As promised, a report back from the 'Sharpness' end of the Gloucester and Sharpness canal, following a trip by myself and Mrs MikeP this bank holiday weekend.
The good news is that launching a SIB around the Purton area of the canal is both convenient and trivial; the bad news is my 20 year old plastic tea mug developed an unexpected hole, and most of my tea ended up on the airfloor.
Anyway, we left Bristol with some trepidation on Saturday - it being a bank holiday weekend and all - but with a fair wind we managed to dodge the fleets of caravans heading back up the M5 to Brum and managed a respectable 45 minutes from Bristol front door to Purton car park.
I'd selected Purton based on a Google Earth survey of the area, coupled with a Flickr peruse, and it seemed to me that the moorings there would offer an achievable launch and recovery zone for a small SIB. Open areas to inflate in, other boats around the place indicating an awareness of the use of the canal for leisure purposes, and - most importantly - no more than a foot or two's height between the water and the bank.
Here's the overview:-
And here's the specifics:-
On arrival, the lower bridge at Purton was in full swing, so we parked up and once his duties had been discharged, approached the bridge keeper to enquire of the best place to launch a SIB. With a flick of the joystick on his CCTV, he pointed us back up the road slightly to the upper car-park, right next to which is a small wooden dock used by canoes, kayaks and - you guessed it - SIBs. He thanked us for letting him know we were going to launch, so if anyone is considering launching in the area, I would consider letting the nearest bridge-keeper know as a common courtesy. Let him know that RIBnet sent you!
An interesting feature of this canal if you're coming at it from the southern end is that there are no locks, but lots of swing bridges. They are all manned until 7pm in the summer, but in a SIB you'll 'probably' be able to sneak underneath without a swing being required.
I say 'probably', because there is at least one bridge where you might need to consider the height of your outboard above the transom - as well as, possibly, the height of your head above your beer-gut.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
Today's inflation saw the debut of our replacement BST HP pump, the previous one having literally gone up in smoke on the second tube we used it on. I must admit to approaching the use of the unit with trepidation based on our previous experience, and what I have elsewhere described as the 'horrendous noise' when the high pressure action part of the pump kicks in.
Today, we used a dual approach - bunging a cheapo 12V pump on one side and the BST on the other. This means that we saw:-
(a) how much more impressive the BST is in terms of speed - it's well worth the money now that we have one that doesn't emit acrid smoke; and
(b) how getting a partially inflated left tube at the same time as getting a fully inflated right tube, hence not inflating unbalanced and not having to move pumps around, was a neat combination of BST efficiency with Aldi economy.
Once the horrendous noise of the HP part of the pumping process was complete, and the air floor was up to pressure, I suddenly realised that we had inflated the boat without recourse to the hand pump. This was a welcome change from previous outings, as I had got into the habit of packing a towel just to mop up the sweat from my brow after inflation was complete.
This is not to say that the last bits of hand inflation were a chore, more to say that I wish I was fitter.
Dropping off the wooden dock in Purton went without incident, although there was nowhere to tie up, so Mrs MikeP volunteered to act as a 'human anchor' on the dock whilst I faffed around connecting the fuel line, priming the same, attaching the killcord to my increasingly ample thigh, and performing the four-pull shuffle to get our outboard going.
Whilst waiting for a few minutes to allow the engine to warm up, I glanced backwards to note that we had not needed to deploy the transom wheels and so - on this occasion - I had no need to worry about removing them. I briefly spit on the biro marking, rubbed the back of my hand, and removed all evidence of my aide de memoir.
Once warmed up, Mrs MikeP jumped onboard and we pushed off with our extending painters pole, and motored off on down the canal. Note to fellow boaters: 6mph limit on this canal, which is roughly what I'm getting out of our 4hp unit at full throttle anyway.
All goes well for 15 minutes or so, and then we come to the first swing bridge on this section of the canal. Pre-warned by downloading the relevant 'Boaters Guide' from waterscape.com, I was aware that this bridge was manned (as opposed to via CCTV) but there was no sign of a 'man' (or otherwise), and all I could see was a flashing red light on the signals to the right of the canal.
Now, my initial reaction to a flashing red light is that it is not as bad as a steady red light (which I would associate with STOP) but not as good as a green light (which I would associate with GO). So, I throttle back and approach the bridge with caution, wondering whether the 'bridge man' would suddenly appear or whether we could sneak under the bridge without disturbing the flow of road traffic over the bridge.
Suddenly, I notice the bridge start to move, and Mrs MikeP - as forward lookout - declared there was at least one narrowboat on the other side of the bridge. A quick fumble with the gear lever, and I'm shuffling back to avoid both the bridge and the oncoming boats.
