RIB around the River…

Out on the Thames for pleasure, thrills, and… security

If a flash of red cuts across your sightline brightening up the river as you walk along the Thames Path National Trail in central London, you are most likely catching sight of a Thames Rocket, one of the three tourist Rib companies that ply for custom on the waters of the central London tidal Thames. Also vying for your attention are the yellow Thames RIB Experience and blue ThamesJet craft as they surge forward leaving behind an impressive trail of foaming white water.

As social distancing and other rules in this time of Coronavirus are constantly subject to change, it would be wise to check up-to-date arrangements with each individual company by clicking on the links above here or at the end of the piece. But so far, since the easing of the initial lockdown, things seem to have been ticking over albeit at a reduced capacity.

Thames Rockets have two starting points: one from the London Eye, which is basically a sightseeing tour and the other from London Bridge City Pier, a high speed trip to the Thames Barrier and back. Since Charlie Matheson created the company in 2006, it has become “one of the most popular ways of seeing London”. Not only do visitors see the famous sights from a different and interesting water-level perspective, they also enjoy a lively commentary and the excitement of speeding along certain sections of the river.

“Red Rocket” owning the Thames
“Captain Rocket” passing the Palace of Westminster at a stately pace
Eyes fixed attentively on their guide, passengers are skilfully steered through the Blackfriars Bridges

The Thames Rib Experience company’s striking waspy-coloured craft have been skimming the waters of the Thames at high speed for over ten years to the delight of their passengers. Boarding from Embankment Pier, Tower Pier and North Greenwich Pier, they enjoy an exciting ride while discovering central London’s notable sights and buildings.

Thames Rib Experience speeding past the Tower of London and Traitor’s Gate
Thames Rib Experience “Exterminator” emerging at speed from Blackfriars Bridge
Thames Rib Experience “Eliminator” approaching Tower Bridge

ThamesJet, the newest of the three Rib companies, is owned and operated by the long-established City Cruises, who as you may have seen, run a large fleet of sightseeing boats that show off London and the Thames at a more leisurely pace. However, though the Ribs are available for private hire, their normal sightseeing service has been put on hold until April 2021 so it would be best to check out their website below.

ThamesJet “Blue Thunder”
ThamesJet “Blue Lightening”
A ThamesJet approaching Tower Bridge past the distinctive blue boats of the Thames Marine Services

But there’s a more serious side to Ribs on the Thames. From time to time a fast moving Police Rib will disturb the water. Highly manoeuvrable and versatile, these lightening speed Ribs are used for security training and escort duty, but their main purpose is, when necessary, to carry armed response units swiftly to the scene of an incident. Their firearms crews are ready to intervene at any moment and, if you’re lucky, you can sometimes see them in training.

A recent film by Maritime Police Instructor Danny Mizon posted by @liquid_highway1 shows one of their joint exercises with Thames Clippers, and he goes on to quote Mizon, who wrote: “Training our colleagues to board larger vessels travelling at higher speeds has been part of both London’s and the national capability for many years now but we couldn’t do it without the cooperation of our industry partners.”

Police Rib disturbing reflections on a practice run
Police Rib in high speed training by the Palace of Westminster

In March 2017, the counter terrorism police worked with City Cruises on an exercise involving the highjack of a sightseeing boat on the river Thames. The simulation was very realistic and warnings that this was going to take place with high speed pursuits and gunfire, were put out in advance on social media and elsewhere, so as not to alarm the public. It brought together, the Port of London Authority; the Coastguard; The RNLI; the London Ambulance Service; and the London Fire Brigade in a valuable exercise of coordination and cooperation underling the importance of protecting the river as lifeline to our city

Click on the Thames RIBs below to see latest information and Covid Secure preparations
Thames Rockets
Thames RIB Experience
ThamesJet and ThamesJet Private Hire owned by City Cruises

What’s in a name?

