Darn. I put my Seawave on eBay to ‘test the water’ and it went within hours.
Still, it’s an excuse to show some of my favourite Seawave shots in five seasons of fantastic paddling. What a great boat that was. Next?!
Gumotex are moving on up with hybrid drop-stitch technology, originally showcased in last year’s Thaya – basically an old Solar 3 with a D/S floor to make it more stiff. The new-for-2020 Rush 1 and 2 (left) is the ‘Swing Evo’ mentioned in that Thaya article.
‘Hybrid’ is a cool word for a kayak which isn’t full D/S like a Sea Eagle Razorlite and all the clones; assembled from three flat panels of D/S which make boxy hulls (right) and which, according to the graphics on this page, can be sub-optimal in choppy waters. Me, I think the flat, raft-like floor is more of a real-world problem, but read on to see how they addressed that on the Rushs.
Derived from iSuP boards, D/S has become a blessing to IK floor design which hitherto had to use I-beams of parallel tubes (left) which complicates assembly and is prone to ruinous rupture if over-pressured, unless fitted with a PRV or the IK is exceptionally well made.
A Gumotex hybrid IK (below) retains the regular round side tubes of a classic IK for better secondary stability (afaiu) but features a D/S floor for rigidity. However, unique to Gumo, D/S panels are also used on the bow as well as shorter and less obvious panels at the stern. Until I see a boat it’s still unclear to me if this section of the boat is connected to the D/S floor or the lower pressure side tubes. You’d think the floor, so this must help brace the hull structure to reduce longitudinal flex in wave troughs and so enhances rigidity and overall performance – a better, hardshell-like glide. As Lee at The Boat People wisely observes, any hybrid IK with an integrated D/S floor is miles better than boats with separate/removable D/S floors which slip into a sleeve (some Sea Eagles and Advanced Elements). It’s an easier way of doing it, but one which can see potentially ruinous grit collecting between the sleeve and floor.
A word about this fabric paraphrased from here:
“Nitrilon-Dropstich is composed of a core of 1100 dtx polyester fabric made up of two sheets joined by a mass of threads exactly 10 cm long. Unlike regular PVC-based iSuPs and D/S kayaks, this durable elastomer plastic is not glued to the fabric, but ‘pressure-impregnated’ which eliminates delamination risks more common with bonded PVC coatings. An additional layer of polyester-reinforced Nitrilon is vulcanised to the floor bottoms making them double thickness.”
The Rushs differ from the Thaya (1st gen Gumo D/S) with the panels forming a more ‘hydroformed’ bow – another weak point with regular blunt-nosed tubed IKs. The Rush’s flat floor extends into two bow sides which join up to make a water-slicing wedge sharp enough to cut ripe avocados into wafer-thin slices.
This construction is a bit more complex than just a D/S floor attached to two side tubes (like the Thaya and some Aquaglide IKs, for example) and which may help explain the high price.
The vital stats on the tandem Rush 2 are said to be 4.2m long x 82cm wide. Compare that to my Seawave at 4.5 x 78; the Seawave has an 11% better length/width factor (LWF) of 5.77 vs 5.12 over the Rush 2, but those are my Seawave measurements. The side tubes are said to be 19/20cm on the Rush compared to 22 on my Seawave. This and the length may contribute to the load rating dropping to 195kg vs 250 on the longer Seawave. That’s still plenty, unless you’re hauling a moose carcass out of the Yukon.
The official weight varies between 15.5 and 17kg, depending on where you look online. The higher figure is the same as my modified Seawave with packraft seat mod.
Pressures are another obvious difference with the Seawave. The 6cm D/S floor runs at 0.5bar (7.2psi), actually a modest level for D/S, but an IK doesn’t need to be as stiff as a iSuP board. The slimmer side tubes are now 0.25 bar or 3.75psi (same as the Seawave) – well, according to the table from the online manual shown below. When I originally wrote this outlets and even the Gumo website listed the usual 0.2 bar/3psi of regular Gumotex IKs but Gumotex just confirmed this was incorrect.
0.25 is a higher than normal IK pressure but not quite as high as 0.3 in a Grabner or the 0.33 bar on my modified Seawave. When you combine that with the stiff D/S floor, the 0.25 bar sides must make the Rush IKs Gumo’s stiffest IKs by far. The difference is, I added PRVs to my Seawave sides before running them at 50% higher pressure to automatically protect them. The Rushs don’t seem to feature any PRVs which explains the warning in the manual, above right. It’s odd but worth remembering that my super-stiff Grabner Amigo didn’t feature any PRVs eitherl, not even in the floor. Quality of construction (gluing assembly) must have a lot to do with it.
When you add any colour you want as long as it’s black, you do wonder if no PRVs is a good idea because in the sun black things get hotter, faster. Black is great for Cockleshell saboteurs, not so good for visibility at sea and it kills photos stone dead. It’s true the Innova-branded Swings in North America have long had black hulls and no one complained. But they run 0.2 bar so could do with some help in stiffening up in the hot sun. They also have fixed decks in red. I also see that many Grabner IKs are now made with black exteriors (right).
One assumes the Rush’s grey, lowish-psi D/S floor can handle increased pressures from passive solar heating, especially as it’s in the water most of the time. But the black side tubes will get taught which becomes a nuisance to manage (or worry about), even if tubes/cylinders handle high pressures better than flat slabs. In fact, as you’ll see from the comments below, Gumotex have found that black is not notably worse than red or green in absorbing solar heating and dangerously over-pressurising. And if you’re that worried it would be just as easy to install PRVs in the Rush side tubes, as it was on my Seawave.
