Saturday, 13 October 2012

Moving Home

I hate moving house.  No, you don't understand.  I mean that I really do hate it.  These days, people 'hate' getting delayed on the Underground, or the guy in Starbucks forgets to put chocolate sprinkles on top of someone's latte and they 'hate it when that happens'.  Those things are mostly annoying.  The feelings I hold towards moving house are in a different league altogether.

Leaving our berth at Shepperton behind
A quick count tallies up thirteen moves in the last ten years.  It's my own fault that I get on so badly with it.  With all this experience, you would have thought that I would learn my lesson, but I don't prepare for the event, so when it arrives, I find myself trying to pack up at the same time as moving out.  Without planning ahead and arming myself with proper cardboard boxes, I end up using any old boxes that I manage to salvage from the recycling, before filling my rucksacks, pillow cases, bin, shoes and a whole army of plastic carrier bags.

With the clock ticking on the van rental, the stress levels really begin to rise.  At this point, the well-prepared mover simply has to make a few, smug, trips with their neatly packed boxes, which stack easily in the van around their larger items of furniture.  I, however, am forced to make endless trips up and down the stairs, wrestling with the countless, awkward, bulging carrier bags.  If I'm lucky, only one or two of them will rip open at the mercy of a sharp-cornered object held within.

Piling carrier bags on top of each other works about as well as eating soup with a fork.  They slide all over the place and no sooner have you taken the handbrake off the van than they have spilled their contents out and you needn't have bothered trying to make it work in the first place.

Shepperton Marina's exit
In any case, such is my dislike for moving that I have got completely carried away and what I was going to say in the first place is that this is how I used to feel towards moving home.  Since last weekend, that all changed!

Our four-month mooring at Shepperton Marina was up and we had a new one booked at St Katharine Docks.  Shepperton is about twenty miles to the west of central London, with St Katharine being nice and central, next to Tower Bridge.  When we bought Firebird back in April, we hadn't been able to secure a mooring any closer in than Shepperton, as everywhere was super busy with yachts visiting for the Olympics.  When Kate was making her inquiries  I don't think many of the people she spoke to were able to give her a yes/no answer, as they were too busy laughing after she had asked if they had any space for us.  It turned out for the best, though, because Shepperton is a lovely marina and I'm glad we stayed there, it was just a bit isolated for our needs.

So, we got up bright and early on Saturday morning, feeling very jet lagged as we had only got home from Thailand at midnight the night before.  It was a gorgeous day, although slightly chilly, and there was no wind at all as we slipped our mooring lines and gently chugged away from the mooring that had been our home for the previous four months.

Firebird getting delivered to Shepperton by road
Having had Firebird delivered to Shepperton by road, we weren't actually sure whether we would be able to make it down the Thames.  Sailing yachts don't usually travel this far up the Thames because their masts don't fit under the bridges.  This wasn't a problem for us, because we had to have the mast lowered for transport anyway, so we just left it down while in Shepperton.  The problem that we did have to worry about, however, was whether there would be enough water for us to be able to float.  A sailing vessel has a much larger draft than a motor vessel of a similar size, due to the keel.
Notice the extra depth added by the keel

A large keel is necessary on a sailing boat, because without the resistance it provides against the water, you would simply get blown sideways, rather than sailing forward.  You would also have the inconvenience of being capsized in anything but a gentle breeze, as the large weight of the keel counteracts the force of the wind pushing against the sails, trying to blow your boat over onto its side.

We only had charts of the Thames below Teddington lock, because that's where the Thames stops being an inland waterway and turns into tidal waters, so we had no way of knowing the depth of the river before that point.  No one we asked knew whether we would make it or not, because no one knew of anyone who had tried it before.  Luckily, there had been a large amount of rain over the previous couple of days, so the water was about as high as it would be likely to get.  We just made sure that we went slowly enough that if we did run aground, we would hopefully be able to pull ourselves off again by ordering the engine room to provide full revolutions astern.  Our two options in that case would be to either go back to Shepperton and get Firebird moved down river by road, or to turn the Thames into a floating jumble sale by jettisoning our belongings in the hopes that we would then float high enough.

Needless to say, it was a slightly nerve wracking approach of simply hoping for the best.  To make matters worse, there were lots of pesky rowers all over the place, who we had to avoid while trying to stay as central (and therefore hopefully deepest) in the channel as possible.