Names of some first responder vessels on the central London Thames

From the names of the London Fire Brigade vessels that clearly mark their function; the Port of London patrol launches linked to geography of the river; the RNLI’s homage to benefactors inscribed on their lifeboats; through to the Thames River Police’s commemoration of their founders and past heroes, there is much to reflect upon as you walk by the river.

The London Fire Brigade has two fire boats moored at their Lambeth river station by Lambeth Bridge: FIRE DART and FIRE FLASH. And, as their names suggest, they are ready to arrive with great speed to deal both with fires in buildings facing the Thames and on boats, as well as “rescuing vessels that have got into trouble, towing distressed vessels, and rescuing people and animals from both water and mud.”

Fire Rescue vessel FIRE DART, used daily for operations
Fire Rescue vessel FIRE FLASH is used for training and as a backup for FIRE DART

Among the many working vessels of the Port of London Authority there are four catamaran launches patrolling the stretch of the river from Putney Bridge to the North Sea. Simply named after Thames Bridges they are: BARNES, KEW, LAMBETH, and SOUTHWARK. Spotted from the embankment at Victoria Tower Gardens, the last two have been seen most frequently during lockdown.

Port of London vessel BARNES heading upstream past Westminster
Port of London vessel KEW heading downstream past Westminster
Port of London vessel LAMBETH passing a mooring close to Lambeth Bridge
Port of London vessel SOUTHWARK heading upstream towards Lambeth Bridge

Eighteen years ago four permanent RNLI lifeboat stations were set up along the Thames at: Teddington, Chiswick, Tower Pier (now by Waterloo Bridge and known as ‘Tower’), and Gravesend. Their creation came after inquiries and reports into the tragic sinking of party boat the MARCHIONESS. Fifty-one young people were drowned on August 28, 1989, when the dredger BOWBELLE rammed and sank her near Southwark Bridge. The RNLI now have a twenty-four hour presence on the tidal Thames every day of the year and have saved many lives. Tower lifeboat station is the busiest in the country.

Tower Lifeboat HURLEY BURLY taking a casualty to safety

HURLEY BURLY was named at a ceremony on October 31, 2011, in honour of Kay Hurley MBE, 1918-2020, who funded the lifeboat and was a major benefactor of the RNLI.

Chiswick Lifeboat BRAWN CHALLENGE

Chiswick Lifeboat, BRAWN CHALLENGE, was named in 2010 after Ross Brawn, OBE, engineer, and Formula One team principal, who initiated a massive fund-raising challenge to raise the £350,000 needed for the new lifeboat.

Chiswick Lifeboat DONNA AND DOUGIE B

The lifeboat DONNA and DOUGIE B was named in 2012 by Olympic rower Greg Searle in honour of Douglas ‘Dougie’ and Rosemary ‘Donna’ Battams, who having had no children, decided to leave money in their will to the RNLI. They had a strong association with the sea as Dougie had been in the Merchant Navy for many years before coming to work on the Thames for the Port of London Authority.

PATRICK COLQUHOUN II named after one of the founders of the Thames River Police

The introduction to the Thames Police Museum at Wapping, explains that “The Thames River Police was the first policing body ever to be set up. Its sole objective was the prevention and detection of crime on the Thames and it was to become the forerunner of many other police forces throughout the world.” The Thames River Police force was set up in 1798 by Patrick Colquhoun and John Harriott to counter the quite staggering amount of thieving that went on with impunity in and around the crowded London docks, causing great losses to importers and tax authorities alike. Some years later in 1839, the force, renamed the Thames Division, was amalgamated with London’s Metropolitan Police force, which had been created by Sir Robert Peel ten years earlier.

JOHN HARRIOTT IV, named in honour of joint founder of the Thames River Police
GABRIEL FRANKS II named after the first police officer to die in the Service

Gabriel Franks was the first British police officer to die on duty. He was employed by the Marine Police Office and was hit by a bullet while observing events during the Wapping Coal Riot in October 1798. He died a few days later. His memory is kept alive on the modern vessel named after him in the fleet of the Metropolitan Police Service Marine Policing Unit, as the service is now known.

