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The Lancaster Canal and Millenium Ribble Link
Planning and Preparation


This is not an article full of pretty pictures - this is the serious information you need to plan and safely execute a visit to the Lancaster Canal via the new Millenium Ribble Link and should be useful if you plan to carry out any of the other major tidal passages in a Narrowboat.

Prior to a visit to the Lancaster canal via the new Millenium Ribble Link a considerable amount of planning and preparation is required. It requires a passage down the Tidal River Douglas and up the Tidal River Ribble before entering Savick Brook and then through the new sea lock and flight of locks comprising the Ribble Link which joins the Lancaster Canal to the main canal system. The first and perhaps most important activity is to contact British Waterways and get the Skippers Guide and booking forms. The guide is full of very useful information and should be read carefully as it will bring the trip into perspective. There are only a limited number of crossings each year and it is essential to book well in advance, especially if you want to get a crossing on a good day. The problem is one of tides - the original plans for the canal 200 years ago included a link by aqueduct over the River Ribble. That proved too expensive then and the same applies now. The choice was made to use as much existing infrastructure as possible including the lock from the Rufford Arm onto the River Douglas and thence to the River Ribble. Rather than make a completely new link the choice was made to use the Savick Brook which enters the River Ribble two miles below Preston and to make it navigable to where the Lancaster Canal crossed it.

It is normal for locks from the sea into docks or inland water way systems to be constrained - the tides at Liverpool reach over 9 metres and the Ribble estuary is only navigable for part of the tidal cycle. Preston Dock is fairly typical in having a Sea Lock manned for the period approximately two hours either side of high tide although there is some additional flexibility for shallow drafted vessels. The Sea Lock at Tarleton onto the River Douglas has even more constraints as the tidal surge only reaches the lock a little over an hour before high water and before that it looks like a small stream which does not cover any of the area in front of the lock. It then rapidly rises and the first boats can be allowed out. The lock only holds two typical narrow boats and takes about 10 minutes to cycle. The tide however falls more slowly and the access period is longer after the tide turns.

The window at the Savick Brook end is even narrower and on our crossing we were told that with a 8.6 metre tide the last entry through the Savick Brook Sealock would be 60 minutes after high tide. There are a set of lights are installed at the entry to the Savick Brook to allow safe passage to the sea lock. If you do not make it in time you must then proceed to Preston Docks, a further mile and a half upstream, and stay until a passage can be arranged back into Savick Brook. As stated earlier the Preston Dock Sea Lock can be operated for an hour longer than Savick Brook and even if you miss that it is possible to tie onto a wall in the outer area. Assuming everything goes well and you find a green light you still have to proceed 0.6 mile up the Savick Brook to reach the Rotating Sealock gate which is lowered to the river bed and you then tie onto floating staging. Even when all the boats have arrived you still have to wait for the tide to fall enough to allow headroom under the Savick Bridge and to stop the tidal flow through the narrow channel to the Sea Lock. At that point the Rotating Sealock gate is raised and the boats start on the flight of locks.

It is clear that days with higher tides offer greater margins although you will be pushing against stronger flows so book early and turn up early to ensure you are in an early locking when leaving the Rufford Branch at Tarleton. It is less essential to turn up early when leaving the Lancaster Canal as the boats are all held together at the Rotating Sealock until the tidal surge arrives at which point a horn is blown, the gate lowered and the surge hits the boats like a minor tidal wave just as you are taking the mooring lines off! The two passages are covered in some detail in the cruising log for our visit and have merited separate pages with copious pictures.

Preparing the boat

But before making such a crossing one has to thinks very seriously about preparation of the boat. The first crossing of the Ribble will almost certainly stress the engine, drive chain and some accessories more than ever before and that is when any incipient weaknesses will be discovered. I worked in the satellite and aviation game for my whole working life - that tends to develop an attitude to look for problems before they occur and to make sure weaknesses are identified at a time they can be solved rather than lead to a disaster. The major difference between the Ribble crossing and normal narrowboat operations on a river, tidal or otherwise, is that you are bucking the tidal flow virtually the whole way and at times the flows are higher than the normal canal cruising speeds you will use. With a 47 foot boat with a 30 hp engine we were running at between 95% and 100% of our maximum rpm into the water for an hour and a half on the outward crossing and the time could be considerably longer on days of peak tides. Larger boats will be less stressed as the displacement speeds will be higher and engines larger but the ratio to normal running will still be large. Let us look at the most likely problems and what can be done.