Because a D/S floor is flat, one imagines it will hinder effective tracking, despite having a skeg at the back. The flat hull will plane over the water and wander off to the sides like a packraft – the so-called ‘[windscreen] wiper-effect’.
So, similar to Sea Eagle‘s patented NeedleKnife Keel™ (right), Gumo have added a more discrete ‘keel hump‘ under the bow (left) to compensate for the lack of old-style parallel I-beam floor tubes which added a directional element. You can see from the overhead image above that this keel hump is mirrored on the floor inside the boat, either by design or need. This protuberance makes a high-wear point on the IK in the shallows so it’s just as well the floor is double thickness Nitrilon, as mentioned above. It’s the same on any boat. On my Seawave I pre-emptively added a protective strake – a strip of hypalon – to the central tubed rib, though to be honest it never got much wear as i try and be careful. Mine was hardly worn in five years of mostly sea, but you could easily do the same to your Rush if you expect to do a lot of shallow rivers.
Rushs can be fitted with optional decks (green on the R1, above, red on the R2, below), using the same velcro system as the Seawave, with those horribly bulky alloy spars (right) supporting the decking (surely a flexible rod like tentpole material wouldn’t be hard to make). I read on other reviews that they’ve greatly improved the coaming (hatch rim) so that spray skirts attach more securely.
The footrest appears to be the usual rubbish cushion but can be adjusted by strap (another idea I like to think Gumo have pinched off me!) and seats can be moved to a variety of positions, too. Seats are now foam, but the base looks a bit thin/low to me. A stiff foam backrest (with side bracing straps) is good, but an inflatable seat base is much more comfortable to sit on because you can vary the pressure to suit the height. Unlike anything inflatable, foam eventually loses its cushioning. But an inflatable seat just doesn’t need to be made of hefty hypalon, as on previous Gumo IKs (more in the vid below). But anyway, a seat is easily changed to suit your prefs.
Below, a review of a Rush by Austrian Steve. Can’t understand a word but some observations: I like his convertible Eckla Rolly trolley/cart/camp chair; also love the lovely long canoe chute at 20:40. Have to say though, I winced a bit at some boat dragging here and there. Do the right thing, Steve; it only weighs 12kg! Note also this shortish boat seemed to track pretty well without a skeg – the frontal keel-hump may be effective in leading it by the nose, after all. But in the comments Steve admits the stiff, flat floor slaps down hard on wave trains coming out of rapids and I suppose would be the same at sea. It’s a drawback of flat, raft-like D/S floors I’ve not considered.
See this for an easily translatable written review also in German.
The price of an R1/R2 is a hefty £900/£1200 in the UK, plus decks going from £200/310/370 (tandem). There’s also a rudder kit (price unknown) which will be similar to the Seawave unit. IMO it’s not so useful, even on the longer R2. But like decks, some may like the option.
As you can tell, I’ve been comparing the Rush 2 with my 5-year-old Seawave and wonder if it might be time (or an excuse) to change. An unprecedented five years of ownership proves there’s nothing wrong with my Seawave [anymore].
What are the benefits of a Rush 2? Having outgrown my stealth-gothic phase, black is not such an attractive or useful colour for a boat, and neither is losing a foot in length or 50kg in payload over the Seawave – at least at sea. On a river the greater nippiness from less length will have benefits, but for that I have my Nomad pakayak. As for greater rigidity, it looks pretty good in this clip but my adapted HP Seawave was very good compared to the lower-pressure Gumboats, and it seems the speed (see below) is no greater. Being a bit shorter, I wouldn’t expect it to be.
The word is a Seawave hybrid with a D/S floor will be out later in 2020 but that will cost a pretty penny. Maybe I’ll sling my brilliant Seawave out onto eBay and see if anyone bites. [I did and it went within hours. Oh dear.]
The test by Yves Samson, also the Seawave’s first tester, in Saint-Malo in November 2019: Test conditions: in the open sea on the coast exposed to the east of the Grande-Plage, wind force 5, gusts to 6.http://www.canoekayak.fr/kayak-haute-pression-drop-stitch/356-rush-2.html
First impressions: it is well designed, aesthetic, (which was not the strong point of Gumotex), a well-conducted research for the seat and footrest adjustments, which can be adjusted very easily when sailing. Rigid and light, it seduces from the start. On the water its behaviour is very healthy, I dreaded the wiper effect, but thanks to the small inflatable keel from the front, it behaves very well. I have the impression that the side tubes are smaller than those of the Seawave because there is more room inside and it is lower on the water. In navigation, with a good wind of 3/4 before, you go straight without any problem, much less hard to stay the course than with the Seawave. It climbs well on the chop, I have 11km on board very little water (without a deck). You feel like on the Seawave and in total safety.
In summary: a very healthy kayak, I think very suitable for solo itinerant trekking. For double use, it is for day trips only, too small for 2 + over night gear. The more negative points: I was a little disappointed by its speed which I hoped to be much higher than that of the Seawave. It is in fact in these rough sea conditions it was barely higher: I averaged with GPS, 5.9 kph over 11km with 5.1 kph against the wind and tide. (BUT I paddled at cruising speed as if I was going on a 30km stage, I never “PLF’d”!).
Another detailed online review (German).
