Unusual Cruises: Manchester Ship Canal
PUBLISHED: 15:56 24 November 2016 | UPDATED: 15:56 24 November 2016
It's huge and busy, but it's not all that difficult to traverse and can save a lot of cruising time. Stuart Coney explores the Manchester Ship Canal
Opportunities sometimes present themselves by chance and it’s special if you can seize them. We were planning a summer trip to the north-west, an area where the four of us – John and Vanessa on nb Swift & Low with Clare and myself on nb Y Knot – first met 29 years ago. Although our careers took us to different parts of the country, we have remained good friends, seeing a lot more of each other over the last four years while cruising.
Chester, Frodsham and the River Weaver were on our list of destinations to visit in Cheshire. The Shropshire Union up to Ellesmere Port and the National Waterways Museum would allow us to visit Chester, with the River Weaver taking us close to Frodsham and Northwich.
The traditional route would be to go to Ellesmere Port, retrace our steps back to Barbridge, along the Middlewich Branch (Wardle Canal), on to the Trent & Mersey and down in the Anderton Lift to the River Weaver. With 56 miles, 24 locks and cruising for six hours a day, we would be there in four days. The other option was a ‘short cut’ – six miles, two locks and three hours on the Manchester Ship Canal.
The MSC was opened in 1894, starting at the Mersey Estuary near Liverpool and running 36 miles to Manchester. It took six years to build at a cost of £15 million, (an estimated £1.5 billion in today’s money). At its peak in 1958, it carried 20 million tons, now it is around 8 million.
Anyway, John and I were excited by the idea, the girls slightly less so. But wouldn’t it be great to look up at the Frodsham and Helsby hills from the Ship Canal rather than the other way around, as we did all those years ago? John contacted Peel Ports, who operate the MSC, to see if it was possible, while I made contact with Peter Bolt, Chairman of the North-West Branch of the Inland Waterways Association, and Mike Carter, the Navigation Officer. They were extremely helpful, and we were in business.
We arranged to meet one of the designated Boat Surveyors at Barbridge to gain our ‘certificate of seaworthiness’, one of the Peel Ports conditions of travelling on the MSC. Most of the requirements are now covered by the Boat Safety Certificate (BSC), but the Peel Ports terms and conditions were set before its introduction and, so I understand, it would take an Act of Parliament to make an amendment. An anchor and chain, along with 15m ropes/warps, are the main additions to the BSC you may need to acquire.
We thought it best to have the survey done a week before we travelled. Along with our personal information and copy of our boat insurance, the survey needed to be received by Peel Ports 48 hours before we planned to go.
The National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port is certainly worth a visit and free entry for two people is included in the £13 mooring fee in the lower basin, additional nights are charged at £4. You cannot reserve a mooring with Canal & River Trust in advance at Ellesmere Port, which was a little frustrating as you need to notify Peel Ports on which day you plan to travel. We were assured by the duty manager Andy they would find a spot if you mentioned you were going on to the MSC.
Depending on your sense of adventure, you may want to cruise when there aren’t any large ships moving on the MSC – and some of them are big. The maximum size is 533ft long and 65.5ft wide. The evening before we set off, a tanker named The Duzgit Integrity, at 433ft and 62ft wide, went past. We were pleased we didn’t meet it coming the other way.
Eastham Control is the point of contact for the MSC and the two guys we spoke to there were helpful with advice on when to travel. They only know approximately 24 hours in advance when the ship movements are happening, so we were quite flexible in our timing to leave Ellesmere Port.
There is a fair amount of co-ordination required with the survey, mooring at Ellesmere Port, documentation for Peel Ports, the local council to open the swing bridge at the Ellesmere Port lock and CRT to open Weston Marsh Lock at the entrance to the River Weaver. After that, it’s plain sailing.
The only frustration was liaising with CRT who needed 48 hours’ notice to unlock the lock at Ellesmere Port and man the lock at Weston Point. It took an average of 12 minutes to get through to the central switchboard to speak to the Northwich office, which you cannot dial direct. On the day we set off, with the swingbridge open and Eastham Control asking us if we were going, we couldn’t get through at all to check everything was okay at Weston Marsh lock. In the end, we decided to phone the lock-keeper at Dutton Locks on the River Weaver and ask if they would contact the Northwich office for us.
It was 11am and we were off, Eastham Control had given us the all-clear and advised us to watch out for a working boat near Stanlow Oil refinery. The weather was kind, just a light breeze and scattered cloud, which made for a pleasant two-hour cruise.
There are oil refineries along the banks for probably half the trip and then open countryside, similar to the River Douglas, with sheep grazing in fields. In the distance you can see jets landing at Liverpool John Lennon airport and the Runcorn Widnes Silver Jubilee Bridge.
We passed the Helsby and Frodsham hills and started to look out for the turning into Weston Marsh Lock. There is now a useful landmark on the starboard bank, a brand new wind turbine, with another 19 to come. As advised in the IWA notes, we made sure to take a wide turn and avoid the sandbank on the corner.
It was an interesting cruise with plenty to see. We were now looking forward to the River Weaver after a safe passage through the lock. Luckily for us, though we were unaware when we waved goodbye to the friendly CRT guys, a chain broke on one of the lock gates and it was out of action for three days.
We had taken our opportunity and I would recommend it as a different way of cruising.
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