It’s a blazing, blue sky day in London, and I’m hanging on for dear life inside a speedboat that’s whipping the Thames into a rabid froth. If both my hands weren’t locked in a death grip on the metal bar in front of me, I could easily dip my fingers into the water, which spritzes me and my fellow passengers like a well-shaken bottle of celebratory champagne.
This certainly isn’t your typical pleasure cruise. It’s the Thames as only London RIB Voyages offers it up—a wet and wild white-knuckle tour that tackles the river at 35 miles per hour, leaving passengers as giddy as kids on a roller coaster.
The adventure begins at a dock in the shadow of the London Eye, the tallest Ferris wheel in Europe. With passengers clad in navy life jackets, guide David Whitley delivers a brief safety lesson.
“In the 50/50 chance that you fall in, the life jackets should inflate automatically,” explains Whitley, blonde and tan with the rough, gravelly voice of a movie pirate.
“If not, pull on the red tab—but only if you’re in the water. Otherwise, not only will you be hit with a fine, but you’ll look a right teat,” he advises dryly. “Oh, and when we’re going at speed, do try and hang on.” Alrighty then!
As we near the OXO Tower, named for the stained glass windows that spell out the company’s name, the captain kicks it up a notch. We could easily pull a water-skier at this point, but as we whizz by London’s monuments—the distinctive dome of St. Paul’s, the gleaming glass egg of City Hall, the imposing stone walls of the Tower of London—it seems as though we might actually attain lift-off.
With the boat bucking across the water, I feel like a rodeo-rider smothering the urge to shout “Yippee-i-ay!”
Suddenly, the Thames takes a sharp turn, and for a moment, it appears as though we are on a collision course for Canary Wharf. With my stomach rapidly making its way into my throat, the captain veers right and begins making wide “S” turns back down the river.
As I hunker down in my seat, I overhear a man behind me explaining to his young son that he needs to hold him close. “But I’m fine!” the boy protests. “Yes,” the father replies in strained tones of enforced calm, “but I need to do this to make me feel better.”
Before I have a chance to see who will win this argument, the boat slows beneath Tower Bridge. “Right, you’ve had your fun,” Whitley growls. “Now it’s time to learn something.”
For the rest of the voyage, Whitley—a stand-up comedian and actor—regales us with tales about sites along the river.
He points out the HMS Belfast, which took part in the D-Day landings and now enjoys a leisurely retirement as a tourist attraction, its guns pointed at an unsuspecting motorway station 18 miles away.
Whitley shows us the distinctive tiered steeple of St. Bride’s Church, which has inspired the shape of wedding cakes for centuries, and he explains that the medieval Lambeth Palace, across from the Houses of Parliament, once served as a finishing school for ladies-in-waiting at Henry VIII’s court.
As we rip through the water between each monument, the engines roar, allowing us to complete our tour in less than an hour. When we pull up to the dock, I depart on wobbly knees, with a newfound respect for Father Thames.