Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant

The RAF Sailing Association have three Safety Boats in total; two are based in RAF Henlow and the other based in RAF Odiham, which are used by the RAFSA Safety Team to provide Safety and Rescue cover to Military and Civilian waterborne sporting events.

The organisers of the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant requested RAFSA Safety to provide personnel and assets to assist with the Manpowered fleet as the Pageant made its way down the Thames from the muster points to the dispersal area. It was an honour to be involved in this historic event.

Back in mid 2011, I received along with a few other personnel from RAF Marham a request from the RAF Safety team co-ordinator a tasking to participate in and help manage the safety element of the manpowered fleet for the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant. We were asked if we could provide a number of boats and crews, and contribute to the planning and team briefings leading up to the event. The safety team managed to organise the use of eight boats in total one of which was the RAF Marham Dive RHIB (Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat) a 5.5 metre Rib craft boat with 115hp engine on the back to push it along. The boat itself has been sat dormant for a number of years so after a good brush down a test drive I had the confidence that it would do its job during this prestigious event.

Friday 1st June – the gathering began, the two RAFSA RHIBs housed at Henlow were joined by another from Rutland, then late evening one from 38 Bde NI. Saturday, three more boats arrive including me with the RAF Marham’s Dive Club Boat and thus four RHIBS became seven. At 13:00hrs the convoy of seven boats rolled out of Henlow for a three hour journey round the M25 bound for Richmond on the outskirts of London. Our base for the next three days would be Thames Young Mariners (TYM), a Surrey County Council Outdoor Centre.

By 16:30 seven safety boats became sixteen as more RHIBs arrived at our base camp. We now had a total of eight RAFSA crewed and eight civilian boats from other organisations at the campsite. The first priority was to get the tents up and a brew on, then prepare the boats for launching. The launch site was nearly two miles away and needed careful coordination to get the boats on the water and then trailers recovered back to TYM. The launch operation took over four hours, but by 9pm we were back at the campsite just in time for the rain to start and to get our heads down for some well deserved rest.

After a good rest, the following morning, the team started to assemble; kit check, id, security passes, spare clothes, food, and fuel. Half an hour later 16 boats slipped their moorings and started downstream. The mist rising slowly off the water adding to the eerie quiet as the boats motored at a leisurely four knots.

Once past Richmond lock we started to come across a flotilla of motorboats, canal boats and motor cruisers all moored ready for mustering later in the day. We travelled past Putney Embankment where Dragon Boats and Gondolas were preparing to launch; the crowds were already starting to build. Our first stopping point was at Wandsworth River Quarter Pier where 16 safety boats now became 55. With the Safety Fleet briefing imminent, we first had to go through security checks, collect accreditation flags and briefing packs. The briefing gave us the expected number of boats, security considerations and most importantly the weather forecast, overcast to start, and then rain, rain and more rain to follow. It also gave the crews a chance to group into their squadrons and go through individual action plans relevant to the fleet that they were managing.

With the briefing over, and the Safety boats dispersed to pre arranged locations to cover the launching and muster of Waterman Cutters, Viking Longboats, Gigs, Skiffs, Kayaks and Trinity 500s and many more. RAF Marham’s RHIB Coxwained by me and another RAFSA team member were tasked to cover the lead pack of rowing boats these being the Waterman Cutters a long rowing boat crewed by 10- 15 rowers. The muster area stretched from Battersea Bridge to Putney with the powered boats mustering from Putney to Kew.

At 14:30 on Chelsea Bridge, with the steam locomotive Princess Elizabeth giving a long blast on its whistle and generating a great cloud of steam, 325 boats started rowing, interspersed with Safety and Marshall boats to make sure there were no mishaps. The task was to maintain a steady four knots and keep moving until the dispersal point after Tower Bridge.

The banks of the river were lined with thousands of people, more looking on from balconies and roofs of high rise buildings. TV cameras were mounted on bridges, tall buildings and on cherry pickers swaying in the wind (not a job for the faint hearted).

As the first boats passed under Albert Bridge they prepared to salute HM The Queen who was on The Spirit of Chartwell moored at Cadogan Pier. Abeam Her Majesty the first boats ‘raised oars’ in salute, but very quickly the following squadrons were bearing down and couldn’t maintain separation. As more boats raised oars, Gigs mixed with Cutters, Longboats with Kayaks and Dragon boats, very quickly seven squadrons became one big squadron. Not quite what was planned but it still looked spectacular.

Further back in the fleet was the last section to pass HM The Queen was the Trinity 500s, a section of 55 craft manned by Sea Cadets from all across the country. After all the manpowered fleet had passed Her Majesty’s boat they then moved out into the centre of the river and followed the fleet through the centre of London. Each time The Spirit of Chartwell neared a bridge, the Royal Marines Band on the Herald Barge would play a Royal Fanfare. The assembled crowds on the river banks and bridge would respond with a massive cheer.

As we approached Tower Bridge the light rain that had been with us for most of the journey became a downpour, the wind increased further making it harder for the rowers to make any headway. After Tower Bridge, at HMS President, The Spirit of Chartwell docked for Her Majesty The Queen to take the Salute from the 500 or so powered craft that were following behind. It was also the start of the dispersal for the manpowered fleet. Dispersal points were situated on the North and South banks at St Katherine’s Marina and South Dock. Boats had to then try and navigate through the flotilla to get to the correct side and at the same time try and maintain a corridor for the powered boats passing through. Very quickly boats started queuing at locks and docks from Shadwell basin to Poplar Sailing Club, the safety boats maintaining order as the now cold and wet rowers were trying to get ashore as quickly as possible.

Our job now complete, it was time for the Safety boats to regroup at Wapping for the return up the Thames. The main bulk of the powered fleet was prevented from returning upstream due to Port Of London Authority ‘roadblocks’ at Canary Wharf until the back markers had safely passed downstream. The Trinity safety boats slipped past the blocks with an official nod and proceeded upstream to meet with the rest of the pack. After a long wait in the rain the call came that the River was now open again time for the safety fleet to go home. A PLA launch, its blue lights flashing, escorted the RHIB fleet back through the centre of London towards Richmond. Forty plus boats created quite a choppy surface for those following which made the ride back much more fun. People were still out on either side of the River, balconies and bridges cheering and waving as we passed.

Once past Wandsworth bridge the PLA launch broke away and left us to make our own way back at a more sedate pace of the six knot speed limit. At Putney we said farewell to the rest of the RHIBs and the original fleet of 14 headed for Richmond. At 22:00, in the darkness, we moored the last boat and got the kit and crew ashore. A brew and bed were calling and we didn’t care which order. Each member of the team had spent over 15 hours afloat and each boat had travelled a total distance of approximately 50 miles.

The next morning we recovered the boats said our farewells and headed for home with thoughts that will be with me for a number of years. The next event for the RAFSA Safety team sees us manning the safety boats for the Paralympics down in Weymouth and Portland.

A big thank you must go to RAF Marham’s Dive Club for allowing the RAFSA Safety team the use of their Dive rib for this event.

If you are interested in joining the team, please drop CT Duncan Cooper a line or ring Henlow 7789. We are always looking for new volunteers and can provide training for RYA Powerboat and Safety Boat certificates.

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