Thames tideway cruise

Created on 17/09/2019

Ever considered taking a narrowboat up the River Thames? After the IWA Festival of Water at Waltham Abbey, 14 boats joined a tideway cruise guided by St Pancras Cruising Club. Chris Howes, who was among the flotilla, shares his account.

The Dover Straights may be one of the busiest sea lanes in the world, but what's the busiest inland waterway in England? As I travelled on my narrowboat up the River Thames in London, I wondered if I'd inadvertently found myself in it! Giant leviathan barges loaded with spoil from the new super-sewer being dug under the Thames ploughed up and down the river, pushed by tugs, sending great washes in their wake. High speed ferries buzzed up and down (and backwards and forwards) across the river distributing their considerable wash in each and every direction. Even higher speed 'ribs' created disproportionately even larger washes, which further added to the swirling, heaving, melee.

Around the Thames Barrier the wash from these various craft had come at the boat in straight lines, and it was possible to turn the boat square to each approaching wave and ride it in relative comfort. However, as we left the section of the Thames called 'King's Reach' and moved into the 'Lambeth Reach' the frequency of passing boats increased, and the direction of their washes changed as ferries executed 'U turns' to get to and from the various piers. The river built into a swirling mass of heaving water. My boat climbed one great swell, greater than any I had ever previously experienced, even when I'd crossed The Wash. The bows of my boat climbed up, seemingly intent on touching the heavens, until the whole front half of the boat was out of the water. Then gravity reclaimed the bows, and the boat arced about her middle. The bows came crashing down, with a mighty slap, sending up a huge wave which surged into the fore-well and smashed against the (fortunately closed) front doors. Even as we breathed a sigh of relief that we had ridden this huge wave, the bows once again started to climb towards the sky, as we rode another gargantuan swell. Three times this was repeated, with the bows propelling to the skies before crashing back down again. Finally Neptune's wrath appeared satiated, the waters relented, and 'normal service was resumed'.

Narrowboat on Thames in front of Palace of Westminster

We passed under Westminster Bridge into calmer waters. Remembering the dire warning to "leave 70m clear water between your boat and the Palace of Westminster, otherwise you run the risk of machine gun fire", I had time to reflect on how we had come to find ourselves in the boiling cauldron of Lambeth Reach.

When we had first decided to join the two-part post-IWA Festival of Water cruise, it had all seemed so quiet and civilised. The first stage involved passing through the restored Carpenter's Road Lock next to the Queen Elizabeth Park Olympic Stadium in Stratford, East London, and cruising the Bow Backrivers. There were 19 narrowboats planning on joining this cruise. We started to assemble below Old Ford Lock on the previous evening. It was immediately obvious that it was going to be a problem finding moorings for 19 boats. Although there appeared ample mooring spaces around the waters of the Olympic park, dire notices prohibited mooring at risk of fines of £150 per night! A number of us rafted up at the pick-up point for the water taxi.

Boating through Central London, along the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union, the Regent's Canal, Hertford Union Canal and Lee Navigation, it had become glaringly obvious that the demand for London moorings far outstripped supply. It seems such a waste of potential mooring space that the waters surrounding the Olympic Park (funded by the Lottery and from the common purse) couldn't be used for mooring.

The next morning, Thursday 29th August, we had been instructed to present ourselves at 10.00 am at Carpenter's Road Lock for the Canal & River Trust to lock us through onto the Bow Backrivers. Unfortunately, it isn't the quickest of locks to get through. Although locking started at 9.45, and continued non-stop, the last boat didn't get through until 13.25pm, an average time of 25minutes per locking!

The cruise through the Backrivers was interesting but without undue excitement. Although tidal, once again it struck me forcefully that there was potential for further mooring spaces that could have been created. In less than an hour we locked back onto the Lee through City Mill Lock. The Canal & River Trust lock keeper observed to us that when he was sent to operate the lock, he had thought it was for only a couple of boats, not a 19-boat flotilla, and he hadn't brought refreshments with him. However, a cold 'un from the fridge soon cheered him up!