We hover at a safe distance to allow the oncoming bridge to complete its swing, and once it has stopped, our attention is attracted by the suddenly visible 'bridge man' who is motioning for us to come over to the shore. A quick flick on the throttle and we are up against the bank and he informs us that he won't give us a warning this time (thanks) but we need to keep clear when the red light is flashing.
I decided not to give him my interpretation of how red and green lights work, but was very grateful for his professional approach to explaining the protocol and advising us to watch out for the 'big white cruisers' - as they would as soon run over us as...well...pour another G&T.
So to summarise, if you're in a SIB and will fit under a swing bridge, it is OK to proceed if the light is red or green. If it is flashing red, though, stop and wait.
Duly educated, we motor on through the bridge and then, having not packed any sarnies, and having spotted a cafe at the side of the canal, do an immediate u-turn to a vacant piece of bank on the other side and moor up using the £5.99 tent peg set we got from Millets a few weeks ago.
Whilst I stand guard, Mrs MikeP treks back over the very swing bridge we had just motored under to the local cafe - a goodly few minutes later, she returns with a tray laden with some of the best ham and cheese sandwiches I've had the pleasure of consuming for many a day.
Local produce, ladies and gentlemen - local produce.
Duly fed and - following a trip to the cafe's loo - de-watered, we restart and motor on out up the canal, passing a series of longboats and cruisers - all of which return our cheery waves with aplomb. The cloud was getting up a bit, and the first breaths of a brisk wind started to stir, but in general - as we turned around in a winding hole to proceed back to base, all was very pleasant.
It's quite a wide canal, which is helpful in maintaining a course to avoid the inevitable fishermen. I've taken to keeping an eagle eye out for the tell tale sign of their presence, and I'm convinced that half the fun of fishing from the bank must be to find somewhere hidden in the undergrowth where the only sign visible to passing boaters is a micro-fine spool of line disappearing into the murky depths.
But I am wise to their tricks, and as I have a firm policy of being a good waterways citizen, and if I do manage to spot someone fishing from the bank, I will slow down to idle in order to pass them with minimum disturbance to their endeavours. Some wave back; some just stare into the water with a dark scowl. Sorry, chaps, but our little hobby is as valid as yours....
Meanwhile, after having moored up in a quiet spot for a tea break, between taking photos and discussing the weather, I notice that my 20 year old plastic tea mug is a bit emptier than it should be given my normal rate of tea consumption, A closer inspection reveals a crack in the bottom of the mug which has gradually leaked tea all over the bottom of the boat, and nowhere near my innards (the normal destination for tea).
With no small amount of cursing, a mop up operation was undertaken, but I just hope that tea has no long lasting detrimental effects on a typical airfloor SIB.
In the attached photos, you can see the errant blue mug, coupled with my oblivious cheery pose.
Anyway, suitably under-refreshed, we decide to head back to the Purton car-park with some speed, and realise that although the current is now in our favour, the wind most certainly is not. What this means is that we gain an extra couple of MPH boost due to the water flowing in the direction we are travelling - however, the wind has other ideas, and as well as blowing the canal waters into little waves, it also has a direct effect on the tubes of our SIB.
Both factors make for an interesting ride, with poor Mrs MikeP getting a few good splashes over the tubes from waves that could have been no more than six inches high, and yours truly having to steer where possible into sheltered dead zones by bends and next to trees in order to avoid the inevitable refrain: "You did that on purpose".
Note to self: need to look at drysuit options for the missus prior to our Cardiff Bay trip and any subsequent inshore outings.
The other bit of fun we encountered on the way back was the effect of plant-life on our forward progress, in the form of floating clumps of weeds that end up clustered around the outboard. Whilst not directly curled around the prop, it seems that a very small amount of vegetation hanging around the vertical shaft has a dramatic effect (cavitiation ??) when you go from pootling speed to full revs (all of six MPH).
We got back to Purton with some time to spare before sunset, so in the spirit of adventure, decided to motor past down to Sharpness to see what there was to see. At this point, Mrs MikeP decided my hands were too exposed to the cold, so she lent me her gloves.
I only mention this to explain the fetching pink hand attire in one of the attached photors.
Meanwhile, back on the canal, you can't get into the dock basin itself unless you're there during the day and make contact with the lock authority - from what I can tell - but you can see the remains of the old Severn Railway bridge (a nice little historical surprise) and you can also moor up and jump over to look at the view across the Severn itself.
All very interesting, and when we got back to Purton car park as the sun was setting, I was very content that we had enjoyed an interesting boating day with new learning experiences, as well as an interesting history day from learning more about the waterways near to where we live.
So, there you have it - if you want to get onto the Gloucester and Sharpness canal at the southern end, go to Purton, and before you launch, stop in and say hello to the bridge-keeper.
Oh, and if you're a bit wide and/or tall, double check before sneaking under a swing bridge in your SIB.
And check your tea mug for cracks before you go.