Riding the Severn bore in a small sailing boat: May 1958 [part 2]

David Grainger continues his account of sailing a small boat ‘down Severn’ in 1958. He includes some historic detail of Severn trows and the Severn Railway Bridge tragedy two years later . . . We pick up his tale as David returns to ‘Swift’ for the second leg of the passage.

The next Saturday morning saw us walking around ‘Swift’ as she lay moored all fours on a hard bottom in a narrow inlet formed by an outfall just above Newnham Quay. The head of the flood came up-river washing over my feet but not topping my sea boots. I wouldn’t have liked this experience the week before! Sonny had offered to pilot us over the Noose, where the river opens out into an area over three miles long and a mile wide, encumbered with shifting sands and shallow channels, before narrowing again to half-a-mile. Just after noon my brother and I got our anchors and set off down-river past Bullo Quay and Dock where a railway had brought coal down from the Forest of Dean to be carried away in trows and lighters until very recently.

The last Severn trow to trade on the Severn Estuary and Bristol Channel under sail alone was, I believe, the ‘Alma’. Massively built at Gloucester in 1854, ketch rigged, she was 77 ft long and had the typical completely flat bottom, no deadrise or rocker at all, with a loose false keel. This was shipped by means of four chains once she had deep enough water to enable her to sail to windward. She carried her 80 ton cargoes of coal or stone from Severn ports until 1948, and even then her usefulness was not over because with her rig removed she was ‘boxed’, or built up, and used as a dumb barge in Bristol.

Several trows, some ‘open’ like the ‘Alma’ and some ‘decked’, continued to take cargoes of coal from Lydney to Somerset ports and beyond until the year of our journey in ‘Swift’, but although rigged these were by then all fitted with auxiliary engines and none came above the Severn Railway Bridge. The only commercial vessel to work this part of the Severn now was the old Western Humber Keel ‘Elmdale’, belonging to Harry Head, and bringing stone from Tintern for the river banks.

Crossing over to the Arlingham shore we anchored in shallow water at the mouth of Hoe Pill and half an hour later took the ground. As the tide fell two lave-net fishermen came down the mud, not to fish in the traditional lave-net way by chasing salmon in the shallows, but using their nets like huge shrimp nets in the ebb current. Here we spent the night tide, and when we floated again next morning motored across to the Brickhills where we picked up Sonny from the stones there. Setting all sail to the fine SWly breeze ‘Swift’ was able to make about 3 knots over the ground against the flood tide.

Turning into the Noose under Sonny’s expert pilotage, rather than follow the deep channel which was then running all the way round the East side, we beat down the low and featureless Awre shore over the top of the sands where we found a least depth of one fathom. It was exactly high water. Now with the ebb, it seemed no time at all before we were at Gatcombe, only 8 cables above the Severn Bridge and home to the Stopping Boats which fished for salmon moored athwart the strong tide with nets lowered beneath on two long spars. In spite of emergency release gear on the net, capsizes and fatalities were not uncommon. We handed sail and dropped the kedge just a few yards off the steep-to shore then sheered in on the tide to drop Sonny ashore. As quickly as possible we got under way again and following our pilot’s advice steered directly for the centre pillar of the Bridge’s navigable arches. The tide running askew whipped us clear through the west arch, past the huge ‘bow wave’ of the pillar and its turbulent ‘wake’ then safely past the Wellhouse Rocks.

One of the tales told about the legendary Marky, skipper of his own ‘sloop-rigged’ trow, was that she was once running up river to the Bridge when he called to his mate, Old Bill, ‘Better go and house yer topm’st, Bill!’, ‘Be danged if I do.’ said Old Bill, ‘Her’ll have plenty o’ room this early on the flood.’ ‘No she won’t, get it down quick! I don’t want a sprung mast.’ So Old Bill hurried forward and went aloft. But when he got to the hounds he didn’t take the fid out, instead he shinned up the topmast and clung to the truck. ‘What the devil yer up to?’ roared Marky. ‘If that old bridge cracks yer topm’st it cracks me ‘ead open too,’ shouted Old Bill, ‘but I bets yer ‘alf a sovereign I’m still ‘ere at Gatcombe.’ And so he was.

