From its first trickles high in the Cotswolds to the three locks at Teddington, all 135 miles of the non-tidal Thames are a real boating treat. But they can also be full of surprises if you’ve never cruised on this part of the river before.
The non-tidal Thames meanders through some of Britain’s most picturesque and historic towns and countryside. But the river is quite different to the country’s other waterways. So what should you know if you’re considering a Thames cruise?
There are 45 locks on the non-tidal Thames, but unlike other locks you might be used to, most have lock keepers and are typically electronically, not manually, operated.
Lock keepers are normally on duty from 9am to 6pm in peak season (shorter hours off-peak). When a lock keeper isn’t available, a blue ‘self service’ sign, complete with operation instructions, is displayed.
Lock keepers are trained, friendly and helpful. They will try to position as many boats as possible into what are generally wider locks to conserve water, so you might find you aren’t called in on a first come, first served basis. You will also be expected to use two lines, not one, in the lock.
Round the twist
The Thames’ meandering nature means you need your navigational wits about you. The river is wider than many waterways, while shallows on corners aren’t always marked. Heading upstream be prepared to give way to those going in the opposite direction at bridges, in narrows or on bend.
Wash can also be an issue, especially travelling upstream. This stretch of the Thames has a speed limit. But the general ‘rule’ is, even if you’re below the limit, if you’re creating lots of wash you’re going too fast.
From tourist pleasure boats gathered at Windsor and Hampton Court Palace, crowds and rowers in Henley for the regatta and weekend cruisers taking in the honeypot sights around Marlow, Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds, the Thames gets busy, even out of season. This is great if you have no time constraints and can join in the fun, not so great if you’re on a schedule. Check what’s on.
Don’t expect to moor where you like. Since November 2016, the Environment Agency (EA), which manages this section of the river, has run a trial for managing short-stay visitor moorings through Thames Visitor Moorings (www.thamesvisitormoorings.co.uk). This website is an information treasure trove, complete with interactive map, services and facilities and the ability to register and pay for your mooring online once you’ve arrived.
There are eight marinas between Shepperton and Reading. Look out for the ‘Gold Anchor’ rating, the scheme designed by The Yacht Harbour Association, with contribution from the RYA, to help boaters make informed decisions where to berth.
There are several points you can access and leave the river too, including the Oxford Canal at Oxford, the Kennet and Avon Canal at Reading and the River Wey Navigation at Shepperton.
Mind your head!
A boat can only travel as far as the lowest bridge allows. There are many low bridges on the non-tidal Thames and people can overlook that water levels fluctuate. Getting stuck under a bridge heading downstream can be a particular nightmare. You can also end up pinned, broadside, against the bridge. You will quickly find out Gongoozlers aren’t only found on the canal system!
Keep your guard
Don’t let the tranquility of the river trick you into complacency. Wearing a lifejacket, especially around locks, is always a good idea, and be alert to stream warnings and changing river conditions posted on warning boards at locks and the EA website.
All boats kept, used or let for hire on the on the river must be registered. Most powered boats need valid Boat Safety Scheme Certification or, for boats up to four years old, a valid Declaration of Conformity made by the boat’s builder under the Recreational Craft Directive. Meanwhile, while navigating at night is allowed it isn’t advisable, especially between towns, where the stars often provide the only light.
Find out more
The RYA Inland Waterways Helmsman's Course, covering helmsmanship, locks, tunnels, collision avoidance and engine checks, provides a good introduction to helming a motor cruiser or canal boat safely inland. There’s also an RYA Inland Waterways Crew Course, for people who want to assist the helm. This includes personal safety, ropework, boat handling and dealing with emergencies. To find out more about RYA Inland WaterwaysTraining courses visit www.rya.org.uk/go/inlandwaterways
The EA website (www.gov.uk/government/organisations/environment-agency) provides invaluable information on river conditions, bridge heights, distances and times between locks, lock dimensions, lock keeper hours and more.