half and by leaving Wisbech immediately the tide turned we made it to D-in-a-D in exactly two and a half hours at 1700rpm.
Other considerations include tide times of six hour flood followed by six hour ebb. Like some other rivers on the east coast this rule doesn’t apply to the rivers on the Wash where it can vary by as much as three hours of flood followed by nine hours of ebb.
Insurance: best to check with insurers well before the event that they will cover your expedition.
Costs: One can halve the expense of pilotage if three boats share the cost.
Mooring at Wisbech: for contacts and mooring fees see Wisbech Yacht Harbour
We paid just over £20 for a 60 foot narrowboat for one night. There are 16 amp and 32 amp electricity sockets on the pontoons plus water taps.
Wash Guide contact: Daryl Hill, mbl: 07909 880071
In conclusion – if you’re in any doubt about doing the Wash I’d say go for it. It’s a doddle when the weather behaves itself and it shouldn’t be too taxing on a reasonably quiet summer’s day.