Oooh, Mersey mercy me!
Here is a story of two guys going for a long paddle on the Mersey, but that’s only the superficial story. The Deeper Message is that the Mersey deserves to be paddled more. The river is good to us paddlers (with ifs and buts, keep reading).
On 19 September 2020 we had one of the biggest spring tides of the year (10.04 m at Gladstone Lock) which gives a flood current of 6 knots in places. I thought this would be an ideal opportunity the see how far I’d get on the river – would it be possible to get from the mouth of the river to Warrington and back? The best way to find out is to try it and I found another crazy person (Brian Green) to team up with. I’d leave from New Brighton and he’d trolley from home in Waterloo, adding a few more miles (so in fact he’s crazier than me), with us communicating over VHF and meeting on the water. That worked well, but it’s striking how hard it is to spot each other even from quite close by. I had to paddle ¾ of the way to the other side to spot Brian. Apparently, it is easier to spot a very tall guy with ginger hair than a normal tall guy with, ermmm, no ginger hair.
The flow was working well and we enjoyed a pleasant push past the Three Graces and on to Otterspool promenade. Once past there, the river widens to about 5 km but we still enjoyed good tidal assistance and often made 15 km/h (9 mph). This section also has sandbanks – they were covered but did generate medium-sized overfalls which kept us on our toes. All of this happened with an easterly headwind force 3-4 (gusting 5) against the tide which definitely added “interest” but nothing too dramatic. It’s good to have a GPS indicating ground speed, because subjectively it felt like we weren’t going anywhere.
We reached Runcorn Bridge after 30 km and just over 2.5 h of paddling and cracked on to the new Gateway bridge. A few miles further the Mersey becomes narrow and proper river-like, but still with good tidal assistance. On big springs, the tide even tops the weir in Warrington. On big springs, there can also be a bore – we later found out we missed it by 20’, but it was a small, non-surfable one because of the opposing wind.
We made it to Warrington albeit just a few miles short of the weir. But the tide had started to turn and we still had to get back, ideally before sunset. After a brief lunch break at the Fiddler’s Ferry Sailing Club (big thanks for letting us use the slipway and loos, and for nice chats) we cracked on to discover that the river was starting to expose sandbanks between the two bridges, but with a good channel running so progress was good. This is where we just missed some North West Sea kayakers (they spotted us though).
West of Runcorn Bridge we stuck to the right bank towards Hale Point. So far, so good. Once past Hale Point, it was the Wild West though! It was quite interesting psychologically. That first scratch of the paddle against the bottom I tried to just ignore, “it didn’t happen”. The second one, hmmm, third one… Of course, soon enough we were sat on a sandbank, cursing, and with no other option than to carry and drag our boats. It wasn’t so bad – we had two “portages” of about 10’ each but we felt uncertain about what was yet to come, with no overview of where the good channels were (they move a lot and charts are unreliable here).
We only knew it would only get worse, so we had to move fast. Thinking back, it made sense why the river was lower now than it was on the outward leg. Firstly, the tides have a delay going up the river – so when we turned in Warrington, the tide was already ebbing for about an hour in the “sandbank” area. Secondly, the quite strong Easterly wind probably pushed the water out faster than on a calm day.
Eventually we found the Garston Channel – a relief, and the beginning of the final stretch. It is only when you paddle past buoys that you realise how fast the current is.
It was beautiful! Our bodies felt OK, the Liverpool skyline was glowing golden and we could almost smell that fresh pint waiting for us. After nine hours and 85 km in the boat, I was welcomed in New Brighton by Mieke, while Brian carried on to Crosby and perfected his trolleying skills (I’m sure they’re really good now).
What a day, what a paddle!
Some notes on paddling the Mersey (the “ifs and buts”)
The Mersey is underpaddled – it certainly is different from, say, North wales, but it has its own appeal. The “river” needs to be treated as the sea in terms of required skills and planning. In fact, most of the times it would fall within the Advanced remit because of the general lack of landing spots and the conditions you might encounter. Also, IF you’d be in trouble, either you’re far away from people/help, or very close to them which might mean a guest appearance in the Liverpool Echo, and surely we don’t want that. Also, The Mersey is no good for rescue practice etc. (unless you really want to fill your sinuses with mud).
I divide the Mersey in three sections:
- Lower Mersey: from the mouth (New Brighton/ Crosby) to Eastham (Manchester Ship Canal entrance). Here is the fastest flow (up to 6 kts) and the most traffic, including container ships, oil carriers, ferries, tugs and pilot boats. There are only few sandbanks in this area and they are close to Eastham. They can produce overfalls. This area has lots of landing stages and constructions. Stay clear of them because they are dangerous (you can get pinned etc.) especially with a big current (some club members can testify).
- Eastham to Fiddler’s Ferry: this is much more remote and indeed in the airport area the river is 5 km wide. There are many sandbanks creating overfalls and drying out around mid-tide (I estimate). The navigable channels change here, and there is no reliable chart for this area. Once past Hale Point it is best to stick to the middle of the river and then onto the left to cross Runcorn Bridge (beware for a back eddy on the flood just after Hale Point on the left; i.e. the right bank of the river). Past Runcorn Bridge and toward the gateway Bridge, there are sandbanks in the middle; best stick close to either bank. The river then narrows.
- Fiddlers’ Ferry and upstream: as you approach the Sailing Club the Mersey becomes a river proper, albeit very tidal at springs.
A few things to bear in mind when planning:
- The tide is delayed the more you go upstream. This gives you lots of time when paddling upstream but works against you (in terms of having enough water) when paddling back towards the mouth. On springs, HW at Hale Point is Liverpool (Gladstone Lock) +35’, at Widnes +45’, at Fiddler’s ferry +65’ and at Warrington + 85’.
- In most places, the Mersey is flood dominated, so the flood last shorter but is faster than the ebb. Keep this in mind – the way back downstream is going to take longer.
- Sand banks – if you are going to cut it fine (like we did 😊) take a trolley.
- It is best to inform Holyhead Coastguard of your plans (phone or VHF Ch 16) – they like that. Not just for your own safety, but also to prevent unnecessary RNLI shouts. On our trip, a “concerned member of the public” apparently found it necessary to call the coastguard when we were happily cruising past the ferry terminal in calm conditions. The Coastguard knew we were on the water and were able to make sure we were not in distress.
- When paddling the lower Mersey, it is mandatory to contact the harbour control (Mersey VTS, VHF Ch 12), tell them of your plans and reassure them that you will stay clear of commercial traffic. Big ships will almost certainly radio Mersey VTS if (if) they spot kayaks (usually labelled “canoeists”) and if the VTS can just reply “yes we know they’re there, all is fine” then this will make us look like pros.
- Below are the tidal profiles from our paddle (from Navionics). These are cropped midnight to midnight, with our start time (about 10:30 am) as the crosshair. You’ll see Liverpool to Eastham behaves mostly “textbook”, but higher up it gets really funky, with an extra rise and fall at the end of the ebb thrown in, then a very fast (bore-like) rise and a slow ebb. So, there is a quite small window to paddle Fiddlers Ferry upstream – between 12:33 and 14:09 (in this example). They look very different on neaps when the tide doesn’t get to Warrington at all.
- Chris Michael, Boat Cruising in the Mersey Area. https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/~cmi/mersey/
- Reed’s Atlas
- Own experience/mistakes