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Archive for September 20th, 2011

Boat Blog: A Narrowboat Rehearsal….

Posted by indigodream on 20 September, 2011

Friday 9th September

Approaching Limehouse lock with our cruising 'buddies' for the next 2 days - nb Leo and nb Hazell Nut

We were up and about early, but not as early as Kath and Neil of nb Herbie who had to get up at 5am in order to join us for today’s adventures! Neil has done a masterly summary of their experience from the crew’s point of view on Herbie’s blog.

Limehouse lock can take 3 full-length narrowboats at a time, so even getting 21 boats onto the Thames was a logistical exercise. They allow a speedy 20 minutes per lock – so there would be a gap of over 2 hours between the first and last boats in the convoy. As it happens, it may have been slightly less, as Jeremy kept the lock turning over very efficiently.

The first boats were due to lock out from Limehouse at 7.20am – timings dictated by the level of the incoming tide over the cill. Fortunately for us we were in the fifth lock with our partners for the two days – nb Hazell Nut and nb Leo – so we locked out at a more civilised 8.30am.We were to proceed upriver with the tide in single file in our groups of three – this would make it easy to break into pairs to take up our mooring positions on the wall at Barn Elms. As well as locking positions, we’d all been assigned numbers which we had to clearly display on sides, bow and stern, so that we could keep track of our positions in the formation.

We set off in high spirits – there is now a new speed limit for commercial traffic in the pool of London so we didn’t get a lot of wash from passing Clippers, but interestingly the slow-moving catamarans really seem to carve up the water so it was a little choppy. We are used to this now – it’s always choppy in the pool of London and generally gets much smoother upriver of Victoria. Cruising conditions were good – it was overcast but dry – the wind was manageable and forecast to die down as the day went on.

We cruised upstream at a steady pace, enjoying London’s iconic sights and waving smugly at the dead-eyed commuters crossing the bridges on their way to work – few waved back! There are so many photo opportunities and I can’t imagine that we’ll ever tire of the tideway – not least because it demands such vigilance that you can’t see everything in one trip or even ten! Neil took over steering duties as we went past the Houses of Parliament which gave us an opportunity to look round a bit more then normal which was great.

Opening the lock gates - to let the water out! It's a grand sight, especially from the bow....

The Port of London Authority (PLA) was in attendance, but conditions were so good we were surprised to be hailed by PLA Tug Impulse just downstream of Putney Bridge – there wasn’t enough water upstream so the convoy had to moor up while the tide caught up with us. I was very interested – we’ve never moored up on the tideway before (it’s usually a dash from lock to lock). We looked upstream and spotted the boats at the head of the convoy mooring up to miscellaneous bits of wall, pier and barges. We joined a raft of narrowboats tied up to the “Tidy Thames” rubbish barge moored in the middle of the river. The turn into the tide was fascinating – we’ve punched the tide before, but rarely near it’s height when the water really is rushing in. I was on the helm and the tiller suddenly acquired a life of its own and the previously yielding water turned to porridge – THICK porridge. I also became acutely aware of the current on the far side of the river that we turning into.

We came alongside nb Tamesis very smoothly, but only with many adjustments of the tiller and power! Nb Leo came alongside us and with our part of the convoy safely rafted up we had the leisure to observe the world going by. It went by very quickly – the narrowboats in the convoy behind seemed to be flying upriver – of course, that was us 10 minutes ago – wow, who could believe that a narrowboat could move that fast! We were fascinated by the speed of the tide – only too apparent as it swept debris up the river and formed a raft of trash between our boats – we released this before we moved off – wouldn’t want a log in the prop! We could also peruse the floating pontoons nearby – they looked like floating bird houses/roosts but I can’t find any reference to such – maybe they’re meant to be for humans but the birds have just taken over! Also on the environmental front, we also saw a HUGE barge festooned with cylinders – it’s one of two oxygenating barges which literally bubble oxygen into the river to keep it healthy – fascinating. In the meantime, an airship, as in zeppelin type thing, coasted overhead – all good stuff.

