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Riding the Severn Bore in a small boat, 1958

David Grainger introduces us to the challenges of sailing ‘down Severn’ as he reflects on his experiences in 1958. The severity of the current forces him to change his plan . . .

In summers during the 1950’s I sailed my 1½ ton gaff sloop ‘Swift’ out of St. Pierre Pill, just upstream of the Shoots (where the Second Severn Crossing now stands). Here on a really big spring the tidal range can reach 50 feet – the second highest in the world. It then pushes on up the funnel-shaped river, topping the weirs at Gloucester then that at Lower Lode before its energy is finally spent against the lock gates at Diglis, just below Worcester. From Sharpness to Gloucester the river channel meanders, shallow and shifting, and is officially classified as “unnavigable”. Here the normal tidal regime is stood on its head. Low water springs is higher than low water neaps;  heralded by the “head of the tide” (otherwise known as the bore) the flood tide runs violently for a short time, but continues well after the level has begun to fall; for a period the river is ebbing at Sharpness and at Gloucester but flooding at Bollow, half-way between. There is no slack water before a strong ebb begins which tails off into a long low-water stand with normally a fairly gentle current, depending on the amount of fresh water coming down the river.

At the end of 1957 I had wintered ‘Swift’ in Jim Beecham’s dyke at Tewkesbury (not too far from my home) and wanted next season to return to St. Pierre down the river without using the Gloucester and Berkeley Ship Canal as I had previously. Because the bore takes only about 2½ hours to cover the 28 miles from Sharpness to Gloucester and the flood is soon over, the passage down the shallow part of the river has to be taken in several stages. Sailing trows which navigated this stretch years ago normally took 4 tides to work down unless they had a strong leading wind.  By contrast, on the passage up-river (which I undertook later) they would normally carry one tide all the way. A perfectly clear and dead calm Friday night in May 1958 found us anchored in the middle of the West (Maisemore) Channel, just NW of Gloucester. The Barge Lock at Llanthony on the East Channel (which trows had often used on the first stage of their passage) had been closed in 1924 because of structural problems and lack of use. Recently we could have passed through the Maisemore Long-Boat Lock but this too had now been closed by the Severn Commissioners, so now we had to go over the weir once it was covered by the tide. Although I usually sailed single-handed, for this trip I had shipped my younger brother as crew.

At 7:30 next morning the bore levelled out the water over Maisemore Weir and the flood began to make up the river. I had acquired a 1½ hp Seagull outboard which was secured by means of a temporary bracket to ‘Swift’s’ counter and gave her a speed of 3¾ knots in smooth water. We got under way and headed for the weir, but the current over the wall was very strong and it took three attempts before we finally pulled ‘Swift’ across using her sweeps as shafts on the top of the weir. It was now ten minutes after high water and we lowered the mast to pass under Maisemore Bridge and the three bridges at Over, anxious to make the most of the strengthening ebb. Raising the mast we were able to set our sails to augment the outboard. We sounded continuously with our sounding pole as we progressed but found no bottom at 7 feet in midstream the ten miles of the river from Maisemore to Bollow. Both Stonebench and Church Rock at Minsterworth caused quite a turbulence in the now fast current, but five minutes after passing the latter we handed sail, secured alongside a traditional Severn punt lying to the bank and went ashore.

Knocking at the door of a riverside cottage we asked if we could fill our water breaker and a kind lady showed us to her well. Down went the bucket; down (I am sure) to the same level as the river just yards away, but we were happy as we got back on board two hours later and continued downstream with only about a foot of ebb still to run out. In a hour we were approaching the head of Longney Pool, where the sand-bank strewn part of the Severn begins and the water shallows. We promptly ran aground, pushed off and moved back up river until we had a fathom under our keel, then anchored to await the head of the flood – a long wait. When meeting the bore any craft must be either well afloat or well ashore. I quote directly from the log.