‘Swift’ sails under the Severn Railway bridge, 1958 Credit: David Grainger

At the end of October later in the year ‘Swift’ passed under the Bridge once more on her much faster passage up-river. Exactly two years after this it was seriously damaged in a tragedy. Some eight cargo vessels were coming up the ‘navigable’ part of the estuary to Sharpness when they suddenly plunged into a dense fog bank. In chaotic blind manoeuvring off what they thought was the port entrance there were one or two mild collisions, but two small Harker tankers ‘Arkendale H’ and ‘Wastdale H’ ran foul of each other and, locked together, were swept up by the ever-increasing tide. Too late they attempted to make headway down stream but were carried stern-first for a mile into one of the pillars of the smaller spans of the Bridge. Two spans, together with the railways lines and a 12 inch gas main collapsed onto their decks, capsizing one tanker and spewing into the water their combined cargoes of 650 tons of oil and petrol which exploded and covered the surface with fire spreading almost a mile upriver. Of the eight men on board only three were rescued, partly by the heroic efforts of the master of a tanker in Sharpness Docks who with help man-handled his ship’s punt to the river-bank and rowed out into the flames. Then the tankers were carried up on to the Noose Sand by the tide and partly buried, where they were eventually blown up to prevent their becoming dangerous floating derelicts. Their remains are there now.

Only four months after that the tanker ‘BP Explorer’, 140 feet long and drawing 11 feet was bound up-river to Sharpness with a cargo of 440 tons of petrol. Rather early on the tide, she must have strayed from the narrow channel somewhere between the Narlwood Rocks and Berkeley Pill, touched bottom and slewed athwart the tide, which rolled her over and over and carried her up through the remains of the Severn Bridge then back and forth again to end up also on the Noose Sand. All five souls on board were lost. Unbelievably little damaged, she was salvaged and re-fitted, but some four years later the demolition of the Bridge was begun. All that now remains are some of the stubs of the pillars occasionally showing above the sand as it shifts.

‘Swift’ was now off the entrance to Sharpness New Dock, where the marked channel begins, and less than 12 miles from our destination with still almost four hours of fair tide to help us on our way. Past the Berkeley Pill ‘Swinging Light’ and the Bull Rock Beacon, we were beating again and the short steep sea typical of the Severn Estuary wind against tide was building up, preventing us using the outboard. After the Hill Flats Buoy a nice slant took us across the Barnacle Channel to the Inward Rocks on the West shore, then in six boards we tacked down the Slimeroad to the Lyde Rock and the tide-race off Beachley Head. Here we kept well inshore (no Severn Road Bridge in those days) where the water was smooth but a little way out the seas were very steep. Rounding Chapel Rock we worked into the calm channel between the Charston Sand and the Mathern Oaze. Sailing past St. Pierre Pill we handed the mainsail, ran back close in to run onto the soft mud on the edge of the Oaze while the last of the tide ran out.

In less than two hours we floated off on the new flood and we lay by the stern to the kedge while the water made into the Pill. A little later we worked up the Pill under jib with a leading wind. We were very early, running aground again and again in the narrow trickle of a channel and kedging by the stern each time until the tide rose. In those days before the sluices were built the mud scoured out and it was possible to enter the Pill a good four hours either side of high water, now silt restricts this to about three hours.

Finally half an hour later we arrived at our mooring buoy just off the Chepstow & District Yacht Club’s pontoon. It was made from ‘lily-pads’, interlocking hexagonal steel tanks built to form portable floating landing strips for fighter planes in Burma during the war. At last we had arrived at ‘Swift’s’ summer home.

first published in OGA Gaffers Log, June 2015
David Grainger, Bristol Channel Area