Sailing London to Chatham … and 2 Lessons On Going Aground

My first sail of the year was my first ever delivery job. Taking a Bavaria 46’ from Limehouse, London to Chatham. A straight forward 50 nm sail you may think, alas you’d be wrong.

A gloomy early morning at Limehouse, London
A gloomy early morning at Limehouse, London

I joined the boat at Limehouse basin in central London, which in itself was a bizarre experience. I’ve never sailed in central London before, and am more used to coastal or offshore sailing, so hopping aboard amongst a sea of skyscrapers was quite an experience.

On-board were a professional Skipper, and 7 other crew, 1 lady and the rest men. A mixture of experience, all with their own tales to tell. A lovely bunch of people.

Lesson #1 – Always check your tides, the weather, and then check again…

It’s 8.30am and we discuss our plan of action. I’m tasked with setting lines to slip, and we all get busy to set off. We head to the basin lock and the lock master duly drains the lock. Having looked at the tides, it looks like we’re getting away a good 30 mins after our estimated lowest point of tide (on an incoming tide). Perfect. The gates open, the road bridge swings and we slip lines in the lock.

Aground in Limehouse lock
Aground in Limehouse lock

We float momentarily and then we lose all movement, just a couple of metres short of the exit gates. Nothing. We’re aground. Using boat hooks and various implements we try to get lines back to the shore. The lock master comes by looking confused and unimpressed! The skipper double checks the tide times and estimated height of tide… we should be floating. It doesn’t make sense. It is blowing a good breeze today, gusting 20-25kts, south-westerly. Getting on the radio we quickly establish that several other boats are aground in the area, and that the height of tide is actually 1.1 metres below the estimate.

I have never experienced anything like it. And even our skipper and the lock master are quite astounded. The reason for this anomaly is that the wind is keeping the water offshore. I’ve heard the theory on this, but to see it in practice is quite something.

aground in limehouse lock - sailing
The spirit on-board was still high, despite our set back

We sit and wait for the tide to come, before having another go. 30 mins later we try again, but to no avail. All this while we’re blocking the lock and causing much chaos for road users, with the road bridge! Another 30 – 40 mins passes, and this time we have success.

Lesson #1 – always factor in the wind direction and strength when estimating tidal heights. The theory isn’t just theory.

Sailing past the sites of London
After our false start, we’re away. Cruising down the Thames, in all its glory. I have been put in charge of pilotage and navigation for the day, quite a responsibility, and on a stretch of water that I’m unfamiliar with. I swat up on the key points along the route, checking overhead cable and bridge heights, hazards, key landmarks, areas of low water etc. It’s great to be practising some of my navigation skills, and also a privilege to have been given the responsibility.

Sailing through the Thames barrier

We cruise past Canary wharf, the Greenwich meridian (exciting for us sailors), the dome and through the Thames barrier. The Thames barrier was spectacular for us all. It is just so big and such an incredible feat of engineering. All the while I was tracking us on the chart, radioing the Port of London at key points, and calling instructions to the helm. “Lookout for big ship mooring bouys” “next you should see a port channel mark, give it a wide berth” and so on and so forth.

Sailing past the Millennium Dome in Greenwich, London
Sailing past the Millennium Dome in Greenwich, London

The next big moment was the Queen Elizabeth Bridge, aka the Dartford crossing, another incredibly feat of engineering, and a bridge that all on-board had crossed many a time. But the excitement of us sailing under it, as it towered over us like a beast towering over its vulnerable prey, was such an amazing feeling. In that moment, we realised how small and insignificant we are. It was a concrete and steel monster, and we were just a humble sail boat, gliding past in silence, being pushed along by the gentle breeze. Wow.

Sailing under the Queen Elizabeth Bridge - aka the Dartford Crossing
Sailing under the Queen Elizabeth Bridge – aka the Dartford Crossing

We continued to meander down the Thames, making great speed. With constant look out for tugs, barges, ferries, and cargo ships, we made our way out, into the Thames estuary. Keeping a close eye on depth (it’s notorious for sand bars), we made our turns perfectly, and headed in to the Medway. By now, nightfall was upon us, and we were all very much looking forward to getting home.

