Thames Barrier and Limehouse cut trip 3 July 2010

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Charlie Skrine, Rob Bannocks, Sarah Wallis, and Dan Able assembled at the basin and set off at 10.15. The sun was beaming hot and an ideal day for a paddle. Crossing the river at the steps we started off towards the barrier. A leisurely pace lead us to Hilton Pier where a kindly passing Thames clipper sent over a nice and large wash which caught Sarah out and capsized her. A rescue practice latter we were off again and passed down to Greenland pier where we came across a canal boat going on the wrong side of the channel. This boat went around the back of Greenland pier and then attempted to go up stream. Unfortunately for them they seemed to have underestimated the Thames or had a problem with their engine as they were making no progress against the tide. We left them on the radio to London VTS reporting that they could not make way against the tide and requesting assistance. We reached Greenwich without further incident. After pause at Greenwich for fluids and Mars bars we set off on time for the Thames Barrier. The warmth and pace allowed a good view of the dome and parts of the river down stream of Greenwich not so often visited. We reached the barrier about 13.30-ish and after waiting for a clipper and tour boat or 2 to pass through the barrier did a tour through the barrier across the river and back through the barrier and to the mud flats in front of Thames barrier Park (which is naturally enough adjacent to the Barrier) where we stopped and searched for solid ground to eat lunch. We had not planned it but there was a family fun day happening in the park. Sadly we could not join in as by the time we were at the barrier the tide was at its low point, and we would have had to cross 10 meters of murky mud and then scale a long ladder and over a railing to join the “fun day”.

Lunch was a pleasant if some what mud avoiding time set against the increasingly desperate calls on the public address system in the park for participants to join in the bingo, come and see some Z list rugby player, or get a free copy of the Newham Guardian. It seemed the fun day was not a success. We stayed a full hour and waited for the tide to turn as our next destination Bow creak can be shallow at low tide. Just as we were ready to go the VHF crackled into action and all were amused by London VTS increasingly desperate attempts to communicate with a French owned yacht who were obviously completely oblivious to the COLREGS and had to be told not just which arch of the barrier to go through but had to be reminded that you should navigate on the starboard side of the channel. French and family fun day amusements over we set of for Bow creak.

The creak which is long and winding is very shallow at low tide and we negotiated mud and water for much of the way to Bow locks. The water here was almost entirely brown This is where things started to get interesting. About 200 meters before Bow locks the mud seems to turn to natural water and the river got very shallow. So it was out of the kayaks and a toe of the kayaks up the creak in centimeter high water. Passing the low water at Bow lock we realized that the plan to cross over to the canal now involved scaling a 4 meter high wall – such was the difference in water level between the tidal creak and the controlled canal. About half an hour was spent scoping out the options up and down the creak from the lock and Dan displayed his excellent skills in scaling slime covered slopes to survey options. Eventually a climb point close to the locks was identified and Charlie climbed up and devised a method to rope the kayaks up the 4 meters without doing damage to them. Sarah decided that the climb which would be required of the paddlers after the boats were pulled up was far too un-safe and opted to climb a ladder closer to the lock and walk around. Rob and Sarah therefore set off in kayaks to the ladder. Sarah disembarked and then had to cross another section of mud to get to the ladder, unfortunately while she was crossing it transpired that this mud was not too solid and just before the ladder Sarah sunk to nearly waist height in the mud. Extracting herself from the mud Sarah climbed the ladder carefully and joined the Charlie and Dan who also had now climbed up to join Charlie. Rob returned toeing Sarah's kayak for lifting. Lifting complete we decided to rest for half an hour and take on more chocolate, tea and water.

By the time we were ready to set of the tide had risen to such an extent that the level of the river was now only about a meter below the level of the canal. We should have waited, perhaps. We started again and paddled up as far as is permitted to the Olympics site with a partial view of the main Olympic stadium. A anecdotal story from Charlie about a previous trip beyond the sign that says “do not pass this point” and we were off back down the canal and on to Limehouse cut. Limehouse cut, or The Cut, turned out to feel a lot longer than it looks on the map. Some interesting back ways were seen in this often forgotten route in London. Limehouse cut leads to Limehouse marina who were surprisingly happy to let us through the lock, in fact they preferred us to go through the lock over the portage possibility! So then it was back out in the Thames with admiring waves and shouts from the drinkers at the pub at Limehouse lock on this hot day we set off for the short journey back to the Basin.

The Thames was now a lot more choppy than the morning trip down and the wind had picked up a bit. This was nothing of the fun to come however. We reached the basin in good time, however, we seemed to have the devil of bad timing. I think I counted 4 clippers pass as well as a slower cruise boat and a rib. This left the river waves in a state of resonance and the splash waves from the wash at the basin steps were reaching over the railings and splashing passers by. There was clearly going to be a difficulty in getting us in. Charlie being the lead coach lead the way and had to execute some very sharp moves to prevent him being smashed into the walls around the steps. Eventually he got in and his boat out. Having this experience made his mind up to change the plan. Charlie then decide that it was best to secure the kayaks together with lines and get the us to swim in and then pull the kayaks in. I swim in first, the swim was easy, but the clamber onto the steps somehwhat hair raising. The waves were continuing to get worse and we now had a small crowd of spectators watching this operation. Sarah and Dan swam in with knife in their mouth, in case they became tangled in the ropes which were now holding the kayaks together and keeping them from floating off down the river. Now, we were all ashore it was the kayaks turn. The kayaks were slowly pulled in. The first one we detached from the other 2 and relativly easily pulled it up the steps. At this point the waves were still splashing up the side of the steps walls and reaching the railing. We tried to grab hold of the second kayak, unfortunately the waves were going at such a pace that the square enclosure by the steps had been turned into a kayak washing machine. The front cover came off on my Wilderness systems kayak and some minor equipment came loose, the kayak then also filled with water in the front hatch and cockpit. The waves were smashing into the walls the forces on the kayak were such that we had to be careful to keep out legs out of the water for fear that the kayaks would smash into the steps and snap bonew. All this made getting a hold of the kayaks hard work. We managed to get hold of Sarah’s boat and hall that out. That left mine, with water bottles and a pump flowing away being added to the washing machine things were difficult. Because of the sheer weight of water in the Wilderness systems and the force of the waves we must have taken a full 10 minutes to recover this kayak, with repeated attempts to grab it and haul it out of the water being defeated by the strength of the waves. Eventually we got a line on it and secured the line to the step railings which enables us to hauled the kayak out. Charlie then swam into the tide to recover the odd pump and other bits of kit which had come loose. The only loss being a small ball we had picked up on the canal. Once the last kayak was up and safe we all let out a large sigh of relief and took in some more tea and a short sit down before portaging the kayaks and kit back to the basin.. An exhilarating end to a lovely and interesting paddle. Just a note of irony by the time we had caught our breaths and taken on tea the waves had calmed down considerably, if only we had waited we would have missed all that fun.

Small edit from Charlie on 2nd August: I still have the bruises a month later from fetching a swamped kayak across my shins during the recovery operation. Must listen more carefully next time when someone says 'there's an easier way of getting the boats out. Why don't we do that instead?'

Photos here: