Is It Clean to Kayak or Paddleboard on the Thames?

Kayaking and paddleboarding have exploded in popularity. Adventuro has great selection of kayak and paddleboard centres along the Thames, however, many people have the same question: is it clean and safe to kayak or paddleboard on the Thames River?

Historical Context

The Thames has had its share of water quality issues. From the “Great Stink” driving people out of london in 1858 to being declared “biologically dead” in the 1950s due to industrial pollution. Since then, it has made considerable progress but still faces modern-day concerns like sewage overflow and waste dumping.

Current State of Thames Water Quality

According to the most recent data, the Thames has come a long way in terms of cleanliness. A report from the Environment Agency states that the river meets ‘Good’ status according to EU Water Framework Directive standards. But, and there is always a ‘but’, it’s not entirely without issues. While considerable efforts have been made to minimize pollutants, occasional spikes do occur, especially after heavy rainfall.

The good news is that the Thames is now considered one of the cleanest major rivers in the world that flows through a major city.

But why is it brown I hear you ask? The colour might be off putting, however, the river has a muddy silty bottom and is nothing to be worries about. Actually, it was probably a similar brown when the Romans first established Londinium as a settlement.

Factors Affecting Water Quality

Weather conditions significantly affect water quality. Rainfall often results in runoffs carrying pollutants into the river, and tides can impact the concentration of these pollutants. It’s not just nature playing its part, though. Human actions like littering and occasional sewage discharges also impact water quality. Knowing this, I usually check the weather conditions and any recent pollution reports before setting out kayaking.

Tides play a significant role in influencing water quality, particularly in estuarine rivers like the Thames. The ebb and flow of tides can:

  1. Aerate the water: Tidal movement can increase the oxygen levels in the water, improving its overall quality.
  2. Disperse pollutants: Incoming tides can dilute and distribute pollutants over a wider area, potentially decreasing their concentration in specific zones.
  3. Impact sediment: Tidal actions can stir up sediments from the riverbed, redistributing both nutrients and pollutants. This can lead to temporary reductions in water clarity.

Different Sections of the Thames and Implications for Kayaking:

  1. Upper Thames: This is the section from the river’s source in the Cotswolds to Teddington Lock in southwest London. It’s non-tidal, with water quality generally being better due to less urban impact. Kayaking here offers a more serene environment. However, sewage overflows are still common, and Thames Water has released a map showing the latest situation.
  2. Tidal Thames: Extending from Teddington Lock to the North Sea, this section experiences the effects of the tide. The tidal influence reaches all the way up to Teddington Lock, where the Thames’ last lock is situated. In this section, water quality can be variable due to the reasons discussed above regarding tides. For kayakers, this section demands extra caution due to the strong currents and larger vessels. Always check the tide timings and be aware of the changes it brings.
  3. Estuarine Thames: This is the downstream portion of the tidal Thames, where the river widens and meets the North Sea. Water quality here is influenced both by the sea and by the outflow from the river. For kayakers, this section can be challenging due to its broad expanse, potential for rough conditions, and busy shipping activity.

Can you kayak on the river Thames?

Yes! If you are hiring a craft, the centre should have covered the license required. However, if you are using your own kayak or paddleboard it is important to know that you’ll need a license to paddle on the Thames. If you’re a member of British Canoeing, your membership usually covers this. Otherwise, you can purchase a day or annual permit through the Environment Agency or Port of London Authority, depending on which section of the Thames you’ll be using.

Generally, unless you are with an experienced guide, you will be in the gentle non-tidal part of the thames which is more pleasent for a day out. There are key differences and the tidal thames is more akin to sea kayaking.

The rules and regulations are more stringent on the Tidal Thames, which starts at Teddington Lock and goes out to the sea, passing through the heart of London. The tidal Thames is not a place for beginners. You should be confident in your ability to handle the kayak in strong currents and possibly choppy conditions. The PLA often advises that you contact “London VTS” (Vessel Traffic Services) on VHF Channel 14 to notify them of your journey. Kayakers must keep to the side of the river and should not impede other river traffic. You must be aware of the “rules of the road” on the Thames, which are set out in the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS).

Check out adventuro’s partners for hire and lessons here:

Group Paddleboarding (SUP) Session at Brentford Lock
Private 2-Hour SUP Session from Brentford Lock!
Group Paddleboarding (SUP) Session at Kew Bridge
2-Hour Guided SUP Session – Explore the Beauty of Kew!
Thames Natural History Paddleboarding (SUP) Tour
Thames Natural History 2-Hour Paddleboarding Tour – Paddle & Learn
Guided Paddleboard Experience Tour in Oxford
See the City of Spires from a totally different perspective on the water!
SUP Yoga & Pilates at Paddington Basin or Brentford Lock
SUP Yoga & Pilates: A Tranquil Blend of Exercise and Nature
Private Paddleboarding (SUP) Session at Paddington Basin
Private 2-Hour SUP Session from Paddington Basin!
BSUPA Level 1 “Ready to Ride” – Oxford
A 2-hour lesson with a qualified BSUPA instructor to introduce you to SUP!
Improver SUP Lesson on the Thames at Runnymede
A 1-hour Improver SUP lesson (1:1 or group) with a qualified BSUPA instructor.
Paddle Board (SUP) Hire on the Thames at Runnymede
The perfect way to explore a beautiful stretch of the River Thames.
Private Beginner SUP Lesson on the Thames at Runnymede
A 2-hour beginner SUP lesson (1:1 or 2:1) with a qualified BSUPA instructor.
Kayak Hire from Brentford Lock
1.5 Hour Single & Double Kayak Rental from Brentford Lock
Kayak Hire from Paddington Basin
1.5 Hour Single & Double Kayak Rental in the Heart of London – Paddington Basin.
Kayak Hire on the Thames at Runnymede
Explore a beautiful stretch of the River Thames by kayak!

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Co-founder and Chief Adventurer

I am Max, the co-founder and CEO of adventuro. We are on a mission to help you get into the sports you have always wanted to try, or develop in the sports you love, exploring new skills and locations. We do this by partnering with the best instructors, guides, and activity centres to get a great spread from beginner all the way to instructor training.

For too long, it has been way to confusing to find your next steps, or even to know where to start when getting into adventure sports. I am an experienced and/or qualified paraglider, skydiver, scuba diver, freediver, power boat driver, snowboarder, kitesurfer, kayaker, mountain biker, surfer, dirt biker, wakeboarder, and sailor.

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