After half an hour or so, the PLA tug told us that we could move – the raft of moored boats broke up, crossed the river to join the upcoming tide and juggled around to get back into numerical order.

Cruising iconic London.....

It was a surprisingly short cruise to Barn Elms and the grand sight of the convoy mooring up in pairs against the wall. I was so interested in the wall, and in lunch, that I failed to look across the river to another environmentally important site – the Barn Elms Wetland Centre (based more around the reservoirs rather than the river) .

Now, one of the purposes of the rehearsal was to see whether there were enough chains, guide wires and other bits and pieces attached to the wall to enable the whole convoy to moor. We didn’t have any trouble finding bits to tie to (a chain and old bolt) but there was a thriving sapling in our way – one of a few growing out of the wall in different places. We checked with Andrew just in case the wall’s vegetation was rare or protected, then got the pruning saw out and cleared the way for today and for future rehearsals.

Now we had a long wait for the tide to turn before we could start the rehearsal proper – enough time for a good lunch and to look over the formation plans again. Richard checked the radio (we were having trouble setting it to tri-watch – long story but eventually we settled for letting it scan between the channels we need to use (10, 14, 16, 72 & 73)) and he also made sure that the engine/prop were in working order for the return trip. It was a funny time – it felt as if we’d already done a good day’s cruise, but the main event hadn’t happened yet!

At 1.15pm it all started again, with the convoy peeling away from the wall in pairs – we had to get into our formation of fours by the time we reached Putney Bridge. It’s fair to say that this took some time!

The plan was for the narrowboats to form rows of four boats, separated by 50 feet; each row would be 100 feet behind the row in front but the rows would be staggered so that there would, in fact, be a 200 foot separation between the boats in alternate rows. Got it? Many didn’t and there was a certain amount of watching each other’s business and questions along the lines of “what on earth are they doing?”. Of course, the thing with watching other people’s business is that you tend to concentrate on them, prompting comments from other boats wondering what on earth we were doing 😀

See, Kath and Neil look perfectly relaxed (I'm sure that Kath is not texting international rescue to winch her out!).....

We’d left the wall at slack water – this was not a problem for most engines, but some boats struggled to maintain the pace without the tide’s help and were worried about pushing their engines too far. It was a difficult balance – Indigo Dream’s engine had power to spare so we could maintain pace whatever the state of the tide; but some boats only just had the capacity, for example at a time we were doing 1200 rpm, another boat was well over 2000 rpm. For information, the flotilla will need to move at 6 knots (approx. 7mph) – this will be made up of 4 knots from the engine 2 knots from the tide. This is important – for the actual jubilee the pace will be set by the Queen (or rather, her schedule) and she won’t be worrying about whether a narrowboat’s engine can cope or not! It will be very interesting to see what the outcome will be – specify a minimum engine power or change the timings to make sure that the tide is with the flotilla?

For most bridges the formation split between two arches, but in places we had to merge from a four-abreast formation into two-abreast in order to pass through a narrow single arch. This was not as simple as it seemed! It demanded a lot of co-operation and some mathematical ability as people needed to speed up and slow down to make room for the merging boats. I won’t say it was bad-tempered, but there were a few niggles as a pile of rampantly individual boats and skippers tried to work as a team – bit like the “Weakest Link” quiz show really!

Within a very short while it became evident that we needed to know which was most important – maintaining our row or maintaining the proper distance from the row in front – it seemed impossible to do both! The other issue that cropped up was communication – the convoy had its own VHF channel and there was certain amount of chatter which, at times, made it difficult to work out what was an instruction to an individual boat or to the convoy as a whole. Some was plain amusing like the instruction to take the centre arch of a 4 arch bridge… I reflected that if the formation’s niggles could be solved just by answering those two questions then we were in for a much better day on Saturday!

