Thames dangers

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research on the problem, having just discovered from the website of Black Prince , the hire company, that they have withdrawn their London fleet.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.

Heading from Limehouse to Tower Bridge

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.

Earlier posts:

Limehouse to Brentford with the tide

Timothy West and Prunella Scales





PS on last year’s Round London

I have just watched a delightful programme in which actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales circumnavigated central London in a narrow boat from Black Prince, the same as the holiday we blogged on last year. It was, however, surprising when Timothy announced in Limehouse Basin that hired narrowboats are not allowed on the river: not so.

We went up the Thames from Limehouse at the same time as  several other Black Prince boats last May. The only condition was that someone on board had to have a VHF/DSC licence and a handheld radio hired from the company, which was fine, as three of us had licences. At least one of the other boats, a group of Norwegian holidaymakers, hired a pilot, and I assume that was negotiated with the company.

So don’t be put off: the exciting river passage was perfectly possible unless they drastically changed the rules between May and the summer when the episode of Channel 4’s Great Canal Journeys seems to have been filmed.

Timothy and Prunella met Andrew Sachs – Manuel from Fawlty Towers to Prunella’s Sybil – on a Regents’ Canal stop, an excuse for old clips from the show. From Limehouse, they did the Thames section of the circumnavigation in a fast river launch.

Limehouse to Brentford with the tide

We’ve booked the lock into the Thames for 1130, to catch the last couple of hours of the tide, which will sweep us up the river. (The boat goes so slowly that it would hardly move if it tried to fight the tide). Three other Black Prince boats head for the lock, with a shared professional pilot, but one turns back because of engine trouble. We head out into the Thames, giving our plan to Thames VTS (traffic control) on VHF channel 14, and head for Tower Bridge.



We intend to go through the centre span but as we approach a white light starts flashing which is the signal that a large craft needs it, so we divert to the right hand span as a small coaster looms behind us.

We pass the Tower and all the other sights of central London’s riverside, while concentrating hard on the currents which swirl round every obstruction and moored craft, at the same time reading the bridge by bridge pilotage guide – sadly no longer in print.

Ben took time off from work nearby to take pictures of us as we went past HMS President.

Then we passed the London Eye and parliament, where there is a 70 meter exclusion zone for boats.

The bridges became easier as the traffic eased and the number of darting river buses fell – their stops alternate sides of the river. The first complication was Battersea Railway Bridge, where we had to call Bridge Control for permission to pass because of the extensive work being done on the bridge.

Two Black Prince boats rented by Norwegians, which had left Limehouse with us, overtook as we approached Chiswick.

Chris steered the last leg up to the entrance to the River Brent and the tidal lock.


We wound our way up the narrow river, crowded with moored barges, to the Gauging Lock at Brentford, where we went through into the canal basin and moored for the night. Susannah brought Tom and Ella-Rose to see the boat.

And this is the photo Ben emailed of us passing The Globe.

Dinner on board.