Navigating up the Thames through Tower bridge
Working a 1904 gaff cutter to windward up the narrowing, winding Thames to Tower Bridge took a day of total concentration. Tack too soon, and we would have to tack again before the next bend. Too late, and we risked driving 15 tonnes of wood and lead into the timbers of a quay or the mud of the river bottom.
When we have all the sails up, we have to operate 27 ropes. Tacking up the Thames, there wasn’t much time to do anything else. I don’t remember eating or drinking because there was so much going on.”
Our rewards were a thrilling sail and the chance to see London, as few of us ever do, from its tradesman’s entrance: the wide, flat Thames estuary and the low marshlands along the river’s eastern reaches where container ships, tankers, bulk carriers and barges unload to feed and power a city of 10 million people. And we found out how to open Tower Bridge.
The Thames has been the reason for London’s existence and its main supply route for two thousand years. As we piloted our course up the river to the original Roman port in the Pool of London beyond Tower Bridge, the landscape told a history of continual change: towns which once prospered around dockyards now struggling with regeneration; fossil fuel power stations shut down to fight climate change; old docks redeveloped and new container ports under construction.
Anthony had been wanting to make the trip from the Hamble to London for a long time. He bought Aeolus in 2008, but she was impossible to sail. Built in California as a gentleman’s day sailing yacht, 41 feet on deck but only 9 feet in the beam, she had a vast mainsail on a boom that stuck out 10 feet behind the transom and would not balance. However, the late Ed Burnett redesigned the sailplan with a shorter boom and produced a boat which sails beautifully: as soon as she feels the breeze on her bow, she heels over 30 degrees and the helm can keep her in the groove with fingertips. Anthony renewed the rigging but in keeping with an Edwardian boat: brown ropes, belaying pins to make off sheets and halyards, deadeyes to hold the shrouds, and blocks and tackles instead of winches. Aeolus was sailing again, but was not equipped for even a one-night passage. Anthony spent evenings and weekends for seven years building an interior, piece by piece, at his home in London. He designed each item of furniture first in plywood to test its size and placement in the boat, and then created the finished article in varnished mahogany. By the spring of 2015, Aeolus had eight berths, a heads, a galley with a brass hand pump, and a chart table with a cabinet of individual flag lockers.
However, even then the trip almost did not take place. In the early summer, beating into a choppy sea, the bowsprit broke. A single, deafening crack stunned all of us on board. The jib poured out to leeward and eight feet of shattered bowsprit dragged in the sea, tied to the boat by a tangle of cables. Next day, we dropped Anthony at Hamble town quay minutes before the chandlery closed. He came back with several large tins of epoxy glue and filler, a roll of fibreglass matting and a determined look. He lashed the broken halves of the bowsprit to the roof of his battered estate car and vanished into the London-bound traffic. Two weeks later, Aeolus completed the Round the Island race with the bowsprit looking nearly as good as new. Anthony had joined the two pieces together with a scarf cut from Aeolus’s old boom, filled the gaps with epoxy and bound the lot together with fibreglass matting.
On the last day of July, we finally set out for London with a crew of seven. The full moon hung huge behind the boat as we sailed out of the Solent in a westerly breeze. The next day we made the white cliffs of Beachy Head in sparkling sunshine, and by midnight we were spotting the lights marking the channel inside the Goodwin Sands.
Our ancestors knew the sheltered waters off Deal as an anchorage called the ‘Downs’. Before the invention of steam engines made tides irrelevant, this was where ships waited for the right wind and tide to make the turn round the tip of Kent into the Thames estuary. The confluence of tides creates a gate of little more than two hours when the stream is running north through the Strait of Dover and west up the estuary. At all other times, the stream is either running south through the Strait, or ebbing east out of the estuary, or both. “A hundred years ago, they came up on the flood and went out on the ebb,” Anthony said. “On a modern boat, nobody uses ‘flood’ and ‘ebb’. My boat has incredible water resistance because it is a barn door under the water, so it is critical that we sail with the tide.” The old sailing ships would have anchored in the Downs and picked up a pilot, if they had not already taken one on board off Dungeness. However, we took the chance of a few hours’ rest and a twenty-first century shower inside the harbour walls at Ramsgate.
