How to get a barge from Teddington to Queenborough

As I posted some of the pictures of our journey down the Thames, I was thinking that some of you may be contemplating making your own passage to the continent. So here is an insight into the planning, preparation and procedures that we went through to get Anticus safely down to Queenborough. Bearing in mind this was my first time on the tidal Thames and I couldn’t find an ‘idiots guide’ on how to survive the trip! ¬†There was a huge amount of advice gleaned from the members and the site itself of the Barge Association and also from all my friends who make up the Piper family.

Last month, at the Piper Show at Henley, I had Josh, one of Piper’s engineers, check the boat over, especially the engine. This is particularly important when taking a single engined barge into the Thames estuary and onwards across the Channel. It probably goes without saying that everything needs to be ship shape and Bristol fashion when you don’t have a secondary form of propulsion.

I have old-fashioned paper charts and electronic charts (Navionics) on Anticus, available to view on the Simrad chart plotter. a laptop and an iPad. I have found the the Simrad is very clunky using Navionics, especially zooming in and out and finding details quickly. However on my iPad and laptop works superbly. The iPad also gives me an option to overlay the chart onto Google Earth, this proved very useful. During the trip I had the laptop showing an overview of the route and the iPad showing a more detailed view with my heading showing as a line drawn from the front of the boats position. This was especially useful navigating from buoy to buoy in the estuary.

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iPad Navionics view – red arrow is Anticus, red and green objects are navigational buoys and aids

The first thing when planning the passage was to find a suitable tide at a suitable time of day to get us to Queenborough without having to spend too much time struggling against the tide (punching the tide, as it is know in nautical circles). This is especially important in spring or Autumn when daylight hours are shorter. I takes around 10 hours from Teddington Lock to Queenborough Harborough and there was only 11 1/2 hours of daylight on the day we planned.

And so it saw a 5.30 alarm call to get ready to sail at high tide from Teddington at daybreak. This would hopefully mean not too much slow going after we passed Dartford. As you will read later – it nearly worked!

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Dawn breaking as we exit Teddington Lock.

When we have cruised on the Thames during the summer we have travelled at about 4mph for around two to three hours before relaxing for the day. Travelling with the tide down the Thames past the House of Parliament and the London Eye we were reaching the heady speeds of 8 – 10mph even with the engine just above tickover. Advice given to us before hand was to make as much time up as you can when travelling with the tide. We didn’t quite do that, keeping our revs down and enjoying the experience of piloting our boat through the heart of one of the greatest cities on Earth. Fantastic.

There was a little heavy mist / light fog before we reached Hammersmith Bridge which we got to at a perfect tide height to pass under with a couple of feet to spare. On spring high tides this can be a bit tight for a boat of our air draft (2.85m). This was another aspect to bear in mind on our passage plan.

After Hammersmith we were expecting to encounter a lot more river traffic and were a little nervous of the high speed catamarans that work as taxis on the river. Below Tower Bridge they can let the beasts growl and speed along at more than 20 knots. As luck would have it, we only saw 4 of these Goliaths and they slowed down as we were passed. something that we weren’t expecting but were very grateful for.

After passing Tower Bridge and HMS Belfast, flanked by a couple of super yachts (one with a helicopter on board) our next agenda item was to contact Thames Barrier to ask for passage through. We rang from Tower Bridge and were told to radio them as we got the barrier in sight. This we did, and gate Delta showed two green arrows either side indicating us to proceed through.

The river really starts to widen from here and there are quite shallow areas either side of the shipping channel marked by buoys. As we were travelling downstream we passed red buoys on the right and green buoys on the left. Some of these markers are a fair distance apart and only just visible with good binoculars, this is where the Navionics charts came into their own.

We continued to make good progress to the QEII bridge when we started to push against the tide. It was here that we realised the wisdom of those who told us to push on while we could. We were only 16 miles from Queenborough but as our speed reduced to under 4mph we were looking at nearly another 5 hours before we tied up. Ah well, nothing to be done now other than knuckle down and press on. The monotony was frequently broken as huge container, grain, fuel and gas ship some 200m long passed us in both directions. As with the catamarans in London, we were pleasantly surprised and very grateful as these huge vessels travelling at 20mph gave us a lot of room and reduced their way as they passed. Even so the effects were certainly felt. If they wash was approaching us the tactic was to steer into it, this helps reduce roll which is not so nice, but has the effect to producing a great plume of spray over the bow onto the cabin roof. Exhilarating is one word to describe it! As a ship overtook us it’s wake had the effect of picking Anticus and sort of surfing us forward. At first this was a bit disconcerting but as we realised our Piper was built for this sort of stuff, we enjoyed it more and more.

As we approached the Medway and our turning towards the Swale and Queenborough Harbour the shipping channel spilt with the huge ships steering left and heading out to the English Channel (the same rout we will be taking in a few days), whilst we took the right hand (starboard) route. As we got into the mouth of the Medway, we started travelling upstream and consequently to red boys changed to our left and the green buoys to our right. This isn’t as confusing as it sounds, but does concentrate the mind a bit, which is no bad thing.

As we approached Queenborough we radioed on VHF Chanel 8 and asked to moor up. And so 10 hours and 70 miles later we arrived at our morning for the next few days. Now we just have to wait for a wether window that allows us to get to Calais. At the moment this looks like it maybe Monday 7th. Fingers crossed.

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