The Thames Estuary in winter is not necessarily a place you'd choose for a cruise. For many yachtsmen, even in summer it's a necessary evil: the strangely blank, slightly foreboding link between the river and the sea.
Thousands of boats pass through every year. Local motoryachts based in the scenic upper reaches of the river make an annual pilgrimage downstream—from bucolic Henley, where the famous rowing regatta provides the high-water mark of the summer social season to the breezy suburbia of Maidenhead or the Georgian stonework of Richmond-upon-Thames—eventually bound for the agreeably foreign ports of Belgium and Holland, or the no-less-alien saltwater marinas of the English south coast harbors.
Passing them to port, yachtsmen from the Continent make the long slog inbound—intrepid Dutchmen in sturdy steel craft, wandering Frenchmen aboard weather-beaten, bluewater sailboats, exploratory Scandinavians—to moor, finally, at St. Katherine Haven in the shadow of London's Tower Bridge, there to spend a week or a month savoring the world's most cosmopolitan city.
Few of them stop en route. It's 60 nautical miles from London to where the English coast turns the corner at North Foreland, and most yachtsmen aim to make the trip on one tide, holding their breath as they negotiate the estuarial shallows that lie between the safety of open water and the security of port. The very names on the chart have a doom-laden edge: Sunk Head Tower, Foulness Sand, Four Fathoms Channel, The Warp.
It was here, famously, anchored off Gravesend to await a favorable tide, that Joseph Conrad's Marlow lit his pipe, paused, and began to regale his crewmates with a tale from the heart of darkness. The Thames Estuary is that sort of place: Nowhere else in the south of England feels quite so close to the dark side of the moon.
It was perhaps fitting, then, that when I joined the Royal Denship 82 in London, she reminded me of a spaceship. Never has a sleek, Med-styled motoryacht looked more out of place. I say London, but it was actually the old redeveloped docklands several miles downstream of the city. A generation ago—or maybe two—these giant basins were the pumping heart of an oceanic empire, but now they're little more than water features for condominiums. A waterside site provides the big, new exhibition center with a certain allure and, for the last few years, the site of the capital's annual boat show, but you have to be a special kind of boat nut to enjoy pounding the pontoons in January's bitter winds.
This article originally appeared in the July 2006 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.