Q. What’s the difference between herding cats and organising a formation cruise of narrowboats?
A. Not a lot
I don’t think the Red Arrows have anything to fear from competition from narrowboaters. Yesterday’s mini rehearsal for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Thames flotilla showed how hard it’ll be. 21 boats formed the flotilla. I’m now told it’ll be 1000 next year!!!
I think the Red Arrows have it easy. They have
The boaters have
- Identical machines that tend not to break down,
- pilots who are trained and know what they are supposed to do,
- regular practice,
- no weird obstacles or traffic in their way,
- no tidal currents to negotiate
It was of course great fun.
- a motley collection of craft, some twice as powerful as others
- a motley collection of skippers, some more experienced than others, but all never having done it before
- a complicated succession of bridges each with different rules about which arch to go through
- other craft getting in their way
- sudden vicious tidal pulls near large immovable objects in the water
We entered the Thames from Limehouse lock in groups of 3 or 4. Limehouse lock gates are not what narrowboaters are used to. They just open ‘em up and let the water find its level. Hang on to those ropes!
And no, these are not the big ones I referred to in the intro. No where near!
Anyway, what could go wrong with Richard at the helm. We were quietly confident.
Conditions were benign and even wash from the Thames Clippers didn’t seem too bad
Under Tower Bridge (they didn’t need to open it for us. Pity!), and on to Westminster where I had the privilege of steering us past the mother of parliaments
Then supposedly off up the river to our rendezvous point at Barn Elms.
Problem 1, a Port of London Authority (PLA) boat arrived to say that the tide wasn’t yet deep enough at Barn Elms and ordered us to tie up to a big barge in mid stream and await further instructions. Turning round to face the tidal current, we suddenly realised how strong it was. When you are going with it is seems gentle, but when you face it, it’s scary. We lashed up tight and waited nervously at the barge for quite a while before we were allowed to move on.
Arriving at Barn Elms we met problem number 2. We were supposed to moor up alongside a wall, but at our designated spot there nothing much to tie up to except a tree growing out of the wall. How many boats carry a pruning saw? Well Richard’s does! He set to work chopping off the tree while we enjoyed taking embarassing pictures of his backside, and we tied up to a rusty old bold sticking out of the stone work.
At last came the moment to set off in formation. The leading boats shot off leaving the stragglers struggling to catch up, but eventually we got into some sort of shape.
Then came problem 3. How do you go four abreast through a bridge when the arches aren’t wide enough. Mild panic ensued whilst people made their choice of arch and the formation went to pot. It wasn't exactly helped when one of the boats lost power while approaching the bridge pier. The choppy conditions had stirred up the muck in his fuel tank and blocked his filters.
Getting back in shape wasn’t easy and sometimes the boats alongside us didn’t belong to our row. There was a a fair bit of bunching and stretching just like on a motorway. Coming towards central London we occasionally looked fairly ship shape. Then we hit the traffic.
The skipper of the Clipper (it rhymes!) was OK but the City Cruises boat on the right cut right across our path. I believe he was due to get a telephone bollocking from the PLA last night. The formation went even more pear shaped after that incident and it was all a bit confusing, not helped by vicious cross currents around some bridge piers and large metal buoys. There were a couple of near misses.
On through central London where we began to notice it was getting somewhat choppy.
Just how choppy it got you can see here! How NB Leo with her lovely sleek low bow kept afloat is a mystery to me.
Mercifully, no one sank but we were beginning to feel queasy!
Under Tower bridge where the flotilla looked reasonably in order and gongoozlers waved
and on to Limehouse reach where the leading half of the flotilla was released whilst the rear half practiced an emergency stop under the guidance of the PLA boat Impulse who had escorted us throughout.
The idea was to assume that there was a bomb on a bridge or a big boat sideways on in front. On the signal we all stopped and (most of us) turned back upstream. Quite what would have happened with a thousand boats coming down behind us with their view obscured by flags and bunting, I’m not sure, but the PLA seemed happy enough.
And so on to our destination. The mighty West India dock at Canary Wharf. As lock entrances go, this one takes some beating. in the picture you can just make out a boat going in under the white bridge.
The lock gates are pretty big too.
Here we are, safe in the dock.
Quite a day eh?
Many many thanks to Sue and Richard for their hospitality and for bringing us back alive. Today they do it all again but with a lot more boats. It might get on the telly or in the papers, so look out for it