Holy moly, end of May and first paddle of the year? It’s been a busy winter and the arm’s been playing up so time to break in with an easy packraft across a back corner of Poole Harbour, our locale for the summer. Sailing Russel Quay back to Wareham with the tide and the wind sounded like a good one – a mile’s walk + 5 on the water. Although it clashes with our hitherto pristine eco credentials, we have two cars down here, so we leave one in town and the other at Arne.
This whole area south of the Harbour is a largely undeveloped heathland with rare wildlife and part of an RSPB ‘super reserve’. On the day the famous BBC Springwatch crew were installed for a fortnight or more, motion sensing cameras probing various nests and burrows. Thick power cables lined our track leading up north to the put in near long gone Russel Quay. I’m not fully sure it was a right of way. Dodging irate English Nimbies is going to take some practice after the freedom of the Scottish northwest coast we became accustomed to. But ironically this area also has the biggest knot of land-based oil wells in western Europe. They’re the small, nodding donkey type, not towering rigs but a couple of months ago one of the pipelines sprung a leak in Ower Bay near the processing plant on the less accessible south shore. Luckily it wasn’t an Exxon Valdez event and at higher tides there could be some good packboat exploring in this inlet-rich area. It’s all we’ll have here bar the more exposed Jurassic Coast.
That night we catch a bit of Springwatch on the iPlayer but, as expected, I can stomach the hyper-saturated, happy-clappy ‘Phil & Holly of Wildlife’ for only so long. It’s the final finale of Succession – what are we waiting for!? A probing bike recce of the south shore is needed. More Poole Harbouring to come.
A few clicks online and a 99-euro Anfibio PackSail (same as the defunct WP) got jammed in his letterbox. With a chilly offshore wind blowing off the south Cornish coast, Phil launched his 12-foot long R2 Barracuda Pro from a handy RIB and set off for Brittany.
The combination of the Barracuda’s kayak-long waterline, light weight and the 1.3-m diameter sail soon got the MRS skimming along at nearly 10kph. That switched to -0kph as he turned round into the 30kn gusts and tried to paddle back to shore. Time to hail down the water uber.
An old mate got in touch to tell me he’d bought himself a top-of-the-range MRS R2 Barracuda Pro and heck, even my packrafting book. He’s in Devon and I was in Dorset so I suggested we meet up for a Yuletide splash-about. Back in the day we were desert bikers; now we’re packrafting pensioneers.
Like some do with a new activity, Phil had got stuck right into his MRS and had already paddled to Dartmouth with his Brompton bike (left), something over in Norfolk, then scared himself further up the rain-swollen Dart from Buckfastleigh to Totnes, noting ‘it’s amazing how dangerous the big branches [and fallen trees] are…’
Tell me about it. If it’s not weirs or camo-&-beard anglers spitting poison darts, it’s deadly sweepers blown down by winter storms. I never quite got round to doing the Dart in my fearless prime, such as it was, but I hear in winter it’s one of the Southwest’s whitewater classics – a bit serious for me now. We settled on the Teign out of Newton Abbot with our respective bangers parked at either end.
If nothing else, we ought to have a good backwind. The previous night had peaked at around 50mph, but by dawn it was tailing off to half that, with the usual gusts at +50%, single-digit temps and showers. A good day for a drysuit and a stable packraft.
Some quick stats on Phil’s noire ‘cuda: 3.6m x 99 wide with 217cm inside and up to 7.6kg with the removable deck, two seats and internal storage, all for a hefty £1750. Compared to my TXL, it’s 80cm longer or nearly 12 feet in old money; our Micra’s shorter than that! It’s also 10% wider than the TXL, about 35cm longer inside so loads of room for 2 adults. Solo/no deck it gets down to 5.6kg alongside the TXL’s 3kg.
We drove around Newton looking for parking and a put-in. Opposite the racecourse and over a broken roadside fence we found a spacious river bank just at the Teign’s tidal reach. By the time we set off we were in the middle of a 3.5-m ebb, midway between springs and neaps. Either way, like the Frome the other day, the Teign was ripping along at a light jog and before I’d got myself untangled from my gear I was 75m downstream. I thought I’d finally got to grips with keeping it all in one bag, but Today’s Forgotten Item was my seat base [forehead slapping emoji]: ‘Gear drifts apart; the centre cannot hold. Mere forgetfulness is loosed upon the world‘. By chance I had a spare Anfibio Bouy Boy which did the job as a seat cushion.
