The Severn Bore
Sunday 20 March (20:53hrs)/ Monday 21 March (09:13hrs)
There’s a famous saying; ‘time and tide waits for no man’ and never have the two been put to the test more, than on a recent mini-adventure undertaken by Olwen, Dave T, John Jones and myself when we made a ‘B’ line to Gloucester for a ride on the Severn Bore.
The Bore is a natural phenomenon that occurs periodically on this river, creating a surging green wave up to nine feet tall, as the incoming tide is funnelled up the estuary into a relatively shallow and calm river. Read more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Severn_bore
It just so happened that we were in the area when an expected 4* wave was expected, thanks in part to a number of factors – the biggest moon in nearly 18 years, it coinciding with the Spring equinox and of course, Spring Tides. Not to look a gift horse (or Mother Nature) in the mouth, we wanted to give it a go.
Most of us were travelling back from a weekend paddling on the Pembrokeshire Coast so had plugged in the coordinates to Sat Nav and raced to make our get in at Over Bridge in time. This time happened to be 7.30pm, giving us leeway to paddle to the surf spot downstream at Stone Bench for 8.53pm. Have you worked out that we’re still in March – meaning that it’s bloody dark – and we’ll be paddling by only the light of the moon (in part because we forgot to pack head torches!).
This was also going to be my virgin ride on the Bore – apprehension was building as we kitted up and squeezed into our boats (in particular Dave, who’d not paddled his Blade in some years and had to rip out all the outfitting to make connection with the seat). Tick Tock. We were ready, standing in a lay-by at the side of the A417, time was passing and we really didn’t know what to expect – apart from John Jones at any moment, arriving from Bristol. We turned tail and headed through the dark thicket and towards the hidden river bank.
At the river, in the partial moonlight that seeped through the clouds overhead, we could only really see a precipice - did it lead to gently flowing water or muddy quagmire – some 12ft below? After a little umming, ahhing and hysterical laughter we went with the semi-safe option of seal-launching Dave down the bank with a throw line attached to the back of the boat (just in case he nose planted into mud). He survived with a splash. Both Olwen and I followed suit, John Jones was still somewhere back by the cars getting dressed at his own pace – and we started to make tracks to our ‘surf point’.
Paddling backwards to start with, it gave us an opportunity to find landmarks to help us recognise the get-out in the dark, as we’d be shooting past on the 10 knot current after the flood, and we’d need a reasonably steady eddy to attempt our scramble up the mud bank to safety. We then turned and paddled with the bumbling current for about 40 minutes along a tranquil and serine river letting our eyes get adjusted to the light of the moon reflecting off the clouds and river surface.
As we approached the last bend before the long straight following Stone Bench, we all started to wonder about what to expect – would there be room on the wave, as it’s started to get so popular? Would we even catch it? How big would it be? What if we ended up smashed into the trees on the side of the river? Would we lose everyone else? What if we got turned, mashed in the wave with a floating tree, shopping trolley or barrel?
Sea swells, rain and wind direction all have an effect on the Bore – which can change its shape and speed and it can often be between 20 minutes early or late. Tonight it was late.
We made our rendezvous point in good time and then had nothing else to do but wait, wait and let the nervousness rise, the apprehension and anticipation build and watch as the cloud bank slowly blew away revealing stars and hopefully the full moon (to give us a bit more light). John Jones caught up with us and we all began to float around in silence. Waiting.
“Here it comes, can you hear it?” calls Dave from the darkness, somewhere nearby on the river. That sound, something akin to herd of buffalo stampeding, that you’ve seen on the telly. That sound, quiet at first but slowly building in volume, I look over my shoulder and can’t see anything, but I hear crashing waves, I hear trees on the banks flushed with water, I can see nothing as the sound approaches me.
“Paddle, paddle as fast as you can and don’t be intimidated” says Dave again, the voice of a veteran, and advice I heed and action. It’s not as if there was any other choice, there was no escape from that gentle river now, no hope of making it to the bank, exiting my boat and scrabbling up the steep incline to the relative safety of solid ground before the Bore could reach me. I had to paddle.