SIR ROBERT PEEL II making a splash

After becoming Home Secretary in 1822, Sir Robert Peel oversaw prison reform and introduced wide ranging changes to British criminal law. In 1829 he saw through the Metropolitan Police Act, which set up the official police force for London. There is a fine model of the first launch (in service from 1947 – 1963) to bear the name SIR ROBERT PEEL in the Thames Police Museum.

NINA MACKAY II

Seen frequently patrolling the Thames is the MPS Marine Policing Unit launch, named in honour of PC Nina Mackay, aged twenty-five, who was fatally stabbed while arresting a man on October 24, 1997. There is a Memorial to her in East London where she fell but memory of her is kept in the public consciousness as the boat bearing her name frequently passes through central London on patrol.

As well as direct references to geographical or functional links, innovators, philanthropists and heroes have been remembered in the naming of boats that form an essential lifeline along the tidal Thames. I have only touched upon a few of them here but perhaps enough to awaken your curiosity as they pass by, serving Londoners and visitors alike.

Further information
London Fire Brigade
Port of London Authority patrol launches
RNLI on the Thames
Thames River Police Museum
You can also follow @LondonFire @LondonPortAuth @Londonlifeboats on Twitter.

Police launch NINA MACKAY on a “shout”…

The Naming of Tugs

The punchy names of Venetian tugs set me thinking…

Revisiting an anniversary trip to Venice in 1986 while sorting out photos during lockdown, I came across these tugs captured on film by my husband. Their assertive names made me think of some of the tugs that I’ve come across and photographed on the central London tidal Thames, the most noticeable being the Cory Riverside Energy tugs on their daily trips collecting and removing containers of London’s waste.

Their names ‘Reclaim’, ‘Recovery’, ‘Redoubt’, ‘Regain’ and ‘Resource’ make their mission and determination clear. Working with the tides, barges of empty containers are towed on the flood tide to collection points upstream and the filled containers are taken back downstream on the ebb tide. Punching through the water these purposeful red-capped tugs and their bright yellow containers command attention.

Cory tug RECLAIM towing empty barges upstream
Cory tug RECOVERY towing filled containers downstream
Cory tug REDOUBT heading downstream past the old County Hall
Cory tug REGAIN emerging from Lambeth Bridge
Cory tug RESOURCE passing under Lambeth Bridge

Another group of tugs, vessels in the fleet of GPS Marine Contractors Ltd., have had a different approach to their naming. The majority of them have names ending in “ia”. This idea is a legacy from the famous William Watkins Ltd. tugs which became part of a new company, Ship Towage (London) Ltd., on February 1st, 1950. In Thames Ship Towage 1933 – 1992 by J.E. Reynolds, the ‘William Watkins Ltd. Fleet List 1933-1950’ underlines GPS’s historic link with the company as back then names included: ‘Hibernia’, ‘Nubia’, ‘Scotia’, ‘Arcadia’, ‘Badia’, ‘Doria’, ‘Vincia’ ‘Muria’, ‘Fabia’, and ‘Cervia’. And John Spencer of GPS Marine explains that “many of the names you will see on our tugs were originally used by Watkins, now prefixed by GPS for reasons of corporate identity. But the tradition of ending names with an ‘ia’ still follows the same theme, such as for the tugs Iberia and Illyria”.

GPS tugs tow barges transporting tunnel segments upstream for sections of the tunnel lining of London’s new super sewer, the Thames Tideway project. Excavated tunnel material is loaded onto immense barges and towed downstream to East Tilbury in Essex. All this relieves London from much traffic and pollution. Their barges also carry aggregates to be used for making concrete, upstream to Hanson in Wandsworth.

