Visiting the tidal Thames

18 Oct 19

Steve Davies, RYA London and South East region representative for London and Thurrock clubs and the North Kent Yachting Association, writes:

It’s also a relatively cheap way to see the sights of London; berth in St Katherine’s Dock, just short of Tower Bridge, and many tourist attractions are within walking distance, or a short bus or tube ride. Limehouse Basin is a little further away, providing access to our canal system, and the facilities of the Cruising Association. I’m going to stop at Tower Bridge, but if you can lower your mast, or are in a motor boat, you can even head on through Central London and out the other side.

The Tidal Thames is managed by the Port of London Authority (PLA) and they have a wealth of information available, quite apart from that available elsewhere. Their main web site  is biased towards commercial shipping, with some information of general interest. Of far more interest to us is, the PLA’s web site aimed specifically at leisure users. It has a lot of downloadable information, including full tide tables for various points on the river. The ‘Recreational Users Guide’ is a useful overview of the river, and is also available printed on waterproof paper. Have a good look at the site; there are a number of videos covering passages along various parts of the river, and much other useful information. On the move, the PLA ‘App’ gives live tidal data and faster access to much of their website content. These and some other web sites and books are listed at the end of this article.

The Thames can provide some interesting challenges, although none are a problem if you’re prepared. Everything revolves around the tide, which can reach 3-4 knots in places. There’s a significant amount of commercial traffic – the Port of London is the busiest inland waterway in the country. This traffic is confined to the deep water channels (although signals indicating this are usually not displayed), and its up to you to keep out of its way – there’s usually plenty of room for you outside the channels. (And don’t forget that many large commercial vessels have poor visibility dead ahead). The nature of the bottom varies significantly; from the vast expanse of shallow water over the Cant, to the mudflats of the Blyth Sands, which are covered at high water, to deep channels which shelve steeply at the edges. The channels are well-buoyed until you’re up beyond Gravesend, so its quite straightforward to keep track of your position.

There are few casual moorings on the tidal Thames; however its usually possible to find a free swinging mooring at one of the clubs. The PLA also have some moorings, and may be able to point you to other moorings if you call them up.

The whole of the Thames from the outer port limit to Teddington Lock is monitored by the PLA from their control centres at Gravesend and the Thames Barrier, supported by the harbour service launches. Commercial traffic has to report in at various points, so its well worth monitoring the port channels – 69 in the outer estuary, 68 in the inner estuary and 14 from the Barrier area – to get an idea of traffic. While there is no need for yachts to call up (except to pass through the Thames Barrier), the PLA are very happy for you to do so, and can advise on traffic movements. There are also half-hourly broadcasts of traffic, tides, and other relevant information.

There are three main routes into the Thames, with the choice usually being determined by your starting point.

If coming down the East Coast, from the Black Water, the Walton Backwaters and beyond, there’s a well-trodden route along the edge of the Maplin Sands. (It’s also possible to bypass the outer Estuary by coming through Havengore Creek from the River Roach and the River Crouch, but that’s not ideal because it leaves you just off Southend at high water).

From Holland and Belgium and places north, there are the channels used by larger shipping (keep to the edges!); these are separated by sandbanks which in some cases dry completely.

Finally, if coming from the South Coast or France, you come past Ramsgate and Margate, along the channels to the north of Kent, and past the Isle of Sheppey. Wind farms abound.

Once past Southend, the Recreational Users Guide shows the preferred route for small craft; make sure you’re on the south side of the deep water channel before you get to the East Blyth cardinal – but watch the depth sounder to make sure you don’t stray onto the Blyth Sands. This route takes you away from the London Gateway – newly built container port able to take some of the largest ships. Occasionally you’ll meet one of these across the channel, as it turns round. You may also come across small fishing boats.

Round the corner Lower Hope Reach can be a bit choppy in wind over tide situations, but not for long, as you enter Gravesend Reach, where larger commercial traffic sometimes slows down to change pilots (this is where monitoring the port VHF channels can be very helpful). You may notice the copper gleam on the roof of the Sikh temple, and the flagpole of Gravesend Sailing Club, on the South shore.

At the end of Gravesend Reach the river turns to Starboard, with the entrance to Tilbury dock on the Essex side, followed by riverside berths. This can be a busy corner, with moderate eddies to the north at some states of the tide. Well worth listening to Channel 68 to see what commercial traffic to avoid – if in doubt, call ‘London VTS’ for information. At the next bend, there’s Thurrock Yacht Club on the north side.

Round the next bend you enter Long Reach, and pass under the Queen Elizabeth Bridge of the Dartford crossing, quite possibly moving faster than the traffic above (and below) you. Immediately afterwards to the south are the water intakes for Littlebrook Power Station. To the north are berths for commercial shipping, including car transporters.

Erith Yacht Club on south side immediately past the next point; there is a back eddy in the bay which will push you downstream.

You’re now well on the way to the Woolwich Barrier; once within sight of the Barrier, you need to call Barrier Control on Channel 14 to request permission to pass through (don’t confuse it with the flood gate at the entrance to Barking Creek, which you passed earlier!). You will be told to use the northernmost open span, marked with big green arrows. Turn on your engine at this point; sailing through the Barrier is strongly discouraged (with good reason). Keep an eye open for the Woolwich Ferry, although it has to avoid you (and isn’t currently operating as I write this). Keep in the centre as you pass through the piers, since there is a strong flow. Greenwich YC is immediately after the Barrier on the south side; their Clubhouse is on the end of a jetty.

Hereafter its best to keep motoring if you can; there are increasing numbers of tall buildings creating wind eddies and flat spots, which make sailing difficult. There is also an increasing amount of passenger boat traffic; while there is a speed limit of 12 knots, exempted vessels can go much faster, subject to various restrictions. They often criss-cross the river, as they call at the various piers.

There’s now a long winding path round the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf; at the start, there’s Emirates cable car across the river, with Bow Creek, the entrance to the River Lea, to the north, opposite the O2 (Millennium Dome). At the southernmost point of the route is Greenwich, with good views of the Royal Naval College, as well as the National Maritime Museum and the Cutty Sark.

Turning north again, you’re heading towards Limehouse Basin, whose entrance is on the north side just after the river curves to the East. If this is the end of your journey, let the lockkeeper know you’re there (VHF M2); its generally best to stem the tide just off the entrance, rather than mooring to the waiting pontoon, because of the wash from passing vessels. (And when leaving Limehouse, especially at mid-tide, leave fast and always turn upriver initially, so that you don’t impede other vessels heading up).

If you carry on to St Katherine’s, you may come across canal boats heading through Central London; Limehouse is one end of the Regent’s Canal and the Lea navigation, while to the west, Brentford is the start of the Grand Union. Past the River Police at Wapping, turn the corner and Tower Bridge is ahead of you. St Katherine’s entrance is just before the bridge. Keep close in to the north to avoid through traffic, especially when waiting for the lock. Once in the Haven you can moor up and relax, and start to enjoy the sights, many of which are only a short walk away.

Moorings and refuges

Lee Ray

River Medway


Most of the Sailing/Yacht Clubs – Gravesend, Thurrock, Erith, Greenwich

PLA visitors moorings – Gravesend

Gravesend Canal Basin – for longer term stays. Few facilities. Club helpful

Limehouse Basin

St Katherine’s


            Admiralty Leisure Chart Folio SC5606. Also individual charts

            Imray – C2 (Teddington to Southend)

            PLA – large scale, detailed charts


            East Coast Rivers

            East Coast Pilot

            Bridges book (PLA – useful for Central London)

Web sites

   – bias to ‘commercial’ users, with some general information

   – specifically leisure users