The Barracuda has the same distinctive prow design as my old MRS Nomad which was a fast solo packraft, what MRS call StreamLineSL. These prows take up nearly 1.5m in the R2 which explains the massive length while still having a lot of room inside the boat. There’s probably enough buoyancy for four people and a caribou calf, with room for all their gear inside the ISS hull storage.
Before we knew it we’d passed under the A380 bridge and were out in the wide tidal estuary. The predicted 20mph winds came barrelling down the channel so I couldn’t resist flipping out my WindPaddle. With the Barracuda’s mooring line clenched in my teeth I managed the sail while Phil’s phone recorded 8 knots, obviously helped by the falling tide.
There were a few forceful gusts and the fetch kicked up towards the end, but the TXL and Barracuda shrugged it all off and my transverse bow sprit (left) did a great job of steadying the straining sail. I think the MRS has wider attachment points on the bow so may not need it, but I’m sure Phil will be buying a PackSail if Anfibio can do him one in black. He did.
Things got a bit chilly out in the deeper water and I noticed my TXL was creasing a bit at the sides. It’s been so many months since I last used it I’d forgotten high-volume packrafts need a second top-up a few minutes in to get good and taut. It didn’t seem to affect speed, but like properly laced shoes, taut feels better. That’s one good thing with Phil’s black boat; it auto pressurises in the pale winter sun. While we sailed, he tucked into his lunch.
The Teign estuary is actually not too industrialised. Under the last bridge The Salty sandbank was starting to emerge from the chop and as we curved round to the river mouth the sidewind pushed us into moored craft caked in algae. At the narrow outlet a rip of bouncing clapotis was jiggling out to sea and on the beach someone was striking poses for their Insta feed.
A little over an hour for 5 and a bit miles, just about all of it sailing both boats. It was interesting to learn that the WP could sail two big boats without much loss of speed. Staggering ashore, it felt odd not to be arm knackered, but once I got over that we headed into the deserted seaside town in search of the legendary Teignmouth Beast. That’s a local XXL pasty, not the jet-black MRS Barracuda.
This revised and updated third edition provides a guide to the entire South West’s coasts and islands. It is packed with great photography and detailed route maps, alongside descriptions and anecdotes unveiling the region’s rich tapestry of maritime scenery, wildlife, history, geology and culture April 2021; 272pp; Pesda Press
Review Although I’ve only done a couple of routes, this is a comprehensive handbook to safely plan a paddle along this complex but accessible and populated coastline. Or just browse through to get some ideas of what’s possible. Of the 50 suggested routes, 14 are grade ‘A’ for easy, 25 are ‘B’ and the other 11 are ‘C’, like Cape Cornwall, Lundy Island or the crossing to Scilly Isles which are a bit of ma reach for a solo paddler in an IK, even without a gale blowing. Any IK or even a packraft party could manage a B in ideal conditions – but of course even an A-grade paddle could get too lively at the wrong tide in nasty weather. That’s UK sea paddling for you: a lot of sitting about watching the weather forecast.
Suggested start and finish points are given with a postcode and OS map coordinates along with the given OS sheet. It would be nice to also have more easily copied and interpreted GPS decimal degrees (for example: 51.2025, -4.6777: tip of Lundy) which most people use these days over OS coordinates, even if they’re likely have OS maps in their phone or GPS. Nearby tidal ports are a way of calculating the time of the tide in your area, and there’s a detailed paragraph on tidal times and what might be happening where and at what stage of the tide and how fast it runs during stronger springs. Some of this information was probably collected from a Reeds Almanac (see below) so it’s one less thing to buy or consult. As it is, most of us will check and bookmark local tide times on a phone before reception gets lost. In particular the Pedsa book will point out where the water can get turbid at spring tides around headlands – important information you’ll struggle to find or interpret easily online and especially important in a less agile inflatable. A detailed description follows, you can tell most if not all the routes have actually been done by Mark Rainsley the author at least once, and that’s followed by Tide & Weather and Additional Information, all adding up to a thorough guide to what you’re taking on. In between you get boxed asides, most often describing terrible maritime tragedies or badly behaved smugglers which all chime with the author’s sometimes dark humour, as well as background reading: that’s the sort of guidebook we like!
