Time and Tide

“Experience teaches much, and teaches it sharply.”
Sir Francis Youngblood

The Trent at Gainsborough

The Trent at Gainsborough

“My boat was about as ready as it could be for the arduous journey from Derby to Leeds. It’s an old boat, built in 1985 by Stoke on Trent boat builders. My friend Mike helped me to buy the tub and commented on the “beautiful lines” and “interesting fit out”. As a rank amateur I had no concept of boat styling but trusted his discerning eye, and since then have come to appreciate his guidance as my boat is certainly pretty, if a little rough around the edges. I like to think that we have at least this in common. Over the last three years I have overhauled most of the systems on the boat, the plumbing and toilet system, electrics, gas and some of the engine have all been fine tuned and by the end of March there was nothing left to fix. It was the fist time that everything on the boat actually worked properly. We were as ready as we were ever going to be.

The first few days were plain sailing so to speak, on the easy and familiar Erewash Canal heading south towards the River Trent. I’d been warned that the Trent could be a little hairy in places, being tidal and cutting through wide expanses of flat country, allowing the wind to barge my boat in any direction it fancied. I was typically unfazed by the warnings, feeling I had enough boating experience and a decent amount of tidal river experience to boot, having done part of The Thames on a couple of occasions. Don’t get me wrong, I took heed of the advice I was offered and had spoken with a couple of Trent Boating Veterans at length; but ultimately I felt I was ready and by the time the big turn east onto the Trent appeared I was basking in the spring sun and enjoying the experience thoroughly. It would be two more days until I reached the tidal part of the river. Had I known then what was to come I may have been less cocky.

The tidal part of the Trent begins just North of Newark at Cromwell Lock. I’d booked my passage through the lock by phone the day before, and had a chat with the Lockie as my boat through. He was quite a typical Boat Folk kind of character, forthright and experienced with a tale to tell. As the water level dropped he waved me off and opened the lock gates for my entry onto the tidal Trent. It was less than 24 hours later that it all started to go wrong. Seriously, seriously wrong.

My boat is my home and I’m not dumb enough to risk it all on some stupid joyride. I’d done my research, I’d done my preparation and I was confident enough in my ability. There was risk, but I felt more than up to the task. Any investor will tell you that without risk there is no reward. I live my life by that philosophy and I’ve done OK thank you very much. So please don’t read this story and think “Oh here goes tonyreptiles on another crazy adventure.” I assure you that despite my tendency to find myself in interesting situations, I would certainly have foregone the telling of this particular story if ever it had been possible. But this time, things were completely out of my control.

I’d worked out that I’d have around two days of serious cruising on the tidal Trent if the tides worked in my favour, otherwise I’d sit it out on one of the few moorings available on the river and wait for the tides to time themselves nicely for my schedule. The Trent is a horrible, if not impossible place to moor at bank-side given the severity of the tides. A beautiful high tide mooring becomes an ugly slope of steep mud banks at low tide and the Trent seems to slip between them both with some ferocity. This didn’t worry me however as I had planned my journey to include stop offs at the convenient and safe floating pontoons, which were provided by British Waterways at brilliantly convenient intervals. These floating pontoons do exactly what it says on the tin, rising and falling with the tide, the only downside being the noise they make as the decking walkways slide up and down upright steel girders. Sanctuary indeed. Having completed day one of the Tidal Trent without any disasters I spent a night at Torksey Lock on their floaters before setting off with the tide the next day, headed for the safety at the canals at Keadby.

By this point in the journey I’d about had my fill of the Trent and its flat, uninteresting landscape. There really is not much to see once you’ve had enough of fields and the occasional hint of a town. A place is truly boring when the series of power stations and cooling towers are the only breaks in the horizon. By the time we approached Gainsborough it was 15.30hrs and I was looking forward to seeing the entrance to the Keadby Canal. I was tired, hungry, bored and cold and probably another three verses of Kum By Yah as well. I rounded another sharp bend and the cooling towers of a third power station came into view. I remember wondering if the steam turns to rain as it leaves the towers, and if that meant it was always raining around power stations. My amateur physics and meteorology musings came to an abrupt halt, at precisely the same moment as my engine. My mind took a second to realise that my worst fears had come true, and I had lost power on the Tidal Trent. It took another few seconds before I’d fully appreciate the world of shit I now found myself in. I gathered myself, chose my most favoured and trusted swear word, and shouted it loud and shrill into the wind.

