If you are planning to take the Manchester Ship Canal (MSC) from Ellesmere Port to Salford Quays to avoid the Middlewich breach (June, 2018) and the damaged Marsh Lock onto the Weaver, this is what you need to know. I travelled this route on Friday 15/06/2018 on my narrowboat with one adult, a 13 year old and a dog. Another boater cruised solo on his narrowboat at the same time. This guide is aimed at those who have not transited the MSC before and who have limited experience on larger waterways. I'm very happy to hear your comments, experiences and suggestions and add them in.
What you need:
An anchor and sufficient chain (try to borrow one, as they are expensive and it is unlikely to be used). Tie to the front of the boat and make ready to deploy before setting off.
Ropes for tying off in locks. The staff will dangle down ropes for you to tie yours onto, so don't worry too much about the length. Your surveyor will probably want to see that they're at least 15m long.
Fire extinguishers. If you've passed your BSS, you'll have these already.
A working horn.
Personal floatation devices / life jackets for everyone on board. You're not going to fall in, but if you do, there's alot of water between you and the bank.
Contrary to the Peel Ports Pleasure Craft Induction Pack, according to my surveyor, you do not need most of what they list. You are not permitted to transit during the night, or stop over, so lights are not necessary - especially colreg navigation lights. If you don't have them and don't want them, you don't need them. You do not even need a headlight.
You do not need a VHF. Its actually easier to phone Eastham Control. Their number is: 0151 3274638.
You do not need an admiralty chart or tidal almanac or a copy of the byelaws (although you will have a copy of that in the Induction Pack)
Download the Induction Pack
Check out the map I made.
Check stoppages. Remember the MSC is not operated by CRT. There's been a lot of long term stoppages recently. Check the Shropshire Union, Ellemere Port, MSC, Marsh Lock, Bridgewater (also non CRT) and Rochdale (if that's where you're heading). Your surveyor cannot be relied upon to know what is going on. I found out about the damage to Marsh Lock after I'd had my survey - the surveyor not only didn't know, but wasn't really interested in knowing.
Organise your Certificate of Seaworthiness survey. Mine cost £50, plus £25 travel from a surveyor who lives in Middlewich - I found him listed in the induction pack. I've heard of people paying much more - but you don't have to. Frankly, £75 for a man to sign a piece of paper to say your boat will float and that you have an anchor etc is already a massive rip off.
Fill in page 2 and 4 of the induction pack and send it with page 3 (completed by your surveyor) and a copy of your insurance policy to Paul Kirby [email protected]
48 hours before you intend to travel. It will cost you £167 at the time of writing.
Note that Paul almost never picks up the phone. Email is best.
If you are planning to get onto the Bridgewater at Pomona Lock you will then need to contact [email protected]
stating the time/date you need it the lock opening. My suggestion (and the lock keeper's preference) is to overnight on Surrey Quays and go through Pomona at 8am the following morning. Include Owner/skipper name, Owner/skipper mobile tel, Owner/skipper email, Craft Name, CRT Index, Craft Length, Craft Width in your email. While entirely unnecessary to have 2 lock keepers to open a basic lock for you, Peel Ports not only insist on it, but will want £30 more for this "service". Captive market.
At Ellesmere Port, there is a swing bridge going right over the lock you need to pass through to get onto the MSC. If you are planning to get onto the MSC at 8am, you'll need to arrange to get the bridge opened at 7:30am. Contact Cheshire West & Chester Council with 48 hrs notice on 07799 658814 or 07825 865944 during office hours.
To berth in Ellesmere Port the night before you transit the MSC casts £4 per night. You can pay in the museum.
The day before you transit contact Eastham Control (01513274638) to let them know that you're in position for transit the following morning. Follow their advise on what time you might leave.
On The Day:
Do your regular engine checks. Have you got enough fuel / oil / coolant?
Cruising solo? Think about how you're going to manage ropes in the locks. How are you going to use the toilet if you need to? How are you going to eat? How will you deploy the anchor if you need to? You're not allowed to stop (unless its an emergency). Not that there's really anyone about to check.
To save water in the locks and for safety, Peel Ports prefer to get narrowboats to transit at the same time. You might have to be flexible as to which day you're intending to travel. For example, if you're planning to travel on the Monday, but there's another boat coming in on Tuesday, they may ask you to wait another day. In this case, you can stop stressing and enjoy the museum which is full of interesting things.
Peel Ports suggests breasting up with another boat for the transit for stability. Frankly I wouldn't bother unless you know the other boat and have lashed yours to theirs before.
Contact Eastham Control to ask them if you're good to go. They do seem to try to not have you meet other traffic, especially huge ships. In our trip, there was gale force winds, so we had to wait until the following morning. Have a look at the map I made for a spot to moor in the lower basin.
When you've got the go ahead, head out of the lower basin at Ellesmere Port and turn east (right). You're off!
Its pretty straightforward. Stick to the right of centre. I didn't meet any oncoming boats, but give them plenty of room if you do.