One big test came when nb Morpheus’ engine failed (the swell had stirred up some muck in their fuel which subsequently blocked their lines). In previous convoys the normal St Pancras plan was for the nearest narrowboat to rescue any that were ailing. However we’d been told that this time the PLA boats would support any narrowboats that got into trouble. As Morpheus was quickly swept towards a bridge pier this became impractical – the PLA craft wouldn’t get there in time. Back to plan A then, as nb Dragonfly stepped in to assist. Nb Morpeus brested up to them and nb Dragonfly pulled them out of the formation and out of trouble – it was an impressive bit of boating and for Saturday it was agreed that the nearest boat available would provide assistance if needed, ie go back to the normal St Pancras plan.  At this stage Richard felt very relieved that he had serviced the engine the day before and that we have all those extra fuel filters as recommended by Tony Brooks – link here. Incidentally he had found a bit of diesel bug in the pre-filters, nothing in the main engine filter.

A beautiful bridge emerging from the scaffolding....

As we proceeded into the populated pool of London all inter-boat niggles were forgotten – we had bigger fish to fry, or giant trip boats to dodge 🙂

It was nice to be accompanied by the PLA though – they promised a right b”££”$%^&* to a trip boat that left its pier and crossed right in front of the lead boats – how nice for us lowly narrowboaters to have friends in high places! Of course, next June, the river will be closed for the parade – there won’t be room for craft coming upstream when there are a thousand boats bearing towards them downstream!

A short while after we passed under Tower Bridge, the call to disperse came through and the first 10 boats or so went on towards West India dock. Being in the back 10, we were taking part in a practice of the ’emergency stop’. For most boats this would involve anchoring, however at the briefing we all looked so horrified at the idea that they decided we could ‘stem the tide’ instead i.e. turn into the tide and maintain station using our engines. It almost worked – boats 1 & 2 in our row  (though we were in paired formation by now) had decided that they wanted to try stemming the tide in reverse without turning and we foolishly agreed to try that plan  – unfortunately this wasn’t the best technique as narrowboats can be a bit random in reverse. How did we get on? Well to hold still relative to the bank, we needed about 300rpm more in reverse then we would have in forward gear – we have waited outside Limehouse a few times stemming the tide so know the sort of revs we need.  In deep water it is possible to stop a boat in a straight line then hold her straight against the prop kick with help from the tide flowing past, but when the wind blew up we had no chance. nb Leo had stopped slower then we did but then managed to reverse up and past at more speed then we think we could have managed in reverse but when the wind caught her she almost circled us – getting into a perfect position to turn :-)!. We think that a lot of narrowboats would struggle to hold their boats in reverse against the tide but it may depend on the hull shape. However once your bow starts going off course you have no choice except to engage forward gear to get some steerage. The boats at the back turned their bows into the tide and did much better – so, that’s the recommended technique if the Queen decides to stop off for some shopping on the way (it wouldn’t be done to overtake her!). I’m not sure even now whether the PLA personnel on tug Impulse were laughing or grimacing at the sight of the convoy’s ragged emergency stop manoeuvre – there were certainly teeth on show!

I wonder if this is the Dutch Barge flotilla that are due to join the parade on Saturday...

With the last part of the rehearsal over we proceeded to the vast lock into West India Dock. We’re no strangers to big locks but this one really is a monster – the curved gates look as if they’re made of old world war 2 panzer tanks welded together. It took a bit of time to assemble the raft in the lock – our 21 boats were lost in the immense lock so it seems likely that this will be a likely entry/exit point for the flotilla proper next year. The ascent was surprisingly gentle and before we knew it we were further dwarfed by the expanse of the dock in front of us and the haughty towers of Canary Wharf above us.

We’d been allocated moorings in a little corner of the dock next to the lock – it took a bit of time but we all reversed into the spaces, well apart from one boat who got turned around by the wind, with four of five narrowboats rafted up in each row.