We set off at mid-morning to catch the tidal gate, pausing only to practice our Man Overboard procedure on the skipper’s bowler hat. Heading north in a light easterly, we reached into the wide expanse of the Thames estuary and headed for the white ranks of wind turbines in the London Array, the world’s largest offshore wind farm. In mediaeval times, the shifting sandbanks of the estuary made an experienced pilot essential. The first buoy was placed in the Thames estuary in 1629. Today, though, the safe channels are clearly marked by buoys and we piloted ourselves. We did sail closer to the wind farm than strictly necessary, because as Anthony remarked, “We couldn’t possibly gybe, because we were having lunch.” When we headed southwest to join the Prince’s Channel up the estuary, we found an intriguing cluster of two-storey steel platforms on sloping legs slowly growing larger ahead of us. They looked like science-fiction invaders from another planet. These were the Shivering Sands army forts, one of three sets of anti-aircraft platforms built in 1942 to defend the Port of London against German air raids. The forts were abandoned in the 1950s, reoccupied briefly in the 1960s as pirate radio stations, and then abandoned again. In the shipping channel now, we had to watch for a steady stream of container ships and tankers heading to and from London’s container ports and oil terminals. These big vessels move deceptively fast, throbbing on the horizon one moment but churning past minutes later. As the sun set ahead of us in a blaze of gold and pink, the clearest landmark ahead was the chimney of the decommissioned power station on Grain Island at the entrance to the river Medway. Darkness fell, we left the pink and purple neon of Southend on Sea and its casino to starboard, and the estuary narrowed into a broad river. We steered for lights several miles ahead which proved two hours later to be the gantries and wharves of the new London Gateway container port, built by Dubai’s DP World on the site of the old oil storage depot and refinery of Shellhaven. We turned to port round the first big bend in the river and headed for Gravesend, the traditional first stopping place for international shipping bound for London. Vessels would anchor here, drop off their ‘Channel’ pilot and pick up a ‘mud’ pilot for the last stretch to the heart of London. We moored to a buoy for the six hours of the ebb tide and caught some sleep.
In the morning, we set out on the flood tide into a light southwesterly breeze with working sails up - main, staysail, jib, main topsail and flying jib. We worked our way cautiously past London’s container port at Tilbury and put in four short tacks when the river turned southwest. When the river turned northwest again, we beat under the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge and past ancient marshland on both banks. Rainham marshes on the north side is wildlife sanctuary but developers want to turn Broadness Saltings and Swanscombe marshes on the south bank into a theme park attracting 15 million visitors a year. Our one non-Edwardian navigation aid was a charting app on a smartphone, which came into its own now that the river was narrowing and we needed to know the depth on every bend. In 1904 we would have had a sailor standing outside the shrouds swinging a 14lb lead weight into the water to measure the depth. However, we had pinpoint GPS positioning and an electronic chart showing the depths ahead of the boat. Two more tacks, and all of a sudden we had arrived in London. Industrial sites with sheds and wharves lined both banks. Beyond the buildings, we could see planes landing and taking off from London City Airport, built in the middle of the abandoned Royal Docks. We had left the big ships behind at Tilbury but had other traffic to contend with now: tugs pulling barges, small freighters, and the Woolwich ferry.
