After a RNLI lifeboat had to rescue four people from a narrow boat in August the PLA has banned all hired boats from the tidal River Thames. The boat was being held broadside across the bows of a large moored houseboat by strong tides and gusty winds sweeping round the bend of the river just above Hammersmith Bridge. There have been a number of similar incidents and it has been suggested that the high sides and relatively underpowered engines of longer narrowboats can make them particularly hard to handle in these situations.
The Port of London Authority (PLA) has now decided that all hire craft should be classified as ‘commercial’ and subsequently effectively banned them from the Thames Tideway.
Holiday hire narrowboats have always made the short Tideway passage between the Grand Union Canal at Brentford and the Environment Agency’s (EA) non-tidal Thames navigation and sometimes the longer voyage down to the Regent’s Canal at Limehouse: The PLA seems to have just discovered this. It now insists that such craft must comply with the Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA) which lays down construction and operational standards for hire vessels operating on MCA categorized waters (i.e. those “not proceeding to sea”).
This is usually applied to charter craft and mandates all commercial vessels operating within the geographical boundaries must have a suitably qualified skipper aboard. There are many other regulations involved such as freeboard which narrowboats cannot comply with. Discussions are currently in hand between representatives of the PLA and those of the Association of Pleasure Craft Operators (APCO) and technical officers of the British Marine Federation (BMF) to see if some sort of compromise solution can be reached.
The irony is that because of the right of public navigation that allows you to take any sort of privately owned craft on the River Thames, subject to the correct licensing tolls and conforming with certain regulations, private narrowboats of the same construction can cruise the Tideway.
The main regulations are that all boats over 13.7m (45′), travelling on the river below Teddington, unless in an organised convoy, are required to carry an operational VHF Radio and to maintain a listening watch when navigating. A special exemption is made for narrow boats only for transits between Teddington and Brentford (and vice versa), who may proceed without a VHF radio provided that they inform Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) by phone at the start and completion of their journey.
Navigating any river, especially a tidal river, requires more skill and diligence than canal cruising, where the safety of dry land is never more than a few feet away. Engines should be thoroughly checked, anchors and chain carried, lifejackets worn and boaters often prefer to cruise in convoys.