Before we embarked on our family boating holiday with our two children of 10 and 13, we'd had a couple of scenarios playing out in our heads. On the one side, it was going to be 5 days of Swallows-and-Amazons-style bliss; a rare opportunity to leave the pace and technology of the modern world behind us as we embarked on a few days of seriously good, old-fashioned family fun.
The alternative reality, which I chased out of my thoughts whenever it popped in, was of floating caravans, family meltdowns and children falling overboard. I'm pleased to report that our experience floating down the Thames from Benson to Henley and back again was - in the main - a truly unforgettable and blissful family experience.
Peaceful sunsets viewed from our deck
There might have been a few heated moments as we approached locks side on, or the odd rising feeling of panic that we'd left it too late to find a place to moor up of an evening. But the night spent cooking under the stars on our very own private island, the kids' whoops of joy as they messed around in the Thames on their inflatables and stunning sunsets which we had totally to ourselves, more than made up for any stresses we encountered as novice boat people.
We hired our vessel (an Elegance cruiser for six) from Le Boat in Benson, a short drive from Oxford. We were shown how it worked, and how to navigate a lock within an hour of arrival at the base. Then, feeling infinitely unprepared for what lay ahead, we boldly set off downstream towards Goring where we planned to spend the night.
The great thing about this part of the Thames is that it’s wide and relatively quiet – at least it was for us in the second week of July even though many schools were already on summer holiday. The maximium speed you can do in your boat is 6-7km per hour and a sense of peace quickly washes over you as you adapt to a new pace of life. Nothing happens fast. Your progress is gradual, the steering takes time to respond, and then to correct, but before you know it you’re beginning to get a sense for this huge 13-metre-long vessel. And before long the kids even start to be useful, tying knots, looping ropes and putting bags of crisps in bowls before carrying drinks up onto deck.
All boating trips are individual – no two families, hiring the same boat from the same boatyard, would have the same experience as the options are endless. But after spending four nights onboard our boat, we came up with a list of 10 tips that could definitely prove useful to other families thinking of embarking on a similar adventure.
And without a doubt, we’d advise you to do so. The surroundings are stunning, the experience is great for family bonding and it's a fantastic excuse to partake in some simple pleasures – which even the teenage members of your family will eventually agree are better than sitting at home watching YouTube.
1. Bring some barbeques
A couple of cheap, disposable barbeques were our best purchases before this holiday. By far the highlight of our time away was a night spent moored up on the banks of a tiny island in the middle of the Thames between Reading and Henley. Although we did make the use of a firepit expertly created by voyagers before us, to make a campfire and roast some marshmallows after dinner, our barbeque meant that as soon as we'd moored up, we could start heating the coals and then the boys then willingly cooked our dinner – surprising how much sausages, burgers and unfettered access to fire can appeal! Cooking food on a disposable barbie also means you avoid washing up.
Camp fires and private islands
2. Pack the inflatables
This was a real last-minute thought but having a huge inflatable rubber ring meant splashing around it the Thames was a whole lot more fun. It’s the perfect cool-down after a hot summer’s day of cruising.
3. Stop off at Tesco Extra in Reading
We were stunned to discover that as you travel down the Thames through Reading, a huge Tesco Extra has a gate on the river bank and plenty of places to moor so you can stop and shop. Doing a big grocery sweep before you leave is definitely advisable (there’s a Waitrose just the other side of Benson which was perfect for essentials). But once on board, the urge for tins of G&T, extra marshmallows for campfires or some olives and nibbles to get you through till dinner may hit - and this is the perfect solution.
4. Don’t worry about water stops
In this part of the Thames, water stops are plentiful and usually at locks. The onboard water tanks are huge – we didn’t make a dent in ours for the first two days despite showering freely, so you don’t need to take on water very regularly. When you do, just make a note from your map of the locks that give water. It was a concern of ours at the start and shouldn’t have been. Be sure to fill up your drinking water bottles when you stop at the water taps too.
Filling up with water
5. Hire bikes
We hired a couple of foldable bikes from Le Boat which perched on the deck for the duration and they were so useful – especially to stop kiddie moanings of sore feet. It meant when we managed to find a mooring in Henley a little out of town, the trip into town to find some lunch was a breeze. In Goring, we moored up about 20 mins from a pub, and again, the distraction of a couple of bikes made the wander into town much more fun for the boys.
6. Don’t stress about mooring
Usually I’m a planner – and our family days are definitely overscheduled, so I struggled with the idea of not knowing where we would spend the night and the thought of missing out on the 'best' spots. Turns out, our best fun was had when we had no idea where we were going – as one seasoned sailor told us, boating is all about being somewhere, not getting somewhere.
A couple of nights we were still cruising post 7pm but it was a lot more fun for us to do that. We experienced some after-hours locks without a lock keeper, chatted to the others still on the river and pressed on until in the end, we found a bank we were allowed to moor up against. Much better than dashing for a spot at 3pm and having to stay put all afternoon for fear of missing out. So long as you’ve got some food and some pegs, you’ll always find somewhere to spend the night.
Boating after hours - there's always somewhere to stop
7. Bring some board games
There’s a lot of time to do the things you usually don’t have a chance to do. We read books to each other, played board games, did colouring, drew pictures. If there are things you enjoy doing but never find the time, take them on a boat trip because for once, there's nothing BUT time.
8. Keep calm and carry on
OK – there’s no getting around the fact, approaching a lock alone for the first time, when there are others around and a Lockkeeper to judge you, is stressful. Approaching the lock sideways on when you’re supposed to be going straight in is even more so, but these things happen, especially on day one (and when your bow thrusters have stopped working!!). The truth is though, it doesn’t matter.
Nobody on the river is in a rush, and everyone has been a novice at some point. Lockkeepers were very eager to share tips, knots and methods of rope throwing when asked, and one way or another, you’ll get through.
9. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Other boaters are a friendly bunch – so ask for and accept help whenever you need it. Don’t know how to manually operate a lock? Ask the people in the boat behind to help. Stuck on the bank? Allow someone to push you off with their long pole. Can't get something to work on the boat? Call the Le Boat helpline - there's always someone at the end of the phone to offer advice.
10. Get the kids to keep the boat shipshape
The act of mopping down the decks was weirdly alluring to the boys. As was making the beds and sweeping up inside. Sadly, this interest in cleaning has not returned home with us – but if your kids are anything like ours, make the most of it on the boat!
A seven-night self-catered stay on the Thames with Le Boat, starting and finishing in Benson, onboard the Caprice sleeping six, arriving 14 October 2019 is priced from £900 per boat / £150 pp.