We tacked to the southern side of the river and tacked again to make the Thames Barrier. The barrier has four 61-metre and two 30-metre openings, but the stainless steel domes on concrete plinths which hide the lifting mechanism for the flood gates look very solid from a small sailing boat. We strained to see the dot matrix displays which show which side to pass. Beyond, we caught our first sight of the skyline of the city of London: the pyramid top of One, Canary Wharf, the upturned curve of the Gherkin and the blunt arrow of the Shard. We rounded the white dish of the Millennium Dome on Greenwich Peninsula and scanned the horizon for the turret of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park to work out when we would cross the Greenwich meridian, 0 degrees of longitude. We spotted the building but missed the meridian, partly because we were busy tacking seven times in little more than a mile, and partly, we discovered later, because the meridian now runs 102.5 metres east of the Observatory, as scientists have rebased navigational charts on a more sophisticated model of the earth. On this stretch of the Thames, every vista tells a story of centuries of change. On Greenwich Reach, the classical colonnades of the eighteenth-century Royal Naval Hospital, later used as the Royal Naval College, mark an era when British naval power built a worldwide empire on the inhuman Atlantic trade in slaves and sugar and scarcely less brutal trades in cloth to India and opium to China. Britain retreated from its empire after the Second World War and the buildings now house the National Maritime Museum and Greenwich University. In dry dock beside the Naval College, the restored clipper Cutty Sark marks the late nineteenth century peak of sailing merchant ships. When she was launched, in 1869, steam driven ships were already making sail redundant, and by 1895 she had been sold off. Across the river, in what used to be the West India Docks on the Isle of Dogs, rise the slab-sided towers of Canary Wharf, where bankers from the world’s biggest financial institutions now look down on quaysides which from 1802 to the Second World War formed the heart of the busiest docks in the world.
We followed a sharp bend in the river to the southwest and tacked five more times in less than a mile. We rounded the next bend and there, half a mile ahead, stood Tower Bridge. Tower Bridge is not just a national icon carrying a major road through central London; it’s a very large piece of equipment - each of the two lifting bascules is 30 metres long and weighs 1,000 tonnes. However, if you want the bridge to open to sail through, all that’s needed is a polite email 24 hours in advance. You say what time you’d like to sail through, and they send a confirmation on headed stationery. It’s completely free, a service provided by the Corporation of the City of London for any vessel with a mast or superstructure of 9 metres or more. We had booked for 3pm and worried all morning that we would arrive late. Now, we worried that the bridge wouldn’t open at all. Two minutes to go, and traffic still jammed the roadway. A minute to go, and still no sign of movement. Then we heard a faint klaxon and the traffic stopped. The two sides of the roadway lifted, and Anthony steered Aeolus, all sails up but engine running for safety, straight at the centre of what looked like a dangerously narrow gap. Looking straight up the mast, the tip of the topmast looked within scraping distance of the metal girders on either side. We shouted detailed guidance: “Port a bit, Anthony! Starboard now!” and held our breath. Moments later we were through into the Pool of London and Anthony doffed his bowler to the bridge master. When we looked later at photographs taken from the shore, we could see Aeolus was so small that she had several metres of clearance on both sides, but it didn’t feel like that at the time.
The Pool of London, the half-mile stretch of the Thames between Tower Bridge and London Bridge, is not as busy today as it was when it was the city’s main port, from Roman times until the end of the eighteenth century. We found the Pool, however, far from empty. HMS Belfast, a Second World War navy cruiser which escorted Arctic convoys and supported the Normandy landings, is permanently moored against the south bank, and the day we sailed in, a towering, white cruise ship was rafted up against her. Tourists in deck chairs read newspapers on their cabin balconies glancing at the thousand-year-old Tower of London on the north bank. In the remaining half of the river, long, low sightseeing boats churned up and down and turned across the stream to let people photograph Tower Bridge. River ferries queued for a pontoon on the north bank and further upriver, in front of the Victorian arcades of the old Billingsgate fish market, refuse barges were moored to piles. We nudged up to London Bridge, stemmed the tide upstream of HMS Belfast, and edged down to the south bank beside the glass bubble of London’s City Hall to spot Anthony’s wife, Kate, taking photographs. Then, seconds before 4pm, the klaxon on Tower Bridge sounded again, pedestrians hurried to safety, and the huge bridge cracked open for Aeolus to sail out. We turned into the wind, dropped the sails and motored into the lock of St Katharine’s Dock.
Anthony’s old friend Chris looked back at the bridge and laughed: “You realise we just made 10,000 tourists’ day!” Maybe we did. Tower Bridge certainly made ours.
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