Homes in Sutton Bridge were within inches of flooding as the Nene threatened to overtop its banks on Thursday night.
River water poured through a drainage valve on West Bank, cascading down Lime Street, but Environment Agency workers put a huge sandbag on top of the valve and a line of sandbags across Lime Street.
A 10ft tidal surge – the worst in 60 years – threw a river pontoon onto its back, landing on a jetty, and Cross Keys Bridge was closed at about 8pm for half an hour as police moved in to protect around 100 sightseers who were standing on the bridge.
Riverside residents Tom and Jenny Rowe had already had their boat lifted out of the river, but the boat and its trailer were washed into the lower level of their garden.
It was their pontoon that was thrown on its back.
Tom said: “We had a catastrophic tide, a surge of approximately 10ft came up the river and engulfed everything in its path.”
Friday morning’s high tide passed off without incident, but engineers were called in to pump out the lower levels of the Victorian swing bridge.
Jenny said: “It’s the highest tide we have ever seen.”
She said the Environment Agency saved the day by sandbagging the valve and putting a line of sandbags across Lime Street, but criticised the local flood defence operations as sandbags were made available too late and should have been ready at lunchtime.
Parish council chairman John Grimwood said fellow councillor Simon Booth was given the key to a locked district council unit at teatime and sandbags were filled for residents’ doorsteps in Lime Street.
He said: “We have been asking for many years ‘where’s the key?’, ‘can we have a key?’.”
Coun Grimwood is now calling for the West Bank defences to be raised because he says the water was six inches from coming over.
He said: “There wasn’t any actual overtopping, but it was very, very close.”
l The district council is expected to comment later on the late access to its unit.