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.
As the calendar flipped into June the crap May weather – worst for decades locals say – had finally broken, and northwestern Scotland sits under a High with cool, light winds and blue skies. After weeks of the opposite, it can all look a bit miraculous. The other day we climbed Ben Hope, Britain’s most northerly 3000-footer. It’s a short, steep climb, and coming back down I was sure pleased to lean on my packstaff (right).
Back home, paddling the southern edge of Enard Bay in an arc from Garvie Bay around to Achnahaird beach (left) was another easily realised sea packrafting outing. It’s also our favourite local half-day walk and with today’s strengthening northerly breeze, I ought to be able to sail down into Achnahaird, wade up the stream to the twin freshwater lochs, and carry on sailing nearly all the way back to Badentarbet. All up that would be about 18 kms of paddling and walking.
It’s a muddy kilometre’s walk from the road bridge down to Garvie beach which, unlike popular Achnahaird, is usually deserted. I did carry my old Grabner IK down on my head one time for a paddle to Lochinver, but a packraft in the pack is so much easier. This car-free and approach/portaging ease was part of the rationale in putting all my eggs in the TXL basket and flogging the Seawave.
Even before I reached the shore it was clearly a bit windier than the predicted 6mph, but as long as white capped waves held off (the easily spotted warning sign for inflatables) it should be OK. The chilly northerly coming off the sea was steady; less gusty (or so the forecasts suggested) so I was glad I grabbed the dry-suit last minute. As you can see from the Google image above, the rough shoreline and reefs can kick up some breakers, but if it all got a bit much I knew plenty of take-outs to join the Mrs who was doing the walk and taking photos from above.
Skeg effectiveness Anfibios mount the skeg sloping down on the hull’s short stern. Selfies I’ve taken on previous TXL paddles show the skeg halfway out of the water, unless the boat is very heavily loaded. The air floor lifts the boat higher still. This was not an issue in my rear-weighted Rebel 2K single seater where I pushed the back end down. On the level-trimmed and more buoyant TXL, the skeg is ill positioned or too small.
Fitting the skeg backwards puts more in the water, but sticking another mounting patch at the back of floor sheet like an IK (above right) is fully effective. People ask: would the lack of inflated skeg support be that bad without the firm backing of the air-floor or a rear paddler’s seat? No; and the long, low stock Anfibio skeg is just the right shape.
Mounting another skeg patch on the floor is a bit time consuming is what I ended up trying so I can keep the stock skeg. Today I’m trying a spare Gumotex skeg (right) whose slip-in mount system the Anfibio skeg copies, but which has a deeper profile putting more plastic in the water. It’s only less than half a hand’s worth, but is worth a go before fabricating a skeg extension or repositioning it.
Today I’m also trying my longer, smaller-bladed, 230-mm Camaro sea-kayaking paddle more suited to steady cruising into the wind than the over-sized, white-water Corryvreckan I’ve been using so far. Initially I can feel the paddle’s extra weight, but that’s soon forgotten which suggests the slimmer blades are just right. Progress is a bit sluggish into the northerly, but I’m getting the feeling it’s always like this with the bloaty TXL until the arms warm up.
I wonder if coming round the point and turning west into Camas a Bhothain (‘bothy bay’) may get a bit lively, but the TXL takes it all in it’s stride. It’s easy to spot where waves break over reefs and, sat low on the broad, 15-cm-thick seatbase, stability is never an issue and for a packraft, the TXL tracks well across the side wind and waves, perhaps helped by the Gumboat skeg and my masterful technique.
It’s only 4km beach to beach and soon I’m threading through the western Rubha Beag skerries and turning south with the wind for Achnahaird.
Out here in the open the waves are bigger with the odd white cap rolling past, but incredibly the boat feels fine. In a normal solo packraft I suspect I’d be a bit freaked out. The bigger boat makes you feel less vulnerable and the high sides keep the splash out and don’t seem that affected by ~10mph side winds (something I discovered on my first sea outing in Dorset).
