The Ultimate Creek Crawl

Tony Lavelle and Wil Pretty take their sailing boats up the Thames from the Medway.

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? Cliveden, actually.
Figure 1 Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? Cliveden, actually.

There’s a primitive urge, which we sailors all know, that drives us to explore, to follow that creek as far as our vessel and our piloting skills will allow. For yachtsmen of the Thames Estuary, Tower Bridge is normally the head of navigation, teasing us to venture into the mysterious interior. England is a different country when seen from its rivers, tamed though they are. Even for those like me who have spent much of their life within a few miles of the Thames, this journey to the interior held a strange and compelling fascination.

The Thames has inspired many writers. The metaphor works on so many levels: “There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” said Ratty to Mole, “In or out of 'em, it doesn't matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that's the charm of it.” Wil had been planning this trip for more than two decades and his treasured copy of Nicholson’s excellent guide already looked dated. His Telstar trimaran, Chica, is 8 metres long and 5 metres wide, only just able to squeeze into some of the locks below Oxford. Dulali, my Contessa 26, is slightly shorter and much narrower but needs 1.2 metres (4 feet) of water to float. This is officially the maximum draught to be able to reach Oxford provide that you keep to the “fairway” which is taken to mean the middle third of the river. In braided sections the fairway is poorly defined, with gravelly shoals and islands, known by their Old English names eyots and aits. Lock cuts tend to be silted up but at least the bottom there is soft.

Both yachts had their masts removed at Hoo Ness Yacht Club on the River Medway, in advance of the two-week trip, in order to pass under the many bridges. The strange-looking pair of boats attracted attention wherever they went. By travelling together one could help the other in case of trouble such as engine failure or grounding. With her greater draught, Dulali could rarely get close to the bank, so usually moored alongside Chica. When Dulali went aground, which happened almost daily, Chica could usually pull her off but on one occasion a passing narrowboat with a powerful engine was called upon to pull her off an unsuspected shoal.

A grand skyline for a small boat
Figure 2 A grand skyline for a small boat

Both of us have sailed the 50 nautical miles from our club on the Medway to London many times, usually staying at St Katharine’s Dock or Limehouse Basin. On this trip, after a night at anchor in Stangate Creek off the Medway, we stayed at Greenwich Yacht Club, a new building perched on stilts over the river between the O2 (formerly known as the Millennium Dome) and the Thames Barrier. The club kindly let us moor against their pontoon for the night and use their facilities. The tide swirls very strongly here; every passing river bus and tug left Dulali pitching violently against Chica’s side, and huge sand carriers unloaded through the night just yards from us, so on the return trip we stopped further down-river at Erith Yacht Club, near the QE2 bridge, where we found a warm welcome in the old Norwegian car ferry that still functions as their clubhouse.

From Greenwich to Putney the many commercial vessels, especially the fast river buses, churn up the water and a small boat gets thrown around, especially near bridges and moored ships where the waves get reflected back on themselves. Keeping to starboard is the strict rule but the river buses cross your path so quickly and with such little regard that you cannot take much avoiding action. Keeping a good lookout means little time to admire the sights.

Passing under Tower Bridge felt surreal, like Alice going through the looking glass into the usually inaccessible world beyond, past HMS Belfast and under all the London bridges which I ticked off my list one at a time. Passing the Houses of Parliament, one must keep well clear or presumably be blown out of the water, though we saw no-one on guard. After Putney the commercial traffic gives way to rowing skiffs, canoes and sailing dinghies. The river becomes surprisingly shallow and the tide runs fast so one has to go with the flood tide to reach Teddington Lock at around high water. From Tower Bridge to Teddington is about 16 nautical miles (18 statute miles) and this took about two and a half hours, the same on our return. Just below Teddington Lock an obelisk marks the change in jurisdiction from the Port of London Authority to the Environment Agency.

Teddington Lock is manned 24 hours a day
Figure 3 Teddington Lock is manned 24 hours a day

There are actually three locks at Teddington, the huge Barge Lock, the medium-sized Launch Lock and the disused, slot-like Skiff Lock or “Coffin”. Red and green traffic lights indicate which lock to use. Friendly EA staff are on hand around the clock, not least to take your money. A 15-day licence cost £55 for Dulali but Wil has to pay about £140 for Chica because, unlike on the Medway, the fee for a visiting “launch” is based on area not just length. Some lock-keepers privately acknowledged that this was rather anomalous for what is really not a large boat. However, neither of us had to pay for any moorings fees for the entire trip, so it was still good value.

It was a novelty not to have to consider the tides on the rest of the trip until we got back to Teddington; just like the Mediterranean only cheaper. However progress was rather slower than I had expected. We did well to manage 15 miles in a day with locks typically two or three miles apart. Sometimes we were through a lock in ten minutes, sometimes it took the best part of an hour. As we all know, once you stop there are all sorts of reasons for delays, many of them unpredictable.

