Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Bristol to Portishead


"Mike's locking out of Bristol Harbour at 0415 tomorrow!"

This was Suzanne, my narrowboat-living friend, calling from somewhere on the Kennet and Avon. She'd met Mike as he travelled westward, and they'd shared their plans for making the alarming trip between Bristol and Sharpness, which allows canal boats to connect with the inland waterways up into the Midlands, without having to return along the liberally-locked K&A. Suzanne had offered to go along with Mike, as he was worried about sailing single-handed. And I'd offered to go along too. Suddenly, it was going to happen, and sooner than expected.

"You'd better come over and stay here, and we can go down to the harbor together."



At 0330, Cumberland Basin and the stilled streets of Clifton above echoed with blackbird song. We walked around to Baltic Wharf, where the low rumble of a diesel and a moving light showed that Mike was up and about, and preparing for departure. From the balcony of an apartment block on the adjacent quay, Queen's Don't Stop Me Now was blasting out past the two young women who were shrieking at each other in the accent of the Entitled Middle Class.

"So you didn't get much sleep then, Mike?"

"They've only just started playing the music. They've just been screaming at each other all night. ...no, I didn't get any sleep. Neighbours must love them. There's lifejackets in the cabin."

We came onboard. Black Rose is a widebeam boat, and Mike's home. It looked very spacious inside after Suzanne's narrowboat.  I threw my bag into a corner and struggled into the lifejacket harness. Casting off, we trundled under the swing bridge and across the basin to the open lock gates. As we made fast, someone emerged from the lock keepers' house and wandered over.

"You were quiet! I'd have helped if I'd known. Good morning! Beautiful morning, isn't it? A yacht to come yet; they'll be swinging the bridge in a minute."

The waning crescent moon rose beyond the flyover. The great swing bridge rumbled into life and swung round in a surprisingly agile way. And along came the little yacht that would be going downriver with us.


We dropped about a metre and a half in the lock, and then the gates clanked open and we were away. The yachties announced that they were heading for Portishead too. 

"You'd better go first," said Mike; "You're bound to be faster. I'll follow you."

"Some advice I was given years ago when I started sailing," said the yacht's helmsman. "Don't follow another boat; they may be on the sand already. Stick to the outside of the bends," he added; "That's where the deep water is."


The dawn chorus was going at full blast in Leigh Woods as we passed under the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Mike kept his eye on the masthead light of the yacht ahead and tried not to worry.

"There's tea and coffee in the flasks," he said. It was welcome; the air was chill now, and I wished I'd brought my parka.

I dug out the beef sandwiches. "Sandwich?"

"No thanks; I'm not feeling hungry just now."

Passing Sea Mills we saw a great bank of mist across the river ahead, obscuring Shirehampton and the Horseshoe Bend. The yacht disappeared into it; we could on;y just make out their masthead light.

"Oh dear, that's a worry. Hope it's not like that out on the Channel."

I got my pocket compass out and set it to the bearing for Portishead from Avonmouth pierhead. "Just in case," I said, hoping fervently that we wouldn't need to rely on it.


Round Horseshoe Bend, the mist thinned and we emerged into a clear bright sunrise. There ahead was the M5 bridge, and it was time to call the Avonmouth harbourmaster to alert them to our passage, and ask for a traffic report. Mike tried and failed to get through on the VHF radio that he'd recently bought; so he called on his mobile.



"There's a car carrier coming into Portbury," he said. "Something to watch out for."

We stuck close to the long pier, and followed the yacht out further still, to be sure to clear the shallow water and mudbanks that lurked under it inshore on the other side of the Avon's mouth. There was now a great deal of water all around us, and it was beautifully calm.


The car transporter appeared round Battery Point.

"Ugly beast, isn't it? The yacht's going right out, round that buoy. Don't want to get too close to the big boat."

We followed them, going way out, then swung round and ran down channel, passing the car carrier that was edging slowly towards Portbury. We found Portishead Marina on the VHF. They told us that there were some boats coming out, and that we should wait off the pier, and enter the lock at 0715. 

We approached the Denny Shoal buoy surprisingly quickly. "There's quite an ebb running already! Maybe we should head for the pier?"

Coming around, and with the bow pointed at Avonmouth, we crabbed across the King Road towards the pierhead. Rather too slowly; the VHF burst into life and advised us that they would have to close up for the next batch of outbound boats if we didn't arrive in five minutes.

We didn't. So we hove around for half an hour instead, watching the mudbanks emerge from the ebbing tide.




Portishead lock was very civilised, with a pontoon to make fast to.

Mike had a pilot booked for the afternoon flood tide for the next leg of his journey, to Sharpness. We wished him good luck, and wandered into the town to find a bus back to Bristol.

It being a bank holiday, of course, there weren't any buses.

"Let's hitch", said Suzanne."I've got my lifejacket on; someone will see that we're stranded, and rescue us."

We stood there waving thumbs hopefully at the occasional passing car. Rescue was not forthcoming.

"Stuff this; let's get a taxi," I said.

So we did.