Issue Eleven Autumn/Winter 2008.
How Not To!
How NOT to Arrive at Hull!
Athaena* was back in the water after an overhaul.
(* www.eventides.org.uk , Newsletter No 9, click on "Athaena".)
From Nottingham, the way to the sea was down the Trent with the mast on the coach roof, by canal and then by river. The scenery was beautiful and passing directly below Newark castle was very impressive. The locks were very smart and the lock keepers helpful. The surprising thing was that there were so few other boats; imagine the middle Thames, but all to yourself.
Below Cromwell lock the river is tidal and more serious. I was on my own. Athaena is a small sailing boat, flat out at 5 knots. Another long day led to Torksey. The lock keeper advised me how to tackle the next leg to Keadby: get underway at dawn to catch the ebb down to Gainsborough; tie onto the wall there before the flood tide started to run against me. I also had the excellent instructions from the Boating Association. These confirmed the seriousness of the river, the speed of the tidal streams, the dangers from the large high speed barges and the presence of large tree trunks which have been going up and down this stretch with the tides for years.
The plan worked. There is now a pontoon at Gainsborough alongside the otherwise forbidding high walls. The flood had started and I had one chance to come alongside and secure single-handedly. I rigged warps and springs and watched as they strained against the current. High speed cruisers and working barges went close past heading up stream at speed. I made breakfast and had a few hours rest.
As soon as the flood had eased sufficiently for me to make progress, I set off for Keadby. I had heard much about the lower river: the shallows; the difficulties of getting into or out of Keadby lock with the river galloping past the entrance; the difficult navigation to find the channel in the lower section and the ominous sounding Trent Falls where it flows into the Humber. Many bound from the Trent to the Ouse take the alternative inland waterways rather than face "The Falls". The advice had been to lock in to Keadby and stay overnight. It was advice I should have taken.
At the bridge of the M180 motorway I telephoned the lock keeper; he would be ready. I passed under the last bridge and into the "pool" of Keadby, a commercial port with many large sea going cargo ships alongside. However, there were still many hours of daylight left. The tide was low and the water slack. The depth would be minimum but Athaena only drew 3 feet and the channel would be easier to spot at low water. I made a quick, late decision to carry on and used the handheld VHF to inform the lock keeper. I had departed from the advice and the plan. Perhaps I should have read more into the lock keeper’s guarded response of "Well, if you are sure".
The first part worked. It was complicated to navigate but the sandbanks were showing and the instructions were clear, the transit marks worked and the line of the deeper flowing water was visible on the surface of the otherwise slack water. The ancient depth sounder (red circulating neon lights) was difficult to read but it had worked earlier. Maybe it was the silt in the thick brown water. The junction with the Ouse, marked by its lighthouse, and the start of the Humber estuary were very impressive. After days of being confined by river banks suddenly all was wide open, atmospheric and just a bit daunting. Not for the first time on this trip I thought "Why is there no-one else here?!" I looked at the sheltered water behind Whitton Island and considered anchoring and taking stock. However, I was now down to the sea, sort of. There were the red buoys stretching ahead. I had a chart, albeit one covering a large area but it clearly showed the shipping channel which below Brough crossed over from the south to the north bank. Follow the buoys, Hull marina by dark….
With hindsight, I had been concentrating exclusively on the difficulties of the Trent. With the late change of plan, I had not prepared properly for the Humber. If I had stopped at Keadby, I would have prepared the tidal heights and tidal streams information. I could have delayed a day and taken a bus to Goole to buy the latest edition of the large scale chart of the upper Humber, which is corrected and republished regularly when the channel changes and the buoys are moved. I could have taken local advice, prepared a plan and then have chosen my time of departure accordingly. I might have checked the depth sounder.
I might even have been able to look at the internet and read the following:
"Welcome to Humber Rescue – one of Britain’s busiest independent lifeboats.
The River Humber is said to be one of the most dangerous navigable rivers in the world. It is not surprising that even the most experienced of navigators can be caught out by its shifting sands and seven knot currents.
Humber Rescue is an independent charity responsible for the provision of a fast-response rescue boat on the rivers of the Humber Estuary.
Prior to the service provided by Humber Rescue there was no dedicated rescue or safety vessel on the upper Humbr. The area covered by Humber Rescue is approximately 540 sq miles and includes the Rivers Trent, Ouse, Hull and Humber."