I knew that this was NOT GOOD.

Whilst on tidal rivers it is recommended that boats carry an anchor; mine was bought in the first week of boat ownership and had yet to see active service. As my boat drifted slowly with the current I looked to my anchor, desperately trying to decide if I should chuck it in. I was in two minds as to the best thing to do; if left to drift my boat could end up anywhere, but if anchored in the middle of the river we were reliant on other people to save us. In the end, three factors made me decide to drift without dropping anchor. Firstly, I wanted to be able to get ashore if I needed to, as by now I suspected the problem was fuel related. Secondly, the season was still young and there were few vessels cruising the river. And thirdly, I couldn’t help resenting that if deployed the anchor was essentially lost as retrieving them is a bit of a lottery. That anchor system had cost me over a hundred quid and I was damned if I was going to lose it unless absolutely necessary. I decided to see where I drifted.

Eventually we came close enough to land for me to jump ashore, getting my feet only slightly wet. We were already pointing the other way and so ran my bow line to the base of a small tree which over hung the water. I drove in two large mooring pins, having to relocate them several times as the bank was about as firm as porridge in places, but eventually I managed to tie my spare ropes together and lash bow and stern to a couple of reasonably secure mooring pins whilst running a midline to a more stable stump in a fence around the riverside field. I felt the fence was the strongest mooring and was thankful for its presence; the mooring pins were ropey to say the least and I didn’t trust them one bit. I congratulated myself on my small victory and stood on the bank trying to work out where it had all gone wrong.

As I said, I suspected a fuel issue based on the noises the engine made just before it cut out. On dipping my diesel tank it became clear that I had very little fuel, probably not enough to get sucked into the pump. This puzzled me as I had filled up before I left and I know what kind of distance my boat can do on a full tank, and we were nowhere near that distance. Clearly I was using or losing diesel and when it ran out, so did my engine. Scouring the map I located the nearest road and set off across the fields in search of a petrol station. I wasn’t happy leaving my boat but given that there was not much traffic on the river it was unlikely that help would come. I felt that if I could get some diesel I could at least get to Gainsborough Moorings, a mere mile away according to my waterways map. It took me an hour and a half to get across the fields and get back with 20 litres of diesel. By now it was approaching 17.30hrs and the tide was starting to drop. Darkness was only a few hours away and I had to work fast.

I knew that there was a chance that despite topping up the fuel, I may need to bleed the fuel line before I could start the engine. I wasn’t wrong. After numerous attempts to start, my boat was having none of it and I was concerned about using all of my battery power on starting attempts. Besides; by now I had an even bigger problem. The tide was going out and the water level was dropping. There was already more of the bank visible and the bow of my boat was nestling comfortably in the mud. I had no idea how low the river would go and how around I was going to be or how steep the slope was. The risk of tipping was pretty high and if I was going to run aground I needed to make sure I was aground as safely as possible. I spent the next hour hauling on ropes and pushing with the pole, trying to get the boat as stable as possible. We ended up with the bow aground at the end of the longest rope I could make, trying to keep at least some of the boat in the water in an attempt to keep my rudder and stern gear wet. The last thing I needed was a bent and muddy rudder.

The water appeared to have levelled off and by this time I was absolutely exhausted. Trying to fight the tide is hard work and there is very little victory to be had. In fact, I think if I had just left the tide and the boat to do their own thing I’d have likely ended up in pretty much the same position and not exhausted myself at all. As it stood my boat was at around 30 degrees nose to tail and at a jaunty angle side to side, making walking along the length quite a mission indeed. Having achieved a degree of stability I turned my attention back to my engine and set about bleeding the fuel line. Within the hour the job was done and my engine was purring like a kitten. (And, if you have ever heard an old Leyland Diesel 1.5 BMC, you’ll be smiling right now.)