One annoyance in search of a clean design is putting the captions of the many colour photos deep in the gutter of this thick and thick-papered book that’s about an inch in thickness. Along with the uncluttered colour maps, most of these photos work well in visualising the region described.
I can see myself using this much more than Pesda’s North West Sea Kayaking guide I bought years ago and hardly ever used (as I mostly paddled in one small area). Even if you just end up doing a handful of Southwest routes in your IK or P, you’ll set off well armed with what need to know and so won’t regret spending the typically discounted 16 quid. It’s a lot of book for that money.
It was sailer Barry who alerted me to the value of a ring-bound Reeds Almanac prior to our Jurassic paddle. I’ve heard of Reeds of course, but assumed it was strictly for yachtsmen. In print since 1932, there’s loads of little value or interest to a fairweather sea inflationeer – the most useful thing kayakers want to know are locally intensified tidal streams and the Pesda book covers that with more clarity on the included routes. Still, it’s reissued every year with annual tide predictions (easily found online anyway) so you can pick up a recent used edition, like the ‘Channel Almanac’ (south England and NW French coast only) for a fiver, ditch the tide and French pages, and learn all about harbour features, the meaning of buoyage and big-picture tidals streams in the Channel over the 12-hour span of a tide (below left).
I’ve done a few IK paddles in Southeast England between Rye and Portsmouth, but the Sussex and Hampshire coasts aren’t that inspiring. So it’s about time I started exploring the far more interesting and much more extensive Southwest Coast. From the Isle of Wight to Cornwall and back up to the Severn there are scores of inshore excursions possible in an inflatable. Just as in the far northwest where I mostly sea paddle, all you need is a fair tide and paddle-friendly winds, the latter a bit less rare down south.
So in the face of predicted moderate winds I cooked up a 50-km Jurassic overnighter from Weymouth to Swanage in Dorset. I’m pretty sure they opportunistically rebranded the plain old Purbeck or just ‘Dorset’ coast as the ‘Jurassic Coast‘ soon after that 1993 movie and haven’t looked back since. Like much of the Southwest coast, the beaches and country lanes become a logjam of holidaymakers on a warm summer’s day. On the water, our paddle would pass below sections of cliffs a couple of miles long and take us to the famed landmarks of Lulworth Cove, Durdle Door arch (top of the page) and Dancing Ledge. We could even carry on back north past Old Harry’s Rocks and across Studland Bay right into Poole Harbour to catch out trains home.
Compared to using regular (solo) packrafts, my confidence in my TXL for sea paddling is a revelation. After all, it’s still just another blobby, single-chamber packraft. It must be a combination of the added size giving a kayak-like perception of security (as I found in my MRS Nomad), as well as the responsiveness and speed from a longer waterline and, I now recognise, the sometimes noticeable added glide from the Multimat floor. There’s also the fact that paddlechum Barry was up for the Dorset run in his similar MRS Nomad, making this untypical packraft outing less daunting.
For some bathymetric reason – possibly the Atlantic tidal surge backing up in the Straits of Dover, plus hidden offshore shelves – the tides off the east Dorset coast are very odd: they can rise or drop all day, but have a range of just two metres, about as low as it gets in the UK. That ought to mean moderate ebb flows pushing up against prevailing westerlies, plus we were heading into neaps. And while often cliff-bound, if we stayed alert to escape routes we could easily bail and walk or climb out with our packrafts.
East of Lulworth Cove the Jurassic Coast‘s bucket & spade Babylon is interrupted by a 5-mile wide Danger Area – an army firing range. This was probably not one of UNESCO’s criteria for World Heritage status, but the SW coastal path also gets closed for a similar distance. Barry’s Reeds Almanac had a page or two on this (left), as well as useful tidal flow charts (drops to the west; rises east). I left it to Barry to call the ‘0800 DUCK!’ number, but imagined surely they’d leave the target practice to the off season. In fact they’re all it most of the time Mon–Fri, including an evening session 9pm to midnight: all we had to do was click this.
With a plan taking shape, I in turn bought a copy of Pesda’s South West Sea Kayaking in the hope of being alerted to local anomalies. I’m glad I did. It turned up with just hours to spare and identified that the run from Kimmeridge Bay round the Purbeck corner to Swanage was a grade up from the easy section from Weymouth. With headlands, submarine ledges and long lines of cliffs, without a foot recce I decided we may be better off skipping this bit.
