We had always wanted to sail into London and our opportunity came after Gail won a raffle at the 2019 Southampton Boat Show for up to 3 months’ free berthing at St Katharine’s Dock Marina just next to Tower Bridge.
Given that staying there with “Nicknack” would normally cost around £90 per night this was a prize of considerable value and we spent a deal of time over the winter planning how we might combine an extended stay with having friends to stay on board, taking in theatres, restaurants, exhibitions, days out, etc.
We planned to sail from the mouth of the Thames in one tide so stayed overnight at Queenborough, just inside the mouth of the River Medway, where we picked up a buoy for £15 a night, a fee which included unlimited use of the water taxi to and from the town. (Why don’t more places include a water taxi with the berthing fee – please take note Cowes, Beaulieu and Yarmouth harbourmasters!)
The lock at St Katharine’s is accessible only from -2 until +1½ hours either side of HW (and only 0800-1800hrs daily) so we duly planned to arrive there around HW, leaving our mooring at 7am to be just south of the main shipping channel opposite Southend pier at the start of the flood tide.
As we made our way westwards, changing radio channels at the right points to pick up different sectors of London VTS, we learned a number of lessons:
- Being in the right place at LW doesn’t guarantee you will have the flood tide with you as you head west up the Thames. Due to the river outflow being initially stronger than the flood we were pushing the current until over 2 hrs after LW.
- It’s further than you think! From our starting point to St Katharine’s we covered around 40 miles over the ground.
- More merchant ships than you might expect use the docks on both sides of the river and moor/slip at all states of the tide.
- There are quite a number of moorings available on the river if you need to stop and wait for another tide.
- There are quite a few sections without any buoyage and plenty of places just off the middle of the river where there is less than 2m under the keel.
- Refuse barges in triple formation towed by tugs are fast, almost unmanouverable, and give way to no one.
- River buses from Greenwich onwards travel at up to 20 kts and woe betide you if you find yourself slowly (to them) passing a bus stop as they approach at speed. On the other hand these fast cats make very little wash.
- Large tourist boats are a menace, travelling at 10kts but making a wash of nearly 2m in height. Thankfully there were few of these, given the current restrictions.
- Replenishing fuel needs consideration: the nearest fuel barge to St Katharine’s is closed weekends and also at least one weekday. The opening times (0800-1800) may not coincide with those of St Katharine’s lock.
Nevertheless, we made it to St Katharine’s without incident in just 6 hours from our previous mooring and were welcomed into the marina by helpful staff bearing a bottle of Möet, all part of the prize apparently.
As for having friends on board and visiting exhibitions, theatres etc, Covid-19 has firmly put paid to all that as we found London virtually closed. While most shops were open (all in Oxford St) everything else was closed: in particular St Katharine’s Dock – a place normally teeming with nightlife and eateries – had just one indifferent restaurant and one coffee house open for limited hours daily.
So here we are, home again for a few days for a break before heading for the rivers of Essex and Suffolk next week.