But we weren’t out of the woods yet. We still had the issue of being aground and the tide to deal with. I couldn’t set off until the tide came in, which wouldn’t be until midnight. The lack of civilisation on the banks of the Trent meant that it would be difficult to see where I was going as there are no buildings or street lights to use as bank markers. As darkness fell I checked how useful my navigation floodlight would be and decided that it was better to rely on the sheen of moonlight on the river than to expect my pupils to adjust between the bright flood-light and the pitch blackness of the night. I spent the next hour making the boat ready for the float. My pockets were bulging with stuff that really should have been in a utility belt, blade, adjustable spanner, head torch, Jaffa Cakes and my mobile phone. (I had switched my phone off earlier that afternoon to preserve the last of the battery that remained considering there was no way of charging it again once dead.) My engine was running and my Jaffa Cakes were long gone by the time my boat finally floated off the mud bank and I cut the last mooring rope. It was about an hour to Gainsborough Moorings against the current and I was more or less home and dry. I laughed to myself a little as I pushed the throttle and revved the engine to fight the tide. It chugged sweetly out into the middle of the Trent and I was pleased to see the glimmer of moonlight illuminating the line of the river.

Then the engine cut out again.

I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t disappointed. I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself at all. I’m trying to think of a word to describe my feelings and my behaviour as the realisation of what had happened dawned on me. I can only describe it as a blind rage, filling my body with adrenaline and testosterone. I know what it feels like but I can’t describe it, but I remember it from my years of boxing. There is no rationale, or style, or control or anything except the urge to fight. My eyes were wide and I could hear my rabid screaming echoing across the fields. My half drunk mug of coffee smashed off the front of the boat as I hurled it indiscriminately and I’ll need a new casing for my electrics panel. It was a while before my throbbing and bleeding hand nudged me back to consciousness and I could see the bank was approaching again. By the time my bow hit the mud and I stepped onto the bank I was in “deal with it mode” again as I lashed another midline to the exact same fence post it had been fixed to earlier. Once back on the boat I knew that coffee was not going to touch it and so made straight for the JD. A couple of those steadied my nerves and focussed me on the task I knew lay ahead. I had four hours or so until the tide went out and then I would be aground again. I remembered how exhausted I was after the last attempt and knew that this time it would be even more dangerous as it was dark; and as if to really put the cream on the cake, I noticed that it had started to rain and my hopes that it would be a short shower were unfortunately in vain.

04.00hrs found me in the mud up to my ankles wrestling with the bow of my 50 foot narrowboat. It was a futile effort as it weighs around 12 tons and unless it is floating it is about as manoeuvrable as a building. As the front ran aground and stuck fast I had only the stern left to deal with. The rain and hail battered my face, my hands ached with cold as I wrestled with the freezing wet ropes trying to drag the stern to safety and away from the mud. With no engine power and a current to fight against I felt pathetic and weak as each haul gained me only a meagre success, and all the time the current would fight against me to regain ground, despite my screaming, back breaking best attempts. I could feel the rage rising again and even my reminiscence of the old Incredible Hulk scenes did nothing to change my mood as rain trickled down my face. I’ve never sworn so much as I did over those hours as I was soaked to the skin, freezing cold and frightened to my very marrow. I cried. For most of the time out there I was crying; a mixture of fear and sorrow and rage left my eyes stinging and my throat raw from screaming.

Eventually, when the water was still and my boat stopped moving I decided I should rest. As if to prove its superiority I noticed that the Trent had left my boat at an even steeper angle than it had been earlier, the nose high on the bank with enough space to crawl under my hull on the mudflats, should I have so wished. I didn’t get aboard immediately but sat on the bank on the wet grass looking at the glassy stillness of the water below and the occasional dark cloud sweeping past the moon in an otherwise crisply clear sky above. The rain had stopped, the tide was out and I was left on the bank, wasted and beaten as the Trent continued on its way leaving me spent in the wake of my impotent fury.

