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Navigating the Bristol Channel - past and present

Separating Devon and Somerset from South Wales, the Bristol Channel extends from the lower estuary of the Severn into the North Atlantic Ocean. At its widest point, it is over 30 kilometres across. Much of the coastline of the Bristol Channel is heritage coastline. Entering Bristol Channel is between Hartland Point and Saint Govan`s Head. Historically, the Channel was important for shipping and even today it remains a major shipping corridor. The Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter was also developed as a special vessel for sailing the Channel.

The weather around the Bristol Channel can be extremely unpredictable and back in 1607 there was a devastating flood that affected the Bristol Channel and Burnham-on-Sea. It was reported that many `Persons were drown`d and much Cattle and Goods were lost: the water in the Church was five feet high and the greatest part lay on the ground about ten days`. Whether this was as a result of a storm, tsunami or other weather occurrence remains unknown to this date.

The Bristol Channel contains a number of hazards, including fierce tides and shallow banks. There is a tidal range approaching 14 metres and many harbours are unapproachable when onshore conditions are strong. There are also shifting sandbanks and rock hazards. Although there are many anchorage points along the channel, the large tidal range means that many dry out and are only accessible for two hours around high water.

At Bideford Bar, lying off the common mouth of the River Taw and River Torridge, the currents are strong. Local knowledge is essential when navigating over the bar as the bar changes constantly and ground swells can cause steep seas in this area. Near Bideford, there is a road bridge that allows vertical clearance of up to 24 metres.

The Bristol Channel is home to wrecks, presenting navigational difficulties. In 1897, the schooner James and Agnes beached near Porthcawl. The entire crew managed to escape. In 1913, an Austrian steamship was stranded in Gower and in 1915, SS Bengrove exploded off the coast of Ilfracombe, struck by a torpedo from a German U-boat. All 33 crew survived, but the ship was wrecked.

In 1948 there were 24 known wrecks within the channel, although 14 of these have since been cleared by demolition, including a 10,000 ton tanker that required 129 tons of explosives to be broken up.

From the 1950s onwards, barges operated in the Bristol Channel. These were over 40 metres long and 6.7 metres wide, able to carry 400 tons of cargo, usually oil. The crew of these vessels were subject to additional rules and regulations, as well as being highly skilled in both sea and river work. While these barges were in the channel, they would be sailing alongside tankers, coasters and ocean-going freighters.

Up until the 1700s, coastal inhabitants were able to make a living from plundering ships that ran aground during storms. Eventually the introduction of lighthouses and fog horns helped ships to safely navigate the Bristol Channel. There are a number of lighthouses along the Bristol Channel, including Flathome, Monkstone, Lynmouth Foreland, Bull Point and Nash Point. Most of these still function and are operated remotely. The Black Nore Lighthouse at Portishead was installed in 1894, but was finally decommissioned in 2010 on the basis that it was no longer required.

The Channel remains a heavily used shipping channel, with vessels of all sizes using its waters. Even with extensive on-board navigational systems available, local knowledge is essential to navigate the Bristol Channel safely. For those who are planning on sailing the channel, then up to date local weather forecasts and breaking Bristol news are available throughout the day.

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