Heading towards Westminster Bridge, GPS tug CAMBRIA pushing a barge loaded with spoil downstream
GPS tug ANGLIA side-towing a barge of building materials upstream
GPS tug IBERIA on a solo mission
GPS tug INDIA towing barge 1610 upstream to collect spoil from the Tideway tunnel works
GPS tug CERVIA emerging from Lambeth Bridge side-towing a barge of spoil downstream

Also involved in the transportation of material for London’s new sewer is the company Thamescraft Dry Docking Services, whose tug DEVOUT attracts quite a few *Likes* for my Twitter images. Spotting another of their tugs, DEVOTED, I was curious to find out if their names had any significance. Jack Deverell explained that “it’s just a play on our family name. The multicat ‘Jack D’ was named after me many years ago and the ‘Emilia D’, after my daughter.” These days ‘Emilia D’ is a familiar sight on the central London Thames.

Based in Greenwich for over twenty years the company operates one of London’s only remaining boatyards, carrying out half of all the annual maintenance work needed for London’s maritime tourism industry, and three-quarters of the Thames pleasure boat refit and maintenance work. In addition they deal with emergency repairs to vessels, piers, pontoons.

Thamescraft tug DEVOUT pushing tunnel segments upstream
Tug DEVOUT towing a barge after unloading tunnel segments further upstream
Thamescraft tug DEVOTED heading downstream past one of the Westminster moorings

Some time ago, the London Port Authority had a tradition of naming a number of their tugs with the prefix ‘PLA’. They included this rather random selection of names: ‘Plagal’, ‘Plangent’, ‘Platina’, ‘Plateau’, ‘Plastron’, ‘Platoon’, ‘Plasma’, ‘Plankton’, and ‘Placard’ to fit their pattern. I came across ‘Plashy’ last year, delivered to the PLA in 1951, and after two changes of ownership she is now part of Thames Link Marine Ltd.

Tug TLM PLASHY heading upstream towards Lambeth Bridge last summer

Boats of all kinds acquire their names for different reasons. Some to project a group or company image; some to honour a dignitary, a past hero, a benefactor, or a family member; and some are witty or whimsical. Ben, Waterman and Lighterman of the river Thames, told me that J.T. Palmer & Sons., at Gravesend, named three of their tugs ‘Nipalong’, ‘Nipaway’, and ‘Niparound’. However when the port authority of Auckland, New Zealand, was choosing names for their new electric tug, ‘Tuggy McTugface’ was deemed a step too far and excluded from the list.

Further Information
Detailed information on Thames Tugs: https://www.thamestugs.co.uk

The Liquid Highway: a rich resource for all kinds of information on the river Thames: https://theliquidhighway.co.uk/about/

A great Twitter feed for Thames news and historical photographs: @liquid_highway1

By clicking here you can see my earlier articles on Cory and GPS tugs.


Now, then…

…and hopefully again soon, the sightseeing and party boats will take to the river once more.

Having been restricted to our local area for walks at the beginning of lockdown, a visit to Victoria Tower Gardens for my husband and me naturally became part of the daily routine. And the stretch of river between Westminster and Lambeth Bridges became our horizon. While the key services of the Cory waste removal tugs, the Port of London Authority and Police vessels carried on as usual, joined later by tugs and other boats involved with building works upstream, the party and sightseeing boats in this section were tied up, out of action. Immobile. And we got to know them. They are so much a part of normal life on the river that I’ve gone back in time, through pictures taken last year, to give a glimpse of how things were for some of the boats in this small group before Covid, and to show how I hope life will return for them as soon as possible.

The CONNAUGHT and the QUEEN ELIZABETH, in the picture above, moored on the east bank of the Thames, close to Westminster Bridge are both owned by Colliers Launches in Twickenham, who also own the PRINCESS FREDA, now back at work on hourly round trips from Richmond to Teddington Lock.

M.V. QUEEN ELIZABETH passing under Lambeth bridge towards Westminster, passengers to the fore, August 2019
M.V. CONNAUGHT heading towards Lambeth Bridge, June 2019

Just upstream from the Colliers’ boats, the mooring in front of the old St. Thomas’ Hospital buildings had a number of *visitors* during lockdown including M.V.s MERCURIA, CHAY BLYTH and MERCEDES, who remained there for much of the time. During the month of July there was more movement as party boat and sightseeing companies began to sense and to prepare for, an easing of lockdown. Later visits to this Westminster mooring included M.V.s SARPEDON and SAPELE.