Cooling: The major problem identified by British Waterways as suffered by boats on the crossing is overheating. Most narrowboats are cooled via tanks in contact with the water through the skin of the boat. The area in contact, particularly on older boats, is seldom sufficient to continuously dissipate the heat generated at full power. Older David Piper boats have two cooling tanks but only one was connected unless the boat was going to be based on a river like Corinna. Waterways recommend starting with full domestic water tanks and running off hot water steadily during the passage to use the calorifier circuit for additional cooling. On Corinna we also have a fan driven heater in the calorifier circuit to heat the boat - this is capable of providing 3 KW at normal domestic hot water temperatures and probably closer to 4 KW at engine temperatures so we ran that during the crossings.

Cooling can only take place into the water so also balance the boat so the swim is well in the water as air can be drawn under the swim which not only makes the prop inefficient but reduces cooling - a big air gap could be seen under one of the boats on the outward journey until they slowed up slightly. If the boat is hauled out the area of the skin used for cooling should be checked and it should be noted that a thick build-up of Comastic or bitumen will reduce the transmission of heat.

Another problem is that the header tanks may not have sufficient capacity to cope with the expansion when the cooling tanks reach high temperature if there is a high percentage of antifreeze which expands more than water. We have to operate with a very low level when the engine is cold on Corinna and we siphoned off a litre during the passage and replaced it at the end to avoid the risk of it overflowing. The tank should be visible and is perhaps the best indication of the cooling state as it reflects the temperature of the cooling water in the cooling tanks.

Most narrowboat engines do not have a pressurised system to avoid stressing the calorifier circuits, if you do have a pressurised system then any overheating will stress hoses even more than usual and you will discover any weaknesses. All hoses should obviously be checked and changed if there is the slightest doubt - remember the calorifier circuit is just as important and the flexible hoses to the tank may not be easily accessible or visible and there is no reason why they should have been checked during normal engine services. We get our engine professionally serviced once a year as well as our own intermediate services and I do not recall any of the engineers checking the calorifier circuit. We changed all those hoses two years ago and we carry sufficient hose and clips on board to replace any hose or make a bypass for the calorifier circuit however it would be nearly impossible on a steaming hot engine.

Engine Compartment Cooling: The engine is obviously going to be hotter than usual and engine holes often have little cooling. We have added to the ventilation by spacing the board away from one of the walls and put a vent by the alternator fan. Others on the trip took out one board completely. We had one anomaly which we can only attribute to the high temperature. The fan belts were checked at the professional service about 70 hours before the trip and inspected and the tension checked by me immediately before the crossing, however after the crossing one belt was found to have started to delaminate. The belt was only two years old and the only cause we can think of was that the problem was due to running at an unusually high temperature. We carry spare belts but changing a belt on a hot engine at anchor would not be amusing. Added to which we found that the spare belt (from Halfords) was a different size to the markings on the box!

Fuel System: Before we cover the more routine checks we will look at other changes or additions that may be needed. Firstly we will be travelling on rougher water than most boats do routinely and that causes problems with the fuel system. For example we have been told that many of the British Waterways maintenance boats had a habit of stopping shortly after getting on to tidal waterways and the problem was located to be dirty fuel and water at the bottom of the fuel tanks. The first time the tank is well shaken or the boat rolls this reaches the feed pipe, the filter blocks (or worse still it reaches the injectors) and the engine stops. Before travelling along the Rivers Trent and Ouse many years ago we siphoned out a sample from our tank and for this trip all three boats fitted extra pre filters with water separators which can be drained from the bottom to remove water. We got a bracket welded in place for ours to be fitted as it needs to be low so it can fill by gravity. It has a course fuel filter and large water separator combined which ought to be changed every 200 hours but we will see how much is picked up and hope it will last longer as they are comparatively expensive. Many engines such as our Thorneycroft already have two filters as there is a tiny filter built into the bottom of the fuel pump, this is unfortunately the one that sees any contamination first and has very little capacity. It is not mentioned in the Thorneycroft engine manual and the filters are very difficult to get and expensive as they are not a standard car or lorry filter. You need to make sure that it is also changed at the correct intervals when you or your engineer services the engine.

