Thursday, 14 August 2008

Day Twelve- Old Father Thames

Oxford- Abingdon

Oxford Canal- River Thames

10 miles, 4 locks

In which the Duck and her crew have a masterclass in reversing, discover that BW and the Environment Agency are bad at communicating with each other, and head out onto the Thames; they learn how to cope with a very strong stream and discover how to cope with seasickness...

We headed into town first thing, after a lovely breakfast of pains au chocolat warmed in the oven and bought a few bits and pieces in Robert Dyas and Argos, including a hosepipe adaptor to fit the standard water point taps- no more having to bodge the tape onto the tap with electrical tape, hooray!

We filled the water tank from a conveniently close water point, and then (at about midday) set about the fun task of reversing the Duck out of the arm of the canal in which we were moored and back towards Isis Lock, where the canal locks down to the Thames. Unfortunately we had a lot of problems with mud and leaves off of the bottom being stirred up and sucked into the engine intake, and had to clear it twice in three minutes with the usual trick of a hosepipe from the shower head, forcing water back out of the inlet.

Things looked somewhat hard; it was going to be very difficult getting the boat out, if the engine intake was blocked every minute or so. We came up with a variety of cunning plans, including trailing a bucket and a length of rope as a sea anchor to keep the bow straight, and punting from the stern; even with a borrowed, longer pole, the bottom was too muddy for this to be effective. We even contemplated using the anchor and kedging the boat back out; that is, chucking the anchor in away from the boat, hauling it back in, and then chucking it out again to move the boat slowly.

A local boater, Rob, took pity on us and came aboard to lend a hand. With his help, we managed to reverse slowly and cautiously up the arm, using the engine, but sticking close to the moored boats in the middle of the channel, avoiding stirring up too much debris from the bottom. Despite the worries of a few moored boaters- quickly calmed by Rob- we managed very well, with his help, and were soon back at the lock. If you're reading this, Rob, thanks!

Isis Lock was something of a watershed; once through, we would be on the Thames, our first river in the boat- and what a river to start on! We were a bit apprehensive, as although I've coxed a fair bit further down at Henley, Marlow and Molesey, I've very rarely driven a powered boat on it- and a coaching launch with an outboard motor is very different indeed to a narrowboat! Once we hit the river itself, the lock being on a side channel, we were dismayed to find it flowing very fast indeed through a particularly narrow stretch; there was no option but to hold on tight and go with the flow, hoping we could sort ourselves out and slow down sufficiently once we got to the still water of the next lock cut, after the river had gone over the weir.

Osney Lock was our first Thames lock; not only are they a bit daunting in size, but the massive weir before it was in full flow. We ended up heading towards it, but careful steering and use of the throttle got us well away and safely into the lock. There are stout wooden safety booms so we couldn't have gone over it- but it would have been extremely embarassing to get pinned against them. Once we saw the lock itself, I noticed the red boards- "Danger, strong stream"- that advise people not to navigate on the river.

This was a rather annoying situation. Isis Lock is managed by British Waterways, but the Thames is administered by the Environment Agency. There were no warning boards on Isis Lock, no telephone numbers to ring for advice on a sign- nothing. According to the lock-keeper, there is meant to be a warning notice, displayed whenever the EA advises against navigation on the Thames- when they put up the red boards, in other words- but BW hadn't bothered to send anyone along to put it up. Whilst we should have called ahead to a lock, there was no easy way of contacting the lock keeper- we didn't have any of the phone numbers, in Nicholsons or anywhere, and they weren't displayed at Isis Lock.

Once through Osney Lock, however, the river widens out, the speed lessens, and it was only given a Yellow Board status- unpowered craft are advised not to navigate, powered to seek a mooring as soon as possible- which we fully intended to do! Whilst at the lock, we filled in the paperwork for our temporary Thames license- £84 for 15 days for a boat our size, but paradoxically £96 for 7 days! We also recieved a handy leaflet with lock keepers' phone numbers.

Yet another thing we've learnt; whenever you travel on the Thames, phone ahead to the lock-keepers, as the onus is on you to find out the condition of the river. We expected there to be signs, but there weren't; in future, we're always going to call ahead.

Once through Osney Lock, the river calmed down a lot; whilst we were still travelling with a strong stream, it wasn't as strong as above Osney Lock, and we felt confident enough to proceed to a safe mooring site. At Folly Bridge, we passed the base of Salters Steamers, a trip-boat company.

Amy's dad worked for this company on this stretch of the river in the 1970s, and unfortunately couldn't be with us to revisit this stretch of water; he's launching his own boat, a 26ft Telstar Trimaran! Amy is from a family with strong boating connections.

Oxford even has political graffitti- this example shows the outline of a hooded Iraqi prisoner in Abu Gharaib, with the superimposed writing, "Got Democracy?" The whole wall under the bridge was replete with slogans and images for Amnesty International.

We passed all the Oxford college boathouses- all far grander affairs, I'm sad to say, than their Cambridge counterparts!

Perhaps the grandest was that of University College; it looks like a Bond supervillain's lair.

The weather worsened into torrential rain; so much so that, with the Nicholsons guide inside, we passed several (inconspicuous) mooring sites without really noticing that they were there; only khaki coloured signs gave the spots away. Well camouflaged! We decided that a river bank in the middle of nowhere was probably a bad option, especially in the strong stream, so we pressed on towards Abingdon and better moorings.

We were first directed to moor on the end of the visitor's moorings by the lock-keeper. Unfortunately, this was quite close to the weir, which was flowing strongly. The water was eddying and disturbed, and the boat was moving around so much that it was like being at sea; over a foot up and down, combined with rocking. We put in all our mooring pins, and put all the fenders in, and tied the boat up as tight as we could- but it was no use, we couldn't stop the movement.

Then, a brainwave. Maffi, who we'd earlier met at Cropredy, moors in Abingdon normally. We gave him a ring, to see if he knew of any better moorings further along- and, with characteristic kindness, he suggested we moor alongside his boat, breasted up, instead.

We had a recce on foot first- his mooring is close to a bridge, and the river narrows, making turning hazardous, especially with the strong stream; and, returning to the boat, we upped pins and headed towards the centre of the town and Maffi's mooring.

Having seen the site already, and recieved Maffi's sage advice, I managed to turn the boat without any problems, and we ended up pointing into the stream, with the engine at tickover, parallel to his boat, Milly M. It was then a simple matter of turning in slightly, using the engine to keep us positioned in the stream, and to step across with bow and stern ropes to moor up.

After dinner, we enjoyed a few drinks with Maffi in the Nag's Head on the other side of the river, and as well as discussing boats, we also talked about his time in Saudi Arabia and Oman. Afterwards, we returned to the boat and had a peaceful night- which we wouldn't have had, had we not moved!

1 comment:

  1. London soon! This boating business is actually quite complicated eh? :-D