If I had done so then maybe I would not have met the men in the white helmets ...
Below Brough I looked for the channel close to the north bank. It wasn’t marked and I paused. Although the engine was in neutral, the current was moving us swiftly, but not in the direction that I would have expected for the new flood tide. We were going across the estuary towards a line of waves. We went aground, gently but firmly, not far from a red light float. "Oh Dear!" (Actually, B word … )
Never mind, Athaena is designed to take the ground. No water leaking in and apparently no damage done. Anchor out and kettle on. Record the position on the GPS and put it on the chart. Now I could see how the buoys were laid out and work out the channel, but why was the depth sounder still showing sufficient depth?
As I gathered my scattered wits it occurred to me that technically I was in the shipping channel. Although I hoped to float off, if anything again went awry, was I a potential obstacle to those big ships waiting to come down from Keadby on the tide? Should I inform anyone? It had been a long day. I was a bit harassed and perhaps not thinking things through. With hindsight (how many times must I use that word?) I could and probably should have waited. However, I tried the hand held VHF; nothing heard. I then rang the Coastguard on the mobile. (Again with hindsight, a mistake. If needed to inform anyone it should have been Humber VTS which controls the shipping.) To the nice sounding lady I explained the situation and how I had made a nonsense of the navigation. I stated that I hoped to float off soon. I explained that I was using a mobile because I didn’t have a VHF aerial because the mast was down. I told her that I would ring hourly to update them.
After forty minutes or so I did float off. By the time I had the anchor up it was almost an hour. I spoke to the Coastguard and explained that I was afloat and was underway towards the Humber bridge. The Coastguard heard me out and then told me that "Humber Rescue is on its way"! "Oh Dear!" (Actually, worse than B … ) I did say that I didn’t need rescuing but at that stage it was too late.
When I saw the rescue RIB it was in the north channel and couldn’t get across to me. I spoke to them on the handheld VHF. By the time they were alongside me I was at the Humber Bridge. We talked. I found out that they had been paged at home and had scrambled to their lifeboat station at Hessle. I felt even worse about the situation. They stayed alongside but, with a five knot boat speed and four knots of tide against, I was making only one knot over the ground. It was going to take a long time to motor to Hull and they made it clear that they had no intention of leaving me until I got there. Eventually I said that, although I would not request a tow, if they wished to offer me one I would accept it in order to allow them to get back home as quickly as possible. This was considered to be an excellent idea, not because they actually wanted to go home (they were clearly much happier out on a "shout" than at home) but because they had a novice on board and this would be an opportunity to train him on transferring to a "casualty" and organising a tow.
A young man was put aboard. I organised warps from the Samson post around the cabin to spread the load. The tow was secured and Athaena recorded eight knots over the ground, perhaps 12 knots through the water. I kept the engine running because I hoped it would stop sea water going up the exhaust on the transom which was well below the water level.
The rescue crew were very kind and to minimise my immediate embarrassment, I think, dropped the tow outside the entrance to the marina holding bay.
Of course I was and am embarrassed by the incident. I do, however, try not to feel too ashamed, although I should feel ashamed that I did not plan and prepare properly. If I had done so then I could and should have avoided the problem.
The echo sounder? One of the last overhaul jobs had been to replace the teak floorboards. I did this after the echo sounder tested OK. I must have knocked the connection between the sender and the lead and damaged the electrical screening sheath which resulted in an intermittent connection. When it wasn’t working I convinced myself that the fuzzy collection of red dots was actually a reading.
The "rescue" is recorded at www.humberrescue.org.uk Serial 68 on 18/08/07. The report has a certain amount of "fog of war". Athaena is not a cabin cruiser. I did not request a rescue. She was not "dis-masted" as was reported on the radio.
However, I cannot argue with the Coastguard’s decision to call out Humber Rescue. The Coastguard operate from Bridlington many miles away. They do not have a detailed responsibility for the upper Humber. Indeed in these days of electronic charts, they may not have immediate access to the latest detailed charts. (When I later installed a chart plotter it was interesting to approach the Humber Bridge from seaward and note that above the bridge the electronic charting is almost blank and very much of the "Here be dragons" variety.)
I am of course very grateful to Humber Rescue for turning out and was very impressed by what they did. I am happy if the rescue that wasn’t actually required provided some useful training. At any time in the future I may really require their help and would like them to be as well trained as possible.
You might like to make a donation to Humber Rescue. I have!