Extending over 215 miles across southern England, the river Thames is not only one of the main tourist attractions in Britain, but also one of the most actively navigated waterways in the world, it has also become home to a variety of water sports.
With this in mind, when someone asks, -can you kayak on the river Thames?- our answer is, of course, you can!. The Thames is fit for many types of kayaking activities that we will explore in detail in this article. So if you want the lowdown on how you should go paddling on this emblematic river, we got you covered.
Before going afloat
First and foremost, check for any licensing or permits the authorities may require. Then make sure you carry all the necessary equipment and clothing for your trip to be a satisfactory experience. Here are some of the essentials:
Personal Flotation Device: all paddlers must be wearing a Personal Floatation Device (PFD) while kayaking on the Thames. And it must remain well-adjusted at all times while also granting enough freedom of movement to allow you to swim comfortably and keep your head above the water if needed.
Clothing: we strongly recommend you wear bright-coloured or hi-vis clothing to improve your visibility to other vessels, this is extremely important when paddling in low light conditions or darkness, also remember to dress accordingly to the (forecast) weather conditions, this is:
- Wind, rain and cold temperatures demand additional layers of clothing or even a wetsuit. Make sure you bring a couple of water/wind-proof outer items (preferably with thermal, quick-drying properties).
- A long-sleeve shirt and a combination of hat and sunglasses are a must on sunny days.
- Never go barefoot! Look for a pair of suitable water sports shoes/boots, as you most probably are going to walk on an uneven riverbed with a high risk of encountering sharp objects.
Additional Equipment other items to keep with you at all times during your trips include:
- Mobile phone or some other communications device, stored inside a buoyant, waterproof case.
- Spare Clothes in case it rains or if your kayak capsizes (keep them in a dry bag).
- Drinking water & snacks.
- Whistle, always keep it attached to your PFD.
Places to go
Whatever the purpose of your paddling trip, The Thames is a perfect location, whether you go touring, racing, training, or on an expedition. one of the things that you should keep in mind is that the two parts of the river that kayakers use the most are its Tidal and Non-Tidal sections, this refers to how intense the tidal flow of the river goes at a particular portion of its stream. So different segments favour different types of paddling activities.
Tidal Section, also known as the Tideway: It goes from Teddington Lock to Woolwich, passing by Putney Bridge, Chelsea Bridge, London Bridge, and Greenwich Pier. The Tidal Section of the Thames is also subdivided into:
- Upper Tideway, going from Teddington Lock up until Putney Bridge. The river stream here is relatively calm and suitable for any sort of canoeing and even for stand-up paddleboards (SUP), this makes it ideal for recreational trips and also novice kayakers.
Although this segment flows through the suburbs of west London, it is also a more –rural– landscape than downstream. With much more green spaces, wildlife, fewer piers on the edge of the river, and much less commercial traffic.
- Central London Section Going from Putney Bridge to Tower Bridge. It is only beyond this point that the waters become more sea-like. So the river is much more commercially orientated in this part (more notably below Lambeth Bridge), with a higher volume of traffic and a large number of bridges, piers, and moorings to negotiate.
The edge of the river in Central London is almost entirely walls and harbours. Thus resulting in the water being generally rougher and there being fewer places to get out of the river. It is because of these characteristics that the Central London section of the Thames is not especially recommended for recreational activities. Touring kayaks are a better choice instead, as they are better able to cope with the water and traffic conditions here.
- Lower Tideway extends from just below Tower Bridge out to the Thames estuary, so the river here is much broader and much more open. This segment is less suited for recreational activities (open-boats in particular). And stand-up paddleboards may not use this part at all because the water can get tremendously rough, and places to get out of the river are still very few and far between.
Non-Tidal Section: above Teddington Lock in London, the Thames is freshwater, and there are a number of locks on the river 45 to be exact, each with one (or more) nearby weirs. These are managed by the Environment Agency (EA). They employ them to keep in mind the flow of water down the stream (most notably when there is a risk of flooding), which helps navigation above the tideway.
Some of these weirs are often used by kayakers and canoeists for the practise of whitewater slalom and playboating. Most specifically, Hambleden Weir, as well as Boulters Weir, have gone through EA authorised modifications for such use.
Some other spots for British freestyle kayakers we can mention are.
- Hurley Weir, its main attraction being the fact that it stays open for 6-8 straight months a year except for 2006-2007, where it was open for 11 months). The conditions here depend on how many weir gates are open, going from the novice-friendly to -virtually unbeatable- waves and holes.
- Sunbury Weir, in one word Unpredictable. Its seven gates can produce either an enormous wave or a pretty big hole, which makes it perfect for the more adventurous playboaters.
- Marsh Weir, completely rebuilt during 2003/2004. The resulting wave-like hole it creates when all its 7 weir gates are fully open allows freestylers to practise virtually any move.
Clear and Present Dangers
It is vital to acknowledge that navigating the tidal Thames below Putney Bridge is not a trip the novice kayaker should face alone. The river tide usually rises and falls by up to 24 ft (sometimes even twice a day). If you want to go for it, please make sure you do it in the company of a certified instructor.
Tables of predicted tide times are always available on the Port of London Authority (PLA) website as well as numerous other websites and smartphone apps. Apart from checking tide tables for predicted tide times, you can also account for the strength and direction of the wind.
On the Non-Tidal Section of the river, the dangers you might face are a little different. Aside from the occasional hidden underwater obstacles, rocks, and fallen trees, there is also the possibility you might encounter a washing machine type effect (underwater). These are called a “recirculating vertical Eddy.”
Simply put, weirs, being man-made structures, these “Eddies” can be formed by the stream of water hitting off a concrete ramp and can suck you down and keep you there. So please be extra careful when playboating on a weir, as they often kill by trapping people in the hydraulic circulation at their bases.
Sights and Wildlife
As we said before, the main course of the tidal Thames is mostly frequented by sea kayakers and experienced tourers due to its extension. It allows paddlers to cover great distances while enjoying the view of some of the landmark sites in London, including:
- The Houses of Parliament
- Big Ben
- Tower of London
- London Bridge
- Albert Bridge
- London Eye
If you are more into admiring wildlife in its habitat, know that the Thames ecosystem is well-regarded as a “wildlife superhighway”. In it, you will be able to spot such exotic fishes such as the Wels catfish, sturgeons, at least three types of trouts (sea trouts, brown trouts, and rainbow trouts). Also (although now rare due to overfishing), the once prevalent salmon have been spotted on occasions. And in September, chances are you might have an encounter with some seals.
Where there are fish, birds are sure to follow! And, the Thames is no exception! So ready your camera and keep an eye out because cranes, swans, cormorants, Canadian, as well as Egyptian geese are permanent residents of the banks of the Thames.
Well, there you have it, friends! Kayaking in the Thames is actually one of the more adventurous destinations right in the UK’s Capital. So grab your licence, pick up your gear, and get ready to embark on one of Britain’s most rewarding trips. Paddle on!.