M.V.s MERCURIA, CHAY BLYTH and hiding, MERCEDES, at rest during lockdown as a Police RIB slices past distorting reflections
The Captain of M.V. MERCURIA negotiates the complexities of a fast-flowing Thames at the Blackfriars Bridges, September 2019
M.V MERCURIA passes the Tower of London, April 2019
M.V. CHAY BLYTH cruising past the old Anchor Brewery near Tower Bridge, October 2019
M.V. MERCEDES turns from her mooring opposite Lambeth Palace to head downstream, January 2019
M.V. SARPEDON heading upstream from the Golden Jubilee and Hungerford Bridges, April 2019
M.V. SAPELE heading downstream past H.M.S. BELFAST, September 2019

The Thames Marine Services fixed barge in Westminster had a number of *guests* too, among them: M.V.s HOLLYWOOD and THOMAS DOGGETT; both familiar sights on the river carrying their passengers along the Thames to show them famous London landmarks from a different perspective.

M.V. HOLLYWOOD spent some time during lockdown moored by the Thames Marine Services fixed barge at Westminster
M.V. HOLLYWOOD arriving at St. Katharine Pier, April 2019
M.V. THOMAS DOGGETT passing H.M.S BELFAST. In the background, known across the world: Tower Bridge, April 2019

The smartly liveried Thames Cruises fleet, based at Lambeth Pier by the bridge, had a few discreet changeovers as time went on but as with the other cruise companies, all commercial activities ceased at the beginning of lockdown.

Thames Cruises M.V.s VISCOUNTESS, THAMES PRINCESS and RIVER PRINCESS during lockdown, moored at their Lambeth Pier home
M.V. OLD LONDON returning to her mooring, September 2019
M.V. VISCOUNTESS heading towards Westminster Bridge, August 2019

The last group of boats moored to fixed barges between Westminster and Lambeth Bridges is on the west bank of the river and is made up of M.V. KINGWOOD, neglected, seemingly out of commission, and M.V.s VALULLA, MERCIA and SUERITA.

M.V.s KINGWOOD, VALULLA, MERCIA and SUERITA moored close to Lambeth Bridge thoughout lockdown
M.V. MERCIA turning in front of the Palace of Westminster, August 2019
M.V. VALULLA negotiating a slightly choppy Thames near Tower Bridge, September 2019

There has been a noticeable increase in party and sightseeing boat activity in the Westminster to Lambeth Bridge section of the Thames coinciding with our most recent July walks. Of course movements were taking place at other times and we’ve been arriving in Victoria Tower Gardens to find boats moved around, which was not the case at the beginning of lockdown.

City Cruises are crossing the Westminster frontiers more and more, particularly cruising downstream past the sights of London. The Thames Clippers , now in partnership with Uber, have been running a regular commuting and sight-seeing service since the middle of June. And in the last week of July several boats began to reappear including the London Eye Cruise boat ‘Silver Bonito’ and the London Party Boats. All are carefully adapted to be Covid-secure. Tickets have to be booked online but the cruises are not crowded so now would be a good time to pay London and the Thames a visit.

Hopefully with care and clear, unambiguous government advice, life on the river will return to some greater semblance of normality before long. So many livelihoods depend upon it…

SILVER BONITO and a newly liveried Thames Clipper passing by each other at Westminster Bridge, July 2020

Further information
‘Operation Dynamo’: a very interesting film by Liquid Highway featuring some of the boats above.
‘Thames Watermen and Ferries’ from The history of the Port of London by Peter Stone, 2017.
As things are still unsettled, information on particular boats and their Covid precautions is best discovered by typing their names into a search engine and following any links.

A hesitant return…

Navigating the easing of lockdown

Since the middle of March, Victoria Tower Gardens and its stretch of the Thames has been a place of refuge. A place where we have been lucky enough to feel sheltered from the dangers and fear incited by the spread of Covid-19. With the falling number of cases and the easing of restrictions, we have ventured slightly further afield and, since the beginning of July have been able to spend more time in the gardens watching the river slowly coming to life.