Ten minutes after a paddling away from a tranquil Swanage seafront bathed in a Turneresque light (above), we found ourselves battling a stiff breeze rolling off the Ballard Downs on the north edge of Swanage Bay.
The odd whitecap scurried by, a sign that the IK Limit was not far away. This felt like more than the predicted 10mph northerly. We dug onward, and once tucked below the cliffs the pounding eased. The northerly was probably amplified as it rushed down the south slope of the Downs and hit the sea. We’d paddled through that turbid patch – a bit of a shock before breakfast. What would it be like once out in the open round Ballard Point? Mutiny was afoot.
“Let’s see how it is round the corner, then decide,” I informed the crew.
“Aye aye, cap’n sir.”
We eased around the corner expecting the worst, but were greeted by a magical sight: a line of 200-foot high chalk cliffs receding to a distant group of stacks and pinnacles glowing in the soft morning light and all soothed by a gentle breeze.
It was only a mile from here to Handfast Point aka: Old Harry, passing several stacks, arches, caves and slots. Ever the goldfish in its bowl, I’d got distracted before looking up tide times, but judging by yesterday evening’s paddle around Brownsea Island in nearby Poole Harbour, it was a couple of hours into its southerly ebb. We arrived at Harry’s about mid-tide but with still just enough water to paddle through most of the arches as well as some narrow slots which were already running too fast to tackle against the flow (below). A bit of a tidal race swirled past the Point, but nothing dramatic.
I’ve been planning to do Swanage for years and it was even better than expected. It must have been packed out yesterday on the bank holiday, but today, before 9am we had the place to ourselves. It’s a fascinating geological formation and all the better explored from a paddleboat.
Lit by a rising sun and on the top half of the tide must be ideal timing for a visit here. All up, it was only a two-hour roundtrip from Swanage seafront and in similarly good conditions would be easily packraftable from the north off nearby Studland beach.
Hope to paddle this again, one time.PS: Little did I know that this summer 2019 paddle would be out last sea paddle in the Seawave. Not since my original Gumo Sunny on which I learned and did so much, have I owned an IK for so long and had such fun times. What a great boat that was.
The plan was simple. Put the IK in at Limehouse Basin where I finished up last week, and take an easy canal-paddle up around what are collectively known as the Bow Back Rivers threading through the Olympic Park, then portage over Three Mills Lock onto what becomes Bow Creek. Here, we’d ride its tight meanders on an ebbing tide down to the Thames at Trinity Wharf. Hard left and, keeping on the north bank (naughty), for what looks like an easy beach take-out at Lyle Park, a mile downstream.
The whole 8-mile run included just two locks to portage. Compare that to 13 locks and two closed tunnels for the similarly long Regents Canal I pack’ed last week.
Things didn’t get off to a great start, but next day we were back and on the water before 8am. We set off up arrow-straight Limehouse Cut. Dating from 1770, it’s London’s oldest canal, built to evade the Lee River’s final twisting meanders on Bow Creek which we hoped to paddle on the wat back. (Very detailed history of this river). Two miles on, a thick mat of spongey duckweed backed up around Bow Creek Tidal Locks. Tendrils of weed caught on the paddles and flicked all over the boat.
Bow Creek ebbs and flows right alongside the near-stagnant Limehouse Cut/Lee Navigation, but this was surely once a single river system. The River Lee’s (or Lea) source is in the hazy Chilterns of north Luton, and reaches the Thames via Bow Creek, 42 miles later. The Lee River Navigation is paddlable from at least Hereford (Mile 27.5). In England, a ‘navigation’ in fluvial terms means a public right of way for all craft, with a precedent going back centuries. Not all rivers in England are a navigation.
This whole underused wasteland between Strafford and Hackney was massively redeveloped for the 2012 Olympics, including the two new tidal locks mentioned. Before that, on the spring tide you could paddle up Bow Creek all the way to Hackney Marshes for some fish and chips. But while great for towpath activities, it seems the developers behind the refurbished network of waterways and new bridges didn’t consider paddleboat access either side of the locks. Odd, seeing as it was the Oh Lympics and all.
Our first trial came at Carpenters Road Lock (booking required a week in advance). It has a unique radial design with gates lifting a bit like a bulldozer blade. The CRT is very proud of it. Even though it’s permitted, as a single kayak I wouldn’t expect to use this or any lock; portaging is always quicker. But I would expect it to be fairly easy to get out and portage around a lock, just as I did 13 times or more last week on the Regents Canal. Maybe I’m going soft, but clambering up a 12 feet of rungs set in the canal wall, hauling the boat up, and then carrying it half a kilometre to the next accessible put-in doesn’t encourage paddling. What next; the cliff climbing finale from Deliverance (right)?
Two miles downriver at Three Mills Lock, (which I read was closed for repairs) we had to get up an even-higher ladder jammed behind a derelict? barge. To access the tidal stretch downstream of the lock, the only way was another long wall ladder, but it was behind temporary barriers. I could have wandered on to the Channelsea River to look for an easier put in, but where it joined Bow Creek (right), a cable or pipe to the crane floated across the surface, blocking the way. On a wild river you portage as long as necessary, sometimes miles. But either side of a lock on an urban waterway, how far do you go?
To be fair I’d timed the tide all wrong. I thought (correctly) that mid-ebb could be a fast run on the Bow, but in my greed for speed I’d failed to appreciate that at the tidal extent (the lock and adjacent Three Mills Island, left, 3 hours before LW at Bow Creek mouth), mid-ebb has already gone shallow. You’d need ropes to get down to a boat.