Propeller: Propellers are matched by the boat-builder to the hull, engine and type of waters on which the boat will be used. Many narrowboats have a slightly courser pitch propeller optimum to get maximum power into the water so they cruise at lower revs on canals (4 mph max) and ordinary rivers. After our engine had been run in for a year David Piper changed the pitch of our propeller so Corinna is optimised for the River Thames and runs at between 1350 and 1550 rpm for 5 mph depending on stream. This is easily checked on the Thames as there are special markers set up and if you take 60 seconds between markers that is 5 mph. The downside of this is that flat out we only used to reach 2200/2300 rpm which is below that for maximum power into the water. Now the propeller is old and worn and the engine has done 7000 hours we are lucky to get 2100/2200. A new and courser pitch propeller would have increased our margins especially if we had needed to help another boat. With hindsight we should have changed the propeller.

Battery management: Whilst we are considering power one should consider the demands of auxiliary systems. Corinna has two alternators, one a 55 amp 12 volt for engine start and domestic batteries and one 35 amp 24 volt alternator for our inverter. The 24 volt packs take full charge in the mornings for 2 or three hours which is about 1.5 bhp less available to drive the boat during the passage and for the critical first half hour another bhp may be lost into the domestic batteries. The lesson is to charge batteries before starting the crossings (this happens down the locks at the Savick Brook end) and if you have even more alternator capacity and fancy battery charging managers turn them off and/or isolate batteries not required. On Corinna we can cut down from a 195 Amp Hours to 85 and the others turned off their Sterling controllers and could hear an immediate increase in rpm on the crossing - if nothing else it reduces the cooling requirements.

Trim and hull cleanliness: If you do any sailing you will realise the difference that a haul-out, clean and fresh antifouling makes. On the yachts we sail it can be worth over half a knot under engine and transforms the boat under sail. The effects of a clean and blacking on a narrowboat may not be quite so great but everything helps. We had a haul-out and a fresh coating of Comastic immediately before we left Red Bull Basin for the Lancaster. We also had a hull survey and the surveyor said it was also very important to clean the bottom plate as much as possible and removing the mussels would give a big improvement. We scraped off several carrier bags of mussels in addition to what came off with a pressure wash. Trimming the boat can give further minor performance gains. We trimmed the swim to be an inch under water to avoid air being sucked under and into the propeller and to also make sure we got full cooling through the skin cooling tanks. We carried adequate water for emergency cooling but not so much as to lower the boat and change the trim and we empty the holding tank to lighten the boat and prevent splashing.

Engine and Drive Chain: it is very important to get a proper engine service and check before such a trip. We do most of our services but get a professional to do a check at least every 400 hours, and this was done at Red Bull just before we left. It ensured that the little diesel filter on the pump was changed; the tappets were adjusted and would normally have ensured the gearbox oil was changed. At least one well found boat had a gearbox eject cogs going up the locks after a crossing - that would have been at best a tow in job half an hour earlier. During the service the splines connecting the gearbox to the drive plate should be checked. We found after the Yorkshire Ouse 7 years ago that the splines were paper thin and it had been missed in the service 400 hours earlier. So ask explicitly for them to be checked - a good engineer will be able to feel play without taking everything apart.

Couplings and Gearboxes: We found two other problems when we were checking the drive chain which we will mention as a caution as they were invisible until the drive chain was dismantled. In this case we believe we know the cause and something similar will have happened to many boaters at some point. On the way up the South Oxford we were entering a lock and were in reverse at little above tick-over when there was a tremendous bang and the engine stopped dead and it was impossible to disengage reverse gear as the lever would not move. Pete opened the weed hatch expecting a major foul on the prop but found nothing. At this point Pauline noticed a broken off shaft, the 2 inch diameter ash poles used to push off to avoid any confusion, floating behind which had been sucked into the prop from we know not where and stopped the engine dead. We could not get it out of gear so Pete finally decompressed the engine and turned it over with the starter and everything seemed to return to normal. A close inspection showed one bolt had been ejected from the engine which was one of 8 holding on the gearbox support plate to the flywheel cover - the threads looked smooth but close inspection showed they were full of aluminium from the casting! The shock load must have been tremendous. The R&D flexible coupling was already suspect but after a very close inspection seemed intact and everything seemed to work although there was some slight vibration so we proceeded with care on up to Red Bull.