The next morning I’d managed to get a few minutes of sleep snatched here and there. There was little else for me to do as nothing could happen before the tide rose and lifted me off the muddy banks. By now I had dispensed of all pride and knew that I was out of my depth. I’d bled the fuel line several times by this point but the engine would cut out each time I pushed the throttle and got some revs. Whatever was wrong, I couldn’t fix it and so only a rescue would save me and my boat now. I gave the Lock Keeper at Cromwell a few minutes to settle with a cup of tea before calling him at 06.45 to tell him about my situation, hoping that he had some way of saving me. My abridged version of events left him chuckling nervously as he told me I must have had “quite a night”. I agreed that I had, and asked him what could be done. Apparently I was in luck as there were two narrowboats awaiting high tide to the north of me and could tow me to safety once my boat was afloat. The hours and minutes ticked slowly by as I awaited the 11.30am high tide.

Time is a relative thing. The last few minutes of a football match can drag by in slow motion for an underdog team with a 1-0 lead whereas two weeks of holiday time can fly past in an instant. The tides that had dragged me so swiftly into trouble the night before were taking their time to help me get afloat. I watched the shore line, trying to work out if the water was getting any higher, concentrating on small markers in the mud to ascertain any rising.

“When it reaches that footprint, I’ll know the tide is rising.”

“When that bit of bark starts to float it is coming up for sure.”

My phone was out of battery by now and the only timepiece I had was the clock on my wall in the galley. I’d run into the boat to check the hour, only to find the minutes ticking by painfully slowly. Despite the creeping slowness of the tide, everything I did was in a rush. I even became brave enough to make tea by making short frenzied dashes to the kettle and back, frantically worried I would miss the nose as it dislodged from the bank. Eventually the waters rose slowly and I waited for it to reach under my bow and lift me off to safety.

I didn’t worry at first when I saw the water in my bilges under the engine. I was not surprised in the slightest that some water had gotten there given the adventures of the night before. It wasn’t until the tide was well on its way up the bank that I noticed my prop shaft was now underwater, as was my gear box and bilge pump. The fatigue and tension were playing tricks with my reasoning as I looked into my engine bay, watching the water rise slowly over the ledge. I came round with a click of realisation and banged my head as I came out of the hatch at the back of my boat. My entire stern end was underwater and my exhaust pipes were now under the waterline too. I rushed into the boat to get something to stuff in the exhaust pipes to find the water was now halfway along my bedroom floor. Grabbing a couple of t-shirts from my wardrobe I splashed my way out onto the back deck and lay down in the rising water and leant over the side. Groping around underwater, I found the holes on the outside of my hull where the exhausts vented out and screwed t-shirts into the gaps as deep and as tight as I could. Next, I grabbed my laptop, my photo albums and my passport from my office and placed them at the front of the boat and away from the water, ready to chuck them onto the bank if necessary, before diving back into my flooded engine room. I didn’t stop to check if the influx had stopped but grabbed a jug and started bailing. I’d taken out a couple of scoops before I remembered my submersible bilge pump and bodge-wired it to my batteries. I figured there was no need to preserve battery power now as my engine would not be worth starting until the fuel issue had been sorted, not to mention the fact my engine was now full of water. With the bilge pump belching out water I turned back to bailing, frantically throwing water over the back of my boat, spilling most in my frenzied haste.

I tired quickly as I could only get access to the water filling my engine bilges with one arm. I snatched a few seconds rest before looking down and noticing the ledge which had previously been submerged was now just visible above the water line. I decided that swift but steadily methodical bailing would be far more energy efficient, considering my fatigue. I hadn’t eaten anything but a couple of Jaffa Cakes since lunch yesterday and I was delirious with lack of sleep and general exhaustion. My boat was sinking and all I could do was bail.

So I bailed.

Dunk, lift, splosh. Dunk, lift, splosh. Dunk, lift, splosh. Dunk, lift, splosh.

That was my entire focus for the next period of time. I don’t know how long it was exactly, probably about half an hour. Rescue was still over an hour away as the other boat made its way from West Stockwith Lock to me on the high tide. All I could do was bail and watch the tide rise. So I bailed. And I bailed. And I bailed.