I paddled out into Achnahaird Bay (or so I thought) to get a straight run for the beach, then flipped out the WindPaddle. Only things don’t go so well. Just like the other day when I blamed the front skeg, the TXL is weathercocking (back coming round, below). This time I blamed a too shallow skeg lifting out on wave crests at which point the wind pushes the untethered stern around – the boat pivoting around the sail’s ‘mast’ on the bow. I’ve had this before sailing a IK on Ningaloo Reef in northwest Australia (tall-sided Ik and too short a rudder for the winds). In the TXL my central ‘kayak’ rather than rearward ‘packraft’ seating position doesn’t help. The (loaded) Rebel 2K sailed fine in similar conditions; so did my unloaded Nomad S1 one time, as well as Barry’s loaded Nomad last year in Knoydart. With its skeg on, the MRS Nomad sailed well, with or without a load. Along with its pointy ends, I put that down to its fully submerged skeg.
Meanwhile in the TXL you can see my annoying zigzagging track on the left. Hoping to slice across the bay like a blue-fin tuna, it was all a bit frustrating, but I inched in the right direction quicker than it felt and was pretty sure weight distribution and skeg depth were the culprits. And in fact I saw later the GPS was logging a steady 6kph, it just wasn’t the steady linear progress I’ve had sailing other packrafts.
Once at Achnahaird I paddled as far as I could up the burn running alongside the beach, then hopped out and waded upstream – easier than carrying the boat in the wind.
Near the road junction it’s a 2-minute carry over to freshwater Loch Raa where I hoped the lower waves would give the skeg some traction. But it was the same zigzagging progress. Waves combined with a shallow skeg were not causing the weathercocking (as they had in the Bay). So the problem had to be weight distribution. I remembered a canoeing adage: “sit up front into a headwind; sit at the back downwind“. You are the flagpole from which the boat should trail downwind. After a short portage over into Loch Vatachan, I sat right at the back and progress did seem a bit straighter, as the GPS tracklogs below show. I was no faster: 6kph downwind and 5ph on the ‘off-wind’ zags, but there was less zigzagging.
By the time I reached the south end of Loch Vatachan to pack up, the wind was fairly brisk (left). Packraft sailing should be better than this but moving to the back of the boat to enable reliable tracking under sail is not so practical. The answer must be a bigger or repositioned skeg.
A couple of days later we went for a short paddle in a reasonable sailing wind. The stock skeg was on back to front (right) and with the Mrs’ added ballast I hoped it might bite under sail. Unfortunately it was the same story of the stern coming round even if the speeds were again OK. On a beach we went for a wander and found a nice bit of broken plastic fish crate. We’re gonna need a bigger skeg.
During the stop I took the TXL out for a spin sat in the back. Of course the bow was up in the air and yawing like a giraffe, but it was quite a revelation to have a spacious boat extending out in front of me like a kayak. My front seatbase made a spacious footrest and I could lean on the back like a normal sized packraft. Sat in the back, as a way of touring or bikerafting, a bike over the bow and baggage in the front would correct the trim a little. And with the 200 litres of dry storage capacity inside the TubeBags, you could probably move house with the TXL.
We paddled the last mile to Badentarbet with me in the back. Again this felt much more comfortable for me – it must be the ability to lean on the stern. Meanwhile the Mrs said she felt no more cramped than the back. Yes the trim was still off (left), but so it always was on my 2K and I got around in that with no problems. That’s the great thing with the TXL: there are all sorts of ways of using it.
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.
Looming over the Sound of Sleat opposite the Isle of Skye, Knoydart is a famously rugged peninsula that’s inaccessible by road; part of the so-called Rough Bounds. Rising north of Loch Nevis, the mountains top out at the 1020-metre (3346′) summit of Ladhar Bheinn (‘Larven’), before dropping back down to LochHourn. On an OS map, contour lines here are as dense as spaghetti and to the south, Loch Morar is Europe’s deepest body of freshwater. Sounds like packrafting country!
It took just a morning to stitch together a challenging three-loch loop via Loch Quioch, but once I got there the initial 20-km stage down the channel of Loch Hourn looked a bit daunting alone in the untried packraft sailing outfit and required a 4am start at Low Water if I was to do the loch in one tide. By the time I tried something else, I was pushed back by wind and tide, so I settled for a good look around, tested the sail on the Rebel 2K, the Six Moon Designs Flex PR pack harness and a new tent before returning a fortnight later with Barry with whom I’d paddled the River Wye last April.