There is a speed limit of 5 miles per hour (alright pedants, 8 kilometres per hour) on the non-tidal Thames. In practice you wouldn’t want to go any faster as the limit on your progress is really the locks. We managed only 15-20 miles per day; any more would not have been enjoyable. In the 90 miles from Teddington to Oxford there are 32 locks, from 0.65 to 6.5 miles apart, each manned during the day by pleasant and helpful lock-keepers. Out of hours, when a self-service board is displayed, you can operate the locks yourself. It’s all push-button stuff these days, no sweat.

We were often disappointed not to find the facilities listed in the EA User Guide. Sea toilets that discharge into the river must be disconnected or sealed up but the WCs provided at many of the locks turned out to be simply urinals, so a chemical loo was hastily acquired before the arrival of female crew. Showers at one lock were “for campers, not for boaters,” we were firmly told. There are however several “sanitation stations” where one can empty chemical loos or holding tanks. Helpful staff at MDL’s Windsor Marina allowed us use of their loos and showers after we bought fuel.

No room for the fenders. A lock-keeper watches Chica squeeze into yet another Thames lock
Figure 4 No room for the fenders. A lock-keeper watches Chica squeeze into yet another Thames lock

The sight of Chica approaching provoked a mixture of disbelief and panic to some lock-keepers. Front-on, the trimaran without her mast looked huge and sinister. Often the lock gates were quickly closed behind Dulali, leaving Chica waiting outside, despite my plea that there was more than enough room. There are 32 locks from Teddington to Oxford and this galling experience was repeated many times.

The lock-keepers try to be helpful but many have scant knowledge of river depths and water conditions. After a day of heavy rain the river actually dropped overnight causing Dulali to bump along the bottom next day just below the bridge at Clifton Hampden. Puzzlingly, the keeper at the next lock informed us that water level was ten inches above normal due to the rain, but on our return a few dry days later Dulali passed this stretch without a problem. My guess is that the sluices had been fully opened during the heavy rain so that staff could go home without fear of being called out during the night. Also we were advised that there would be no room for us at our intended destination above Osney Lock in Oxford, but in fact there were several spaces. Fitting into gaps, small yachts like ours have an advantage over the narrowboats and barges that normally occupy the bank-side moorings.

Fenders aplenty are essential. Dulali had five each side plus a bow fender but still sustained numerous scratches to her expensively re-sprayed topsides. The fenders act like rollers on an oldfashioned printing press, efficiently transferring slime and muck from the lock sides onto your hull. Low concrete edges at some moorings easily damage your topsides when approaching at an angle.

You cannot have too many fenders (photo by Wil Pretty)
Figure 5 You cannot have too many fenders (photo by Wil Pretty)

You are allowed to anchor for up to twenty four hours anywhere on the river, as long as you do not impede navigation - there’s always a catch! In practice there are plenty of mooring places along the banks and these are usually free for an overnight stay, except in tourist spots like Eton, Windsor and Wallingford. Steel mooring pins, like big tent pegs, are used to attach your boat to the bank, being careful not to trip walkers on the towpath. A light-coloured plastic bag tied to the top of the pin helps to draw attention to the hazard. A sturdy plank, normally lashed on the stanchions when under way, is useful to step ashore safely. Another useful piece of kit is a folding bike for going to the supermarket or fetching the car. With all this gear on deck, and no mast, all that is needed to complete the transformation into a river boat would be a pot of geraniums.

The plank comes in useful when aground at moorings below Marlow lock
Figure 6 The plank comes in useful when aground at moorings below Marlow lock

An unexpected delight on the river was the wildlife, especially birds. In addition to the numerous delightful ducks, geese and swans, kingfishers flashed between the banks and we saw several kinds of birds of prey at close quarters: red kites, hawks, falcons and buzzards. I was lucky to have a knowledgeable and observant friend on board for part of the journey.

Unlike a coastal cruise, a river trip lends itself to frequent changes of crew. No-one needs to put up with you for more than a couple of days and no guest need outstay his or her welcome; most important on a small boat. Fortunately the non-tidal Thames is blessed with many convenient railway stations but long-term car parking can be expensive and awkward.

The scenery is rarely boring. One minute you are passing medieval abbeys and spectacular millionaire’s mansions, each with their little “slipper yacht” on its mooring. Moments later you pass under an ancient bridge to be stared at by cows in a meadow.

Would I recommend taking a yacht up the Thames? Yes, if only so that you can say your pride and joy has been to Eton and Oxford.

More photos here:


Nicholson’s Guide to the Thames (buy or borrow a copy – has 1:25K scale OS mapping, shows pubs, shops, moorings etc)

PLA Recreational User Guide to Tidal Thames (free copy of 2-sided laminated chart available by post)

(old booklet with more information)

EA User Guide to Non-tidal Thames (essential - copy given to you at Teddington Lock)

River Conditions (check in winter or after heavy rain)

EA website for Non-tidal Thames

Things to see

Unofficial River Thames site with lots of crucial information

Up River Angel - another great site for Teddington to Abingdon

Tony Lavelle

Date Published 11th Oct 2009