Last May I wrote that actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales were banned from taking their hired narrowboat onto the tidal Thames at Limehouse in 2014 for a TV programme, even though we had managed the same trip with the same company shortly before. I was surprised and puzzled.
I now have to admit that I didn’t do enough research on the problem, having just discovered from the website of Black Prince , the hire company, that they have withdrawn their London fleet. One of the reasons is a ban on using the tidal Thames.
A quick search located a lot of internet discussion of the repercussions of an accident in August 2014, when a hire boat found itself straddled across the bows of a moored houseboat in a strong tide and gusty winds just above Hammersmith Bridge. It was rescued by an RNLI lifeboat. The Port of London Authority’s reaction was to reclassify hired narrowboats as commercial, and effectively ban them from the tidal Thames.
Certainly, when we went from Limehouse to Brentford on a strong flood tide, I was a lot more nervous than I have been in good, calm weather going through the Chenal de Four and Raz de Sein, with their ferocious tides and multiple rocks, or the passage inside the Portland Race, to mention a couple of coastal hazards.
A narrowboat is so under powered and so clumsy to steer because of the flat bottom that we felt exceedingly precarious on the approach to obstructions. A bad alignment followed by an attempt to correct at the last minute could all too easily lead to thumping a bridge pier or – in a nightmare scenario – straddling one (if the engine failed, for example.) We were fine, but I can see the risks, particularly with such a low freeboard, high windage and a steering position with only a partial guard rail.
Under the commercial rules, a qualified skipper would be required. (I don’t know whether RYA qualifications such as Yachtmaster would satisfy the PLA). More important, narrowboats probably can’t comply at all with some of the technical requirements. See this article in the website Canal Junction for more details.
Quite quickly, after discussions between the PLA, the Association of Pleasure Craft Operators and the British Marine Industries Federation, hired narrowboats were again allowed to use the tidal river from Brentford to Teddington Lock, where the tide ends. This allows boats to complete the Thames/Oxford Canal/Grand Union ring. But so far there has been no compromise allowing hired boats back onto the section from Limehouse to Brentford, preventing completion of the fascinating inner London ring using the Grand Union Canal.
Strangely, if you own rather than hire the narrowboat, none of this applies, and you still have a right to go the whole distance. Never mind: we’ve booked with Black Prince this spring for the beautiful Llangollen canal, so we won’t be worrying about tides.