Driving up to Mallaig freed us from train timetables, which left the weather and 18-kilo packs as our main constraints. Unfortunately, the forecast dropped an F5 headwind on the Friday we planned to paddle out of Loch Nevis back towards Morar or Mallaig. Along with agreeable tide timings, I realised this was a limitation of circularpackrafting routes on the Scottish west coast: chances are you’ll hit a prevailing southwesterly which may slow your packraft to a crawl (as I’d found). Depending on where you are, that can mean turning back or a tough walk out. Maybe both.
So Barry and I flipped the plan: hike 16km from Inverie (the only village on Knoydart) over to Barisdale, paddle inner Loch Hourn (7km), walk up to Loch Quoich (8km), cross it and then head 6km to a bothy in desolate Glen Kingie. From here, on Windy Friday we’d walk 6km over another pass to the 20-km long Loch Arkaig and try and sail the F5 west, maybe getting as far as Fort William via the River Lochy, though gusts out here were tagged at 40mph. At Fort William we’d catch the train back to the car in Mallaig.
With the exception of a few rivers … (Lugg … Severn … and the Wye), there is no confirmed Public Right of Navigation on other physically navigable, non-tidal rivers in Wales. Canoe Wales
The Wye is the only river in (mostly) England where you can paddle for days and over a hundred miles, and not need to dodge a weir, portage a lock or confront a scowling angler. Even the few towns are historically intriguing. The whole valley is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (‘AONB’), or ‘countryside’ as some call it. You don’t even need a BC licence: from Hay-on-Wye the river uniquely has PRN (‘public right of navigation’; like a footpath’s ‘right of way’). There is no other river like it in England so I don’t know what’s taken me so long, other than the prospect of another staycated summer makes you reappraise your own backyard.
I invited myself to join Barry who lives near the river and who’d just bought himself an MRS Nomad. He’d done Hay to Hereford once and pronounced it a bit tame, so proposed Hoarwithy (Mile 51 from Hay) to the tidal finale at Chepstow (Mile 107 according to the table, left, or Mile 100 in the same sourced EA pdf guide.
Fifty-odd miles: two long days and a bit, we estimated (wrongly). Our riverine transit had to be timed to meet HW at Brockweir, 7 miles from Chepstow’s sole jetty, otherwise we’d be stranded by tidal sludge or swept out into the Severn and end up in Tristan da Cunha.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tidal profile like Chepstow: on a Spring tide the water can rise nearly 9 metres is less than two and a half hours, then take over ten hours to drop. This is because your Atlantic Ocean is piling into the western edge of the European land mass, including the funnel of the Severn (with Wye) estuary, creating among the highest tides on the whole darn planet. The game of ‘grab the jetty’ would make an exciting conclusion to our trip, especially as we’d have to be on the water before dawn to time it right. The guidebook warns: continue beyond Chepstow at your peril. Most canoeists dodge the tide timing game and take out at Brockweir.
I thought I’d do the Wye in my Seawave, but then decided all that space and speed and glide would be too easy. Anfibio did me a deal on the Rebel 2K I tested last autumn (they’ll readily drop the tax to the UK so you don’t pay it twice). The three-night paddle would be a good test of their internal storage system for packraft touring. And the wet bits in between, a good test of the boat. My review of the 2K here. Short version: with a good, rain-fed current, the Wye is a fabulous, easy and scenic paddle. We saw just a couple of Gumo Safaris on a bank, and some club rowers out of Ross. Plus loads of parked up canoes waiting for the rental season. I hope to do it again in the summer. With no lifts, I’d try to leave Hereford early for Symmonds Yat free camp (see below). It’s 43 miles but in the conditions we had could be an easy ten hours. And if you don’t make it, no bother. Then it’s five hours paddling to Brockweir where an early afternoon HW could bring you two hours into Chepstow for a train home.
I really want to go with you Really want to show you, Lord That it won’t take long, my Lord Hallelujah, Hare Rama….
Picked up while scanning the radio on the drive to Tonbridge, there were much worst earworms to be stuck with than George Harrison’s 1970 pop hymn.