Inside Sunbury Lock
From Shepperton Marina, we passed though Sunbury and Molesey locks before reaching Teddington. Yellow warning boards were up to warn of a strong, increasing flow in the Thames (due to all the rain).  The lock keeper at Sunbury warned us that the boards would likely turn red by the end of the day.

Luckily, the strong flow didn't cause us any problems and the upside was that, seeing as we were travelling with it, we could leave the throttle barely above tick-over, saving our diesel while still making 5.5 kts over the ground.

Just upstream from Teddington Lock
We reached Teddington Lock at 12:00, after two and a half hours on the river, and moored up so that we could plan the next part of our journey.  As I have already mentioned, Teddington is the point at which the non-tidal Thames, over which the Environment Agency has jurisdiction, turns into the tidal Thames, which is controlled by the PLA, or Port of London Authority.  The charted depths between Richmond Lock and Kew are as low as 0.5m in places.  Firebird draws 1.5m, so we obviously wouldn't want to head through that stretch of river at low tide.

The problem that faced us is that St Katharine Docks is only accessible shortly before and after high tide.  This meant that we needed to pass Kew at high water to avoid the shallows, but to also arrive at St Kat's at high water.  We weren't going to make it.

Luckily, for the reasonable sum of five new pounds, we were able to keep Firebird moored above Teddington lock overnight.  I was thrilled because this meant that we got to try out our holding tank, which we hadn't previously used.  If you are unsure what a holding tank is, it kindly holds the used food and liquid that your body no longer wants to hold on to, instead of discharging it into the river, as this isn't allowed above Teddington.

With a free afternoon ahead of us, we settled down to watch the film Puss in Boots, which we both enjoyed, while battling against our jet lag to stay awake.

Reading while we wait for the sun to rise
We had another early start on Sunday because we needed to leave as soon as it was light.  Ideally, we would have left before the sun came up, so that we could get past the shallow sections bang on high water.  We couldn't leave while it was dark, though, because, with our mast down, we can't display the necessary lights for motoring in the dark as one of them is fitted on the mast.

Sunrise at Teddington
There was mist covering the water, which looked lovely and romantic, but we soon discovered that it made spotting the rowers, who were low enough to be completely concealed, rather tricky and added to the danger of trying to avoid them while not straying too far from the centre of the river.

We couldn't believe just how many rowers there were.  They sure do have some commitment to get up so early, while it was actually very cold, and row away like they were.  They seemed to be a cheery enough bunch, though, apart from those being shouted at through a megaphone by their trainer.  We got a few "good mornings", and one lady said she thought that Firebird looked very nice and she thought it was cool that we had "007" in the registration number, "you're like James Bond", she said!

Mist over the Thames
About to leave Teddington
Another chap greeted us and immediately asked if we were going to France.  This seemed like a rather strange question to open with.  Wouldn't it be better to simply ask where we were headed?  Anyway, I'm sure he thought that my reply was even stranger, "Yes", I told him, "but not today.  We'll probably get there in a year and a half".  We left him bobbing in our wake, while he contemplated how our trip to France would take so long.

Three tired runners
We headed down river as far as Imperial Wharf Marina.  Kate had found this as a suitable stopping place as it would remain deep enough for us to stay afloat during low water, wasn't too far from St Katharine Docks, and was a good place to get onto public transport to go to Hyde Park to support Dad, Sis, and Jo in the half marathon that they were running in aid of Practical Action.

As we were heading down river on the ebb tide, meaning that it was flowing back out to sea, the river had seemed quite tame.  We passed the Imperial Wharf pier that we were heading for, so that we could turn around and approach it heading into the current, which would allow us to use the engine to match the current, effectively bringing the boat to a stop next to the pier, while maintaining steerage as water would still be flowing over the rudder.

A dangerous heron
By the time we were a quarter of a way through the turn, it became apparent just how fierce the flow was.  We were drifting downstream fast and I had to use a lot of power to compensate.  As I was increasing the rpm, the thought that was running through my mind was, 'are we going to have enough power to be able to reach the pier, or are we going to continue drifting downstream with the engine at full power?'.  Well, the moment of panic was thankfully over swiftly, as our engine wound up and we were able to keep pace against the tide.