I suppose the easiest way to do Bow Creek is to paddle up with the tide and then let it take you back – this must be what local hardshellers do. With a packboat you can dodge such backtracking. But not here it seems. And whichever direction you do it, once you’re in Bow Creek, I don’t think it’s easy to get out of the high-walled channel.
Our East London paddle occurred during a mini-heatwave with temperatures up in the mid-30s. What better place to be than on the water. But not in it: that morning the news reported a staggering three drownings yesterday, all on the Thames and all separate incidents.
Lacking the hoped-for thrill of the Bow Creek finale, the route we took wasn’t so interesting from the water, though would be a nice walk or cycle if you’ve never seen the Olympic Park in real life. From the water, you see a lot of high rises or backs of factories or construction to make more of the former. Even with its dozen or more portages, I found the Regents Canal much more diverse and interesting.
Below, some pictures from our day out.
The other day, while lashing the Gumotex to a chopped-down trolley, the sagged under its own weight and rubbed on the sharp edge of the hard plastic wheels which wore through the pack and then the boat’s hull (left) ;-((
The cut-down trolley had worked fine with my UDB drybag in New Zealand (left), but that was partly because you can fully inflate a UDB via its unique one-way oral valve, transforming it from saggy sack to firm travel sausage.
Ironically, just two days before I damaged my Seawave I’d snagged a BNWT Orlieb RS140 (right) cheap on ebay. I’d been eyeing up this non-rigid wheeler duffle for a while as a versatile Seawave transporter plus reliable on-water drybag/buoyancy aid.
With enough practice applying D-rings, let along bike and moto punctures over the years, I was confident I could do a bomb-proof repair on my Seawave. In a way, I was even a little chuffed that my 5-year old IK was earning its first battle scars. Plus, in my experience rubber-based IKs like Gumotex, NRS and Grabner glue more reliably than PVC boats. Shiny packraft TPU is even easier: you can just tape it, but packrafts are low-psi boats not normally inflated with mechanical pumps. My adapted Seawave side tubes run 4 or 5 psi.
Things you will need
- The right two-part glue (right)
- Solvent and rag
- Sandpaper or abrasive foam sanding block
- Masking tape
- Small brush
- Tyre repair roller (right)
- Space to do a good job
Packboat is my made-up word for easily portable boats that roll into a bag but deploy in minutes, in contrast with hardshell kayaks or canoes in aluminum, plastic, or composite. I’m here to suggest that if lugging a cumbersome hardshell on your overland rig isn’t for you, then a packboat weighing from 2 to 40 pounds and never bigger than a backpack might well be, while adding another great way to explore the outdoors…
Updated Summer 2020
Since 2019 the Gumotex Thaya sits alongside the near-identical and 20% cheaper 4.1-m Solar 3 (aka: ‘Solar 2‘ or ‘Solar 019‘) on which it’s based, but with a drop-stitch (D/S) floor to greatly improve rigidity. The Solar was not unlike my old Sunny, running just 3psi (0o.2 bar) all round. As you can see on the left, that can get a bit saggy with a well-fed solo paddler. This was the first of Gumotex’s D/S-floor boats, but a basic exercise in simply replacing a floor rather than trying anything more fancy like the Rush of 2020.
Drop-stitch fabric now makes the complicated hand assembly of pressure-vulnerable I-beam floors (left) redundant. A D/S floor is a flat panel with effectively 3-4 zillion ‘I-beams’ (see top of the page) all spreading the pressure load evenly to constrain the form into a plank shape, but at a much higher pressure than an I-beam floor can safely handle. In an IK, high pressure = a more rigid hull = better glide/less effort with barely any additional weight. The only drawback might be that you need a more powerful high pressure barrel pump (above right). The old Bravo bellows foot pump won’t do anymore.
D/S is normally PVC and made in China, but Gumotex have found a way to manufacture the threading and bond or coat a D/S floor with their durable, flexible and environmentally right-on Nitrilon rubber fabric. It can’t be that hard. The regular, normal-pressure 3psi side tubes ought not need the higher pressures I run on my adapted Seawave because the 7psi (0.5 bar) D/S floor greatly aids longitudinal rigidity (see action video below). Gumotex’s new tag line rubs it all in:
‘Made in EU [read: ‘not China’], made from rubber [read: ‘not PV … spit … C’].
The promo video below suggests something revolutionary, but combining D/S with Nitrilon can’t be that much different from doing the same with PVC. It will certainly simplify or speed up assembly and make floors much more resistant to over-pressure damage, low though that risk is with a PRV. Drop-stitch floors supposedly don’t need the PRV necessary to protect I-beam floors from internal ruptures when they overheat in the hot sun. Some UK outlets where claiming the Thaya has a “Safety relief valve [PRV] in the bottom of the boat” but it’s probably just a copy and pasting error. I can’t see one in any pictures and have yet to see a D/S floor with a PRV. The assumption is they don’t need it but some claim that D/S floor won’t last as long as I-beams. Without a PRV, that may be true and much will depend on running the correct recommended pressure, the quality of manufacture/assembly and where possible, leaving the boat in the water on hot days so the large water-contact area keeps things cool.
One positive thing about I-beam floors is the parallel I-tubes (left) probably don’t hurt tracking (even without a skeg). They also enable the desirable curved hull profile of a boat rather than the flat floor of a barge (for the moment D/S panels can only be flat or maybe with a slight curve).