I was on the water at Town Lock before 9am on a mid-September day set to hit 25. This was surely, absolutely, positively the very last day of summer. End of! But just after 9am something was wrong. The MRS was saggy and I knew why. Annoyingly, it tends to need a top-up a full 5 minutes in, not just by resting empty on the cold water as I get ready to hop in. I put it down to being a high-volume and thin-skinned boat which takes a while to cool down and lose a little pressure once on the water. Plus, because you sit in the middle – not the back like a normal packraft – you notice the hull sag-crease to either side and feel the flex-bobbing as you paddle. That is why the K-Pump I’d dismissed today is a good idea with the Nomad: it gives the MRS a darn good over-pump before putting in and avoids the need to do it again in a few minutes. I suppose another way would be liberally splashing the boat all over for a few minutes before final top off. Now as taut as a harp string, I set off into the low morning sun, passing trees still in full leaf but slowly losing their sheen. I know that feeling.
The Medway would ordinarily be a fun-to-do-once southern English river if it wasn’t for the half-dozen jaunty canoe chutes installed to bypass the locks and weirs without portaging. Another way of spicing it up is to race it in a K1 kayak little wider than your hips. The first such bloke shot past me annoying close, paddling so fast he was bobbing up and down like a dashboard doggie. Soon a few others followed, including a double which must have been 22 feet long, and a guy in a plywood Wenonah with a lightning-fast single-paddle switch.
On the walk to Town Lock I’d passed several bands of early-morning Mamils browsing and clacking outside Tonbridge High Street’s 525 coffee shops – a common Sunday-morning sighting these days. But it seems a sub-species has evolved out of the recreational lifestyle gene pool – Mamiks – steely-eyed K1 kayakers, competitive City types going hell-for-leather, a club burn-up belting past at what looked like double my speed. But it seems one thing these slender 18-foot training razors couldn’t do was shoot the lock chutes, even if it saved them minutes of cumbersome portaging taken at a trot. Presumably skimpy and unhinged rudders would snap off, or the pencil-thin boat would get crossed-up on exit and flip like a fish-farm salmon.
By mid-morning there were plenty of other regular paddlers on the Medway: SoTs, canoes (but no SUPs), all enjoying a sunny Sunday on the water. I even spotted two Medway firsts: a wild swimmer bobbing along, followed by a naturist wild swimmer tiptoeing down a bank and finally, another old couple in their brand-new retirement Sevy Riviera which looked uncharacteristically pert. My sweet lord, they’re all out today.
Sweat was dripping from my nose and the back-breeze helped, but I did seem to be going at a good old lick for a packraft. I also noticed that I was paddling like you’re supposed to. I spotted this bizarre development on my last outing: I was pushing forward with my high arm (‘press-ups’), less pulling the lower arm through the water (‘pull-ups’). I was informed of this technique (along with ‘lighthouse’ torso pivoting) years ago by a mate who did a 1:1 paddle-stroke course, but don’t know what’s suddenly brought it on. Maybe I’ve had a knock to the head. Up ahead it was time to line it up and sluice on down the side of Sluice Weir – the longest, steepest and sadly the last chute on this part of the Medway. I imagine it’s given many newbies a bit of a fright, but the light and buoyant Nomad sashayed off the end with a shrug. From here it was dogwater all the way to Yalding Tea Rooms where I caught up with a young SoT woman who’d left Town Lock just before me. Following her for a while, she was definitely flagging. I knew that feeling at around this distance too, but not today.
I never know how far this paddle is, or I forget as I circle, gape-mouthed round my gilded bowl. 12 miles? At least 3 hours then, so I thought I might catch the hourly 1.12 train from Yalding back to Tonbridge. But by half-eleven I was already upon Hampstead Lock (above), 11 miles according to the official map (below). Take out the breaks and that was a moving average of 5.5mph. Five years ago I thought 3.4 was good. I need to update my avatar. Not bad for a packing MAMIK then, and a great way to end the season.
Hare Rama, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna…
Like many paddlers, when I get out of the boat I’m always careful to hold the lead and move slowly, in case I kick the very light boat away from the bank – an awkward situation if alone, especially on a Pacific island with a typhoon on the horizon. While the Nomad was dripping dry at Hampstead Lock, resting on the beam of the lock gate, a gust blew it into the lock. Bugger! Luckily, it landed right way up, but ten feet down, there was no way I could reach it. Luckily too, it was caught in an eddy caused by the sluicing and right by the wall, not drifting off towards Maidstone. This gave me time to think. I reassembled the paddle and, hanging right off the lock side and holding the blade by the tips of my fingers, was j u s t able to nudge the boat towards some slimy steps, just as a motor boat drew up to the lock, probably wondering ‘What the heck is this chap playing at?’ I’ve learned similar lessons with pitched but unweighted tents: beware the unseen gust; it blows for you.
