For centuries, skilled watermen plied their trade on the tidal Thames, a stretch of river that is busy and perilous.
The area has provided employment for thousands, the skills passed down through the generations. From 1555 until 2007 when a new EU licensing regime came into effect, the Company of Watermen and Lightermen ran a five-year Thames specific apprenticeship programme.
Now the ancient company manages training schemes in conjunction with the National Maritime Training Centre at Gravesend, with bespoke modules for the Thames.
“Once completed the apprentices gain a Waterman’s Certificate and ‘Freedom’ to operate on the Thames as a Journeyman having met the very highest standard,” says the company, based in the Watermen’s Hall in the City.
The skilled crews have a deep-rooted understanding of the vagaries of the Thames, its bridges, its currents, its reaches, its tide, which can vary the height by 7m.
They navigate using technology and rule of thumb, for instance four steps showing above the waterline on the bank at Wandsworth suggests the tide is low enough to pass under the fourth arch of the Battersea road bridge.
In recent years, there has been a growth in freight as well as a concerted effort to get more people using the river for leisure and commuting, which has given a waterway quiet, since the death of the docks, a new lease of life.
“There is a real momentum on the Thames with all aspects of river use growing or set to grow,” said Port of London Authority chairman Christopher Rodrigues.
The PLA wants to train a new generation of workers equipped to work on the river, driven by the demands of the Thames Tideway project, a multi-billion-pound tunnel to protect the river from sewer pollution.
“To make the most of the opportunities, and to do so safely, we need well-trained, skilled people,” said Christopher.
“That’s where the Thames Skill Academy comes in. Working together, the PLA, Transport for London, Tideway , the Company of Watermen and Lightermen and the industry can create a key building block for the development of our river – a cadre of more, better trained people to work on the tidal Thames.
“For young people coming to the river at the start of their working lives, and indeed for experienced workers as they up-skill, the Thames Skills Academy will become a critical resource. For starters, it will make sure river workers are equipped to contribute directly and indirectly to the Tideway project.
“But beyond that, in five or six years’ time, when Tideway has finished its work and the Thames is much cleaner, there will be a pool of skilled labour ready to move on to the next major project making use of the Thames or onto new Thames transport operations – like the delivery of goods sorted at downriver terminals and brought upriver into London for waterborne delivery to the customer.”
The academy is part of Thames 2035 , a 20-year strategy to put the Thames to work.
Mr Rodrigues said: “The Vision is a perfect device for gathering together all river users – large and small – behind a programme that ensures the development of a vibrant, safe, commercially successful river.”
Six goals for growth in Thames 2035
- The biggest ever Port of London.
- 20 million passengers on the river.
- More freight moved on the Thames.
- Greater participation in sport.
- An improved environment.
- More people enjoying the river than ever before.
Mind the boat race
Sunday sees one of the most high profile events on the river’s calendar – the Oxford and Cambridge boat races, first staged in 1829 at Henley. It is one of the oldest sporting events in the world.
The Boat Race takes place over a 4.2-mile course on the Thames Tideway starting at Putney and finishing at Mortlake
The Port of London Authority says: “The race literally can’t start without us. We are most visible at the start as PLA marine services members hold the sterns of the Oxford and Cambridge racing eights steady for the starting gun. They often have their hands in the freezing water for up to 20 minutes before the start gun is fired.”
The women’s and men’s races will be run at 3.10pm and 4.10pm