Payload ratings seem to have settled at 230kg and the movable seats are also made from D/S panels. Initially I thought why? For the backrest and footrest that might make sense but of course you don’t have to pump D/S up to the max to get it’s flat form constraining benefits. Footrests are the usual inflatable pillows. I’d replace them with a section of sawn-down plastic drainpipe so you get a solid block to brace against. It makes efficient paddling much easier.
I’ve never tried one, but I do wonder how a flat-floored D/S IK might handle in windier, choppier conditions where an IK isn’t exactly a hydrofoil at the best of times. A flat, raft-like floor will be stable, sure, but it will roll and pitch about more. Also, according to the specs (left) the Thaya is a disappointing 6 or 9cm (3.5″) wider than the all-tube Solar 3 (Actual verified width seems to be 34″ or 86cm). Great for family-friendly stability; not so good for solo paddling speed and efficiency. My Seawave is 2cm narrower than a Solar 3 and, with the usual care getting in, stability is not an issue. Out at sea my Seawave would be swamped long before I’m tipped out. But then again, the near-rigid floor may cancel out the drawbacks of the greater width. At 18kg the Thaya is heavier than a Solar 3 but you imagine the plain floor will roll up more compactly.
For most recreational, flatwater users the Thaya ought to be a nice family boat, but then so is a Solar 3. The Thaya’s rrp is 20% more than the Solar 3 whose days may be numbered.
• Packboating in southern France
In 2005 the Dordogne and nearby Vezere were my first multi-day rivers in a Sunny IK, all helped by the discovery of the inspiring White Water Massif Central guidebook. The Dordogne was a good choice but to be honest, a bit easy. Ready for something more sportif, I’d got it into my head from the book that the Ardeche was too hardcore, so I’d be better off on the less famous Allier between Chapeauroux and Brioude (big map, left).
In fact, as you can read here (admittedly at twice the normal summer flow; video too), parts of Allier can get tricky (see right). Even though a railway carves and tunnels right along the gorge, on the first two days from Chapeauroux there are places where the rapids come at you fast and with no easy way out of the gorge if you get in trouble. Over the years stranded paddlers have been rescued by helicopter.
Not fully comprehending all this, in June 2006 I set off from Chapeauroux (right) in my Sunny, and at the very first bend was flapping about like a salmon with a seizure, trying to stay on track. It went on like that for a while, then eased up and actually got quite pleasant by the time I reached Alleyras for the night. This was more like it; a wild river rather than the broad Dordogne lined with water pumps irrigating the adjacent farmland.
Next morning a taxi transported me past the then-closed section dodging the Poutes dam below Alleyras (more below) and dropped me at Monistrol. Here again I failed to fully appreciate the greater challenges immediately ahead, even if the guidebook was clear: great fun in a creekboat, but an open canoe will fill up on the longer rapids. And if I didn’t know it then, I do now: the white water abilities of open canoes and IKs are closely matched, while IKs might easier to control for beginners.
This Monistrol stage is run by commercial rafting trips (above), also a telling sign about the nature of this part of the river. I scraped through that day, exiting a few rapids with a boat full of water, and on one ending up swimming alongside it. Below left, notice the baggage floating in the swamped boat. Looking back, I’m pretty sure this was the exit of ‘La Barraque au Ponnet‘ (KM3.5; more below) with that raft above coming through soon after I stopped. It was all a bit of a shock.
Unless you’re confident, I’d suggest not following my example in doing this section alone. Consider a recce in the raft if there’s one going that day, or ask if you can tag along for safety.
A few kilometres before Prades (KM12 from Monistrol) it became less of a white-knuckle ride, and what followed all the way to Brioude were fun, Grade 2 rapids and a couple of thought-provoking chutes or easy portages. All manageable in open packboats. As you approach Brioude on the last day, the paddling eases right up so that you start harking back for a bit of eaux vivants.
All along what they now call ‘one of Europe’s last wild rivers’ you’ll pass many striking outcrops of columnar basalt as well as pretty villages (like Chilac, below) with adjacent campsites, boulangeries, inexpensive hotels – and not a chain store to be seen.
Like the better known Ardeche and Tarn, the Allier is another Massif classic, still distinctively scenic but with less of the nose-to-tail traffic during busy holiday periods.
Although the daily trains aren’t frequent, with riverside stations at Brioude, Langeac, Monistrol, Alleyras and Chapeauroux, the Allier (left) is easy to get to with packboats. First, Easyjet yourself to Lyon, or Ryanair-it to Nimes or Clermont, two cities which are also linked by the scenic Ligne des Cévennes rail line (below). Brioude is an hour south of Clermont, and Chapeauroux is two hours over the hills from Nimes. Between them, Brioude and Chapeauroux span the scenic and paddleable 88-km section of the Allier.
One thing worth considering if you’re unsure about the Grade 3+ Monistrol–Prades section, is coming up on the train from Brioude or Langeac. It passes right above the gorge where you get a good view of the Barraque au Ponnet and a few seconds later the ‘Roche qui Pleure’ drop a few hundred metres upstream (right; Gumotex Scout canoe). I’m sure glad I looked when I came back in 2018.
Twelve years later I finally return to the Allier, this time with a packraft. I flew to Lyon (cheaper and more frequent than last-minute Ryanair), caught the train via Clermont to Brioude (5hrs), and next day caught the first train to Monistrol (left).