After a brief chat with the friendly pier master, who lives on the pier in an impressive barge that was built in the 1930's, we headed for Hyde Park and made it in plenty of time to cheer the three runners over the line.

Imperial Wharf Pier
By the time we got back to Firebird, the tide was flooding, which meant that we had to punch through it to continue our journey to St Katharine's, but we didn't mind as we were in no rush - we needed the level to rise sufficiently for the lock at St K's to be accessible.

This section of the journey, passing many tourist attractions such as the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, and HMS Belfast, turned out to be quite scary.  I had expected the last leg to be a challenge, but I hadn't expected it to be this bad.

Battersea Power Station, with cranes in the foreground
The river had become very choppy as the tide raced in, so we were bouncing around all over place.  This section of the Thames is also very busy with tourist boats and ferries, of which, the Thames Clippers were the worst.  They really do shoot up and down the river at a fair old pace.  Their wake, added to the already sizable swell of the incoming tide, made things uncomfortable for us to say the least.  There were several large crashes from down below, which raised a concerned look on Kate's face, but I didn't have time to worry about our home getting shook to pieces as I was too busy making sure that I kept out of the way of the big boats and avoided the moored barges, piers and bridges.

Approaching the Houses of Parliament
Going through the bridges was the worst part, as the water gets churned up even more as it squeezes between the bridge supports.  We were both hoping that the engine kept running smoothly.  With no spare engine, even though we had the anchor laid out on deck, ready to drop in an emergency, I think that we would have been smashed back onto either a bridge or a barge before we had managed to set the anchor firmly enough to stop us.

A WWII amphibious landing craft (now a Duck Tour)
Ideally, we would have waited for more of the tide to come in, so that the flow would slacken and take most of the danger out of the journey, but we had the same problem that we had in the morning, which is that we can only travel in daylight, so needed to get to St Katharine's before the sun started to set.

As we approached St Kat's, I called the up on the VHF to request access to the marina via their lock.  I was told that another vessel had just entered the lock, so, if we could make it within ten minutes, they would hold the lock for us and we could go straight in.  This was an attractive offer, because otherwise, we would have to hold station outside the lock in the turbulent water for up to half an hour, or try to pick up one of the mooring buoys that are outside for use by waiting vessels.  The problem with catching a mooring buoy, though, was that we had discovered earlier in the day that we didn't have a boat hook, so only had a makeshift one that we had knocked together in a hurry using a small plank we had and a piece of metal that we found on board and have no idea what it's intended purpose is.  Needless to say, we weren't sure how well our home made hook would work.

Kate and the Millennium Wheel
As we approached under full power, with our poor engine screaming away beneath us, another yacht called up wanting to get in to St Katharine's.  They were told to wait outside until we arrived, so that the foot bridge over the lock only needed to be opened once as we both entered together.

Relief as we draw near to St K. Docks
Passing under Tower Bridge, I told St K's that we had arrived, and they began opening the footbridge.  At this, the other yacht waiting ahead of us starting making a beeline for the lock entrance.  They were warned to slow down, because the bridge wasn't fully open yet, but this didn't have any effect and they continued ploughing on towards the bridge.  A further, desperate message "STOP, YOU ARE GOING TO HIT THE BRIDGE" came over the radio, but it was to no avail.  The yacht looked certain to smash into the bridge, but, just as their mast headed for disaster, in an absolute miracle, their boat was caught by the swell and tilted over such that the mast slipped perfectly through the small gap that had opened between the two sides of the bridge as it was being raised.  I have no idea why the skipper had proceeded like that when the bridge wasn't open yet, but I suspect that he just hadn't seen the danger and possibly hadn't understood the radio messages as the boat was flying a German flag.

Safely in the lock at St Katharine Docks
Excitement over, we gently slipped into the lock behind the other two boats already in there and waited for it to fill up.

By the time we were out of the lock and had gently made our way to our new berth, which is excellently placed near to the showers, water tap for filling our tank, dustbins and, most importantly, Starbucks, my nerves had calmed after the rather hair-raising end to our journey down the Thames.

Safely moored up, we had time to reflect on the excellent job we had both done in getting here safely and the fact that, although it was a relatively small step, we had chipped off the first chunk of our journey to Greece in Firebird.

As for moving home, give me fast flows, swells and Clippers over boxes and vans any time.