Close Encounters Afloat

Today we were heading through Oxford and into the unknown territory (for us) of the River Thames. Francine and I began again by walking ahead of Juniper, largely so we could prepare various lift bridges and locks before Juniper’s arrival.

Fresh water was taken on at Thrupp in a marina positioned on the inside of a sharp 90° bend in the canal – a mere 30 or so minutes this time. On the exit from the 90° bend was an electrically operated lift bridge requiring the BWB/CRT key [British Waterways Board/Canal and River Trust], the same one as is needed to unlock the water points.

Francine and I continued walking and operating locks for Juniper and few other boats that we met, until we reached the lock on the outskirts of Oxford immediately prior to the beginning of Duke’s Cut, one of two routes onto the Thames.

Our new lock buddies both chose to go down to the Thames through the Duke’s Cut, a relatively narrow, sinuous route, while Capt. Virginia elected for the straighter shot through to Isis Lock slightly further east on the Thames. A manoeuvrable plastic day boat approached us and first disappeared behind the drooping boughs of a weeping willow on the left of the canal, before suddenly popping back out from behind the willow right into our path … and Juniper’s bows. Its reappearance was so sudden that no avoiding action was possible on our part, not that the 62-feet Juniper would have responded fast enough anyway. Being plastic, the day boat bounced off us but seemed to suffer no damage. Juniper, with her bulletproof steel hull, was certainly undamaged and didn’t really notice.

The remainder of our approach to Isis lock was uneventful, though we did have to disturb one of Oxford’s homeless who was snoozing on the lock gate arms, apparently having chosen the Isis Lock as his home base. He was friendly enough though, especially as I apologized.

Thames signThe turn after exiting the lock was even sharper than at the marina, >90°, and, of course, we met another boat approaching the lock in the opposite direction right at the turn – typical! There seems to be an unwritten rule of the water that opposing craft will be met in areas of maximum inconvenience, either a narrow section lined with moored boats or on blind bends, usually with a bridge built across them. The opposing boat having been avoided, a short run took us to another 90° bend and onto the River Thames itself.

This being a weekend, we were expecting the Thames to quite busy – boys out playing with their toys, etc. Our first encounter on the river was with a wide plastic bathtub of a cruiser that we met right by a fallen tree obstructing our side of the river. Capt. Virginia slowed as swiftly as Juniper’s mass and momentum would allow but decorated her with a fine collection of leaves and twigs. [Another good example of the unwritten rule.]

A further pulse-quickening event happened shortly afterwards when a very small inflatable powered by a small outboard motor approached and very suddenly chose to dive across our bows before stopping dead right in our path. Great! Capt. Virginia initiated what passes for an emergency stop when a boat weighing 16 tons is slammed into full-astern. Amazingly, Juniper actually did stop. The occupants of the inflatable blushed, apologized, announced that their outboard had cut out, that it had done so previously, and took to paddling furiously with a short pair of oars to escape. We proceeded wondering what might happen next.

What happened next was our first lock on the Thames. As the lock team, Francine and I were looking forward to a considerable rest because the locks on the River Thames are powered and operated by a lockkeeper. A license, which can be purchased from the lockkeepers, is require for cruising on the River Thames. We approached the lock and stopped at the so-called lay-by. I sauntered up to the lockkeeper, who was about to go for lunch but who graciously (?) hung around long enough to sell me a 7-day cruising license costing ~£70 – the exact price appears to be based on length of boat. He then switched the lock to “Self Service”, pointed me at the sluice and gate controller panels at either end of the lock, and wandered off to lunch. I switched from physical effort to mental effort while I tried to work out what to do. So much for the lock team getting a rest. 🙂

More supplies were needed and Abingdon provides excellent free moorings for boaters. We went ashore to take advantage of one of our favoured Waitrose supermarkets where it’s possible to shop in a civilized manner. Actually, Abingdon would have been a very pleasant place to spend a day but we were still not that sure of our schedule (more on this later) so, once restocked, we continued.

J14_2232 passing some localsTravelling in the same direction as the flow of the River Thames, Juniper’s speed relative to the land pretty much doubled; Capt. Virginia had her doing a nimble 6 mph, albeit accompanied by considerable noise and vibration. I hope we weren’t upsetting the locals too much.

J14_2229 Cows in the shallowsLater in the afternoon, we began looking at the river maps for possible overnight moorings. Two different publications disagreed precisely on where moorings might be found and some of those we passed looked too muddy and shallow. Cows standing calmly in the river might be a good indicator of a bank that is too shallow.

Eventually we settled on some apparent moorings just before our next lock. Three boats were already moored. Between two of the boats was a Juniper-sized gap followed by a further gap to yet another boat. Capt. Virginia headed for the first gap … and Juniper ran aground. Terrific! A good deal of manoeuvring, together with juggling of the throttle and tiller, got Juniper afloat again. Phew!

We had passed another apparent mooring option a little further back. Fortunately, the Thames is wide enough for a 62’ boat to perform a sluggish pirouette and return. We did return and found that a boat we’d crossed going in the opposite direction had snagged the better of the two options. Drat! We just about managed to get into another spot a few yards further back. The skipper of the boat having snagged our preferred spot approached to see if we were in a suitable spot, offering the possibility of rafting off him. What a nice man. He said he’d been looking for a mooring spot since 4:30 PM, had tried the place we’d just tried and similarly failed, and that he’d had this difficulty on the Thames every day. Rafting off him was unnecessary.

Mooring in the quiet countryside on the Thames appears to be fraught with difficulty so we resolved to stay at moorings in towns, paying where necessary, from here on.

Thames Ring Day 7

Posted in 2014 The Thames Ring

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