I planned to miss out the Chapearoux–Alleyras stage to save time and the taxi faff around the dam**. It left me three days to cover about 70 paddling kilometres back to Brioude.
** I have just read that since August 2018 (click ‘P5’) the long-closed section between Alleyras and Monistrol is now open to paddlers, with a portage around the Poutes dam re-construction site (left), 3.5km from Alleyras (the train passes right in front of it).
As part of the Allier resalmonification programme, the dam is being substantially lowered (video) and fitted with a ‘ladder’ to help the fish get upstream and propagate – and give anglers something to do. Note that local environmentalists fought a long battle to get this far so act sensibly, especially around the Poutes dam site. Don’t get run over by a digger!
The train heading upstream passed right in front of the Brioude weir (left) where I’d be taking out in a couple of days. The line then rejoins the Allier at Langeac before heading for Monistrol. Soon it enters the wild gorge and looking down at the rapids below I thought…
‘Hang on a minute!’
which, a rapid or two later escalated to
I recall being unnerved in 2006, but I’m sure they didn’t look this gnarly. I realised later that the first 100-m white plume was ‘Le Barraque au Ponnet’, easily recognisable on aerial maps, pictured on the right in full winter spate. The other WTJ… was ‘La Roche Qui Pleure’ – two of the fruitiest chutes on this stage (map below left).
I got off at Monistrol, scoffed a petit dej at a deserted hotel and wandered around town wondering what to do. The river didn’t seem higher than normal; perhaps it was low back in June 2006?
Either way, thanks to my train preview this stage seemed a bit too ripe for me; the Yak would be spilling over long before I was halfway through ‘Le Ponnet’.
For a while I actually wondered if I was suffering from false memory syndrome from 2006 and might have cause to claim compensation if I found the right lawyer. But I definitely recall the old Monistrol hydro plant (right) and my photo record shows I took the picture of the board below left at 9.03 and was at Prades beach by 1pm, invigorated but not indordinately trauamtised, iirc. River pictures were few back then in that pre-Lumix FT2 era.
Later, trying to work out what was different (other than my nerve), I wondered if I’d glanced down on Le Ponnet during a particularly hearty pulse of dam-released water? Looking at the vigicrues website later, the flow graph for that day (at Prades) does show it was high as I passed by round 8am – before dropping six inches around midday. I knew from the Tarn earlier this summer that following a stormy night, a six-inch rise makes a difference – it speeds up the flow but can also smother stony rapids and make them easier. The pulsed releases every 8 hours are the lumpy pattern you can see along the bottom of the graph below for the days before and after I came through. As you can see, I am bending over backwards trying to find ways to rationise away my new-found timidity!
Right: from the Eiffel bridge in town, you can see the first rapid (looking back upstream). Like the books says: if you don’t like how this or the next couple of runs look, turn back. Otherwise – strap on in for the ride!
Annoyingly, my GPS with good maps was at the menders. I borrowed a look off a trekker’s map (Monistrol is on the GR65 Santiago trail) but at 1:100k, I was none the wiser. I’d have needed a 1:25k map to find any viable paths along the gorge.
In the end I decided to follow a path by the bridge on the right side of the river, signed: ‘Viaduct, 1 hr’. It might continue along or above the gorge to a point where I could put in with the worst behind me. If it didn’t I could turn back and hitch or bus – or if desperate, clamber uphill to the D301 backroad to Prades.
And that is what I did, but not without a huge amount of effort. Initially the path followed the riverbank, passing a few Grade 3s (right, probably ‘La Benne’; KM1.8) which would have swamped my Yak like hot ‘creme anglais’ over a freshly baked rhubarb crumble.
Some three hours later, high above the valley and heading for dehydration (33°C in Brioude that day), I gave up. Fallen trees, brambles, scree slopes, an intermittent path and the 1:1 slope all took their toll. After a failed attempt climbing a loose cliff, I managed to hack my way uphill and emerged a sweaty mess on the D310, like I’d just escaped from a teenage slasher movie. Scratched, bitten, stung and grazed to buggery, I’d covered 3km in three hours.
I washed in a cattle trough and passed through the sunflower hamlets of Conaquet and Conac, before splitting left down a side track and path leading back downhill, hopefully to rejoin the river. This it did, just before Pont Gilbert and just below ‘La Petite Grille’, by chance nearly the last (and easy-looking) rapid, 8 river-kms from Monistrol. Although it didn’t feel like it at the time, this turned out to be pretty darn good route-finding without a map (right).
At one point earlier, while thrashing through the bush or teetering across scree slopes, I heard the telltale whoops of hyper-exited rafters far below. I realised that’s what I should have done: taken the fun option in a big-arsed raft as far as Pont Gilbert (if they’d take me, with baggage).
I’d seen signs for the rafting centre near Monistrol station, but the town was so quiet I assumed they’d closed for the season. It would have been a great way to punch through the big rapids without a care in the world. Picture above left: the ‘Le Ponnet’ viaduct down below with the long ‘Barraque’ rapid starting just round the corner and ‘Roche qui Pleure’ laughing menacingly from behind the trees on the left.
Dropping the kit bag and setting up by the riverside ‘La Petite Grille’, it had indeed become hot enough to grill a ‘croque monsieur‘, but once on the water it sure felt good to flop down and float away like a stray log. Just like in the wilds of northwest Scotland, if you have the choice: float, don’t walk.
