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Extreme Narrowboating - Bristol to Bath and back in flood conditions

Date: 26-29 May 2000
Captain: Mathias
Crew: Henriette, Theresa and Frederik
Waterlevel: High, very high
Area: The River Avon, South West England

By Mathias June 2000

Our sister Henriette had decided to pay a visit for an extended weekend in late May 2000. The plan was some of the usual caving, climbing and sightseeing in the Bristol area. Also Henriette had not seen the boat on which I live, and was keen to see what this was all about. She got more than her moneys worth of boat activity and the end of that weekend.

The weather had turned for the worse so climbing was unfortunately out of the question. We gave caving a quick shot Friday afternoon, but Henriette - like many others - quickly decided that this wasn't for her.

So Saturday morning Fred, Theresa, Henriette and myself was sitting at Fred's place at 2 Pro Cathedral Cave wondering what our options were. It looked like the weather was going to be really bad all weekend, so it seemed a bit pointless to head of to places like Cornwall which is 4-5 hours drive only to be sitting in a tent/pub with rain pouring down outside. In retrospect this would have been a great way of spending the weekend.

Spontaneously I suggested: "Hey! We could go to Bath in the boat", and -plim- this sounded pretty good at the time to all of us, so we decided to give it a go. It sounded nice: staying in Bath for the night and returning back to Bristol next morning. We quickly sorted out the few logistics and "set sail" towards Bath at 15h00. It was raining.

On the way up towards Bath It was constantly pissing down with rain

I had been on the river once before in serious flood conditions and I was not going to repeat that experience. So at the end of the safety of Bristol Floating Harbour, we looked at the conditions, compared it to the last flood and decided "Hey that looks alright". It did look alright. Honest. Nothing like the last time.

Although we were going upstream we made fairly steady progress and the team mood was high and everybody was excited about this spontaneous expedition to Bath.

Around 21h00 - 6 hours after departure - we were getting within reach of Bath. It had been raining increasingly but it didn't seem to have too much of an effect on the waterflow which was still strong and steady but okay. At 21h30 we went through the last lock and the tick was more or less in the bag. Now we "just" needed to get into the centre, moor up and get to the pub. Half an hour later and struggling against a now increasing current and a serious rainy weather we managed to get to the centre. The mooring spots looked fine and was clear of any water and we tied onto the bollards on the ground. Yoor! We made it to Bath and we made it to the pub.

Night fell and the Captain and Crew went to bed.

At 03h00 I woke up with a hunch that something was not quite how it should be. I stood up and to my horror the boat was leaning inwards to the shore. This puzzled me for a moment because I thought that if the waterlevel had dropped and we somehow was stuck on the side we would be tilting the other way. 2 seconds after I realized - "Holy F*ck" the waterlevel is rising and we are tied to the ground pulling us down. No time to waste - out in underpants and wellingtons and indeed - all the ropes were tight and was pulling the side of the boat down. The whole place was flooded. I managed to loosen all the ropes and our chain. (This would not always be easy). Pfeww, a near catastrophe avoided. I loosened the ropes a lot and went to bed again. Zzz...

In the morning the water was high.

At 08h00 Fred woke up and so did I. Now instead of tilting, there was a bang'ing noise - the waterlevel had dropped again now so much that Lancer was about to rest on the side of the pavement on the shore. We quickly got up and reviewed the situation. Luckily she hadn't yet rested herself on the nasty Bath pavement and we spotted a better place to moor a bit further up, started the engines and tied her up 30 meters further upstream, right behind the big lock outlet thingy next to the big weir in Bath. We then went for breakfast and some sightseeing.

Eventually we returned to the boat and to my concern the river had now risen a bit more, but spirits was still high and we decided that we should give it a go and head down stream towards Bristol. So we prepared for departure: started the engines and released the front ropes and let the tip of the boat catch the current, keeping the back tied on. I have learned that this is the only way to turn a narrowboat in strong current so this is what we were aiming for. The problem with this approach is that it is well and truly scary when the boat hits the current on the 90 degree angle - will the boat tip? Also it is scary because if the boat gets too much force in the swing down stream, still tied on, it could smack into the pier again with unknown results. Come to think about it there are a great number of unknowns in "extreme narrowboating".

A very worried Captain checks on his crew. Water rising rapidly in the centre of Bath

So as Lancer (the name of the boat) was catching the current and going beyond the 90 degress I let go of the back rope and fired up on all engines to try and get into the middle of the river. This is the way you would "ferry" a canoe but the problem with narrowboats are their 15 tonnes of complete inmanuverability. I quickly realized that she wouldn't make the full circle turn and we were now heading sideways down the river picking up speed going towards an old Roman bridge too narrow for the 50ft boat to pass through sideways. Absolutely no time to waste (there was maybe 20 meters (60ft) to the bridge) I went in highest gear and heading straight for the opposite shore. We hit the grassy bank with the front and Fred jumped a shore quickly securing the front rope with a metal spear (again - a critical maneuver which is not easy - if you miss, the boat pulls so hard that all things are soon over).

Lancer swung back into an upstream position now moored on the other shore, a good bit closer to the bridge. A side note: the beginning of this maritime spectacle was viewed by hundreds of spectators from the surrounding amphitheatre (River Avon is in the middle of the centre of Bath) - this made things even more palmsweating but also made me fired up to do this manuveur and to leave triumphiantly out of the old Roman Village. You could almost hear all the visiting tourists: "Look there dear, they are doing a longboat show down in that pond down there, let's take some photographs". If I had known what was waiting for us I would have declared defeat there and then. If all this had been happening in the years of youtube and instagram then I am sure we could have enjoyed various viral photage of the "nutter in a narrowboat" for years ahead. Back to Lancer, moored on the grassy banks in a unstainable position:

Fired up by an overdose of "yoor" I decided to try the same maneuvear but this time let Lancer swing all the way round before letting go of the back rope. The thing this time around was that if we swung all the way full force, we'd hit the grassy bank and not the concreted pier which gave a somewhat reassuring feeling. Had I only known. The crew got back on board and prepared for another take off.

