Tugs on the Tidal Thames 1

Robust river workhorses…

GPS Marine brightly coloured tugs are among many tugs working for different companies along the river. Operating for over fifty years in harbours all over Europe, their tugs are a familiar sight on the waters of the Medway and the Thames.

And from the banks of the Thames in central London you are bound to see them towing, or pushing loads to and from the many riverside construction sites, particularly the massive Tideway tunnel sites for the new London sewer.

GPS tug INDIA pushing a barge loaded with aggregate upstream

Using the tides to their best advantage, every day they save London’s roads from large-scale pollution and congestion by carrying upstream machines, precast products for construction, and around 2,000 tonnes of aggregate, used for mixing with bitumen, cement, gypsum, lime and other material to form concrete or mortar, used for building projects throughout London.

GPS tug INDIA pushing barge of earth downstream towards Waterloo Bridge

“On a typical day,” they tell me, “we transport four barges, each carrying 1,600 tonnes of material, so relieving London’s roads of 352 lorry journeys.”

Coming downstream, again saving London from road congestion and pollution, as this link to a Tideway film explains, you will often spot tugs pushing massive barges filled with spoil from the various sites along the river to ‘spoil reception facilities’ at East Tilbury, where it can be graded for ‘beneficial reuse’.

GPS tug CAMBRIA towing a crane upstream from under Waterloo Bridge
GPS tug CAMBRIA towing an empty barge upstream
GPS BATTLER, designated a ‘special vessel’, is a shallow draft, multi-purpose boat. Last week, she was videoed at work in front of Butler’s Wharf by tug enthusiast @2000MX5 on Twitter
GPS tug Illyria towing machinery downstream
GPS tug CAMBRIA heading upstream with an empty barge to collect excavated tunnel material
GPS tug INDIA pushing a barge downstream with excavated material from one of the sewer tunnel sites
GPS tug IBERIA passing the Houses of Parliament
GPS tug CERVIA and launch ALERT heading upstream from Westminster Bridge
GPS launch ALERT heading downstream

In 2018, GPS Marine added sleek-looking vessel ALERT to their fleet as a “fleet support launch”, fully equipped with a floating office to carry technical officers to support and assist tug crews on the river. She also has equipment to undertake repairs, maintenance, salvage, and first aid. With a maximum speed of 20 knots, she can, if necessary, move swiftly to where she is needed.

GPS tug/workboat FELUCA passing HMS BELFAST

I’m just one of many who enjoys seeing tugs passing along the Thames. Professionals and amateurs alike can be attracted by their technical make-up, the varied work they do, and their sheer physical appeal. They brighten up the views and provide interest as you walk along the riverside. However, aesthetically appealing as they are, it would be wrong to over romanticise them. Even with modern improvements, working on tugs can be uncomfortable, dirty, difficult, and dangerous. You can find out how life for tug crews on the Thames used to be, and how it has changed in recent years, by looking at this short film on Thames doyen Peter Duggan interviewed by Nikolai Bendix in 2015. And it is still changing…

To find out more see:
Posts by GPS Marine on some of their work on the Thames.
The Liquid Highway “A leading River Thames source for news and info with the world’s largest Thames vessel photo gallery”, run by Thames Waterman and Lighterman, Ben, and follow him on Twitter @liquid_highway1
And another interesting resource to explore is: Thames Tugs

From the river….

Views of the Thames by Wal Daly-Smith

Working on the Thames as a commercial Skipper with the Tideway project and as Mate with Bateaux London, Wal has a unique view of the river. Whatever the weather, whatever the state of the tides, he is sensitive to the constant changes affecting the perspective of London’s landmark buildings, bridges, and boats and will when he can, seize the moment to capture them on film. He has kindly allowed me to share his pictures with you. 

Putney Bridge on a misty morning ©Wal Daly-Smith

Working for the Tideway project, building the super sewer for London under the Thames, Wal is based at Carnwath Road, on the north shore, upper side of Wandsworth Bridge. His work often takes him to the Tideway site at Putney, where he gets to see Putney Bridge in its many guises.

Putney Bridge turning the Thames to gold ©Wal Daly-Smith
Westminster Bridge and Portcullis House ©Wal Daly-Smith

His work for Bateaux London Cruises can take him as far upstream as Plantation Wharf, just below Wandsworth Bridge, and downstream to the Thames Barrier, depending on the tides and the cruise time.

A Thames Clipper beneath the London Eye ©Wal Daly-Smith
Tourist passenger boats M.V. SARPEDON and M.V. SAPELE ©Wal Daly-Smith

He knows the various sights and vessels along the river well, having watched and learnt about them since his childhood. And being part of the Thames river family, he knows many of those working on, or along the river.

Wal, centre, taking part in the Apprentices Barge Driving Race from Greenwich Pier to Westminster Bridge in October 2018. Photo ©Thames Waterman and Lighterman, Ben: @liquid_highway1

Wal tells me that his favourite day of the year is the Thames Historic Barge Driving Race, a physically tough seven mile course from Greenwich Pier to Westminster Bridge. Set up in 1975, the race celebrates the knowledge and skill of lightermen, who until the 1930s used these 30 tonne barges under oars as a major means of moving freight along the river. The crews are made up of Freemen and Apprentices of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, who rely on their strength and knowledge of the tides to navigate the various obstacles on the course. He likes the way “the race brings people together in a good atmosphere”, with spectators on the banks, following the race on different boats, or watching from the bridges, all cheering the teams on.

An extra passenger hitching a ride ©Wal Daly-Smith

The photographs that follow show just a few of the places and the variety of craft, from tourist vessels to tugs working on industrial projects, that Wal comes across navigating the Thames.

City Cruises tourist boat MILLENNIUM DIAMOND ©Wal Daly-Smith
Cory tug REGAIN towing barges carrying waste containers ©Wal Daly-Smith
Sunset from the Blackfriars Tideway site where Wal worked earlier last year ©Wal Daly-Smith
The new Apple HQ in the UK: a major building site along the river – the old Battersea Power Station, its four chimneys now restored ©Wal Daly-Smith
Cadogan Pier ©Wal Daly-Smith
Albert Bridge ©Wal Daly-Smith

Many of Wal’s trips take him to Tower Bridge, a favourite with visitors to London, particularly if they’re able to see a Bridge Lift for ships too large to pass under the roadway – you can discover the timetable on the above link.

Tower Bridge lifts to allow golden super yacht BELLAMI upstream ©Wal Daly-Smith

He clearly loves the river at any time of the day but says: “My favourite time is at night. It can be that bit more special, probably when it’s slack tide and the river becomes a mirror, reflecting the lights beautifully…”

Passing beneath Tower Bridge ©Wal Daly-Smith
Nightfall at Tower Bridge ©Wal Daly-Smith

There are many photographers, professional and amateur, for whom the Thames is a constant source of inspiration. Just as the waters are in a continual state of flux, so the possibilities for individual photographs are infinite. Moments frozen in time, never to be replicated exactly. And Wal is one of many who have their own story to weave into the flow of the river. See here my earlier interview with Wal Daly-Smith.