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

Canal Boat - - This Month -

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

Thames Weir

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