Sailing past the observatory at the Greenwich Meridian
Sailing past the observatory at the Greenwich Meridian… hoping to snap the shot at 00′ 00.00

Lesson number 2 on going aground…
So here we are under the cloak of darkness, making our way up the Medway. With me keeping a close eye on the charts for key landmarks, light signals, channel marks etc. And keeping the helm constantly updated on what our next mark should be.

A beautiful sunset, just off the Medway estuary
A beautiful sunset, just off the Medway estuary

I pop below deck to get details of my next couple of marks, confident that the helm has the next buoy in his line of site (flashing green 3 times every 10 seconds). It is all going so well. I come back up the companionway steps, and all is in darkness. We’re going quite fast (a good 7kts), “I can’t see any bouys!” comes a cry from the helm… I look ahead and it’s just darkness, and in a split second our skipper shouts up “Turn! Turn! We’re going to go aground!!!” And in that moment, we found ourselves stuck, no longer floating… aground again, in the notorious Medway mud.

Directly behind us is a port hand buoy, and flashing in the distance off our stern to starboard, is our mark (green flashing 3 every 10 seconds), taunting us like a playground tease. Showing us where we should be, and not where we are. We all know that there’s nothing we can do, we hit the mud at such a speed, that no amount of heaving or engine is going to get us off.

We have no choice, but to wait for the tide. Thankfully on checking the tide heights, we note that it is currently at its lowest point. So this is a case of ‘have a cup of tea, and we should re-float soon’. Soon, was an hour and a half. We’d made great speed until this point, so although this was incredibly frustrating for all, we knew that we would be back on our original eta.

Charts London to Chatham sailing
Just a few of the charts used on the navigation…

So who’s fault was it? And why did we go aground?
I feel/felt fairly responsible, the helm said that I had confused him slightly… he thought I had said that we needed to make a turn. Equally, I was confident that he knew we were heading for our charming green buoy (flashing 3 every 10). And as for the 2 other crew members on deck, they were apparently not keeping a look out or helping the helm with spotting his marks.

I would say this is a collective ‘total balls up’, to use a sailing term.

I think there are a few lessons to learn here re: going aground…
1. As the navigator, make sure you give clear, concise instructions when navigating.
2. Always ask for the helm to play back to you exactly what you said, and ensure they 100% confirm that they can see the mark (if you’re following marks)
3. If you’re on the helm and you lose your mark, or aren’t 100% sure where you’re going speak up. Straight away
4. If you lose your mark, slow the boat down, or even stop
5. If you’re a crew member on deck, you shouldn’t be sitting around chatting, but should be playing an active role in assisting the helm and navigator in spotting marks, keeping a look out, and facilitating communication between the navigator and helm if necessary, from the chart table to the helming station

I’ve thought about that grounding a fair amount. We were lucky it was simply mud. It was a learning experience for me, and hopefully for the rest of the crew. I always think that when something goes wrong, it’s crucial to understand why, and take the lessons, and never let it be repeated.

On we go…
The mood on-board was one of relief when we finally re-floated. We pulled up our anchor and continued on our passage. This time the skipper wanted me on the helm, and he called the navigational marks for me. It was dark, a little drizzly and freezing cold. With numb fingers, I guided us up the Medway for an hour to our destination in Chatham.

I assume I’m handing the boat back to the skipper, and instead he asks me to circle and assess the mooring situation. “You’ll be ok mooring her won’t you?” I laugh, “errr I hope so”… “What do you mean you hope so?! You’d better be!”

With that I slow her down, and make a careful approach. Carefully making sure I don’t get to close to the other boats, whack her astern, then forwards, back, and glide her in. Thankfully, the text book perfect mooring. I feel quietly proud inside (it’s been a while since I’ve had to moor a boat as big as this, and to do it in darkness, under pressure… I was pleased with myself, potentially redeemed from the part I played in our recent stop off?), and my crew were too… with a few comments of ‘that was great’ ‘well done’ etc, I’m finally ready to turn off the engine and head home for a shower and bed.

Capturing the moment… sailing through the tidal barrier

What a day it has been. Some stunning sites, some great people, an adventure, and some crucial lessons learned on going aground in a sailing boat.

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