The Hawthorn Blog
Liveaboard life and general wanderings on the Irish Inland Waterways.
A Right Royal Nightmare!
It’s amazing how suddenly everything can go horribly wrong: one minute Jill was booking us into a friend’s marina on the north Shannon for ten days time; the next I’m picking up the phone to be told that the canal ahead of us is impassable. It is enough to make me admit that there has been an element of rose tinted glasses to some of the earlier blogs, and to sadly declare those glasses have now been removed as reality bites. Truth be told, they’ve been ground asunder.
Ever since leaving the deep water west of Coolnahay, we’ve feared the levels east of it falling by just a few inches would put us in trouble. This was particularly true of the two longest stretches: the summit, and the one between locks 17 and 18. Even at Confey we kept an eye on the levels and the water topping the overflow at the Ryewater aqueduct to spill into the stream below, had that stopped we’d have been running west as fast as our depth allowed. As recently as last Tuesday, when we started to return to the Shannon, water was cascading over the locks, as it was on Wednesday, when we passed through Kilcock on our way to Moyvalley Bridges and a mooring beside Furey’s pub. Our plan was to be on the Shannon the weekend after Easter, well it was until we took a phone call from a friend with a boat on the summit, and learnt that the level was so down his boat was now in the middle of the canal as it was the only place it would float. Bollocks! That ruled us out, as it did anything drawing more than 24”. We heard this too late to do anything until the next morning, and then we would have to be on the ball for, with the long weekend imminent, something needed to be done immediately or we’d lose even more water and have to wait a lot longer. Just how naïve this turned out was made clear the following morning.
I won’t go into the details but I made quite a few phone calls to people at different levels at Waterways Ireland and only learnt that talking to people in offices is impossible if they don’t want to talk to you. The lads on the ground all answered, were helpful and apologetic, but could only stress it was out of their hands and I needed to speak to the office, even head office. Having failed all morning to talk to anybody office based, I finally gave up and rang one of the more helpful souls I’d spoken to first thing in the morning. He was actually in a meeting with senior people and I was promised the Area Technician would ring me in ten minutes, and was relieved when he did. Not that I was relieved for long: I’d expected to be told that the pumps needed turning on and all would be well in a few days; not that the summit was now closed, with no suggestion or indication of when it might re-open.
The reasons I was given were: the unusually warm and dry weather means water is now in very short supply; there had been an act of vandalism; and the canal was leaking badly west of the summit at Ballynacargy. The bottom line of all the above is the absence of water, for neither the act of vandalism or the leaking canal would matter that much had the season been wet. So why had no notice been given? Did someone spark a panic by rushing into the office screaming it had just occurred to them there had been no rain and Lough Owel might be getting low? What is all this nonsense: surely the people that manage the water resources could see what was coming as easily as most of us know how much beer is left in a glass? Or do these people stand at a bar with an empty glass feeling thirsty for hours wondering why it hasn't magically refilled? A warning, even of only a few days, would have given anyone planning or needing to move a chance to scurry over the summit. We most certainly would have. So water is leaving the summit faster than it arrives from the feeder, and nobody is prepared to suggest when that might be reversed for long enough to re-open the summit.
One of the reasons that the summit is in negative credit with water at present is that it is still being run down the locks either side of it. This makes no sense at all to me and I suggested as much to the Area Technician. Not the case I was told: emails were sent last year from owners of craft drawing 3’6” striking the bottom between locks 46 and 26. My comment that all the big barge owners who have been through the canal sing endless praise of the water west of Coolnahay (we’d been talking about it for most of Friday evening while sat in ‘Ramblers’ wheelhouse drinking John’s beer) and surely it could take a hit, was not met with any enthusiasm - no, all the levels other than the summit were to be kept topped, at the expense of the summit... With a bit more time to think about it, or had I known the canal better, I would have asked why boats weren’t being restricted to the Abbeyshrule level where there are pumps lifting water from the Inny.
And I was told my concern that the water being lost on the eastern end of the canal came from the summit was groundless: apparently the source of that water is the Thomastown Feeder. This is the first any of my Royal contacts have heard of a 'Thomastown Feeder', and a reliable source informs me that if there is a feeder below the locks, why is there still water being racked through the 18th lock? At least there was all day Friday. And the summit level continues to fall.
And I don’t know what the hell is going on with the pumps. Everybody I spoke to at WI shied away from the subject and couldn’t be encouraged to return to it: at one point in the day I was under the impression that there were WI budget influenced restrictions on using the pumps, only to later learn that Westmeath County Council meets the cost of pumping. So is the problem with Westmeath County Council?
I’m left with a list of questions:
Why was so little notice given?
Why can no suggestion of a re-opening date be made?
Where are the feeders, and is the summit the source of the water going through the 17th lock?
What is happening with the pumps? Why are they not running? (Of course there has to be water to be pumped but this obvious point has not been suggested to me by anyone at WI, yet...)
How long would it take the pumps to top the levels if they were switched on?
Why is water being run over spillways in the east when that means depleting the summit?
Why are WI's managers so reluctant to engage with the boating public? Getting hold of someone, and then getting some sense out of them is nigh on impossible. Frankly, I find that disgraceful.
We are now staring at having to boat day and night through Dublin, the Grand Canal and back up the Shannon to Richmond in order to meet promises and commitments already made to family members booked to come on holiday with us in May. That’s 260 kilometres and 63 locks rather than the planned 95 kilometres and 29 locks. And we thought we’d be safe in April.
Before posting the above, I thought I’d make a phone call to one of our more helpful contacts on the ground here. I learnt the following:
It seems the pumps cannot be run because the Environment Protection Agency and the fisheries board don’t want river levels dropped any lower. Why nobody office based was prepared to tell us this is beyond me.
Water is still being run off the summit in both directions.
The canal will probably be closed until we’ve had a ‘very wet month’.
We have little option but to bite the bullet and get ourselves through Dublin and up the Grand.
WI employees on the ground cannot understand why there was no warning of what was coming.
It seems there is no Thomastown feeder, other than a tiny trickle on the best of days, and the water flying over the Ryevalley aqueduct comes from the summit.
Lots of people now caught are declaring ‘never again will we boat the Royal’. It's a drastic statement to make but, until water levels and water management are sorted, we too won't come near it again.
My heart goes out to all those folk of the RCAG who worked so hard to get this canal open again: to see its reputation so damaged by WI's poor management must be soul destroying.
All comments welcome.