During this gust-driven mini-drama, out of the corner of my eye I’d spotted some IK activity nearby; something grey and thin; something green and fat. Turned out it was man and boy heading out for a paddle in a Razorlite 393 and a Gumo Swingbot. I’ve not seen the drop-stitch Sea Eagle before (nor a Swing, tbh) and have to say I was impressed by the look of the SE – and not just because it was next to a dumpy Swing (not one of Gumotex’s finest IKs). Those wide footrests on the RL might well help brace it, as long as knees don’t get in the way. And it had what they call a good fit and finish, but then so it should for a grand. The bloke knew his Gumboats and that a few other brands produced DS IKs near-identical to the RL. He was very pleased with the fast Sea Eagle. I’m still not convinced by the flat floor but one day I’ll getI got to try one.
Urban canals have long been rediscovered as quaint, idiosyncratic backwaters for boat dwellers, joggers and cycle commuters, or have seen adjacent industrial wasteland redeveloped into glitzy apartment blocks or waterside business parks complete with mouth-watering eateries and amusing sculptures. The old cliche of filthy neglected ditches where joy-riders dumped scooters and drunks hurled traffic cones or shopping trollies is outdated, at least in central London.
These days, if Doctor Who needs a grotty urban canal to stand in for a toxic sewer where evil Cybermen are spawning The Invasion (1968; 00.57), they’d probably have to go abroad or something. All of which means that, once you include London’s excellent transport links, the capital’s fascinating canals make for great packboating.
The 200-year old Regent’s Canal is inner London’s best example, arcing nearly 9 miles across London from near Paddington eastwards to the old docks at Limehouse on the Thames. It starts at the dreamy, willow-rimmed mooring of Little Venice, passing Regents Park’s neoclassical mansions and the chattering apes of London Zoo before turning for Camden Lock Market where Jimi Hendrix bought his first Rosetti Airstream. Here the canal drops down a few locks to unrecognisably redeveloped Kings Cross, home of Google UK and where giant Victorian-era storage tanks have been converted into luxury flats. East of here, your water-level view flits between bohemian, suburban, light industrial and even rural parkland, until you arrive at the marina of Limehouse Basin by the Thames. On the way you’ll have portaged 13 locks and two tunnels (marked in red on the map below).
The Regent’s Canal
Britain’s canals helped kick off the world’s first industrial revolution. Canals linked or added to long-established river navigations and enabled inexpensive and reliable cross-country transportation of heavy or bulky commodities. At this time the decrepit road network was still suffering from 1500-years of neglect following the Roman era, couldn’t handle the demand and proved too costly. Around 1805 the Grand Union Canal linked the burgeoning industrial heartlands of the Midlands with Paddington – then a village on the western edge of London. The advent of the Napoleonic Wars, including attacks on coastal shipping, necessitated secure inland transportation links to help provision the war effort. (The Wey-Arun Navigation linking London with the navy fleet at Portsmouth, was another example). The Regent’s Canal followed London’s northern perimetre to link the Grand Union with the tidal Thames to Limehouse (above) near the new West India Docks. Here, lock-controlled ‘wet docks’ were regarded as more efficient and secure than London’s old bankside wharves. The map below is from 1830 and shows that even a decade after the canal opened, most of it passed through open countryside. Within a few years railways gradually brought about the demise of commercial canal transportation. I pinched most of this information from Jack Whitehead’s detailed version.
Time to go. I was on the bus before sunrise.
Bear with me, I’m still waking up.
Cables and cladding at Edgware Road tube.
New apartments, offices and the Fan Bridge at Merchant Place in Paddington Basin, the ‘Paddington Arm’ terminus of the Grand Union from Birmingham.
The canal ahead of the lifting Fan Footbridge is cordoned off so you can’t actually put in here. Along with the similar Rolling Bridge nearby, a cynic might say these are eye-catching engineering solutions to non-existant problems. The bridges make scheduled performances on weekends.
The Paddington Arm of the Grand Union. Regents Canal actually starts by the former barge turning-point known as Brownings Pool; today’s Little Venice.