The winds here have been belting out at up to 40mph for days, but I grabbed a quickie during a lull the other afternoon to try out some final mods.
My centrally seated TXL is like a small TPU kayak – the missing link, some say – so it needs a backrest that works. I was never won-over by the Anfibio inflatable backrest on the Revo or my boat; it manages to be both mushy and wobbly. But once on the water it was soon clear that, combined with my Lomo holdall wrapped into a footrest bundle (below left), the foam SoT backrest felt much better. The broader, firm pad spreads across the back supportively and is held up with straps, not thin elastic. Plus being able to press feet side-by-side against a flat, firmish surface, not jam feet into the bow, is also much more comfortable. It felt just like my old Seawave!
I was giving the Multimat air floor one more try. It must do some good and I admit it may have helped replicate the IK feel. And unlike initial impressions, the half-inflated seat base is actually pretty stable sat on the stiff floor, not wobbly as I originally thought. Plus the pad protects the floor from impacts below, and heel scuffing inside.
I did feel again that the TXL skates across the water a little, bobbing on the stiff air floor. This flat-floor effect makes sense on a shortish 3:1 ratio boat and was one reason I thought a front skeg might be helpful (it wasn’t with the stock rear skeg). The air floor lifts the boat a bit higher in the water and the sliding left to right is more from wind and waves than in reaction to paddling strokes (like normal packraft bow yawing). But until conditions get too rough I don’t think it really hampers paddling progress that much. It’s a packraft after all, not a jet ski!
While I had the floor in, I tried the 15-cm thick seatbase fully inflated and sure enough, like Anfibio say, it’s too high and may get unstable on anything other than flatwater, even with my repositioned knee straps for added support (left). That’s why they offer the 5cm foam block (it’s on ebay, fyi). A thinner inflatable seatbase would be less agonising but it seems, like on an IK, the half-inflated stock seatbase actually works fine.
The other test was a skeg repositioned on the floor for full submergence – this is only needed for sailing; the TXL tracks well enough with the semi-submerged stock skeg position and goes OK without one. Had I not seen the selfies (left) and not tried sailing, I’d probably not have noticed.
The afternoon’s glassy calm had turned already. I pushed into the breeze out towards a low-tide skerry just off Tanera Mor, then heeled round for the mile back to Badentarbet beach and flipped out the WindPaddle. I left the stock skeg in place which was cheating a bit, but I’m pleased to say my earlier problems with weathecocking (stern blowing round, side to the wind) have been solved. No surprise a fully submerged skeg makes the TXL sail as well as my Rebel 2K and MRS Nomad. This was an important thing to pin down as I want to be sure my bloaty, IK-replacing Sigma TXL has something up its sleeve when the wind allows because, like any inflatable, in the other direction it will struggle as headwinds reach 15-20mph. Sailing still needs constant micro-adjustment, but it’s great to feel a gust tugging at the handlines as the Sigma ploughs a trough through the surf like a water buffalo wading across a mudhole. The boat was definitely hitting 7kph or more at times.
I was also trying an idea I didn’t get round to testing on my narrower-bowed Seawave before I sold it: a WindPaddle transverse bowsprit™. Those cunning Chinese will be copying it on ebay any day now.
A WindPaddle disc sail starts bobbing madly left to right when winds get much over 10-15mph – it can’t unload the air fast enough. This is a side effect of mast-less downwind sails, but I figured if the bow sail attachments were further apart and more taught, the bobbing might be constrained. You want a downwind sail at the very front of a short boat, but on the TXL thr frontmost mounts are quite close together (compare to a Nomad, above left). My ‘transverse bowsprit‘ is a stick which extends the sail mounts out to the sides, like ship rigging. I used a foot-long bamboo stick with some Rovaflex loops on the ends and for the weight and minimal faff, I like to think it worked. A bit longer would be better; I have a 50cm rod lined up for next time. A few days after posting my sailing vid, YouTube thoughtfully directed me to a ten-year old video where a bloke with a hip-wide surf ski had the same idea (above right). Only he managed to zip along at a breathtaking 15kph in a 40kph breeze!
Heading towards shore, again, I aired-down the Multimat but again, can’t say performance deteriorated noticeably. After all, the MRS Nomad manages fine. The stiffening breeze rushed me towards the rarely exposed sands of Badentarbet beach and a short walk home.