Dunk, lift, splosh. Dunk, lift, splosh. Dunk, lift, splosh. Dunk, lift, splosh.

I heard the bilge pump groan to a stop in the background as the batteries finally flattened, but didn’t really pay much notice. I was busy bailing and my brain had kind of switched off. There was nothing else I could do, nothing else worth noticing. Only bailing would help. So I bailed.

Dunk, lift, splosh. Dunk, lift, splosh. Dunk, lift, splosh. Dunk, lift, splosh.

My arm was burning with lactic acid as my muscles strained to keep the rhythm I had set, which was luckily just about tolerable. Or perhaps I’d switched off so much that the pain message was not getting through to my brain. I was bailing. Bailing. Bailing. I saw the prop shaft emerge from the water and registered that it meant that no more water was getting in. I bailed faster, gritting my teeth and swearing. “I got you beat, you shit! I got you beat!” I didn’t care that my respect for the river was gone. I was past contempt for this river and its ugly, faceless landscape. I hated it. I hated it and I was going to beat it. I WAS beating it and I just had to keep on bailing. I bailed and bailed until the water in my engine room was so shallow that I could only get a mugful of water in the jug at each stroke. Dropping the jug I lifted my arm painfully out of the engine bay and looked out of the rear hatch at the riverbank opposite. It was horizontal. Stepping out onto my now dry back deck I scanned the panorama of landscape around me. I was afloat and out in the river, tied to the bank by my midline. My engine bay was only a couple of inches deep of water instead of a couple of feet and, despite the rain and wind, I was reasonably safe.

I waited another twenty minutes, shivering and wet in my soaking clothes, not bothering to go inside to change for fear of missing the rescue boat. It turned up, lashed me to it and pulled me to the safety of Torksey Lock, some hour or so away. Once there I stripped off my wet clothes and made a cup of tea, lying naked on my sofa, allowing the stove time to warm the room. I was in no hurry. No hurry at all. I was safe now and lay there motionless for the next few hours. Delerious. Weak. Lobotomised.

I was too tired to rush about anything, but eventually went in the shower and got dressed before calling to book an engineer to salvage my engine for the next day. Apparently there was a problem with the line to my fuel pump which was leaking diesel, meaning I eventually ran dry before I’d expected. The fault was also responsible for letting air into the line when the system was under pressure. This meant that each time I revved the engine it would suck in air and cut out, just like it did last night. We also managed to get all of the water out of my engine without damage and the whole sorry scenario cost me £110 and the collection of (now soggy) reptile magazines from the last 20 years, which I stored under my bed.

The engineer left a few hours ago now and I can’t do anything or go anywhere until high tide tomorrow. I’ve charged my phone and called a few people to let them know what happened and that I’m ok, but I haven’t managed to stop thinking about the last 48 hours and how it came about. I’m deliriously tired and I don’t even know if what I have written makes any sense. I’m not going to go back and edit anything because how it is here is how it is in my head. I can’t help thinking about tomorrow though, and how I have to face the Trent again. My rescuer was heading south when he picked me up and dropped me on a Lock back the way I came. Tomorrow I have to re-trace my course North, past the scene of last nights horrors and onwards to Gainsborough. I really can’t think about it right now but I’m going to spend some time getting my head straight, ready for the journey. I know now I can’t be anything but 100% if I’m going to make it and fear and dread have no place in my world tomorrow.”

First Published: The Motley Fool


~ by Tony's Desk on September 11, 2008.

3 Responses to “Time and Tide”

  1. Wow! What an experience – and what a wonderful piece of writing. That adrenaline / testosterone certainly brought out the best of your penmanship. If you’ve got any pictures (even just of the boat) I think you’d probably get it published in one of the canal magazines and reduce the financial pain of the experience.
    Hope the rest of the trip goes smoothly.

  2. Thanks John,

    Yes, the rest of the trip was relatively smooth.
    Thanks for your comment.


  3. did read it and fantastic writing, but the whole of the experience sounds just as frightening as I had thought it must have been

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