Just up the way below a footbridge is a strange retracting weir whose purpose may be to keep the scourge of duckweed from spoiling Paddington Basin’s clear-water vibe.
You can put in anywhere around here but…
Maida Hill Tunnel Before you start assembling your boat, know that in about 5 minutes you’ll need to backtrack from and portage around the 250-metre-long Maida Hill Tunnel which is closed to ‘non-powered craft’. And it’s not a quick 250-m hop-around either. Because of a private towpath along Blomfield Road, and closures for repairs, currently it’s nearly a mile before you re-access the water below the Casey Street footbridge east of Lisson Grove. Knowing this, you may prefer to do as I did, and walk to (or start from) Casey Street Footbridge, about half a mile north of Marylebone tube. See map below.
The temporary towpath closures (left) are to repair electric cables stemming from the power station at the end of Aberdeen Place at the tunnel’s eastern end. When it reopens the portage distance will halve, but that may be a while. So, you can paddle up to the western tunnel entrance from the Little Venice end (paddleboarder, below left), but you can’t get out here onto Blomfield Road because of a locked gate to the moorings. You have to backtrack to Little Venice, but it’s probably still worth it for a peep into the short if forbidden void.
In 2018 the Canal & Rivers Trust (formerly British Waterways) provisionally opened the 250-metre-longtunnel to paddle-powered craft. (Consultation document.) According to their own regs, any straight canal tunnel of less than 400m can be paddled. At Maida Hill you can clearly see the other end, anything coming at you will be silhouetted or lit, and the whole drama takes a couple of minutes to paddle, including taking pictures.
But to saves costs the tunnel is narrow and without a towpath (barges were legged through by ‘walking’ off the walls). Passing isn’t allowed or even possible, even in a slim kayak. Or a boat operator may not notice low-in-the-water kayaks, even with the mandatory headlight. Tour boats run via the tunnel daily from 10am between Camden and Little Venice.
‘Thank you for your enquiry. We do not allow kayaks through the Maida tunnel unless it is part of a special event”. Three months notice is preferred for your special event and solo transits are not allowed anyway. The website additionally warns: Non–approved unpowered craft shall not transit the tunnel eg. rafts and other types including inflatable arrangements designated for ‘fun’ use.
Clearly, they’re no more clued-up about modern IKs and packrafts than the BCU, or assume we’re all intoxicated pillocks goofing about on inflatable unicorns.
What could possibly befall a typically open and unsinkable IK, canoe, packraft or iSUP board in the tunnel? Do they assume such boats are inherently more dangerous than a beginner capsizing mid-tunnel in a tippy hardshell? Maybe the CRT has had problems with ‘inflatable arrangements’. Who knows, but I’ve also encountered this anti-inflatable prejudice on PLA media about padding the tidal Thames. I suppose it’s too much to expect these officials to know the difference between an Intex bin bag and a €3000 Grabner, but the common denominator must surely be the required BCUlicence (or a more expensive and limited pass direct from the CRT). I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a canalised version of road-tax paying car drivers [cruise operators] vs freeloading pushbikes [kayakers]. The resentment the former feels towards the vulnerability of the latter generates irritation.
Here’s a suggestion: mount some traffic lights at each end on a 5-minute turnaround, and perhaps some low-level motion-activated illumination inside. That way the Maida Hill Tunnel could be safely and easily open to all users. Apparently, it’s currently being considered.
Long story shortened a bit, I enjoyed my exploratory walk and finally got to air-up my MRS Nomad below Casey Street footbridge looking down on the Lisson Grove Mooring (aka Marylebone Wide).
The canal surface was thick with a lush carpet of floating pennywort or, as I prefer to call it, Hydrocotyle ranunculoides. This lurid green matting covered the canal from bank to bank just about the way to Limehouse. At times it was so thick birds easily stood on it, but it didn’t noticeably impede my paddling…
… because an MRS Nomad doesn’t exactly slice through water like Poseidon’s scythe. Once on the water I paddled back west, under the Lisson Grove or Eyre’s ‘tunnel’…
… for a peek at the eastern, ‘Doctor Who’, end of the Maida Hill tunnel. It didn’t look that far or that deadly.
Then I paddled back, passing nesting coots…
… and preening fowl. By 8am I was on my way to Limehouse.
Under the Chiltern Line rail bridges and Park Road (A41).