From there we assembled in Limehouse Basin, or for those who couldn't be squeezed in, Limehouse Cut. The 15 boats from the festival had been divided into six groups. Each of these groups was led by a tideway-savvy 'mother' boat from the St Pancras Cruising Club, making a total convoy of 21 boats. Someone, with a passion for figures, had calculated that the total length of the convoy, measured end to end, would be 327 metres. I refrained from remarking out loud that this was 20% longer than RMS Titanic!

Timing of the trip was inevitably dependent on tide times. We were to leave Limehouse on a falling tide, passing through the Barrier on the ebb, wait at Margaretness for the tide to turn, and return to either Brentford of Teddington on a rising tide.

We had been allocated third in the first group. Sunrise wasn't until after 6.00 am, but because of the tides we were booked to leave Limehouse in the first locking, at an eye watering 5.00 am. I set off from Limehouse Cut at 4.45 am to be in the lock on time. As it was dark, I turned on my navigation lights, and because I was struggling to see where I was going, my front light. This was my first mistake! I was immediately corrected "tunnel lights are for tunnels, not for seeing where you are going!" Light off, I fumbled my way into the lock. The lock keeper instructed me to tie off my bows, however when I called this instruction to my wife, the lock keeper immediately told me off for shouting. I was being reprimanded for a second time, and it wasn't yet 5.00 am! As if to emphasise the need to be quiet, the lock keeper then dropped his voice before proceeding to give me instructions so quietly I was unable to actually hear them. I explained that I was hard of hearing and couldn't hear him, but he walked off. Limehouse lock doesn't operate by letting the water in through sluices, and only opening the gates when water levels are equal both sides of the gates, but by letting water in by opening the gates.

As the water in the dark lock fell, I used my engine to push the boat away from the cill. We had been warned at the previous evenings briefing that the tide would be running strongly past the lock entrance from the right. I couldn't see our 'mother' boat as it left the lock, but I could discern the outline of the boat in front of me as it left. It may have just been the gloom, but I thought that the tide had picked it up and pushed it close to the left hand (downstream) entrance wall to the dock.
I've similarly left the shelter of a lock and entered a powerful and fast moving tide at Selby Lock (tidal river Ouse) and at East Stockwith and Keadby (tidal river Trent) and I was more nervous about leaving Limehouse in the dark, than any other part of the journey. With a sense of apprehension, I 'gunned' my engine, pointed my bows upstream (the contrary direction) gave a single 'toot' on the horn, and launched into the dark waters of the Thames. Our instruction had been to leave the lock "handsomely - briskly but under control". The tide initially grabbed my bows, and then the whole boat. We pirouetted about our centre, and were off on the tide, passing well clear of the threatening downstream wall!

The lights of the high buildings of the City of London sparkled on our left as we crossed to the other side of the river. We had been instructed to proceed single file, two or three boat lengths apart, keeping to the right hand third of the river. We had been warned not to be surprised if at any point we were approached by a police launch and issued a 'stop and search' notice, but as far as I was aware, none of us were to be suspected of nefarious malintent and both the River Police and Harbour Master left us alone. We were further instructed "sound your horn, put your lights on, and the steerer raise his arm to signal distress". If this situation arose, the following vessel should come to the distressed vessel's rescue, however the boat requiring rescue should always provide the tow line, not the rescuer.

We'd also been warned not to open our weed hatch if our propeller fouled, because in a swell the water will over-top the weed hatch. We all had anchors readily deployable (not buried in a locker) and were advised to be ready to use them. Despite being the highest tide of the month, the water appeared comparatively clear of debris, and I didn't hear of anyone's propeller fouling.

As the sun rose, we were treated to a sunrise which richly repaid the early start and first locking. The waters were calm, and the sky bathed in a rich glow of yellow, orange and red. As we passed the Isle of Dogs, opposite the Cutty Sark, we had been warned about the deceptive nature of the flow on the outside of the bend. It had been drummed into us "don't point your boat at the one in front, the tide will push you onto the shore. Keep your bows 20 degrees to the left of the one in front and stay in the middle!".