When the drive chain was stripped the R&D coupling had three of the four connections with hairline cracks in a position invisible before it was stripped, the gearbox casing casting was cracked and had lost one mounting position (amazingly without losing oil) and one propeller blade was distorted and had to be straightened. If we had run at full power for long periods we would have had a very high chance of a catastrophic failure. Ask yourself if you have ever had such an incident and get an expert to check for damage.

Skin Fittings: To complete the list of potential problems we know about you should look at where all the skin fittings, cockpit drains, exhaust fittings etc are positioned. If you look at the pictures of Corinna at full power you will see that the maximum height of the wash is above several of the fittings. David Piper has obviously positioned them so they are well clear of the various high points but that may not be the case on all boats and you do not want the boat flooded through a shower pump exit or a cockpit drain. Check the integrity of the skin fittings as they a natural point for corrosion and make sure the pipes are routed high to any centrifugal pumps if they could be covered at speed and syphon water in. We have heard of one boat which it is alleged had to be towed in and was close to sinking due to a problem on the exhaust fitting which was initially submerged at speed and by the end was permanently underwater. Our understanding is that it was an unusual and extreme problem with a near complete separation of the exhaust fitting - the first the skipper knew was that the boat was slowing down at which point he found the floors were already underwater.

Anchors: If the worst happens and you do get a major failure or more likely a major propeller foul you may need to anchor. We do quite a lot of sailing and anchor at the end of every day, several hundred times so far. The conventional wisdom is that to get a good holding you need at least three times the depth of water if you are using plenty of chain or 5 times if you are only using rope, any less and the anchor will not dig in properly. BW recommend a minimum of 30 metres which we feel is marginal bearing in mind that the tides are up to 9.6 metres above the datum and you may well be in the middle of the channel. Normally you point into stream, slow up till you are stationary above the bottom, lower the anchor and drop back in a controlled manner, letting out the line until you have the 3-5 times deployed. This will not be the case in most emergencies and the anchor will go over and one hopes it holds. It is possible it will not only end up holding but dig in completely and immediately so do not have the anchor attached to a fitting on the roof or high up. You could roll the boat over or hurt people as it tightens - think of the tension needed to stop a 15 ton boat in a 4 or more mile per hour tidal flow. We have fitted a 'nose ring' just above the water line for such emergency use on Corinna. An excellent idea we learnt from our pilot on the River Trent was to also have a 56lb mud weight. When deployed it will drag enough to slow the boat, swing it into stream and give some control - a full anchor can then be deployed at relative leisure. He said that on the Trent the mud weight had been sufficient most times to allow him to steer into slack water.

Testing and qualifying the boat: Perhaps the most important action one can carry out before the Ribble Link is to check how the boat actually behaves at the speeds required and for a long enough period to expose any problems. In the Space game where I worked for many years it is called qualification and anything sent into orbit is checked at various stages of development and on the actual flight hardware to levels greater than it will see during the launch and in orbit. It is obviously impossible to run at suitable levels on canals so one needs a suitable river. The River Thames has a speed limit of 5 mph and upstream we run at 1550 rpm when there is any appreciable stream giving us 5.4 -5.5 mph through the water. David Piper designed our boat for these speeds with slightly more rake at the prow and twin cooling tanks. Before we went on the River Trent and the Yorkshire Ouse we ran Corinna upstream on the River Severn at 1650 rpm, equivalent to about 5.6 mph, for 5 hours so we knew we would not have major cooling problems.