My surveyor advised that after an oncoming boat has passed you, steer into its wake. Helps with stability. He also suggested that if a boat is coming up behind you and wants to overtake, turn your boat 180˚ to face it and then steer into its wake after it's passed you. Then turn again 180˚ so you're following it.
The whole trip will take 8+ hours, depending on your speed and other traffic on the MSC.
I found it useful to print out the map section of the Induction Pack to see what was coming up. There did seem to be a few pages missing from that document though, not that it mattered. I used google maps too to check my position. The signal was pretty good throughout for phone and 4g (O2).
Are massive. Prepare to be overwhelmed.
The lock keepers should be visible and on hand to advise. Follow their instructions.
The lock keepers are not used to small boats. They will try to shout instructions at you from afar. Indicate if you cannot hear.
They also do not understand how fragile small boats are in comparison to ships. There are big forces at play in these locks. Some of the lock keepers will be clear and give good instructions, others will stand around not paying attention while they smoke a cig.
In all cases, we cruised through the lock almost to the top gates and moored on the left. This gets you out of the way of turbulence coming into the lock behind you.
The lock keepers then dangled a rope down. We tied off our centre line, which for the most part was fine. Bear in mind that the infrastructure of these locks is not designed for narrowboats, but massive ships. Keep your wits about you. Keep your eyes open because frankly, you cannot rely on the lock keepers for the safety of your vessel. See troubleshooting below.
Learn how to tie a sheet bend, or a similarly useful knot for connecting the dangled rope in the lock with your boat's rope. A reef knot can spill when pulled, which will set your boat loose in the lock.
The locks take a fair while to fill. Plenty of time for a cuppa. Also plenty of time for you to start losing focus - you'll have already been cruising many hours by this point. Stay frosty.
Situations can happen faster than you can think. Make sensible preparations and keep sharp on the day. There's no great cause for preemptive alarm and panic, but let the following two stories give you a sense of how things can go wrong.
Tying up in the lock. In the first lock, the guy on the other boat went in first. He tied off onto a ladder, as suggested by the lock keeper. This was a really bad move. The water rose fast enough to pull the knots tight and he ended up having to cut his new ropes off with a stanley knife. The lock keepers said that the rising water could not be reversed once the rise is in progress. If you're going to use a ladder to keep your boat in, pass your centre line round a rung and hold onto it. That way you can pull it out as the water rises. It is better to tie off to their dangled rope and hold onto that. Just keep an eye on where your bow is going. Lesson - DO NOT TIE!
The top lock gates. In the last lock, the lock keepers were nowhere to be seen. They were busy smoking and chatting and throughout the process were not paying any attention. They casually told us to bring our boats right onto the top lock gates. This was a really bad move. A very small protruding piece of metal on the bow of my boat (which I could not see, as I was in the middle holding the centre line) got caught under one of the horizontal cross beams of the lock gate ahead. My stern rose out of the water. Water began rushing into the front of my boat. I had to pick up the dog and throw him to the other boater. Very very scary. I tried to pry my boat out from its snag with my barge pole, but only succeeded in shattering the pole. These are forces that are beyond our power to control. I was faced with a sunk boat, but finally, the lock keepers recognised the gravity of the situation and let some water out. The boat was freed. The piece of metal on my boat that had snagged is about the size of an pebble. Yes, I take responsibility for not paying enough attention. But please, do not rely on the lock keepers to look out for you, they are just not used to small boats and they're evidently not that interested in engaing with what's going on before them. Lesson - KEEP WELL AWAY FROM THE TOP LOCK GATES!
At the end of day 1:
We did a victory doughnut in the big water at Salford Quays, relieved to have made it without the boat sinking.
There's plenty of do not moor signs initially, but eventually we found a spot (see my map). A man told me he'd lived there for 15 years and never seen anyone more there. It was quite nice. The other boater found a different spot. Salford Quays are not MSC waters.
Make your way to Pomona lock at the agreed time (8am for us). The lock keepers were a little early. They let us up onto the Bridgewater and we then cruised to Castleford where we moored for a few nights.
In the end, it was not hard cruising and not as scary as I'd imagined, especially once I was on the calmer waters the day after the high winds. It is a fascinating and remarkable work of engineering and history, with loads to see - incredible long vistas, bridges, massive locks and the decaying remnants of industrial past.
In total the costs for me were as follows:
£35 - Purchase and installation of horn (which will be useful in the future)
£75 - Certificate of Seaworthiness survey (lasts a year btw)
£4 - Overnight in Ellesmere Port
£167 - MSC transit - Ellesmere Port > Manchester
£30 - Pomona Lock
Total - £311
The other boater spent over £500 because he purchased, rather than borrowed an anchor, fitted colreg nav lights, and his survey cost more.
Total distance (according to my map)
51.9km / 32.2 miles
I hope this document can help you with your preparations, but please note that you are responsible for yourself, your boat and all the people on it. Stay safe. Have fun. It is for sure a most epic adventure...
Graeme Walker, June, 2018