Serenely we passed the O2 Arena and glided between the two indicated piers of the Thames Barrier. When completed in 1983 it was anticipated that the Barrier would be raised only on the exceptional combination of high tides, strong winds and low atmospheric pressure which led to the 1953 flood. During the whole 1980s it closed on just four occasions, but in the 2010s it has already been raised 65 times. It looked stunning in the early morning light.

At Margaretness we stopped, opposite Barking Creek, and turned to face the tide. We sat, 'treading water' for nearly 1 1/2 hours as the rest of the convoy arrived. One by one, they all turned once they'd passed us, and queued as we all waited for the tide to turn.

Narrowboats in convoy on River Thames

Eventually the lead boat, 'Doris Katia', set off back upstream and we all followed like an obedient family of ducks. The water remained calm as we again negotiated the Woolwich Ferry and Thames Barrier. However, the volume of other river traffic steadily and inexorably rose, with increasing heights of wash hitting us at increasing frequencies. Greenwich Observatory looked stunning in the clean morning light. We passed Limehouse and Traitor's Gate at the Tower of London before shooting the right-hand arch of Tower Bridge. The great bridges of London were now coming thick and fast. In all, those bound for Brentford would pass under 25 bridges and those going to Teddington 29.

Narrowboats on River Thames with bridge
Some of King's Reach, and most of Lambeth Reach remain a confused blur in my memory, for the wild water reasons already detailed. However, above Westminster Bridge 'normal service' was resumed. We were able to enjoy the 'Mother of Parliaments' and admire the MI6 building (also with a 70m armed exclusion zone).

By the time we reached Putney Bridge the wind had completely disappeared and the sun returned. I was particularly interested in the 4 1/4 miles between Putney and Mortlake. This forms the course, not just for the world-famous Oxford and Cambridge boat race, but for other rowing races. I've raced this water, probably ten times. In a rowing boat the work required is equivalent to lifting a bag of cement from your toes to your shoulders 30 times per minute for 15 minutes, whilst maintaining perfect balance and absolute synchronisation with the other seven crew members. It was a pleasure to cruise the waters in a more relaxed manner, cup of coffee in hand and spotting the famous landmarks, rather than fighting pain and tiredness!

We passed Brentford Creek, which leads to Thames Lock and the Grand Union Canal, before the lock had been opened to river traffic. There was less water in the river and so it was comparatively narrower than I had ever previously experienced boating between Teddington and Brentford.

As we approached Richmond Half Tide Lock, the lead 'mother' boat started to travel increasingly slowly. This was because the barrier at Richmond was not due to be lifted until 13.45pm. Whenever I have travelled between Teddington and Richmond, the barrier had already been removed and the half tide lock closed. I now understand that this is because you are not allowed out of either Teddington or Brentford until the barrier is up.

I had not really previously taken in, or understood, the tidal manipulation at Richmond. The barrier is put in place around half tide to hold water in the river between Richmond and Teddington, and the lock is only used to circumvent the barrier when it prevents navigation. The raising of the barrier was 20 minutes behind schedule due to the tide being late (because of a westerly wind). We turned below the barrier to face the incoming tide, an operation called 'stemming', until the barrier was finally raised. Boats are charged £8 for using the half tide lock, regardless of size. Growing slightly impatient of waiting, I was just contemplating paying to use the lock when it closed and the barrier opened.

The last part of the journey to Teddington was pleasant and uneventful, bathed in afternoon sun. Approximately 11 hours after we had launched out of Limehouse into a dark maelstrom of turbulent waters, we quietly slipped out of the now gentle embrace of the tidal Thames.

Enormous votes of thanks go to Mike Moorse for organising the trip, the St Pancras Cruising Club for their invaluable help and hospitality, the fantastic pre-cruise meal at Limehouse, the clear and unequivocal briefing, and for the boats that shepherded us through the unique and unforgettable experience!

Tags: Boating