I’ve never won any awards for bravery, although I did once face a room full of seventy irate head teachers when my IT project for them wasn’t going too well. That was fairly scary I can tell you. Did it however prepare me for taking on the tidal Thames?
I well remember our first foray in Herbie on to the Thames tideway at Brentford in 2008.
Nothing much happened.
A bit of an anti climax really. We had been a bit scared to go out on to the tide as we had previously seen it at Brentford at a state of the tide when only a maniac would go out. At the proper time of course, it’s placid and gentle, and that’s when we went. Afterwards, we wondered what all the fuss was about. Here we are half an hour later going under the Richmond half tide barrier bridge in flat calm and no current.
That was one demon conquered, but what about the big one – Limehouse. I remember standing by the lock watching a boat go out and thinking, “You’ll never get me on there”. For someone used to the still narrow waters of canals, a boat can look pretty small on the Thames.
Then we got to know Sue and Richard on Indigo Dream who have bit by bit introduced us to the experience of cruising on lumpy water. On two occasions now we have passed through the Thames barrier aboard I.D., and of course we have endured the cold, wet, wonderful pageant with them.
What have we learned?
First you have to have someone with a radio thingy into which you have to say everything twice (it’s a rule apparently). “London VTS London VTS this is narrowboat Narrow Escape this is narrowboat Narrow Escape wishing to enter the tideway at Limehouse “etc. etc. Sometimes it’s all a bit pointless because the reply can come back with all the clarity of a 1960’s station announcement. “Narrowboat Narrow Escape, narrowboat Narrow Escape, gurgle, squelch, schwaaach, . . right hand side”. You can see from this that it really is a good idea if your boat doesn’t have a daft, embarrassing or difficult to pronounce name. “London VTS London VTS this is narrowboat Ura Plonker narrowboat Ura Plonker . .”
Then you have to look out for other boats. Not because there’s not plenty of room, but because they seem not at all bothered that they might sink you. Commercial skippers have been hear on the radio referring to narrowboats as “monkey barges”, so it’s plain how much they care for our safety. The big ones, like the Woolwich Ferry will try to cut you in half. Others, like the Thames Clippers and those horrible little Ribs will create monster wash waves to try and flip you over or overwhelm your well deck. Rather to our surprise, narrowboats seem to ride these waves pretty well, but it might be a good idea to take some seasickness pills before setting off. The Clippers, carrying 200 passengers, go at a speed appropriate for water skiing and zig zag down the tideway stopping at piers on alternate sides,so wherever you place your boat you will be in their way.
The next problem is the weather. Don’t be fooled by clear skies and still airs in Limehouse basin. Once you get out onto the big water it can get breezy and hence choppy.
Here we are looking out from Indigo Dream on a beautiful sunny day
Not too bad you might think, but glancing across at our neighbouring boat we see how much this swell multiplies when it hits a narrowboat.
Then there is the tide. If you go out from Limehouse at the right time and head up to Brentford you won’t notice it much. You may be blissfully unaware that your actual speed over the ground is that of a Derby winner. Only if you turn round to face the current will you realise you are riding on a really strong current. Actually your speed doesn’t matter too much except when you come up to the many bridges. They don’t move, so if you hit one it would be with quite a bump. They look pretty solid to me, so I imagine your boat would come of worse. Each requires you to take a different arch, so you do need to look at the little pictures they give you so you can recognise which bridge is which. In the city centre the bridges do come thick and fast.
Is any of this really really really scary? Actually, no. More exhilarating really. The Thames is to be respected, not feared.
So, the big question is . . would I take Herbie up from Limehouse to Brentford?
First I should say that Herbie is not Indigo Dream. The latter has a more powerful engine and a bigger prop. It also has a Richard. Richard is a large, somewhat commanding figure who is careful to prepare his boat properly and has bags of experience on the tideway. Herbie is smaller and less powerful then I. D. and I am smaller and less powerful then Richard. I also do not have a radio thingy, although I am quite good at repeating myself.
Whilst I do not think that Herbie would sink, I have now personally witnessed two narrowboats whose engines have failed on the tideway. Luckily they had other boats close by to lend a hand and no harm was done. That would be my concern, and the most likely cause would be the choppy water stirring up sediment in the fuel tank.
The answer is obvious. Yes I would go from Limehouse to Brentford on Herbie and thoroughly enjoy it too. But – only in the company of other boats. Joining one of the St Pancras Crusing Club’s periodic flotillas would be a good way to do it. With them you don’t have to have your own VHF.
As they used to say on the buses, “Only the brave deserve the fare”.