TACKLING THE THAMES
When Stephen Dowsett started calculating the swimming distance to the river bank, it was clear his trip down the Thamas to Limehouse was going to be an adrenalin-fuelled challenge
For a pure adrenalin rush, rise early, head for Limehouse on a 45ft narrowboat and prepare to get wet on this challenging route
Being born in Greenwich and having lived out my infant years within 200 yards of the Cutty Sark, from an early age I was very aware of the barge and marine traffic passing on the Thames. Indeed I distinctly recall being woken in the middle of the night by a very loud metallic bang, which my parents attributed to two boats colliding in thick fog on the Thames. I daresay the bang was not as loud as the explosion from the massive bomb dropped by the Luftwaffe during World War II, which according to my father blew a recently renovated and painted Thames barge over the roof of an adjoining building. I know how upset we boaters can be when the “bark” is scrapped off a newly painted boat so I can imagine how those workmen must have felt!
Way back then the Thames was a filthy contaminated river. Fast forward 60 years and I know from first hand experience of bailing half a ton of Thames from the bow locker of my boat, that despite its appearance, River Thames water is crystal clear. But how did I mange to collect half a ton of it?
In designing my narrow boat Quidlibet I knew I would be venturing on to the Thames from my mooring on the River Wey. As you exit the River Wey Navigation, turn left and you are heading for Shepperton lock, and the non-tidal Upper Thames. Don’t be fooled by the epithet “non-tidal”; during periods of heavy rain the flow can be fearsome and Red Boards will be displayed by the lock-keepers, which will render null and void any boat insurance cover you have if you attempt to navigate whilst they are displayed.
Turning right out of the River Wey eventually brings you to Teddington (Tides end town), which, as the name implies, is the beginning and indeed end of the tidal Thames. So knowing that I wanted to navigate the Thames I choose to over specify the engine on my boat: 45 horsepower for a 45ft trad narrow boat. I also had a classic 18 x 12 prop fitted just to give that little bit extra against the current.
My first venture downstream was from Teddington to Brentford Lock. This was an uneventful passage. However, the following day having navigated the Hanwell flight it was slow going through what appeared to be the contents of a council recycling tip floating in the canal for at least 4 miles. You would have to go to the tropics to see so many coconut shells gathered in one place. Needless to say the prop picked up various plastic bags and assorted rubbish bringing the boat to a stop on four separate occasions. It was after this experience that I invested in a pair of thick, arm-length, industrial strength, black rubber gauntlets!
From then on the journey along the Regent’s Canal and on to Limehouse was easy and very enjoyable. What wasn’t quite so enjoyable were the stormy conditions overnight whilst we were moored on the wall in the Limehouse Basin. It’s not that were we uncomfortable but rather concerned about the conditions on the Thames come morning.
The following day was bright but very, very breezy. My crew and I sought the advice of the lock-keeper. As an ex-South African Navy man, to him the Thames was but a millpond. With words of encouragement such as “Man up!” ringing in our ears we got ready to exit the lock. Normally when using a lock you have to wait for it to empty completely before opening the gates. Not so on this particular lock. As the gates swung open about three feet my friend Roy who was holding the bowline as we descended turned to me with a look of horror on his face as the water in the lock was still four or five feet above the level of the Thames. Still, the lock emptied very quickly after that!
The Thames is broad all the way to Tower Bridge. Thereafter, in the very narrow Pool of London the prevailing westerly wind and passing catamarans made it somewhat choppy. Flags on the embankment were flying horizontally.
What was really interesting was the unexpected swell under each of the bridges caused by the wind and creating a bit of a roller coaster effect. Even more surprising was the fact that because of the tide timetable we had to make the transit upstream just after slack water, so we actually touched the bottom of the middle of the river at Putney, even though the boat only draws two feet of water!
A year later as the tides were just right, I decided to take Quidlibet down the Thames to Limehouse, with an overnight stay and back the following day. On reflection it wasn’t a particularly wise decision to do this single-handed.
As I left Teddington I had the ebb tide with me and it was a glorious late summer’s day. However, the high-pressure system covering the British Isles meant that there was an easterly headwind. Nothing to worry about – until you reach Vauxhall.
One of the benefits of a booming economy is a vibrant construction industry. For those who don’t know, from Vauxhall to Tower Bridge is now a man-made canyon of high-rise buildings. Add in a strong wind and an ebbing tide and you have very choppy conditions. Add in HMS Belfast, narrowing the Pool of London by a third and a plethora of high-speed catamarans at 4:30pm on a Friday afternoon and it becomes brown breeches time!
Normally from the tiller I can see right the way through my boat to the cabin doors at the bow. However, on this occasion one of the bathroom doors had swung shut. Ordinarily this would not be of concern. When water began to appear under the bathroom door I really did wonder if a bow door had swung open. By now Quidlibet was bucking like a very large seesaw. It was all I could do to hang on to the tiller and hatch rail. There was absolutely no chance that I could go below and find out what was going on.
More and more water started coming over the bow. The boat seemed to be getting heavier in the water. I began calculating the swimming distance to the adjacent pier in the event that in the heavy swell the boat might go under. Five more very tense minutes passed and then I was out from under Tower Bridge and into the relative calm of the broader river. Once safely inside Limehouse Basin, I was able to go below. Fortunately the bow doors were locked. The force of water hitting them had penetrated the gaps and the water inside the boat was quickly mopped up. For the uneventful return journey early the next morning I taped up the bow doors with duck tape to prevent any water ingress.
Looking back I realised that I had had a full on rush of adrenaline for forty minutes from the start of the Vauxhall section all the way through to Tower Bridge.
It wasn’t until I got back to the mooring and went to put the anchor away in the bow locker that I discovered I had shipped half a ton of very clean River Thames water.
Would I do the transit to Limehouse again? Yes but with the odd caveat. I’d certainly take a willing crew member – one who is prepared to get up at 4am on a very calm summer’s morning in order to clear the pool of London before the rush-hour river traffic starts.
Approaching Tower Bridge
Taking a breather
The Cutty Sark