Friday, August 01, 2014

Old Father Thames

Well, we made it to London in one piece and really without any major traumas. 

On Tuesday Sam and I went down to Suffolk Yacht Harbour at lunchtime so that he could participate in his regular sailing with EAST and I could start getting the boat ready. It was very hot with a light breeze and after a couple of hours of loading what we would need (food, drink, clothes etc) and unloading what we didn't need (bicycle, old oilies, about 27 outdated cans of tuna etc) I was hot and knackered while Sam was cool and refreshed by his delightful sail. We'd planned to eat on the lightship but by the time Sam was on board I couldn't face getting him off again, so I popped down to Sainsbury's to get some food - pretty horrible hot pasties, I won't do that again!

At 9pm we were joined by Andy Roe, with whom I have sung for many years, and his son Sym. Andy has his own small boat on the Broads. Sym has not much sailing experience but lots of enthusiasm and better eyesight than anyone else on board!

Departure from SYH was at a relatively civilised 0715 to catch the last of the ebb tide down the Orwell and the first of the flood in the Wallet. The forecasts had suggested quite light winds, but by the time we reached Stone Banks there was a delightful northwesterly, around 3-4, which gave us a broad reach or beam reach for pretty much our entire route. 

We took the inside track to the Medway, crossing out of the Wallet at Swin Spitway, and then to Whitaker and along the edge of the Maplin Sands. We deliberated a bit about where to cross the main Thames Channel, but with the tide continuing to sweep us up the Thames we did a useful diagonal into the Medway channel, then straight into the wind for a couple of miles before turning into the Medway and then again into the Swale to pick up a mooring at Queenborough at 1430. With a fair tide all the way we covered 47 miles in 7 hours & 20 minutes, an average of 6.4 knots. 

The mooring cost us £12 and included a free water taxi, so Andy and Sym went off to explore the fleshpots of Queenborough while I had a swim in the pleasant but murky waters of the Swale and Sam chilled out. We had dinner on board. 

Thursday morning saw an even more civilised departure time of 0815 and the plan was to take the last of the ebb out of the Medway and the first of the flood up the Thames. The last of the ebb bit worked ok, but the first of the flood took its sweet time arriving and it wasn't until almost 1100 that our speed over the ground headed up above 5 knots. 

The whole Thames thing is a bit terrifying but I think the main concern is the mix of shipping, so you never quite know what you're looking out for. It's a lot quieter than the Elbe, and although there are few official stopping places there are numerous structures you could probably tie up to in a dire emergency - unlike the Rhone for example where you can't get near the banks. Generally therefore our experience of other rivers stood us in good stead. 

The scenery is a strange mix of rural and industrial. It appears every structure ever built along the Thames is still there in some form so there are numerous unused and dilapidated quays and jetties. In between the sewage processing plants, refineries, factories and vast warehouses are riverbanks where people go fishing, and even a surprising number of yachts moored in the river. I was also surprised by Gravesend, which has quite an attractive waterfront. It was highly satisfactory to go under the QEII bridge at Dartford and see a huge traffic jam above our heads. 

On and on, and finally as we passed the Woolwich the Thames barrier came in sight. You have to call on VHF 14 to be allocated a span, and Andy was very perturbed that we were allocated G(olf) but there were no markings to indicate which span was Golf. Fortunately I was pretty sure it was the most right-hand one, and no-one shouted at us, so we were probably ok. 

After the Barrier you're into London proper and also lots of nasty Thames chop. We knew about the high-speed river buses, but not about the big thrill-seeking RIBs which tear along with their paying, shrieking passengers at 30 knots plus, crashing over the bumps and making their own huge and messy wash. Idiots. 

Docklands, the O2, Greenwich, Docklands again from the other side, past Limehouse, and then Tower Bridge was in sight and we had to get on warps and fenders (I didn't manage this too well as I hadn't realised that Sym had never done it before) and jill around waiting for the lock. I'd dreaded this bit but in fact it really wasn't too bad, no RIBs were around, and in the way of these things there were suddenly another four or five yachts waiting with us. I must say of all the bridges I've almost been swept into while waiting for a lock, Tower Bridge is definitely the coolest. 

Hoorah, finally into the lock and we were allocated a berth in the very peaceful East basin. Time for a cold beer and a bit of a tidy-up before Sym headed home for the night, and we had a visit from my former colleague Tanya and her French protégée Marie, which was really delightful. The Gherkin, which is next door to the Aviva building, is visible from our berth, so Tanya really didn't have far to come. Finally a generous dinner cooked by Andy and we were all so knackered we rolled into bed without even washing up. 

How did Sam cope with all this, you may be wondering? Well, he stayed below and took things easy for most of the passage to Queenborough, but was on deck for most of the way up the Thames. He really enjoyed it but found the bumping for the last few miles very difficult indeed. On his way down the companionway steps last night he very nearly fell, because his legs just weren't working. Today he will do as little as possible and he should be able to cope with tomorrow's passage back to the Medway. 

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