MONDAY 18TH JUNE 2012
I had for a year or more been seriously considering crossing the Wash in our narrow boat and it was Andrew Denny’s excellent article in a magazine last autumn, about 10 boats crossing the Wash from Wisbech to Boston, that spurred me on to make the necessary arrangements. The first thing to do was to recruit another boat and crew to accompany us on this venture and fortunately Judy and Don from N.B Agonoka were up for it. The next and without doubt the most important thing was to secure the services of a pilot and after an initial email and a phone call to Daryl Hill, who was the lead pilot of last year’s ten boats flotilla, he agreed to take us across on the 16th of June.
The forecast was correct, grey cloud and drizzle, but hardly any wind; that was the good part and I confirmed all of this as I poked my head out of the hatch at 6am on Monday the 18th June, atrocious storms had been battering the West coast and our booked passage for the Saturday was considered unwise, but sea conditions for Monday were looking good.
Mike the lock keeper, at Boston Grand Sluice, had said that both boats should be at the lock by 7am, as the timing for the ‘second level’ would be tight and he wanted us to be there, ready to go, in plenty of time. The tides were not very high and with a lot of fresh water coming downstream he couldn’t be sure of the timing, but it should be a little after 8am The sluice or as we canal folk usually refer to it, the lock, is just over 40ft long, so for canal boats to pass through, both the sea gates and the river gates have to be open at the same time and this can only happen when the water level on the tidal side is exactly ‘level’ as on the non tidal side of the river. This is a very short window of opportunity and would occur approximately 2½ hours after high tide and we would have an ebbing tide to assist us downstream and out to sea. Accordingly at 6.30 we slipped our mooring from the BW finger pontoons and headed down towards the lock and the famous Boston Stump.
Full of fuel, engines serviced and running well, charts of the Wash ready, emergency navigations lights attached and First Mate John and Dangerous Cargo Kim on board, we awaited Daryl’s arrival. The five flower tubs on the roof, which are normally in line astern were now in line abreast and had been strapped together to prevent them tipping overboard if things cut up rough. Doors and drawers were gaffer taped to prevent them suddenly opening and discharging their contents, shelves were cleared, their contents placed on the bed and life jackets donned, including the dogs, we were as ready as we would ever be.
Daryl appeared promptly at 7am, his dry sense of humour was immediately apparent and we knew we would have a good day, despite being disappointed when told it might not be possible to beach the boats for a picnic, which we all thought would be the highlight of the trip. At 8.38 the lock gates started to open and as the lights turned green Angonoka, with Daryl relaxing onboard, took the lead through the lock and we followed on down the windy river, passing the many rotting hulks and then a large coaster reminded us that we really were heading for the open sea. Duggie was looking bored until we passed the buoy marking the junction of the River Witham and the Welland and Skyy started to gently rise and fall to the incoming swell a motion that Duggie was not used to.
We followed the buoys, green cones to port side and red cans to starboard; it was a bit like joining the dots, but not quite touching. The cans were lettered from F to A or Foxtrot to Alpha and at Delta can we start to change direction from North East to South East. Roger Sand on our starboard side was exposed and we saw our first seals. After we passed Alpha can, we headed out towards Boston Roads Buoy and the boats began to pitch a little and Duggie now looked a bit sorry for himself, but as we turned south at Boston Roads the motion eased and we were again heading back towards land. There was still a lot of open water before I spotted RAF 7 buoy. I needn’t had worried, Daryl knew exactly where he was instructing Don to point Agonoka and we just followed along. The rain had stopped and at times blue sky was seen, but not for long.
We were making good progress and had been on the move for nearly five hours, when huge red banners were visible on the sands on our starboard side, when we consulted the chart we saw that this is the Holbeach Firing Practice Area and a nearby wreck was obviously used by the RAF for target practice, the red signs indicated the range was in use but this didn’t stop Daryl instructing Don to drive Angonoko up onto the sand, naturally we followed. Many seals slid into the sea and swam around to eyeball us whilst we climbed down our ladders, deployed our anchor for the very first time and handed down the dogs. They chased each other excitedly around the sand whilst the girls opened a bottle of bubbly and the guys quenched their thirst with beer, wriggling our toes in the damp sand. Daryl assured us that our presence would have been noted from a distant control tower and no planes would be coming our way, but just as the sun broke through the boats started to swing as the tide turned and there was no time for a beach picnic, but no matter. The boats were backed off the beach to deeper water, Angonoka’s anchor was thrown out and we moved alongside, breasted up and enjoyed a lovely lunch whilst Daryl entertained us with plenty of anecdotes and a fast fisheries protection vessel kept its watchful eye on us.
The sun was shining brightly now and would do so for the last part of our journey, the incoming tide would help push us up the River Nene to Wisbech. Daryl, thought it would be a good idea to stay breasted up (tied side to side), as mooring at the yacht harbour can be tricky, the lines were tightened and the anchor recovered, initially the boats jostled against one another, but as the entrance to the river became more confined the boats moved together as one. Suddenly the air was rent as a jet fighter screamed overhead on its way to the firing range and many more followed as we moved on. Navigating from one buoy to another was much more difficult as the incoming sea kept pushing the boats sideways, and it was here that Daryl’s vast experience paid off, with instructions such as “keep that buoy lined up with the centre of that island”, followed up “well it’s not that critical” as I was obviously making hard work of it, but it all came right in the end. The green cones were now on our starboard and the red cans on the port side.
There were several boats moored nearby, all involved in laying high tension electricity cables to connect to shore the new wind farm which we had seen far out in the Wash and a strange looking trenching machine up on the mud, as we approached the two unofficial lighthouses at the entrance to the river. Just before Sutton Swing Bridge Daryl pointed out one of his several offices; the Pilot Boat. His proper job is skippering this boat taking the pilots out to bring in the coastal boats to Boston, Wisbech and Kings Lynn ports, no wonder he knows these waters so well.
Just five miles of fairly straight river to go before we would arrive in Wisbech and our adventure would be over. All too soon the pontoons of the Yacht Harbour came into view and Daryl started to swing the boats 180 deg. With one boat’s engines astern and the other forward, just like a twin engine cruiser, he accomplished this very neatly despite the fast flowing water coming up behind us. He now very gradually let the boats float backwards pushed by the current, controlling our arrival at the pontoon by deftly manipulating the throttles. At 6p.m with the ropes secured, we were surprised to learn from Daryl that only five to twenty narrow boats a year make this crossing and that we can therefore consider ourselves to be part of an elite group. We settled our dues and said farewell to Daryl thanking him for a great day.
In conclusion, anybody looking for a little extra excitement, should consider this, as it was nowhere near as challenging as we thought it might have been, but Daryl is essential.