Afloat in the Sheffield Floods

“Give it a good thump; here’s the mooring hammer”. To that stake nbCopperkinsII remained tethered for ten hours in eight feet of floodwaters, while two million tonnes of water rushed through our railway bridge at six miles per hour.


We started the day on a canal section of the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation above Ickles Lock, just behind Rotherham Football ground. We were mooring there on the way to Sheffield Basin only because the advertised 8am-7pm opening times of Tinsley flight just don’t work like that; the required 24-hours’ notice allows the lockkeepers to adjust boaters’ arrival to their needs of working. Without that constraint we would have passed across Jordan’s weir while the River Don was still navigable on Sunday evening.


The rain continued heavily all night and a Monday-morning weir-visit showed safe progress to be impossible; lots of water flowed over the full hundred metres of side weir, and running along the towpath couldn’t keep up with twigs floating in the river’s current above it. The four of us settled to a day of crosswords and soduku, while we listened to the rain. By 4pm the view of the bank opposite changed its angle as water came over Jordans Lock and Holmes Lock into our pound, flooded the towpath and started our eight feet vertical rise, reaching maximum height by midnight and falling again during the night, to deposit us back where we began by 7am.


Nobody would willingly choose to be aboard for this journey: had we known what was to happen while able to walk along the towpath, it would have been a tricky choice whether to stay or go. Evacuation would have required more secure attachment than a mooring spike, an accurate prediction of how slack the lines needed to be and acceptance that Copperkins would find its own resting place as the waters fell, and probably sink. But there was no time to write the ten pages of risk assessment that BW needs before any decision these days. More to the point, once up three feet over the towpath, Alastair and Peggy, who are in their eighties, might have needed the helicopter, with its own hazards.


We just have to back our judgement in these situations: it's easier than dicing with a 40-ton lorry on the sliproad, and in my estimation we never passed the stage of 'no immediate danger'. Overall it was a stimulating experience; I had a workable plan and was thinking clearly about it as we rose. Using a rope I always carry for emergencies, I tied to the underside of the railway bridge when its ten-feet-above underside beams were reachable with the hooked boatpole. This became our second line of defence; I trusted the rope to take the snatch when the mooring pin come out, assuming we would swing into the stream from which our bridge pillar had been giving some protection. We were trusting our lives to these ropes, our knots to extend them, and our overall strategy of staying where were; but then we do the same with the front tyre whenever we drive on the motorway. It wasn’t all calmness all evening: I berated the use of the corridor for the frivolous activity of making tea when a furious dash to the tiller might be needed: it was the stress doing the talking, and I was better off with the tea.


Our third defensive resource was the engine, which we kept running with the tiller-bar in place. Having watched a boat on the tidal Ouse steering into Selby lock, I understand the technique of blasting full-ahead against the flow, while actually moving with control, in reverse relative to the bank. We also had the anchor ready for deployment and attached to its ten metres of heavy chain and twenty metres of hefty rope. This was kept in reserve because I wanted to hold to the mooring pin for as long as we could; we knew the profile of the bank we had moored to, and what would be needed on the way down, but nothing of the hazards downstream. The anchor would have gone in to help the engine if we had needed to fight the current.


We had some helpers to support us. Railwaymen on the bridge above were sorting out problems on their railway, and offered support a couple of times. Other boaters sent us a their emergency-services fireman to check our progress, and he could have summoned a helicopter had we really needed it. When it did swoop our way, we gave a thumbs-up rather than frantic friendly waves, which might have given the wrong impression. We were also helped by “DE50”, a graffiti artist: his tag on the bridge easily identified each course of bricks and helped count the covering of an extra course every fifteen minutes.


Less helpful were the telephones: as soon as flooding overcame our part of Sheffield and Rotherham, all the cellphone networks were overloaded, and all five of our phones on three separate networks were unable to make a call more than once-per-dozen tries. With happenstance, a mistyped BW emergency number connected us to BW’s Mark Jenkinson(?), who was driving somewhere in the Midlands, and much surprised to be talking to discomforted boaters in Sheffield. He helpfully passed on our position to our family, to the proper BW emergency number with a request to ring us, and some hours later checked back personally. We never heard from the BW emergency service.


We found out later that other boats in our pound fared worse than we had. One fifteen-foot narrowboat sank as it remained tied to the bank as the waters rose. One man was moving boats, fell in, was swept past the lock fittings on to which he couldn't hold, and was more fortunate with the concrete bridge below. He was hauled out with a life ring, and survived. One Sheffield Keel (63' by 14' barge) was the core of a raft made by the boats moored in small boatyard above the lock. But they came down higgledy-piggeldy; one was in the lock cottage garden and a digger was used to  push off the bank. The occupants of the lock cottage left when the waters reached knee height, and like may Sheffielders, their home and possessions are now wrecked.


Another Sheffield Keel was roped to the piling as the flood started and was soon at 45 degrees. It seemed likely to sink, but broke free, turned sideways in the flow and began to bear down on the raft of boats moored above the lock. It was the position of this eighty tons of boat that decided me against joining the raft when they invited us. Its bow rope held for a while, it completed a 180 degree turn and floated to the bank where it remained without further danger. It came down with the front four feet on the bank, at a crazy angle where it stayed for three days until jacking and winching persuaded it back to its moorings. The piling on the bank is a bit buckled.


On the way down, we stayed awake in shifts, and to pass the small hours I did one live interview with Radio Five Live and two with Radio Sheffield; while I slept, Elaine did another. They then phoned us for a fourth interview on Wednesday morning: I can dine-out on the tale that Radio Sheffield lunchtime news roundup re-played my early-morning clip, and only then went on to the news of what Tony Blair was doing (resigning).


Having been married for 33 years to a sewerage engineer who speaks of her work over lunch, I have outgrown squeamishness. Our fireman told us that the River Don had just overwhelmed Sheffield’s main sewerage plant at Blackburn Meadows, just above Jordan’s weir on its way to our bridge: I have never before been so surrounded by my spouse’s professional interest. With an inch of black mud on the towpath, it is reassuring that two million tons of water can do a lot of diluting.