Day 48: up the Big Ditch, avoiding huge ships

August 22nd, 2010

We got up early, having been warned by the lock-keeper at Dutton that his colleagues would probably arrive early to operate the lock for us. True to form, they arrived just after 8am. Weston Marsh Lock has seen better days, and the chain drive to the top gates has broken, so the poor BW guys drag it open with a Tirfor portable winch and a steel cable. We locked down, and I called the Ship Canal’s control office at Eastham on the radio. Much to my surprise, they answered (my radio’s only a little 5W handheld and we were very low to the ground) and said that we were clear to go. They also wrong-footed me by asking for an ETA at Latchford Locks, and I fumbled with the charts and guessed 2 hours time.

Then the gates were opened and off we went into the massive basin formed by the junction of the Weaver with the Ship Canal. Keeping in the marked channel was easy enough, and a line of bright yellow buoys showed that we needed to keep clear of the sluices that let the Weaver out into the Mersey beyond. Once everything calmed down, it became clear that the MSC was going to be fine – it was a clear, sunny, calm day, the canal was wide but not enormous (it’s no bigger than the Thames) and everyone was helpful. We passed Runcorn Docks and saw two ships: a smaller craft being loaded with salt and a larger tanker, the Stolt Kittiwake, both safely moored up at the quay. Beyond Runcorn the canal becomes very quiet – just embankments covered in brambles – until we arrived at Latchford Locks in Warrington.

Locks on the MSC are paired – one very large lock and one smaller one – but at Latchford and the other locks we were directed to the ship lock. The locks do have intermediate gates to save a bit of water though! The lock walls are very high – at least 5m above water level – and it’s quite hard to see what’s going on up top as you maneuver. We stopped where we were directed, and the lock-keepers let down ropes to us at both ends – we tied on our special 50′ ropes and they pulled them up. Then another vessel came in behind us – the MSC Company’s maintenance boat “Buffalo”. Being regulars, they didn’t tie up, just bobbed around in the lock about 20m behind us, with the occasional burst of engine power to keep them in place. The locks fill very gently – after all, you wouldn’t want to bounce a seagoing ship around – and from the side, much as the 1930s Grand Union locks do. The gates, interestingly, are powered by the original water-hydraulic system much beloved of Victorian engineers, so the whole thing operates in total silence – the electric motors pumping the water are hidden away in the accumulator towers, so the gates open and close absolutely silently.

What surprised me is that we attracted a crowd. Latchford Lock, despite being part of a still-working port, is a public place. People cross the lock-gates and sluices on foot and on bikes, and stand around on the lockside just as they would in a smaller canal. A guy on a bike chatted to me, turned out he owned a boat on the Bridgewater canal but had never yet seen a narrowboat on the Ship Canal…

Buffalo called us on the radio – could they pass us? Yes, no problem – they left us for dust while we were still tied up. On we went to the next locks at Irlam, passing through the petrochemicals berth at Partington, where you have to turn off all your gas appliances, and admiring the rather fine graffiti. Crews have painted their vessels’ names on the piers, and in the middle of one is a much older slogan saying “God Bless our Sovereign”!

As we approached Irlam locks we passed Buffalo tied up at the wharf (having lunch) and then the radio crackled into life – Buffalo’s master was calling another vessel (“Daisy”) saying “we’ve got the narrowboat, they’re just passing us”. We caught a glimpse of something big-ish, presumably Daisy, as the lock gates closed – they turned around and went back towards Partington- and further research has revealed that there’s a pusher tug called “Daisy Dorado” that operates the ship canal’s container shuttle barge between Irlam to Liverpool, carrying wine for Tesco amongst other cargoes.

The next stretch, from Irlam to Barton is again pretty quiet, though we did see the remains of various wharves, including those that were once used to load Manchester’s sewage sludge into barges for dumping in the Irish Sea before that practice became illegal. Eastham said that there was no traffic above Irlam today so we didn’t have to worry about meeting other vessels.

Beyond Barton you start getting into the urban area, passing under the M60 and then shortly under the famous Swing Aqueduct. Sadly, there wasn’t a narrowboat on it to wave to at the time, though we did see one crossing it later!

Around the final bend towards Manchester and we pass the wharves used for cereals, cement and scrap metal, and finally to Mode Wheel Locks, who weren’t ready for us. I held Innocenti carefully against the large pier below the lock while they let the water out for us. Once through the lock, we suddenly went through an invisible dividing line which separates the scruffy-and-still-working canal and docks from the shiny and regenerated Salford Quays. We nipped round No 9 Dock to look at the new Media City building site (the new BBC Manchester buildings) and then the phone rang – it was a guy called Eric, who would operate the final lock of the day. We bid farewell to the Ship Canal and locked up through Pomona Lock into the Bridgewater Canal, which felt very small by comparison! We went on and moored at Castlefield and played hunt-the-water-point (for my future reference, there are two water points at Castlefield – one on the left just under the railway viaduct where you can’t see it, and one more awkwardly on the right next to the line of moored residential boats and the locked swing bridge).

A good day all round. I would say to my fellow boaters that the Manchester Ship Canal is well worth a visit, and that the complexities and costs shouldn’t put you off. The full details of the preparatory work is in my previous post, but here are a few hints:

  • Get a VHF radio, even if it’s only to listen to – you can at least hear the other traffic talking to Eastham. To maintain full VHF contact with Eastham you will, however, need a proper vessel-mounted radio – the range isn’t far enough on a handheld. The locks have radio in their offices, but only at Latchford did the lock respond to my VHF call – the locky had a portable on his belt.
  • If it’s a nice day, tape the Admiralty chart to the cabin roof with masking tape so you can read it easily. If you’re feeling efficient, plot your position on it every hour, just like a real ship would do!
  • The IWA’s navigation notes are quite out-of-date now, though they contain some useful hints. You should ignore everything anyone tells you about needing to throw a rope up to the lock-keepers, though – they’ll let a line down to you, which is much easier
  • On the subject of ropes, longer is definitely better. The minimum is fifty feet (15m), but we had 20m at both ends and still the lock-keepers had issues attaching to their bollards in some of the locks. If I did it again I’d be tempted to bend the long rope onto my existing mooring ropes to gain a bit of extra slack.
  • The locks fill gently and have very smooth brick walls. You don’t need to worry about being thrown around by the currents
  • It is expensive. The ship canal costs £125, plus £22 for Pomona Lock if your boat isn’t Bridgewater registered. The Admiralty charts are £21.50, plus postage. A survey should cost £30. All told, I spent a shade over £200, including buying a second long rope as I already had one.
  • Wear lifejackets, not least because it gives the impression to the MSC staff that you’re taking it seriously. Interestingly, MSC lockies don’t wear lifejackets, though BW and EA ones do…
  • Everyone is very helpful, so don’t worry about dealing with jobsworths or or being intimidated by commercial traffic. Eastham will hold you up if they’re expecting something really big, so the odds of meeting anything bigger than Buffalo or a Mersey Ferry are pretty small.

Day 48: Weston Marsh Lock to Castlefield, 29 miles and 6 locks.

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