| This is an expanded version of
an article published in Pipeline,
the magazine of the Piper Boat
Owner's Club, in February 2009.
For our second summer aboard "Basil the King", Barbara and I chose to do the southern ring down the Oxford, up and down the Thames, the Wey, the Thames tideway and back up the Grand Union. See map. We also chose to leave Ventnor Farm Marina's petty rules and managerial squabbles behind us and look for a new home base. Ventnor has been sold to Castle Marinas, but access to the site is still controlled by Paul Flude, the previous owner . We had to move Basil out of the marina to avoid an access fee, so that Piper (the builder) could fix a warranty problem. There was friction between Paul's staff and Castle staff, and Castle raised the mooring fees in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Our e-mail complaints to Castle went unanswered.
As we left Napton on July 4th (Independence Day!) I exchanged passing greetings with "Jabez". I wished I had been able to stop and admire the boat which featured in Waterways World and was the inspiration for our purchase of a Piper.
Reportedly, 2007 was "the wettest summer on record", but 2008 beat that! Two records in a row, we should be so lucky. Arriving at Oxford, we found the Thames in flood and red boards up everywhere. After a day or two, we were able to access the raging river and I ventured nervously down the Sheepwash Channel. We cleared the grubby underside of the mainline railway bridge by about two inches and headed into the river. Basil was immediately grabbed by the current and dragged broadside downstream, belching black smoke as I hauled on the tiller to bring him round. Fortunately, nobody else was foolish enough to be out there, so we didn't hit anything and eventually Basil's head came round and we limped upriver against the current. Afterwards, I discovered that Duke's Cut would have been a lot easier in these conditions but, hey, you live and learn!
We had hoped to get to Lechlade but at Northmoor lock I was presented with a Red Warning card and the lockkeeper suggested we moor below Newbridge and wait for the flood to subside. We were just burning diesel for very little progress so, when restrictions were lifted, we decided to turn around and head back to Oxford.
We bought a 30-day visitor pass for the Thames and we meandered lazily downriver. There was very little traffic, moorings aplenty, no waiting at the locks and the keepers were unfailingly friendly and helpful. This was also true of all the other people we met on the trip including boat owners, hirers, and even the much maligned BW staff. I did get yelled at for hogging the channel at Linslade but that was the only curmudgeon we met all summer.
At Abingdon, we saw the end of the annual Swan Upping. All the swans on the Thames "belong" to the Queen, and once a year the Royal Swan Marker leads a flotilla of skiffs upriver to catch, inspect and mark all the new signets. Once a sort of inventory of the Royal larder, Swan Upping is now more of a conservation exercise and pub crawl. That evening we found them all in the pub, quaffing ale and singing rude songs about Chelsea pensioners.
At Bray lock we had an accident. I was entering behind a cruiser which drifted across the lock into our path. Barbara was standing in the well deck and the cratch, which took the impact, collapsed on top of her when both cratch hinges failed. She suffered a gouge on her leg and torn jeans. Like most accidents, a combination of errors led to our downfall. I was talking to the lockkeeper about rubbish bins, the assistant keeper took the bow line ashore but failed to do anything with it and the boater ahead of us lost control of his boat. Any one of the three of us could have prevented the accident had we been paying proper attention to the job in hand. Fortunately, the cruiser was carrying a rubber dinghy athwart the stern which acted as a giant fender and prevented any damage to the boat. It could have been a whole lot worse and I left chastened but wiser.
This was not the only incident. I tried to set Basil ablaze by leaving the teapot on the hob with the flame on low. This would have worked OK had I not added the tea cosy. Thank heavens for the smoke detectors I had just installed. At Duke's lock on the Oxford, a paddle ratchet pawl slipped and Barb's windlass spun out of control and rapped her across the back of the hand, raising a huge egg of a bruise. At Pangbourne meadow on the Thames, a bunch of drunken rowdies decided to ignite display quality fireworks at 2 a.m. A neighbouring skipper called the police and they left in a hurry by boat. Basil was covered in shredded gunpowder detritus next morning. Finally, in Guildford, Basil was attacked by a bunch of yobs who jumped on the roof and smashed Budweiser bottles on the rail. No real damage was done, but we had just gone to bed and it scared the hell out of us. This time, I called the police, but I never saw any sign of them. We had asked local advice about where to moor and were assured that the meadow upstream of the rowing club was safe.
At Guildford, also, our first American guests, Jan and Grant joined us. They just loved the whole thing and extended their stay by three days, helping us on the heavily locked section of the Union through the Chilterns to Berkhamsted. Grant is a culinary whiz, so he built a couple of memorable meals in the galley for us. Jan is a natural helmswoman and was soon threading Basil through traffic with aplomb.
The highlight of our voyage was undoubtedly the passage through London on the tideway to Limehouse. I prepared for months for this. I had read all the guidance I could find on the web before leaving the US and attended a marine radio course in Marlow two days after arriving from Phoenix. The night before we left Teddington I asked another boater what it was like. She said "Oh, it's just like childbirth - really scary while it's happening but you'll feel wonderful afterwards". Thus reassured, we waved goodbye to all the sensible boaters at Brentford and headed alone downriver through Hammersmith, past Parliament, the London Eye and Tower Bridge. It was magnificent! The Pool of London was really choppy but Basil handled it all with aplomb. He bucked and reared and the prop cavitated but there was minimal rolling and we never felt unsafe. I had bought the cheapest VHF marine radio I could find on Amazon, a Midland Atlantic mobile, and for some reason I could not raise London VTS at Teddington. However, they said on the phone that we could proceed as I could hear them OK. Later, the radio worked fine both to them and to Jeremy, the keeper at Limehouse. Jeremy wrote the invaluable "London Tideway" handbooks, which are free and highly recommended.
We passed Limehouse at quite a lick on the ebb tide, and I did a U-turn across the river and beat back slowly against the tide to the lock cut. We have a Beta 43 and it was only on half throttle - plenty of power for the task. The turn into the cut is tricky. Robert Neff, the manager at Mercia Marina, used to be a lockkeeper at Limehouse and he advised me to kill the power as soon as I entered the cut. This seemed really counterintuitive at the time as we were heading for the west wall fast, but I did as he said, and the back eddy from the corner of the downstream wall caught the stern and swung us perfectly in line for the lock. Thanks, Robert! He's also a Piper owner but I have yet to persuade him to join the Piper Owners Club.
We do have an engine problem that may be of interest to other Beta 43 owners. Ours emits a ringing noise from the alternator area at low revs when cold. Also, the 150 amp alternator belt shed clouds of black dust. Beta sent an engineer who told me that the belt and pulleys had prematurely worn because of slap in the belt. Beta is developing a mod to deal with the problem and will retrofit the engine under warranty. If you need to know more about this, or anything else, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
In spite of the rain, it was all a wonderful experience. The Oxford, the Thames, the Wey and even the Grand Union are beautiful waterways. Our new winter mooring is at Mercia Marina, Willington, on the Trent and Mersey. It was still a construction site when we first arrived but it should be really nice in a couple of years when it is fully operational and the greenery is up. The managers are positive, responsive and helpful - a welcome change from Ventnor. There was a snug mooring waiting for Basil and we bid a tearful goodbye as we left him to the winter wind, rain and snow.
I am still having psychological problems with boat
ownership. I worry too much! I have got to learn to relax and regain
the euphoria I remember on Club and hire cruisers. Maybe I should
practice Buddhism all winter in preparation. I will try to mellow out
this year as we explore the waterways of the North East.
Photos by Roger, Grant & Michael.