"1 ... 2 .... 3 ... GO!", Theresa cut the front rope and we started the slowly accelerating swinging into the frothy current."Don't let go, don't let go" I was keeping repeating to myself as the forces of water started to work on the 30m2 hull of Lancer. Don't let go, keep her swinging. Please don't tip over. Nearly there. It seemed to work. We were now past the 90 degrees and Lancer was finally pointing down stream. A couple of more seconds and I'll run this baby out of here pole position and we are off! ... GO!!! ... FULL STEAM AHEAD!!! ALL ENGINES GO! ... F*ck this was looking bad - we needed more acceleration. We were going slowly but surely angled 30 degress down stream towards that bloody bridge. The bridge was a big stone arched bridge - one of the many Roman attractions in Bath. We were heading straight towards the lower side of the monument desperately trying to get Lancer into the middle of the river where the bridge was high enough to get safely through. The tourist crowds were cheering. Fred, Theresa and Henriette was shouting from the front looking at the bridge and back at me "GET HER LINED UP - WE ARE GONNA HIT!". I still needed to get her a bit further out in the river and then I was gonna swing the back agreesively to the left to make the mother of all line ups.

Front of the barge and a bit of the bridge.

The impact gave a shiver through the hull. Old limestone cut in shape by Roman slaves exploded at the impact with the solid steel roof of the fine boat Lancer. As soon as we hit I had lined her up. Come on baby, do the best you've learned - don't give up now. She lined up nicely and what could have been a complete disaster (getting the boat wedged and scraped on the arch) was avoided. As we came out on the other side of the bridge I was totally fired up with mixture of adrenaline and desperation and looked back at the row of stunned spectators on the bridge giving them the "surfs up" sign and shouting "YOOOOOR"! We were on our way and we'd won the battle with what seemed only a minor injury. Had the boat been of a wooden make, the bridge would most definitely have won and the roof would have peeled off like a wodden tin can.

We were now heading out of Bath practically surfing the waves going very fast. You have to have speed on the boat relative to the waterflow if you want to have any chance of stearing. It is a dilemma - one of many in extreme narrowboating. But still - spirits were now increasingly high after the successful victory 50 meters upstream . . . . "we willl be okay - worst must be over" . . . After what must have been around 8 seconds of peace - it comes: From one of the boats on the shore a young lad shouts: "THE BRIDGE IS TOO LOW!". Tsk, we just passed that bridge you local farmer boy. He shaked his head in dispear as we zoomed past him continuing down the river. What we did not know was that the lad was refering to the newer model railway bridge some 100 meters further down the stream around a bend or two.

After the bridge hit, going way to fast towards a low bridge. Low bridge. VERY low bridge. We are talking inches from complete disaster.
The Captain steering Lancer under the low bridge That's it - we are stopping until the water goes down.

The bridges in Bath changes from the centre - in the old centre it is old Roman stuff, big arches, masterpieces of a long gong era. Further out in the suberbs the bridge architecture changes to some more industrial constructions created for road and railway effeciency and not for an aestetich addition to the riverscape. Most of them are wide, steel reinforced concrete animals spanning as low as possible. It was one of those monsters we were now getting into our focus after rounding another bend full speed.

The farmer boy had spoken the truth it seemed - we were indeed approaching what appeared to be the lowest duck I had ever approached with Lancer. I had approximately 5 seconds to take a decision - should we go for it or should we try some desperate maneuver to stop the boat and get to shore. There was at that point only one real option - go for it and hope for the gods mercy on this doorstep to Valhalla. At least this would take me up there - if you go down you go down with style and you go down all the way. 2 seconds left of thinking time and I compared the bridge to the one that I had passed numerous times in Bristol harbour where the chimney needs to be taken of and it only just goes. Looked like approximately that sort of height. "WE ARE GOING FOR IT!" I shouted to Theresa to get the chimney fast and although the crew mood seemed extremely worried she obeyed instantly, got the thing off and headed down front deck. I had to aim for the slight arched middle of the ugly obstruction. This required some fairly nailbiting precision work, but if there is one thing that Lancer has, then it's a good stearing, as well as a responsive hydraulic drive shaft with minimal loss of power. A few extremely tense seconds and we were heading under. It was gonna go! We literaly had 1 inch to spare - the plant on top of the roof bend and by pure luck the rudder pin which is the last bit of the ship passed under - just. Earlier that day the water had been at least 10 inches higher. We were very lucky.

YEEEEEAAAAH!!! Excited but with no time to celebrate and a few shouting conversations with the crew which had had enough long time ago we decided to try and pull the handle. This was way way to marginal. How on earth were we going to negotiate the locks and smaller bridges further down in this white water madness. We had now gained a lot of momentum and stopping the boat and tying her up would prove another desperate bit of boat handling. But it went.

The story continues - notes of the further events

Crew mood at night. A bit tense. Next day, checking fuel. Spirits are high (until we met the first lock)

The Saltford lock - completely flooded. Sickening.

  1. Desperate turn
  2. Bridge hit
  3. Passing low bridge
  4. Desperate stop
  5. Desperate return and mooring - water constantly rising
  6. Escape into the canal system with panicing boaters
  7. Close to the end of it all - rope in screw, almost over a weir, Captain blows the whistle.

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