One sunny Friday morning I walked down to Tower Pier on the River Thames, there was not a cloud in the sky and the sunlight shone on the bright blue of the river. I was there to meet Clémence Barbey, a 30-year-old former Port of London Authority (PLA) apprentice, aboard the PLA launch, where she works as a deckhand, to uncover some of the secrets of working on the river.
Born in Rouen in Normandy, Clémence worked for Brittany Ferries as a cabin crew supervisor doing 27-hour trips to Bilbao before moving to England five years ago. She first started working for City Cruises on tourist boats before starting an apprenticeship with them, but the Covid-19 pandemic put an end to that. Undeterred, she continued her studies at Plymouth University and then was hired by PLA where she was able to continue her apprenticeship and obtain her master boat license in August 2021.
Now she loves her new life on the river, and on a day like this, it’s easy to see why. “If you had told me ten years ago that I would be working on the Thames, I wouldn’t have believed it,” she says. “I’ve always loved being by the water, it’s really calming and relaxing, then when I started working on the ferries I loved living on board, having my own cabin, I knew that I wanted to continue working on the boats.”
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Her apprenticeship was supposed to last two years, but she finished it in a year and a half. She studied subjects such as meteorology, radar operation, engine maintenance, shipbuilding and navigation – 25 separate units in all. There is a lot to know about the river before you can navigate it safely!
Clémence explains: “If you work in Richmond it’s mostly pleasure boats and kayaks and rowers so it’s pretty cool. The middle section is quite a lot of class 5 boats like passenger boats, we have to make sure everyone is within the PLA authority statutes There are also a lot of houseboats so we have to make sure that the ships go slowly alongside them so as not to create too much of a stir.
“We have to deal with bridge closures and there are a lot of events like filming – for example last year we played Cold Play on the river. Then if you’re based in Gravesend which I usually am , it’s all about shipping containers, tankers and large vessels.
“We transfer the pilots for the big ships, we make sure all the navigation lights are working and all the buoyancy is in place. You have to know the height of the bridges, the depth of the river, the height of each pier, be able to navigate safely,” she says.
As we speak, the boat rises and falls on the swell as a passenger craft passes. It is a small boat that can go up the creeks of the Thames as well as the main river. It is equipped with small cranes to be able to remove obstacles from the river, which Clemence says can be large inflatable boats or huge pieces of wood.
The boat has impressive electronic charts and AIS systems, which show where all commercial vessels are, which is especially useful at night. It has two powerful engines and can reach a top speed of around 30 knots – 34 mph.
She says the most dangerous part of the river is at Gravesend, where the winds and tides make it choppy, but she says you need to be aware of the danger everywhere. “It looks pretty calm and relaxing, but there’s a lot of traffic and washing and the currents are dangerous,” she says.
Clémence is highly skilled in first aid and in abandon ship, fire and man overboard protocols. She has learned to stay calm and always assess situations before acting.
Clemence says the central Thames is still a working river, although it has changed since the golden age of the docks, when it was crowded with merchant ships. “I hear a lot of stories about how it used to be. It’s still busy but it’s changed,” she says.
“There are still a lot of barges going up the Thames [and] bring sand or concrete, which avoids the arrival of many lorries in London, and there are recycling barges which collect all the rubbish. I think it will grow in the future as it is quite environmentally friendly to use barges instead of trucks. PLA is really focusing on that and also improving the conditions for wildlife in the Thames,” she says.
So what’s it like to be a woman in the largely male-dominated world of the river? “I still see people being surprised to see me on board,” says Clémence. “I’m not the first. I think the first apprentice was in 1994 and there are only a few female skippers, but that’s changing, there are a lot of female apprentices coming in now.
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“But I don’t want favouritism. I want to show that I’m really keen to learn and work, but I like the idea of having this chance in what is still a male-dominated industry.
“The Thames is full of tradition. It was once the father [and] son ten years ago, but now you see people arriving who are not even from London. The Thames is big but it has a really friendly environment. It’s not just work, it’s also a social thing,” she says.
Clémence is clearly ambitious and is already preparing to be a skipper on the launches. She could qualify in a few years, but she’s also keen to take her time and gain as much experience on the river as possible. She also wants to do other qualifications. “I would love to stay afloat, but I’m also very interested in surveying ships or the river bed,” she says. “It’s fascinating. They found a very old anchor recently and sometimes they find wreckage.”
And what about wildlife viewing? Well, even though Londoners look shocked every time they see a seal, Clemence says they are “absolutely everywhere” sunbathing along the Thames. She can also see amazing birds and if there are dolphins or whales in the river, you can bet she will be one of the first to know.
With that, I return my buoyancy aid and step back ashore, leaving Clemence and the crew to patrol the glistening river again. There’s a big part of me that would love to go with them!
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