So. Good to know the TXL is now largely sorted. Weather-wise, it’s been a wash-out in the far northwest this year, but there’s still enough summer left in the heatstruck south to do some trips.
There were two things I wanted to try out while paddling the Sigma TXL solo: • whether the inflatable floor made a noticeable difference to speed • what effect fitting a front skeg along with the usual back one might have on handling. Would it shapen the tracking to sea kayak levels?
I put in at a handy little slot a mile or so from the house and set off with the usual rear skeg and the floor pumped up and with the nozzle accessible at my feet. All was flat calm in the lee of the light northerly until I turned north at Fox Point into a headbreeze up to Old Dornie harbour. As before, paddling along I can’t say the boat felt responsive or glided better – it’s a packraft! – but looking later, the GPS record showed I was moving along at a steady 5kph – as good as I’d expect from a boat like this. I wasn’t sure which way the dropping tide flows through the narrows at Old Dornie (they dry up into an isthmus linking Isle Ristol as very low tides), but now saw it’s southbound – against me but barely noticeable.
Once through, it was a bit more wavy and at Ristol beach I hopped out to fit the front skeg, curved edge forward, as well as the WindPaddle sail on the off chance the breeze might pick up. Then I gave the floor and boat a top-up until it was all pinging like a drum. Had I looked more closely at the skegs on the upturned boat below, I may have guessed what the problem was going to be. The TXL’s bow and stern are symmetrical, fyi, and both patches are glued in identical positions.
Setting off into the wind to carry on round the spit and down the back of Isle Ristol, tracking felt a bit worse, then really became a handful once I turned southwest across the small bay filled with clapotis bouncing off the cliffs. Here I couldn’t pull two strokes without having to correct, as if I was stuck in some odd current or in an IK with no skegs at all. The wind wasn’t that strong and the tide was nearing slack, but forward progress seemed agonisingly negligible. Barely in control, I couldn’t put my finger on it and at one moment had that unnerving feeling of a swimmer caught in a riptide. I’ve noticed odd conditions on this corner of Ristol before, so decided to just keep paddling south in the hope of getting out of the bouncing waves.
If I could have easily got ashore to remove the skeg I’d have done so right there, but knew of an inlet 500m further on when I could do just that. With the wind behind me, I thought I might sail my way out or trouble, but lifting the sail the boat just pulled itself sideways to the wind. Very odd. I could not get the boat to point down wind and catch the breeze.
By now the water had settled down a bit and with relief, I slipped into the inlet and pulled off the front skeg (left), then went for a wander and a sip from the burn. Looking at the pictures later, it’s clear the front skeg digs much deeper than the rear, even if both are halfway out with the air floor fitted (lifting the boat out of the water). You could say the front neutralised the effect of the back skeg so the boat paddled as if it had no skegs. But that wouldn’t have made it so hard to handle. It was the fact that the front bit deeper than the back – the last thing you want.
Little did I realise that the TXL was in fact moving through the clapotis at 6kph, and even hit 7kph just before I turned into the inlet. It just goes to show how misleading the impression of forward progress can be, even if the shore seems to be barely inching by. Despite my floundering around with the paddle, I was zipping along.
Back on the water normal rear-skeg service was resumed: a few inches of yawing from the bow. I came across a sea kayaking group who, like last year near here, seemed to be drifting around like they were killing time, when they had all these amazing islands to explore. Put your backs into it!
I eased past them in a packraft half as long and more than twice as wide! and set off for the straight, 5-km run to Badentarbet pier. By now my paddling cadence had found a good, steady rhythm. About half way, opposite Fox Point, I let down the floor and fully inflated my seat. Positioning the big, unattached seat can be a tight fit between the side tubes, but I’ve learned to lift myself on the side tubes and kick it backwards with my heel. You want to be sat in the middle of the cushion, not falling off either edge. As we found last week near Skye, de-flooring makes the hull go a bit soft, as if the floor was compressing the hull a bit (it certainly makes the boat feel more rigid). In future, better to prioritise hull pressure over the floor.