Obviously part of me wondered if I could have managed the gnarly rapids upstream. After all, I’d clearly scraped through before in the Sunny (still hard to believe). But I’d followed my gut and felt happy with that.
Watch Belgian packrafter Dzjow’s video below from 2014. He enjoyed the Monistrol stage so much he went back up on the train and did it again with GoPros rolling. Watching it, I’m glad I didn’t. From Monistrol starts at 1:57 and he shoots down ‘La ‘Roche qui Pleure’ (the image below) at 2:28, soon followed by ‘Barraque au Ponnet’ which starts at 2:34 (note the railway viaduct) and goes on for a while to the big rock (3:19) you’ll recognise on the left in the rafting pic, above. Dzjow is a hardcore adventuriste I’ve come across before. The following year he went on to do a self-admitedly tough and not so enjoyable trip in wild Patagonia. He hasn’t written about packrafting since.
Next time I’m here I’ll rent a bailing IK as wide as a bed and give it a go.
After about 4km I pulled into Prades beach (below left). I needed salt and I needed drink. And while I was at it, what harm would a handmade mini quiche, some bacon crisps and a tartes aux framboises do? None at all, mon ami.
Now revived but still worn out by the morning’s commando course, I knew there was a bit of a drossage (great word) just round the corner, but it was all fun knowing a few others were playing around too, including SUPs. What is it with these SUPs? I’ve never seen them doing anything more than goof about in the shallows but rarely actually go anywhere, yet they are clearly more popular than IKs and packrafts combined. What does that say about the state of post-industrial recreation in the developed world?
Unusually, I had a hotel booked at Reilhac, about 18km downriver, past Langeac. With just a couple of canoes on the water, the afternoon passed without drama, bar the odd wetting. But approaching Langeac, the din from the weir just before town was unusually intimidating. The canoe chute here (left) is well-known as being a bit of a drossage because it’s about 3 feet too short and so pumps a plume of water into a nasty backwave which not all boats can easily escape.
And I do wish these Frenchies would mark the tops of their glissades with two poles, indicating: ‘aimez-vous ici!’. On the left, show me the chute entry point while wearing a pair of sweat-smudged specs! Maybe the idea is by not having clear markers, paddlers slow down and look carefully.
I did just that and, after the day I’d had, portaged round off a little beach on the right. I could not be arsed with hitting the churning pile to get catapulted over the bow like a 40-kilo sack of dried beetroots. I felt that no matter how far back I leant, my short, light boat would plough ‘n’ flip, unlike a longer IK. Back in the water, I paddled on through early evening Langeac and an hour or so later was slumped on my Reilhac hotel bed.
Today was just what was wanted; a short, easy run of just 13km, ending at the UNESCO-overlooked village of Lavoute Chilac where the charming Hotel des Pecheurs tottered on the slender gooseneck bluff above the Allier.
Three clicks downriver (6km from Langeac) was a double-drop weir-chute (left). Easy enough providing you steer straight for the lower drop, but I walked it as I knew it would be a bailing job, and today was some 10 degrees cooler.
Splish followed splosh followed splish down to Chillac (below, 11.5km from Langeac), another picture-perfect postcard village sat atop a striking basalt plug with dreamy views across the Auvergnois countryside from the terrace by the church (big picture, top of page).
Half a click downstream from Chilac is an easy, short chute on the far left (left). But once down it I realised the old weir passing below the mill on the right had pretty much been washed away, making the chute redundant and a fun ride down a long, shallow rapid. Clearly I was recovering my mojo if I was looking for some white water action again. Later I read this weir has been flushed away for some years, but is another thing the new Canoe Trips, South of France guide had overlooked.
Soon, the bluff of Lavoute Chilac rose into view. I pulled over left at the riverside park, let my gear dry, then walked into the village over the tall bridge (left).
Les Pecheurs (white building on the right, below) was still on siesta, so I left the Yak by the steps and walked over to at Le Prieure, the other creaky-stair hotel in the village, for a mouth watering ‘Salade Auvergnate‘.
Wandering around the old church and the imposing, 18th-century facade of the abandoned priory (right, due for luxury flat conversion), I was staggered to see a July 1866 flood marker at the church’s back door. In the photo left my hotel room would have been submerged by a few metres. Perhaps the river’s acute 180-degree turn causes flood waters to back up.
It’s the last day of my packrafting mini-break and by my estimates I had about 22km of paddling, plus another 4km walk to Brioude station to catch the 4:10 to Lyon Part Dieu. I didn’t want to miss that so set off briskly, passing a canoeing couple (the only other boat I saw all day) until I could estimate my pace against a landmark. Before 11am I’d reached the bridge at Villeneuve: 9.5 clicks in just 80 minutes which gave me plenty of time. This Allier flows quicker than it looks.
The book talks of another old weir to ‘shoot’ at Villeneuve campsite, but there’s nothing here except a ford with poles marking the car crossing. Many of the book’s ‘shoot an old weir’ descriptions are out of date. There’s rarely anything more than a line of rounded boulders and a drop of a few inches, making you wonder: ‘was that it?’ But at Ville Brioude, just before the tall bridge (right), the book suggests you can shoot a modern concrete weir (above left). Good luck with that and those boulders lined along the base.
Finally I was back at the public beach below La Bargesse campsite. Ahead was the big weir before the red brick rail bridge I’d crossed on the train a few days earlier (left). Here again the book now suggests ‘portage right’ and other convoluted options – perhaps a simple left/right mistake? You simply take out at the grassy park, river left, walk over a little footbridge and put back in below the weir under the railway bridge and above a shallow rapid.