And into the bucolic enclave of Regent’s Park, passing elegant mansions and accompanied by a phalanx of pushbikers and joggers dashing and dodging other joggers and pram-pushing nannies.
At London Zoo all was quiet. Not a squawk, a yelp or a roar.
Regents Park was built around the same time as the canal, and one reason the canal didn’t simply cut directly east from Paddington towards the City along today’s A501 Marylebone Road (called ‘New Road’ back then, blue below) is because the well-connected park developer objected under the Tudor Statutes of NIMBY. The dirty canal diggers were forced to burrow like badgers through Maida Hill before swinging off on a northerly arc, all adding hugely to the cost and completion time. Funding the canal was a real stuggle.
At now-filled in Cumberland Basin (red, above), by the famously top-heavy Chinese pagoda restaurant the canal, appropriately, takes a left turn into the borough of Camden. Soon I arrive at Camden Lock Market but it’s too early on a weekday morning for the place to be busy with beret-wearing tourists.
There are three locks here in less than 300 metres, so I line the boat along the bank like a Yukon voyageur. I paddle away from trendy Camden and soon pass under the deafening Eurostar rail lines at St Pancras before entering what they now call Gasholder Park. Old Kings Cross is long gone and some of the gas storage tanks have been turned into flats. Welcome to trendy Kings Cross.
In the Eighties when I squatted near here, trendy + Kings Cross were not recognised combination. This was probably the seediest corner of central London, the real thing: junkies, prostitution, porno studios – a far cry from quaint, touristy Soho. One time we used the gas tanks as a backdrop for an article I’d written about a bike running on Nitrous Oxide or laughing gas. Fans of Mad Max will know about that. Mike Leigh’s High Hopes (1988) was filmed around the corner. Funnily enough, the story of a lefty-slacker moto messenger, his woebegone mum and some pantomime-vile yuppies. Oh happy days!
A lifeboat houseboat. No worries about rising sea level or tsunamis here.
The Word on the Water floating bookshop.
I can’t quite square where I am with what lies around. I think perhaps it was all once a huge goods yard behind high walls. I swing into Battlebridge Basin but the museum isn’t open yet.
I move on but it’s high time to…
Up ahead is the 880-metre-long, Islington Tunnel. Again, as straight as a pick-axe handle but closed to hand-powered boaters for similar reasons as Maida Hill. I was kind of hoping a barge might rock up and let me hook on for a lift, but the only things I’ve seen on the water are wildfowl, plastic bottles and Spirodelapolyrhiza. The museum organises boat tours through the tunnel two days a week. Maybe they’d agree to some slipstreaming.
I read that the portage follows helpful plaques set in the pavement. Cross the A1, Upper Street and head for Duncan St. It’s about a kilometre and would be somewhat of an arseache in a hardshell. Either way, I emerge at the eastern portal…
… and in need of a waterside snack at City Road Lock. It’s only 9.30.
By 10am I’m refreshed and on the move again. I put back in below the lock with a plop.
The canal turns north into Haggerston where, just after the Whitmore Road bridge, there’s a handy knot of cafes on the left. A better choice than City Lock if you want more than coffee and cake. It’s all yummy mummies round here, not the snarling bottle-throwing punks I’d feared.
Kingsland Basin to the north, with a somewhat baffling kayak slalom course. Soon you pass under the Kingsland Road bridge, edging ever closer to south Hackney.
The canal is actually about 4 feet deep. near here I can see traffic cones and other junk on the bottom. But a prod with the paddle reveals two centuries of anaerobic silt, so don’t expect to be able to stand if you fall in.
A populist ambush. These Eastenders are such wags.
Swan narcissus. There’s a fairy tale in there somewhere, a swan that fell in love with its image and was turned into an ugly duckling.
Another trickling spillway below a lock. I’ve lost track where.
Nosferatu guarding someone’s tent. Sure beats a shopfront on the Strand.
More gas holders near Cambridge Heath Road. You always find them near waterways as the huge tanks need to float on water.
They’re actually like an upside-down cup resting buoyant on water and are as much about producing an even pressure as storage. Gas from a nearby factory is pumped in to the cavity above the water depending on demand, and the weight of the lid keeps the low pressure steady as it’s released out into the network (in an era before regulators).
New graffiti; 28-speed revolutions.