“18:56 – Weighed the kedge and started engine. The bore was coming up river and it was possible to see the deep water channel by the fact that it broke over the shoals, but remained a smooth wave in deep water. This showed us that the shoal extended almost right across the river except on the port hand (the East bank) close in.
19:01 – Rode the bore, which was about 3 feet high, and pushed against the first of the flood down channel on the port hand.
19:07 – Flood now running more strongly, and we were unable to stem it, so dropped the kedge. Tide running at about 4 knots or more.
19:33 – The flood was still running strongly but as there was now a rise of at least 6 feet we were able to weigh anchor, get under way and work up the eddies and slacks which were formed close inshore.”

We had to kedge again twice because of the strength of the tide and seaweed fouling our propeller, but finally almost an hour and a half after riding the bore we were able to enter Longney Pool and begin to make progress. Another hazard in the Estuary is the large number of semi-waterlogged tree trunks and large roots that travel up and down the channel on every tide.  Mostly originating up-river, they are lifted from the banks by flood water and carried down until the incoming tide pushes them back. Here, like the Flying Dutchman, they voyage perpetually up and down becoming  heavier and heavier until they eventually ground on one of the sandbanks. The thought of one of these monsters athwart his hawse when at anchor should be enough to give any mariner a sleepless night. We left the Pool at dead slack water by which time the water had dropped 2 feet. Past Framilode the widening river turns West and makes a huge serpentine loop. The sun had set, but we were able to pick up the triangulation point on the bank which Bill Hardy, Newnham lave-net fisherman, had told us marked the stype across to the Garden Cliff shore. The full moon had risen, lighting up the whole river with its glorious silver light and letting us get close in to the Cliff where the water was deepest. The ebb was now strengthening and running at about 5 knots. 

We shot down the next 3 miles to Newnham,  where we hoped to come alongside the ‘Pat Ann’, Sonny Trigg’s boat moored at the old quay under the shelter of the Nab. However, we had no hope of stemming the tide, so in haste dropped the hook in 2½ fathoms abreast Newnham Nab. Care had to be taken anchoring in such a strong current and the warp had to be surged roundly to the bitter end to slow ‘Swift’ down gradually without pulling her head under. We lowered the kedge astern, but the rush of water streamed it away like a fish-hook to the full length of its scope until eventually the ebb eased and allowed it to drop to the bottom. Next morning we awoke to find quite a crowd gathered on the shore to see the bore which as the tides were making was expected to be a spectacular one. An urgent cry from ashore bade us get under way and come inshore as we were in a potentially dangerous position and the head of the flood would be there in ten minutes. We were strung taut between our well-set bower and kedge, both warps now out to their bitter ends. As we had but little time left,  I buoyed the kedge, weighed and motored in to the bank. Here many willing hands seized little ‘Swift’ and hauled her up the sand towards the old quay. Within seconds the tide rounded the bend below Newham and the river from being a narrow trickle between the wide sands became a broad silver ribbon rushing inland. It struck the Nab with a loud roar and violent spray, but the force of the following water shot round the headland and ran up the slope of the sand bank to catch our little sloop broadside-on. This violence of water only 6 inches deep was sufficient to heel her over to 45º and we had desperately to sit her out to prevent her going onto her beam ends. Luckily she floated very soon and swung to her anchor while we waited for the strength of the flood to pass. Fisherman Ivor then picked up our kedge, took us in tow with his rowing skiff and pulled us up to a berth above ‘Pat Ann’, where Sonny helped us secure at the quay. In three hours we took the ground on fairly hard mud.

Sonny and Ivor advised us not to continue downstream on these very big springs, but to wait until next weekend when the tides would still be sufficient to take us over the Noose but be  much more gentle. They themselves kept to the river all the time with only a pair of oars, but they had known every eddy and trick of the waters virtually from birth. We agreed, so they undertook on the next tide to put ‘Swift’ in a safe berth where she could lie until then, and we caught a bus home.

Read the second part of his passage here

Words and illustrations contributed by David Grainger