However we had just carried out major work on the whole drive chain and were not sure what ultimate speed we could achieve and what margins we could reserve at the 6 mph specified by British Waterways for boats using the Ribble Link. We therefore decided to drop down the Anderton Lift onto the River Weaver which has a 6 mph limit. We did various runs using the GPS for calibration, finishing with a 3 mile run upstream at 2000 rpm, which we believe was very close to the 6 mph required. Flat out we could pull 2050 rpm so we were very close to the limit but that run was early in the morning while the batteries were still charging. We would expect to have an extra 3 bhp in hand by the time they were up. We had no signs of overheating but an old problem showed up, namely the rpm would steadily drop as the throttle lever moved back with time - we have a piece of shock cord to keep it steady at normal cruising rpm as there is no friction adjustment on our Morse Control. The problem was solved by hanging two sandals on the end of the throttle lever.

Safety and Navigation Equipment

British Waterways recommend in their skippers guide that the following equipment is carried as a minimum:

Anchor Chain and rope (minimum 30 metres) A fully charged and switched on Mobile phone is essential (the number was the only thing checked during check-in procedure) A VHF marine radio (requires a licence and appropriately qualified operator) Life jackets which are worn throughout the journey. Fire Fighting equipment (a strange requirement to specify as every boat needs it to get a safety certificate) A coastal Flare Pack

They also specify that you should keep an awareness of your vessels position at all times so the emergency services can reach you. They fail to note that you are likely to go aground or go the wrong way if you don't know where you are and you have no time to waste going the wrong way.

Initially we understand they checked the boats and reserved the right to prohibit boats leaving which did not meet sensible standards. We saw no signs of checks and we understand that a boat made the crossing recently without even an anchor. Current legislation probably means BW staff cannot even comment for fear of taking responsibility and likewise will not volunteer any advice. Likewise they abdicate responsibility for assistance or advice if you get into trouble and advise you call Preston River Control and/or the Coastguards.

This brings me to the equipment we carried above and beyond what would be normally carried on a narrowboat.

Marine Radio: To us the most obviously cost effective improvement to safety was a marine radio. A marine radio has a considerable advantage as it is a one to many. Any parties involved in a rescue can hear what is going on and there are none of the delays with getting through on a mobile phone and just getting an answering service - channel 16 will be monitored by Preston River Control, the coastguards and most other boats in the area who can offer assistance. Used on a suitable channel between boats it has good range and will not tie up the mobile which may be used by BW. We bought a handheld set specifically for the crossing and Pauline had already taken the one day course and examinations - handset prices are now down to under 50 pounds if you look for special offers at boat-shows. This meant all the boats were equipped with marine radio and we used channel 6 as a working channel. We also all have simple walkie-talkies for inter-boat communication whilst cruising and for lock-wheeling and they were set to channel 6 to avoid any risk of confusion under stress.

Flares: The fact that it advised that boats carry flares and that ultimate assistance is from the coastguards should bring home to one that the trip should be taken seriously. A coastal flare pack is expensive, is time limited and never likely to be used afterwards so it means that few will buy them. We compromised and had one pack at about 70 pounds between us - if there had been any risk of poor visibility we could have divided them between us. To us the cost benefits of a marine radio outweighed a coastal flare pack as we had GPS and could give exact coordinates to rescue craft. That is not to say that the advice from Waterways should be ignored but it seems to us that BW should loan (or hire out) packs if they really believe it is required; they could easily be issued at one end and collected at the other.

GPS: We have a simple hand held GPS used for sailing and in our car and hire vans where it is Velcroed to the dashboard. The coordinates of the Asland Light and the entry to Savick Brook are given in the first Mates guide and we used an OS map to enter the other major waypoints and set up a route. This firstly told us that the distance was slightly greater than the BW documentation said and the distances actually logged on the outward and return trips were 8.7 and 8.8 statute miles from Tarleton Sea Lock to the Savick Brook Rotating Sea-lock gate. It also gave us speeds and indications of progress. Without that information we would have been tempted to slacken off and then we would all have ended up in Preston. As you proceed down the River Douglas you are presented with a wide stretch of water covering the marshes either side as well as sandbanks. The advice to head for the buildings shown on the pictures in the Skippers Guide is good but it was difficult to identify the Asland Lamp from a distance even with excellent visibility and binoculars. We took a much more direct course than the lead boat and were at the point of calling to advise them they were off course. It was also useful on the return to know we were in the channel at the start of the River Douglas especially as some of the perches are missing. Our advice is that if you have a GPS to set it and use it - it may have saved us a couple of minutes which proved important against the deadline.