Did I notice any drag from the deformed floor sheet sagging under my weight? Not really, but after a while the cruise dropped to 5kph. This wasn’t a conclusive test in identical conditions; that might be better done there and back with floor/no floor on a freshwater loch. It did occur to me that doing paddles like this in a single, 0.5mm chamber boat, there is some benefit to the back-up buoyancy from the floor pad (and up to a point the Tube Bags, when full). It was something I used to worry about much more when I first started packrafting; unsure if these unproven boats might go pop. Time has shown that that does not happen; at worst you might get a slow leak. But out here better to wear a proper foam pfd than a skimpy Buoy Boy.
But I’m definitely in no hurry to use a front skeg again, though fitting it back to front might put less in the water (matching the back), and doing so with no air-floor might put both an inch deeper in the water. I might try the back skeg on backwards next time. More snag-prone but puts more plastic in the water. Anfibio ought to offer a deeper ‘sea skeg’, (easy enough to make).
Anyway, now we know: rear skeg helps for sure but combined with front skeg, not so good; inflatable floor marginal for inshore cruising, but probably needs another test. Either way, this 11-km paddle isn’t something I’d ever have tackled in any of my previous solo packrafts, except perhaps the similar Nomad S1. And considering I’ve not paddled this far alone since last year, I didn’t feel any more tired dragging a yard-wide packrafts than hauling my old IK at four times the weight. And of course I was able to follow the newly ratified Protocols of Packraft: never take-out where you put in.
I’ve been looking forward to getting back to Dorset’s amazing chalk pinnacles near Studland which we paddled in the Seawave one calm morning back in 2019. Today the tide was right and the sun was out; it was just a bit chilly and on the windy side; a good day to see how my Sigma TXL might perform at sea.
A couple of paddlechums were also up for a pre-dawn departure; Barry rode down with his similar MRS Nomad S1, while Nimbus – yet to fully embrace inflatable paddlecraft – brought his 17-foot, plastic P&H Scorpio sea kayak (left). Even at ~30 kilos, it was a proper boat for the conditions and we imagined he’d run rings round our packrafts.
Early all-day parking is a problem at Studland as the car parks don’t officially open till 9am and anywhere else you’ll get towed and Twitter-shamed. But we slipped into Knoll Beach parking at 8 and were on the water before 9am. By this time a one-metre tide was about 90 minutes after HW, and we set off into a steady onshore 12-mph northeasterly which would stop Barry and me running away with ourselves. By the time we turned the right angle at the Point for the run SSW along the cliffs, we ought to be able to put up our sails to catch up with Nimbus, except I forgot my WindPaddle. Oh well, I’d just have to paddle the full four miles and get medevaced out.
The tides at Swanage aren’t the classic sine wave. Every other tide rises and falls normally, but in between is a mini low and high. Who knows how or why but I suppose the reservoir of Poole Harbour, plus the English Channel funnel have something to do with dampening every other surge. Either way, the range was only a metre today and is hardly ever more than two down here; not enough volume to raise any strong currents. Nimbus later calculated a southerly flow of around 1mph which may help explain our higher than expected packraft speeds.
Part of the reason I got the longer TXL was to try more coastal packrafting, even if the extra bulk and weight (actually only 450g more than my previous Rebel 2K) might set me back on overnighters. This is not a paddle I’d have attempted in my backheavy 2K, even with a deck; it’s just too slow to be enjoyable. But having owned a 2.9-m Nomad S1 like Barry’s, I was fairly sure the TXL’s near identical length, buoyancy and similar ‘footprint’ would make a difference. There is something about sitting in the middle, not the back end of a boat, that makes it feel more reassuring. Unlike my Thames paddle a week earlier, I decided not to fit the TXL’s inflatable floor pad in search of a better glide. As things were, in today’s wind and chop the stability from a lower seating position would be more important.
It was about 1.5 miles to the arches at Old Harry’s headland, so I set off directly across the bay, hoping for flatter conditions further out. That wasn’t the case; the odd wave was breaking, but the TXL moved across the water purposefully. Sure, it rolled, pitched and yawed in the side waves, but sat down low I felt completely at ease, maybe even more than in my Seawave IK? Barry was clearly having the same bouncy fun in his MRS and I’d assumed the P&H would have raced off, if for no other reason than to maintain stability. But later Nimbus said the Scorpio felt a little on edge in the high-frequency chop and couldn’t have gone much faster than us on this stage.
