Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Across The Wash

We did it. We crossed The Wash. In terms of adventurous exploits it doesn't quite rank with Hilary on Everest, Shackleton in the Antarctic or Livingstone in Africa but it was by far the most adventurous thing we've ever done in a narrowboat and though plenty of others have made the trip before us, many others refuse point blank to consider it.
The Wash is a treacherous place, full of hidden and ever changing sandbanks, strange currents and fierce tides. You don't go there without without a lot of experience - we had none and a reliable boat - ours had overheated two days earlier. But we did have Daryl Hill, a wash pilot whose day job is bringing  commercial boats through its trickeries and who has been shepherding narrowboats across for many years – and hadn't lost one yet. 
Awaiting the off at Wisbech
Passing Sutton Bridge       

All the same we were nervous. I was nervous about the engine and Mrs B was just plain nervous about going to sea with a skipper who had managed two significant cock-ups on tidal waters in the last couple of weeks. But that's another story.
We had a companion narrowboater making the trip with us: Anthony on Fish Eagle who, it turned out had done the Bristol to Sharpness crossing and previously owned a sea boat. I don't know whether that made me feel better or worse.
Good weather is essential for the trip. The local prophets of doom who always seem to appear when you're about to undertake anything mildly tricky were already hovering round the boats at Wisbech muttering about too much northerly wind. "Oh, it gets rough out there when the wind's from the north or east. I wouldn't be going out in one of those."
It was a sunny, warm morning when Daryl arrived and with just a hint of the dreaded northerlies. "Don't worry about that; there's not enough wind to cause any trouble." So at 10.30am off we went.
Lighthouses mark the end of the river
Seals watch us from the sandbanks
Daryl guides through the tricky route
The first ten miles are on down the Nene with the ebbing tide so there's still a chance to change one's mind. We were past the active little port and big swingbridge at Sutton Bridge and then the twin white lighthouses that mark the end of the river came into view. And with them came a sudden choppiness to the water as the wind hit the tide. If it was like this in the river what would it be like in The Wash? Like a millpond was the answer. Suddenly the landscape opened out into a vast watery plain streaked with low sandbanks glistening in the sun on which dozens of seals basked. Hazy dots in the far distance were the tiny outlines of large ships and further still barely visible land.
Gleaming in the sun this vast, flat shimmering expanse looked magical, like a strange mirage where water and sky merged.
The route out into the Wash from the Nene is the trickiest part of the navigation; a series of marker buoys leading us in a long sweeping 'S' between lurking sandbanks. Daryl was travelling with Anthony and had briefed me beforehand in case we got separated. No chance of that! I clung to his stern as if attached by an invisible towrope. All the same, a series of post-it notes on my rear hatch had the various buoys marked out, just in case.
Already Boston Stump, the massive tower of St Botolph's Church was visible over to our left but we left it there and headed north further out to sea – our route takes a giant right angle course north and then west to avoid expansive sandbanks and absorb time between the ebbing tide from Wisbech and the inbound tide to Boston.
A deceptively calm skipper
It's lonely out there
Nothing but sea, sky and the occasional buoy
As we went further out to sea the north easterly wind started to make its presence felt and we pitched and rolled in a modest swell. Un-nerving for a few minutes after that milk-water calm of the canals but soon a satisfyingly nautical experience. Harry's engine chugged happily away and the crew relaxed - even Brian who was by now asleep.
Beached for a short pee and paddle break

Brian enjoying his run on the sands
Beaching on a sandbank is the usual procedure on these trips to kill time, de-water any dogs and have a laugh or two but the sea was too "lumpy' to let us put down on Roger Sand without too severe a bump so we went further 'round the corner' - that's a sailing expression and beached. Or in my case, semi-beached, leaving me with a thigh deep wade ashore carrying Seadog Brian - who promptly claimed the sandbank as his territory in the usual fashion.
The stop was a short one and before long the rising tide lifted us off and we swung back onto our course. Boston Stump was bigger now, this time on our right as we carried on west before swinging almost ninety degrees right and into the River Witham.
Coming up through Boston with the Stump in sight
Journey's end: in Boston Lock
The Witham winds through a series of easy curves towards the town and all we had to do now was adjust our arrival to reach the lock at the right time: it's only 47ft long so we had to pass through when the rising tide was on a level with the non tidal river the other side, allowing both doors to be open and us to pass through. Get there too late and you spend the night hanging from a hawser outside the lock gate. But trusty Daryl knows all the tell-tale marks of how high the river is and got us there in good time.
And at 7.00pm we were through the lock and the adventure was over.
It had been a superb day; the trip was exhilarating, the seascape stunning, the sight of the seals and the seabirds wonderful and Daryl great company as well as a superb guide.
Our fellow voyager Anthony on Sea Eagle came round after we tied up in Boston and we rounded off a memorable day with a fish and chip supper and a couple of bottles of red wine.
I was asleep last night as soon as my head touched the pillow.

*If you fancy the trip, do try it. Call Daryl on 07909 880071for advice and make a booking. He handles trips in either direction and does also them to and from Denver on the Great Ouse, though it's a trickier route than the Wisbech-Boston one.


  1. Great trip. Would love to do it one day.

  2. Great trip...exciting and even Brian was able to 'spend a penny' in the Wash. Normal cruising will seem boring from now on!

  3. Wow looks like fun, can I come next time please?