Colliers Launches have been running circular cruises from Richmond to Teddington Lock and back, with PRINCESS FREDA but so far the only boats of theirs that we can see every day, the CONNAUGHT and the QUEEN ELIZABETH have remained quietly but assuredly frustratingly, at anchor in Westminster, where though they have been *visited* on occasions by PRINCESS FREDA.

PRINCESS FREDA seen from Victoria Tower Gardens in the happier days of July 2019

However, we’ve been able to see Thames Clippers back on the river since the middle of June, slowly building up passenger numbers and City Cruises, mostly working downstream from Westminster Bridge. Both have taken the required precautions to make their vessels Covid secure and, as cautious confidence returns so we have observed an increase in passengers.

Passengers, correctly masked, enjoying London’s classic views from CYCLONE clipper
City Cruises MILLENNIUM TIME coming close to the Victoria Tower Gardens embankment in Westminster
CITY GAMMA with passengers enjoying the sights of central London

At the same time RIB tours are increasing with Thames Rockets, Thames RIB Experience and, though I haven’t seen Thames Jet on this stretch of the river yet, they are all providing exciting views of London from the water. And sometimes at white knuckle speed.

A member of the Thames Rockets crew tells of history, architecture, and skulduggery in the Palace of Westminster
Thames Rib Experience trips are a good way to see London from a different perspective

RIBs are also an effective, high-speed way of reacting to an emergency, so an important asset for the Police. We’ve seen them checking security along the river and occasionally seen them taking part in high-speed exercises.

Police RIB heading downstream towards Westminster Bridge
Looking out over the river from Victoria Tower Gardens embankment, a fearless Egyptian goose

Slowly returning to pre-lockdown routines, tugs and their tows were evidence of greater activity on building sites upstream, particularly on the Tideway tunnel, with the delivery of tunnel segments, building materials, and the removal of spoil.

GPS tug INDIA heading upstream with a cargo of aggregates
A well judged close shave with Westminster Bridge… GPS tug INDIA pushing a barge of spoil downstream
Tug DEVOUT pushing a barge of tunnel segments upstream for the Tideway project

As well as the increase in commercial activity, Port of London vessels were carrying on with their normal functions, such as surveying channels, checking vessels, organising the clearing of potentially dangerous debris, and patrolling the ninety-five mile stretch of the tidal Thames.

Port of London survey vessel THAME working along the Westminster and Lambeth stretch of the Thames
Port of London vessel BARNES patrolling the tidal Thames, as she has been doing throughout the lockdown

Always on stand-by and on occasional patrols for testing and training, are the London Brigade fire rescue boats, FIRE DART and FIRE FLASH.

London Fire Brigade rescue vessel FIRE FLASH heading back to base

And as ever, the Marine Support Unit of the Metropolitan Police, with their Targa fast response vessels, are on constant watch along the river. If you walk for more than a short while along the banks of the central London Thames, you are almost bound to see one of them. Sometimes cruising in watch mode, sometimes speeding on a ‘shout’ to deal with a crime or to take part in a training exercise. However, if there are potential casualties involved, they will work with an RNLI crew from one the the four Thames stations, Tower RNLI being one of the busiest.

MPS Marine Policing Unit vessel THAMES RESERVE on patrol
MV PRINCESS FREDA, already back at work, making her way home to her mooring at Richmond after a refuelling stop at Westminster

The number of new Covid cases is significantly reduced but everyone is rightly cautious and the full return of most pleasure and party boat cruises still seems a little way off. Though social distancing can be organised on an outside deck for some, it will be more difficult to manage inside spaces in a way that would be economically viable. Added to this, there are real fears of a second Covid spike, so a return to how life was anything like before will have to be carefully orchestrated.

Further information
Colliers Launches
City Cruises
Thames Clippers
To find out more history of the vessels on the Thames see YouTube channel : The Liquid Highway