All done. Once again, I’m amazed at the true amphibiousness of these packrafts, especially if not hauling camping gear on the trail. A long walk to dodge gnarly or closed stages is (potentially) easily done, even carrying an inappropriate kitbag.
With plenty of time to catch my train, I dried off, got changed and walked over to Brioude for a coffee and cake in the town square below the basilica’s decorated tower. In the hills all around the petrified volcanos and lush grassy valleys of the Auvergne countryside could easily withstand more exploring on food, by pedal or with paddle.
We decided to lap the tip (left) of the Coigach peninsula. Doing it clockwise put us in the lee of the afternoon’s southwesterly once in Enard Bay and better still, we’d catch high tide at Achnahaird, enabling us to paddle up the creek to complete a near full loop back to the car via the freshwater lochs of Ra and Vatachan.
I remember being quite nervous the first time I did this way back in 2013 in my Amigo – in the other direction from Achnahaird. Looks like I’m not the only one – I blame the Pesda guidebook.
It felt like a long old slog west then north between the Ristol islands – the tidal Ristol channel was dry. But by the time we’d passed the reefs of Reiff and reached the sparkling beach at Camas Ghlais (below) we were already more than half way round.
Sitting on the beach, on warm days like this and always looking to refine my set-up to a razorbill’s edge, I sometimes think a sturdy football-sized net bag to take a beach stone would be handy to anchor the boat out in the shallows. This way it won’t beach itself, get hot and purge air which can make the kayak soggy once back in the cool water. It’s one slight drawback of running PRVs on all 3 air chambers. I could probably find some washed up net up among the flotsam and make one. Or I could Buy [a ball bag] Now on ebay for a £1.62. Leaving the sandy bay, I give the Seawave a quick top-up with the K-Pump anyway.
On the north side on the bay we nosed towards a slot cave (above left), but white streaks running down from the ledges suggested nesting birds had hung out ‘Do Not Disturb’ signs. Either I’ve never noticed them before or there are lots more nesting birds around this year. It’s the end of May but there are still tiny snow patches on An Teallach and Beinn Dearg – maybe the season is late.
North of Camas the unrestrained swell was bouncing back off the low cliffs and small dazzling waves were breaking over semi-submerged rocks, making for a rough ride. But it’s all relative and showed what a sheltered life I lead, paddling mostly in and out of the protected Summer Isles.
We passed on sandless Faochag Bay and on turning the point of Rubha Coigach all was calm as the grand panorama of the Assynt peaks came into view (above). From the right: Quinaig; Canisp behind Suilven, Cul Mor, Stac Polly in front of Cul Beag, and the group around Ben Mor Coigach. It’s one good reason to do the paddle in this direction. There’s a bigger version of the Assynt panorama here taken on the road above Achnahaird. I really must work out how to do that panorama photo-stitch thing.
Coming down the Enard Bay side, we tried to explore some other caves with green moss streaked with guano, but got dive-bombed by angry shags.
Back out in the bay an unpredicted northwesterly picked up – time to launch that WindPaddle which has been sitting in my kit bag unused for a year or more. Initially the breeze barely reaches 6mph – we could have paddled faster – but it sure was fun to kick back, look around and let the boat waft quietly along, free from the splish-splosh, splish-splosh rhythm. I wonder if self-driving cars will be the same.
It’s been a while since I’ve done this but the WindPaddle definitely felt better than my homemade efforts from years ago, as well as the knock-off WP I bought a year or two back. I tried a V-sail too but have never really got the hang of kayak sailing. It seems the sweet spot is hard to find: either the wind comes and goes and the sail flops, or it blowing so hard the sail can’t handle it and you’re clinging on. Still, I look forward to giving the WP a spin in slightly windier conditions. For the compact size and light weight I get the feeling it may be worth keeping.
The breeze picked up and we chugged along at a brisk stroll. But even then the WindPaddle feels satisfying to use. I think the key is the sprung tension of the composite batten (rim); it retains the circular shape of the bowl which means it’ll stay up as the wind drops and keep shape as it rises, then can be confidently scrunched down to a packable size without breaking. Doing that during a bit of a blow may be tricky, but it can easily be pulled back and tucked down unfurled over the legs (right). It’s only a downwindish sail but as with previous disc sails, I like the way you can steer intuitively by pulling one line back; a skeg must help but there’s no need for paddle-rudder assistance.
It was nice to look around in the quiet but I also missed that thrill of thrust when a sail catches and holds a good passing gust. Eventually we could stand the relaxed pace no more and the geef paddle-assisted us towards a stony beach at the mouth of the Allt Loch Ra creek. Squawking oyster catchers were guarding their nests. Left, by the bothy at Badentarbet last year; don’t stand on the eggs.
Refuelled, we paddled upstream for a bit then I tow-waded the boat, reminding me of the shallows of Shark Bay in 2006 – a good way to rest after what felt like days of headwinds. The short wade brought us to within a couple of minutes’ portage of Loch Ra just over the road. Now on fresh water, we dragged through the reeds before another short portage over into the adjacent Loch Vatachan. Picking a passing place close to the shore, the geef walked off to get the car while I rinsed off the seawater – another good reason to paddle this loop clockwise. It’s 15 miles and about 5 easy hours to loop the Coigach loop.