It came at my from the corner of my eye, as my moving boat tilted downwards, the white horses of the wave crashed about me and settled into a halo about my bow. I was on. I was on the front wave, looking to the side I could just see others riding on the wave with me, scattered along the 70m width of the river. I zoomed along, I could feel the force of the water beneath my boat, see the power of the wave breaking about my bow and hear the surge make headway back up the river – I was totally immersed and grinning from ear to ear.
Close to the river bank my eyes kept darting ahead to the overhanging branches and shrubs that seemed to race towards me. I knew I didn’t want to pick a fight with them. I curved slightly off my near straight path towards the centre and stayed there a few moments longer, occasionally putting in a paddle stroke to keep ahead of the crest.
The wave changed. I slipped from the first wave and paddled like fury, enabling me to catch the secondary wave almost directly behind it – I continued to surf on this wave for another 80-90ft before slipping off this too. Then, as if for the first time I was able to see, the moon had finally banished its cloaking clouds and shone brightly down on a huge volume river, undulating and peaking with small waves – enough to push you forward but not to surf upon. This just wasn’t the same placid bimble I’d been waiting on a few minutes before and I was still making a good pace upstream with the flow – but this time I was alone.
Exhilarated and amazed with myself I’d surfed my first Bore wave – it had been fast, furious and a bit of a whirlwind – but I’d done it, and survived. Now, to find the others and make haste to the car (and pub, to celebrate) – had they ridden the wave all the way back, was I the first to come off, what if they’ve had an accident?
Dave was the first to catch up with me, an indistinct shadow on the river – we paddled a little, but making good ground with the flow – beaming at the thought of what we’d achieved. We also seemed to have lucked out on the wave with no-one but us four to play at our whim. It was a little while later that we heard the shloop-shloop of paddles behind us and Olwen coming into view out of the darkness, frustrated with herself for slipping off so early with her small boat. Shortly afterwards we reached a bend in the river and found John Jones, who had stayed on the longest, having taken on the trees at the near bank in order to get the steepest surface.
Reaching the get-out point, about 5 minutes later, we managed to find a couple of two-boat eddies and with the aid of some (thoughtfully packed) slings, tape and carabineers negotiated the mucky bank of the river to get us and the boats to the cars.
Somewhere near ‘cloud nine’ we got last orders and had a well deserved beer before finding a nearby hotel, so that we could kip down and do it all again the following morning on the next high tide!
With experience under our belts – as well as daylight to see by – on Monday morning we were like a well oiled machine getting ready for our trip from Over Bridge back to Stone Bench. This time we made it with about 10 minutes to spare and thanks to our big yellow sun could see the Bore wave as it curved around the bend and headed towards us. I now had my first glimpse of the wave that made that almighty racket last night and I wished it was dark again.
My first impression was how powerful it was as it bulged through the branches of trees on the bankside, of the clean green surface on the outer bend of the river and the peeling crest that travelled along the width of the river. This morning we were not alone, there were about seven surfers and four other paddlers riding/chasing the wave.
Some 150ft from the bend we waited, letting the wave resettle following it’s antics on the corner. This time I could not only hear the herd of buffalos, but see the wave as it approached – and time seemed to slow down. It took a long time for the wave to reach us, I started paddling as hard as I could, remembering the advice from the night before...
A slight hump passed beneath my boat, followed by a second hump – the first and second waves, they’d flattened temporarily as they reached us. I looked over my shoulder and saw that all the surfers were off, that people were trying to ride the weaker following waves but they didn’t hold form allowing a proper surf.
I found myself in this high volume river, amid choppy waves and all my friends – we’d all missed it. But miss isn’t really the right word – as there just wasn’t anything to catch. Disappointment flooded through me as fast as the Bore flooded back up the river – but it wasn’t long before it turned into determination... I will be back and ride the Severn Bore again.