We all decamped for a dockside debrief – covering the main issues that needed to be solved before Saturday’s attempt. By this time, most of us had been on the water for over 9 hours and were overawed by the task or getting the formation to work – what had seemed so straightforward on paper had been very difficult to achieve on the shifting water. Andrew and Darren’s enthusiasm seemed undented and they seemed madly positive about the rehearsal – there were a few disbelieving head shakes but we got the answer to our questions (the most important thing was to maintian the row of four and the PLA would keep tight control of communication). We did have a droll moment when Darren went through, again, the formation to be adopted at each bridge – he told us to “go into single file” – when asked, he had to admit that by single file he meant two-abreast as per our plan!

I was cheered by the leading team’s optimism but by now I was getting tired. Neil and Kath joined us for a pint at the Gun, an old pub overlooking the Thames. but we weren’t tempted to stay – it was a bit of a ‘yuppie’ place and the food seemed overpriced so we walked back to the boat and bid the Herbie’s a fond farewell. I’m very grateful for their crewing skills and for the gift of their company. I really admire Kath because I know that deep-water cruising isn’t her thing, and their safety was severely compromised because we didn’t have the dogs on board (!) but she courageously joined us anyway for a full day’s rockin’ and rollin’ on the river!

With our guests gone, we set off in search of food in the soulless surrounds of Canary Wharf – the office lights are left on, giving the illusion of life when there is none. We eventually found reasonably priced pub grub in the Spinnaker pub but I was glad to get back to the boat and relax – we were in bed early – we had another big day ahead!

Photoblog:

We took almost 400 photos of the day – I’ve out a few on the blog and the rest are on Facebook – here’s the link to the album….

Are these floating nature reserves/bird roosts?

Rafting up to barge "Tidy Thames" - looking back, it was a very interesting place to bide awhile.....

I hope that this photo gives you an idea of the sheer volume of water rushing past on the incoming tide - I do have a 10 second video on my phone - it's awesome!

Keeping the Thames breathing - oxygenation barge....

Freeing up the debris that got swept into the gap between the rafted boats....

PLA Tug Impulse supervising the rehearsal....

At least we could all relax and swap tall tales while we were moored up in the centre of the river!

Nb Zavala waiting for the tide on Putney Pier - the convoy certainly ended up in interesting places....

Approaching our 'proper' moorings on the wall at Barns Elms Reach....

Don't they look fine - and that's just half of the convoy....

The main event - peeling away from the wall ready to get into formation...

Getting into shape - doesn't look too bad in this photo....

Looks good here too - maybe we just imagined that it was a bit of a shambles 😀

The moment that Morpheus lost power and headed for the bridge - eeek!

Phew - nb Dragonfly to the rescue - Dragonfly was able to re-join the flotilla later on....

Our line looking good with nb Hazell Nut and nb Orlando to our left - it wasn't always quite so co-ordinated...

And there's nb Leo on our right...

There was always a bit of sorting out to be done at the bridges....

What a grand sight - it is a thrilling cruise...

There was quite a bit of traffic in the lower reaches....

This was the near miss with City Cruisers....

The formation did get a big congested under the bridges...

It did get a bit choppy later on...

nb Helis and nb Temptress showing that you can maintain a formation under bridges...

The photo of the cruise - nb Leo going submarine - she didn't sink, neither did anyone else!

Half of the formation was meant to go under the right-hand arch but who wants to go there when we can all fit under the famous bit 🙂

Yacht Aviva - http://www.shipspotting.com/gallery/photo.php?lid=1055790 - swap your narrowboat for that???

A good view of our favourite watering hole...

There's a fearsome current around these mooring buoys at the bottom of the 'U' around the Isle of Dogs...

See, Kathryn, skipper of nb Leo doesn't look the least bit worried - mind you, she hadn't seen the photos of her bow under water at this point 🙂

Narrowboats turning into the portal of West India Docks...

How's that for a lock chamber...

Closing the gargantuan lock gates...

I assume that these are old depth markers in feet - we won't be running aground then!

The raft rising...

Andrew P's unfailing energy and optimism is at the heart of the success of these adventures 🙂

That's a great view....

Entering West India Dock....

West India Dock at night....

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