Other equipment suggestions: Binoculars are essential for early identification of the Asland Lamp, Savick Brook and to check the numbering etc on the perches. They were also useful to identify and avoid some of the masses of floating garbage including a number of whole branches of trees. We laminated all the important paper information so it was waterproof and would not blow away easily. We could not find a detailed Marine Chart so we used an OS 1:50,000 Map for waypoints and laminated the section of importance. One omission in our case was not to bring a sighting compass. A GPS cannot be trusted to hold lock or work when it is most required and a sighting compass would be useful for navigation. Good marine sighting compasses like we use sailing do not come cheap - the standard Plastimo Model 50 we have for sailing can be priced at anything up to 50 pounds. Given a choice of investing in extra safety a marine radio (and radio operators course if you are not licensed) would come top of our list followed by GPS and then Compass. They all involve some investment in time to avoid them being more of a hazard than a benefit - you should not be teaching yourself navigation on the crossing!

Final Preparations and checklists

The following is based on our check lists prior to the crossings:

The Crossings

The crossings and the Ribble Link itself are covered more fully in full in Pauline's Daily Log Part 2 - Outward crossing - Tarleton, River Douglas, River Ribble to Savick Brook and the Millenium Ribble Link and Part 5 - Return crossing - Ribble Link, Savick brook, River Ribble and River Douglas to Tarleton so this is only a brief summary for completeness at this point.

Both crossings were on nearly perfect days with excellent visibility, little wind and smooth seas without swell. We had no problems with cooling or other boat systems running close to flat out the whole way and our navigation was spot on. Despite this we only just made it across in time on the outward trip on a day with 8.6 metre tides. We were in the second locking from Tarleton of three locks and both boats passed one of the boats from the first locking within a mile. At the other end we made it with only two or three minutes to spare before the deadline phoned to us during the passage as we were approaching the control lights at the entry to Savick Brook - any slower and we would have had to divert to Preston Dock as did the boats in the last locking of our day. The outward crossing took 1 hour 40 minutes and the GPS log recorded the length as 8.7 statute miles. One surprise was that there was turbulence as we turned the Asland Lamp and we were glad that we had padding in the kitchen cupboards and had screwed the doors shut. The sensation of even a small angle of heel is not comfortable on a narrowboat.

The return was with 9.1 metre tides and the margin is also much greater on the return trip. We were however surprised how strong the incoming tide was on Savick Brook and on the River Ribble and once more ran at close to full power, as on the outward trip, completing the crossing from Rotating Sea-lock to Tarleton Lock entry in 1 hour 42 minutes (8.8 statute miles) with a large margin as the tide had barely turned at Tarleton. Both outward and return GPS log distances were slightly longer than the British Waterways figures but inspection showed we had taken the optimum route.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is, of course, "Would we do it again"? The answer is yes, we enjoyed the Lancaster Canal and, in retrospect, the crossings and we will do it again if the canal is ever opened as far as Kendal. But there are some caveats which we ask are included if anyone quotes us! Firstly we would only do it with a 'buddy boat' for mutual security and in the knowledge that both boats had been fully prepared and equipped and proven (qualified) to the levels which are met during the crossing, as we have discussed. Secondly we would fit a more powerful engine and better matched prop as we have the power for the crossing in ideal conditions but without any margin for problems, rough seas or, most important, to offer help to a 'buddy boat'.


This article is intended to increase your awareness and help you prepare and not replace any information from British Waterways or other bodies responsible for operating the waterways. You should carefully consider your own requirements and any suggestions here should be looked at in your own circumstances and any information cross-checked as we take no responsibility for the accuracy or appropriatness of any information provided here - you have ultimate responsibility as skipper of the safety of your boat and all on it. Where there are any differences between what we say or imply and the advice of British Waterways or any other professionals responsible for operations you should follow their instructions.

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