You’d think the two long, light packrafts’ would have been blown about, but the central, kayak-like position and added buoyancy made them easy to control (with skegs fitted) and the high sides kept most of the water out. I picked up maybe a litre over a mile and a half and didn’t miss a deck at all (though I did appreciate the drysuit).
Even with photo faffing, we reached the stacks of Old Harry in about half an hour, and it hadn’t felt like any more of a struggle than in an IK. It was really quite a revelation how well the TXL (and Nomad) were performing with just an extra 50cm or 20% in the waterline over a regula packraft. The lightness of the boats must have something to do with it. Round the outside of the Point the wind and tide were fighting it out in a tidal race. It made me realise how well timed our visit in the Seawave had been three years ago. We’d arrived here in much calmer conditions but also around mid-tide with a less nasty looking race. Going round the outside today may well have been doable but set aside unpredictable currents, waves can also stand up and break out of nowhere. It was more fun to slip through on the remnants of the outgoing tide between the mainland and Old Harry’s stack. Next time I come here, I’ll make sure to arrive at the top half of the tide so all the arches can be threaded.
After a bit of promo filming for the new book, we turned 120° to the southwest and expected to have the wind behind us, but it remained a case of dealing with sidewaves plus cliff rebounds, so we kept out to sea. Despite the packrafts jigging about like popcorn in a hot pan, we managed to make progress south along the cliffs, the Scorpio now edging ahead.
After being jostled around, Barry decided to air up his AirSail, but even with two of us, pumping it up properly in the chop proved too tricky. For easy deployment on the water, the sprung-hooped Packsail (like the old WindPaddle) is a much better idea, even if it’s more bulky to carry.
We rounded Ballard Point where the cliffs turned into Swanage Bay, and with the wind now on our backs, the GPS recorded 6kph (see graph below). As usual though, it didn’t feel that fast as the boat squirrelled around from the stern. I thought about moving myself further back (relatively easily done in the TXL unlike the fixed solo Nomad) so the lightened bow trailed downwind, but it wasn’t really that bad, it just felt sloppy. Sailor Barry was now keeping up with Nim until we all rolled up on Swanage Beach, aired down the packboats and made a beeline for the cafe for a superb Full Swanage Breakfast.
The cafe let us leave the boat among their bins out back, but I was overruled on walking the four miles back over Ballard Downs back to Knoll Beach. Barry clearly had a liking for taxis which I consider more of an emergency service. “It is not the Packrafting Way!” I squealed as he put a bag over my head and shoved me in the back. Nimbus kept a diplomatic silence. Back at Knoll Beach, Barry roared off on his motorbike while Nim and I wandered back the way we’d paddled to check out at Old Harry’s from above. The tide was now at its extended low period and the wind had swung to the southeast, sheltering Studland Bay. Down below, a lone kayaker was just setting off. “That looks fun, a. We should try that sometime.”
Judging by this outing, the TXL has proved to be just what I’d hoped: a dependably agile coastal cruiser with all the other benefits of a packraft. More sea paddles to come.
Once we were let out in the Covid summer of 2020, we did a very nice coastal walk from Hastings to Rye along the Sussex coast. Hot, but not so windy, it would have been just right for paddling. Today conditions were similar for a westbound transit from Rye back towards Hastings. High Water (and a spring tide too) was at a very reasonable noon in Rye, with a forecast of 8-14mph from the east and a bit of a kick at 3pm. I was hoping for the upper limit and a bit of splashy sport, so brought the WindPaddle I’d used on the packraft last month in Scotland in much stronger winds.
It’s only a 10-minute walk from Rye station to a boat ramp on the quay where the water was still inching up the concrete as I pumped up the Gumotex.
I was taking a gamble trying my untested new rudder set up. Because I expected it to play up, I fitted the stock skeg so I could lift a problematic rudder and carry on as normal without coming shore. To be without a rudder or skeg with a backwind at sea would not be ideal. Being the ever recirculating goldfish, I forgot to try out my sail stick mount idea.
Rye hasn’t been on the coast since 1287 or so when, along with gradual land reclamation, the biggest of a series of 13th-century storms filled the adjacent marshy inlet with silt and shingle which finished off semi-abandoned Old Winchelsea and radically redrew the low-lying coastline where the Kent and Sussex borders meet. It was the same in Pevensey to the west. The gif on the left from this interesting regional website shows how the coastline of southeast England was transformed in the late medieval era. Where the Rother river once flowed directly east to enter the sea at New Romney, the filled-in bay saw it diverted south below the old hill town of Rye, now stranded two miles from the sea. The then important port of Winchelsea was rebuilt on its present site in 1288, but eventual silting saw both it and Rye’s maritime importance decline. What this area may lack in epic spaces common to the north and west of Britain, it gains in fascinating history. 1066 and all that.
