electric boats, loss of power, and a choppy river… Last weekend I went for a day cruise on the River Thames, on a small electric boat hired from Harts Cruisers in Kingston-Upon-Thames.
First thoughts on an electric boat…
On arrival we were given a free upgrade from our small diesel cruiser which we’d booked, to an electric day cruiser. An electric boat, doesn’t feel right to me… but it was a free upgrade, so we gave it a go.
The boat was approx. 18 ft, and normally hires out for £148 per day, it is one of their ‘Humming Bird Class’. The aim of the day was to explore a stretch of the Thames which I’ve wanted to explore for a while, kick back and relax, and also to practice small boat handling skills.
After a boat briefing we backed out of our mooring. Not sure how easy this would have been for anyone with little experience, as it was a tight space, and there was another boat overhanging our stern. But it was ok, and to be honest these boats are day cruisers and as such they wear the wounds that most day cruisers do, so the odd knock probably doesn’t matter too much!
The boats in the small Harts Cruiser fleet are sound, but tired… showing the scars of many inexperienced adventurers who have taken the helm for the day! In my view, they are exactly what you would expect from a day cruiser company… they have ‘fun’ written all over them.
My first thoughts on the electric boat really were just how noisy it was. It actually sounded as noisy as a normal motor engine, with vibrations echoing around the cabin – which I was surprised at. The controls are also very basic – a key start (not sure why this is necessary), a lever to control whether you go astern, forward, or in to neutral, and a red battery indicator light (which didn’t work). And that is basically it. Two other buttons are on the dash the obligatory horn and electric bilge pump. No other gauges or gismos’s, this boat is basic.
Hampton Court, house boats and the boat graveyard
Leaving Harts Cruisers, we meandered upstream through Thames Ditton, and past Hampton Court. From the river you can see Hampton Court in all is gold gilded glory. An impressive monster of a building, it really is quite a site to see from the river. There are free moorings next to the palace, so it’s possible to hop off and explore if you so wish.
It was quite a cold, windy day – typical of early march, and bizarrely the river was actually quite choppy, bouncing the boat around, and pushing us across the river, it made for a more fun cruise. We went upstream through Molesey lock (approx. 30 mins from Harts), and then up and through the next lock – Sunbury lock (approx. 45 mins further from Molesey lock).
Both locks were unmanned, and it was also my first experience of an electric lock. A basic metal control panel welcomed us, with idiot proof user instructions. And at the touch of a button the sluice opened, and then a further touch the gates opened and closed. It was all very straightforward, but I couldn’t help but feel that it took some of the fun out of the ‘lock experience’ – part of the fun of inland waterway navigation is surely pulling out a windlass and working hard with an old fashioned Victorian lock?!
The river is lined with unique properties, crammed on to the banks. Giving their owners a little slice of paradise, and more importantly their own private mooring on the Thames in most cases! There was an eclectic mix of simple wooden bungalows, through to a towering property that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Far East, to modern, functional, glass homes which you might expect to see on Grand Designs.
On the water, there was an endless string of house boats, wide beam barges, and narrow boats, as well as river cruisers. I enjoyed being wowed by the properties and house boats, which came in all shapes and sizes.
Despite the impressive array of bankside properties and house boats, one thing struck me, and that was just how much of a boat graveyard this stretch of the river is. Between Kingston-upon-Thames and Sunbury Lock, every few hundred yards (if that) there was a submerged or abandoned boat, left to rot by it’s previous owner. I was, and still am completely gobsmacked by the sheer volumes of these boats that I saw. In some cases, it was actually hazardous – with just a guard rail or pulpit poking out above the water, the rest of the stricken vessel finding itself being occupied by the Thames marine life.
I started to count the abandoned boats, but lost count at around 15. Every corner we turned, there would lie another semi-submerged rusting, rotting boat. It was a sad sad site. I felt sad for the boats – thinking of how they may have looked and been treated in their former life, I felt bad for the owners – what had gone so wrong, so as to let these boats meet such a demise. I felt bad for the regular river users having to put up with this disregard for the waterway. I felt bad for the river life and animals – rotting, rusting vessels, no doubt leaking oil and diesel, polluting the beautiful stretch of river further.
I was also a bit angry, angry at the EA and Thames authority – they NEED to sort this out. This is a 9km stretch of the Thames, one of the busiest waterways in the world, people spend millions to live on the rivers edge, and for some reason it is being allowed to turn in to an unofficial boat graveyard. Quite unbelievable.
“Engine failure” and my first ever tow
We stopped for a spot of lunch just upstream of Sunbury lock, at the Wier. A great lunch spot with 3 free moorings outside.
After lunch it was time to head back. Entering the lock as the only boat, it was in our favour and quickly drained allowing me to ease off the mooring and continue on the journey home. BUT when I slipped the lines in the lock and went to put the “engine” in to drive there was nothing. No power. Literally nothing. I flicked the key back and forth, and moved the lever up and down. Disengaged the kill cord, and re-engaged it. But Nothing.
Now, here’s a lesson on electric boats. With a ‘normal’ boat, you wouldn’t slip your lines until the engine was on. How would you know it was on?… you would hear it, of course. But with an electric boat, you turn the key and hear nothing, it’s only when you engage forward or backwards, that you hear a noise. So a handy lesson learned – before slipping lines in an electric boat, just flick it in to gear and see if it kicks in.
So with no power, I slowly drifted out of the lock, beam on with absolutely no control of my own destiny. I’ve been in several boats that have lost power (either as crew or skipper), so I wasn’t really phased by this lack of control. I think the worst thing you can do in any situation where power is lost, is panic.
Looking around, I wanted a boat pole, a hook, anything which I could use to either push myself away from the channel pillar, or pull myself somehow to the edge. But alas there was no boat pole.
[On a side note, on safety… I personally think a boat pole should be carried by all vessels. I think that if someone went overboard in one of these cruisers, it would be a serious struggle to get them back on board without a boat pole for them to hold on to. Also for these kind of power loss situations a pole is really useful to try and regain some control.]
I rocked the boat from side to side, hoping to get some momentum in the direction of the bank – I gained a foot or so. Enough for me to throw the bow line to the bank, which I did and was then pulled ashore.
Then it was a case of trying to see if we could get the electric boat started. Checking the prop, there didn’t appear to be anything wrapped around it and it seemed to be moving freely. Lifting the boards, it was just battery after battery after battery – just imagine a lot of batteries! I’ve not seen anything like it, and because there wasn’t an actual ‘engine’ there was little that could be done to work out a fix. All we could do was call Hart Cruisers. They sent a boat out to bring us back. It seems, we ran out of charge. A disappointing end to the day.
The motor cruiser that came to ‘rescue’ us took just over an hour to arrive, and was ironically the boat that we had originally paid to hire. The skipper, used our line to lash us at stern and bow, so that we were in a forward side by side tow. Meaning that he had full control of our boat, and we were very secure, it also meant that we were well clear of his rudder and prop, so that he had full momentum. I’ve learnt the theory of different tows, but this was my first time actually being towed, so was a good learning experience, albeit not what the day was meant to be about!
I’ve had a run off bad luck on the water recently, but have learnt a lot of lessons and gained a lot of experience, and I am thankful for that. One of my recent adventures was Clipper Level 3 training, which included a grounding, an engine failure and a collision. Read more here.
I would recommend Harts Cruisers… I think we were unfortunate with our day boat running out of charge, and I would hope that they would learn from it. I also hope that they kit the boats out with poles, although I suspect there’s a reason they’re missing and that’s probably to do with losing so many at the hands of drunken day trippers, which let’s face it, is what these boats seem to be mostly used for!