After months of waiting Wanderlust finally floats in 14 feet of water in berth D15 at Thames & Kennet Marina. The busy marina is located just outside of the London commuter suburb of Reading on a spur of the River Thames. Wanderlust is not alone. T & K provides mooring for boats ranging from small to large. Scores of cruisers, narrowboats, and the occasional Dutch barge are tied to an extensive network of aluminum pontoons.
At 65 feet, Wanderlust is one of the larger boats in the marina. She is most easily accommodated on the exterior periphery of the pontoons in Dutch Barge row. This puts our berth on the outermost reaches of the marina. Wanderlust is tied directly opposite to the shallow narrow gap through the bushy trees that leads to the main channel of the Thames. Our location makes for an easy exit to the river. The downside is that it takes an eighth mile of walking over the metal pontoons to reach solid earth. Pleasant as it is, our mooring location is not convenient. When our dog Gigi hears the call of nature in the middle of the night, the green grass is a long ways away.
It has been good to settle into our new home even if there are many things remaining to be worked out. Our shopping list has dozens of needed items. The three and a half page long “snag list” is slowly decreasing in length. Fixes are being made slightly faster than new items are discovered and added. A barge such as ours is jammed with complicated systems. It takes time to get everything up and running correctly. Most of the remaining issues are minor but a few major items remain to be fixed.
The biggest issue now is that we can’t use power from the shore mains or our generator. Currently all of our electrical power comes from a bank of batteries charged by solar panels on the wheelhouse roof or by the main engine. This time of year if our batteries are fully charged we can last three days without having to fire up the main engine. Further south and closer to the peak of summer the photovoltaic array will have even more of an impact. Surprisingly the absence of shore power has had little impact on our lives. All of the conveniences of home function inside Wanderlust save a few major appliances; the dishwasher, clothes washer, and drier draw too much power to run off of the battery bank. We could use them if we started up the main engine but we’ve avoided that for the time being. The upside of the power problems is that we have extra incentive to get Wanderlust’s big green Beta 150 engine started up. We figure that if the engine is running we might as well move out and explore the River Thames. It is a reminder that our new home with all of its “mod cons” is mobile at a moments notice.
Aside from our short acceptance cruise, our first journey out onto the water came with Martin, a local instructor. We hired Martin to be onboard to keep us out of trouble. With Martin whispering into our ears we headed along the Thames through the locks and under the feared Sonning Bridge. Narrow Sonning Bridge is located adjacent to a weir on a twisty tight section of the Thames. The bridge is no challenge for small boats. But with Wanderlust’s 65 feet of length, 14-foot beam, and 35 tonnes, getting her through narrow bridges gets interesting quickly.
Just a few days after training with Martin, we headed down river to the Piper Boats promotional event at Temple Island. We had Vinnie from Piper Boats on board to make sure we didn’t peel off our wood wheelhouse on the Henley or Sonning Bridges. Temple Island is located near an expansive stretch of lush green lawn on the outskirts of the posh village of Henley. Our mooring was pleasant and pastoral. Indeed, it is moorings like this that motivated us to buy a barge in the first place. Barge living means having our comfortable home on the water. We can sit at our galley island and watch the waterfowl and rowers paddle by. A long list of pristine waterway mooring locations like Temple Island can be found throughout Europe. In our new home we have a pick of prime waterfront locations.
The Henley weekend was full of activity. In the evenings we met other Piper boat owners. It was our chance to catch up with and thank the dozens of people who had taken time to help us on our journey to Wanderlust. During the day, we were busy showing scores of future Piper Barge owners the inside of our eight-day-old baby. At Henley it was our turn to “pay it forward” and share the knowledge and hospitality that we had enjoyed during our build with others starting the process.
When the Piper event ended it dawned on us; we had arranged no help to get back to T & K. By departure time on Monday morning Vinnie and all the other possible help had departed. We had no one to assist us navigating Wanderlust up the Thames to her berth. So far our cruises in Wanderlust had been akin to wading in the shallow end of the pool. We’d gotten our feet wet there was no chance that we could drown. Always there was someone on board to save us from ourselves. On Monday we were thrown face first into the deep end. It was up to us to navigate the Thames and to pass through the notorious Henley and Sonning Bridges. There was no other practical option. Though no lives were at risk, but our shiny paintwork and pristine wheelhouse were in immediate danger.
Fortunately the current was in our favor. Going upstream makes both control and stopping easier. If we weren’t lined up correctly for a bridge we could, at least in theory, stop, circle around, and have another go at it. And after a dry summer stretch, the flow of the Thames was gentle. If it had been raining hard the trip back in pushy water would have made our cruise far more challenging. In the end, we worried needlessly. We took Wanderlust through both of the feared bridges without a serious threat to paint, woodwork, or self esteem. And though our maneuvers in the locks were far from smooth, we passed through them without serious contact. The dishes and wine glasses left to sit casually upright on the galley countertop below remained in their places undisturbed.
So far life on the water has been good to us. We now have a spacious and modern home that will always be situated on waterfront property. We’ve met new friends with common interests. And best yet, our home moves. If we grow tired of our river views, the squawking of the waterfowl keeps us up all night, or the neighbors become unruly, we can crank up the engine and move along. In our mobile floating home we are air-conditioned gypsies. Our adventure has begun.