I set off along the River Brede which wraps around Rye’s south side like a moat, and soon joins the Rother. It’s about 5km to the open sea.
I’m into the wind but the grass banks are under water and the wind turbines are spinning merrily; all good signs.
Rye Harbour. The tide is high and I’m moving on.
In 45 minutes I reach the old breakwater opposite Camber Sands where I recall bucket & spading as a child. The sea looks depressingly flat.
Seals at the river mouth (a few days later).
It’s nearly 10km to the distant cliffs, a two-hour haul. And with the breeze from behind, I’m soon streaming with sweat. I’m not sure my water will last.
Going with the Flow A few years ago while planning Newhaven to Brighton, I learned an odd thing about Sussex and Kent tides. For the last two hours of the incoming (eastbound) flood, the tide keeps rising but reverses westbound along the English coast as it backs up at the Straight of Dover and spills back down the sides. That makes HW is around the same time in Folkestone, and 140 miles to the west, past the Isle of Wight, but HW at all the places in between lags behind. Tidal steams are not that strong here – wind will have much more of a bearing on paddling – but this means you get only four hours eastboundflow with the flood tide and prevailing southwest winds. But if you time your run with a warm easterly off the continent and go westbound– as I did on this occasion – you get a much longer run with the tidal current; eight hours or more; maybe 45km all the way to Eastbourne. The question is: can you paddle that long.
A breeze picks up so I flick up the sail. I check my GPS and am doing 3-4kph, while I can paddle at around 5-6kph. Then the breeze drops away. I wasn’t really planning to paddle the full 30+ clicks to Cooden station, but I can always get off at Hastings, a few stops before.
At least the rudder seems to working as it should, though any quick response is dulled a little by the skeg. A rudder’s not really needed in these conditions, though it compensates for me being blown gradually onshore. I’m trying a rudder lift-line only, not a rudder lowering line as well. But once in the boat I find I can’t turn enough to even see the lifted rudder to flick it down with the paddle, so I’ll probably fit a drop-line later.
I creep along the expanse of Winchelsea Beach. It’s hot work in a backwind. Eventually I reach the start of the cliffs where the coast turns more east-west, putting the wind directly behind me. But paddling at effectively wind speed, there is no cooling effect. More familiar with paddling at the other end of Britain, I’m not used to 27°C.
Then, as predicted, around 3pm the breeze picks up and I can get the sail up.
Paddling half a mile from the shore, initially it was hard to know if I’m moving and at what speed. So waking up the GPS screen was a handy way of telling if the sailing speed was worthwhile. With the odd gust I reach nearly 7kph, but average less than 5kph, a bit slower than paddling, but I’m not dripping like a leaky tap or needing to drink. In fact I could nearly doze off.
The cliffs inch by. This is the sea end of the Wealden sandstone formation, less high and steep than the better known chalky Seven Sisters to the west, or Dover’s white cliffs to the northeast. Both chalk cliffs are part of the same formation or bed, but when the land was squeezed and uplifted to the dome or hump was eroded away to expose the older sandstone below. This is what they call the Weald, and near Tunbridge Wells, East Grinstead and Frant, the weathered sandstone ridge produces small outcrops where I started rock climbing as a teenager (right).
I pass the Stade, the east end of Hastings where the cliffs drop back down. A few souls are enjoying the last day of summer on the shingle beach.
I keep going to the pier and decide to have a leisurely take out there. It’s gone 4pm so another 10km to get the train 6.15 from Cooden would be a rush.
Landfall by Hastings pier. Compared to the fabulous Summer Isles, for me these southeast coast paddles lack drama and interest, but are easy to reach if tomorrow’s weather looks good. We walked Hastings to Rye again a day or two later; it took about the same time and was more enjoyable (though it was cooler). The rudder foot pivot worked fine, though needed a bit of re-tensioning at the pier. Next time I can confidently leave the skeg off, though I can see a rudder would only be needed when sailing or paddling in windier conditions. That is all I have to say for now.