It’s that Nosferatu again. You just can’t get rid of him.
I’m approaching Victoria Park near Bethnal Green or South Hackney, it’s hard to tell. The precise name of your neighbourhood is very important to Londonders.
By Old Ford Lock (named after a car they dragged out of the canal) are the first canalside public toilets I’ve seen. Good to know. A nutty, bin-rumaging vagabond in a top hat has a quick chat and warns me of heavy weed ahead.
Is that a real turtle on the sunken kayak or a rubbery Hacknean joke?
On the left the Hereford Union which leads two clicks up to the rejuvenation Olympic Park and the River Lee Navigation. We’ll be exploring there shortly.
More of yer Acne ‘umour? Someone report these ratbags to the CRT, pronto!
You won’t see such frivolity in la-di-da Little Venice.
Architecture-spotting: new, old, industrial, domestic, elegant, ugly – is all part of the fun on the Regents.
I probe a weed-clad lock. Locks are creepy places.
Canary Wharf ahead – the former Docklands of London which was the Regents’ very raison d’etre.
And here we are at Limehouse Basin and the first actual moving boat I’ve seen since Paddington.
A lot of weed to clean off.
All wiped down and rolled up.
I set off to walk upstream along the Thames for a bit.
The river looks really quite choppy and a strong spring tide shoves an abandoned kayak upstream towards Wapping.
Bored [sic] as a coot? Not on the Regents Canal! Thanks for reading.
In 2021 WindPaddle.com stopped trading. But Anfibio now make the very similar PackSail for just €119.
WindPaddle Adventure II Weight: 385g (+ 45g ‘reins’ with 2 mini carabiners) Folded 3 times: (takes a knack) 40 x 45cm ø Folded twice: (easier/quicker on the water) 60cm ø Open: 116cm ø
I’ve been waiting for the right kind of wind to have a proper go at WindPaddling my MRS Nomad. Sunday was not that day with SW gusts up to 25mph. Yesterday was more like it: direct from the west at 10-15 meant a chance to run down the full length of Loch Ossian with the wind erring towards the road for the walk back or if it all went wrong.
You forget that starting at the upwind end all is relatively smooth and calm, but soon the fetch kicks up and stays that way. Progress gets a bit lively so you need to be on top of things which includes stashing the paddle safely. I found tucking it across the boat under some red sidelines (left) worked well and are more often useful for manhandling the boat. Lunging after a lost paddle would be bad; so would letting go of the sail’s ‘reins’ and having the boat run over it. The sudden drag and deceleration might see the racing boat slew sideways and flip you out. And before you come up for air your packraft is skimming across the loch like a crisp packet.
I don’t know if gusts vary in direction but you also need to constantly modulate the reins left to right to keep on course. It’s said downwind sails like the WindPaddle have a narrow windspeed window which tops out around 15mph. After that, they start fluttering left to right in an effort to shed the load, as mine did a couple of times. Going out in stronger winds may be too hard to handle or very exciting. As it is, the maximum hull speed of a packraft must be less than half that and, just as a cyclist’s energy to overcome wind drag grows exponentially with speed, so to you can only push a paddle boat so far. A packraft is about as hydrodynamic as a training shoe.
With the gloomy skies I was initially a bit nervous. Controlled by the wind and without a paddle in your hands felt disconcerting; a sunny tropical locale would have fixed that I’m sure. As usual with packboat sailing, it’s never just sit back and skim along like yachts seem to do; you have to keep correcting. At nearly 3m with the skeg fitted, the MRS is longish which must help keep it on line. And as mentioned before, with the WindPaddle you can steer at least 30° off the wind. According to the GPS, 9.3kph (5.8mph) was the peak speed, though most of the time I was zipping along at about 7.5kph. It felt faster as wavelettes broke to either side and occasionally over the bow. With the big Corry paddle, at maximum paddle exertion on flatwater I can hit 6kph for a couple of seconds. So once you relax, sailing can be a fast and energy-saving way of covering distance, and the WP folded up and stashed easily under the DeckPack.
I was expecting to walk back but gave paddling a go and stuck with it, hackling along at 2kph with rests every 10 minutes. Fifteen minutes sailing downwind = a 50-minute paddle back. I still think for the price, weight, bulk and ease of fitting and use, a WindPaddle is a worthwhile packboating accessory.