Category Archives: Travel Reports

Travelling with packboats

Drinking Seawater – The story of Bombard and Lindemann

“I claim to have proved that the sea itself provides sufficient food and drink to enable the battle for survival to be fought with perfect confidence.”    

Alain Bombard, The Bombard Story (1953)

Many packboaters have heard of Alone at Sea (right, and discussed below), Hannes Lindemann’s famous account of his sail-assisted, mid-Fifties Atlantic crossings, first in a dug-out canoe and then in a production Klepper folding kayak. As a doctor, Lindemann used his expedition to examine the physiology and psychology of enduring long weeks at sea alone.

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Although he was already an experienced sailor and ocean kayaker by this time, Lindemann’s Atlantic goals may well have been spurred on by a meeting with Frenchman Alain Bombard (right) in Morocco in 1952. Also a doctor, Bombard was at the time engaged in exploring unorthodox ways of extending the survival chances for those adrift at sea. When they met, Bombard was about to set off across the Atlantic in a 14-foot RIB (rigid inflatable boat or dinghy) equipped with a sail – but with no food or water.

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His book starts in 1951 when he estimated 200,000 people died at sea each year. Half perished when a disabled vessel struck the shore – ‘Fear the land, not the sea’ as a sailor’s adage goes – but about a quarter died while adrift in life rafts, surrounded by water and potential food.

Bombard was convinced that as long as sharks, madness and weather didn’t finish you off, indefinite survival at sea was possible by drinking moderate amounts of seawater, as well as the less saline juice pressed from fish, and all supplemented by windfalls of rainwater. Fish could also be eaten raw or dried, while teaspoonfuls of plankton gathered in a stocking-like mesh could address vitamin needs. ‘Lobster puree’ was how he initially described the taste of the seaborne slime which he later grew to loath. All that was missing from a balanced diet were carbohydrates, to which Bombard believed the human body could adapt.

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Throwing up. Still from ‘Unbroken’ (2014)
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The key was to start drinking seawater as soon as fresh water became unavailable and before becoming seriously dehydrated. This sea-water-only practice was something about which Lindemann professed some scepticism. In his first dug-out trip his legs swelled up as a result, he thought, of drinking small amounts of seawater. Later, when he didn’t drink it they were mostly fine. But Bombard found no such ill effects early on, while adrift with a friend for a few days in the English Channel. Of course Lindemann was suffering in the torrid, tropical climate of the Gulf of Guinea while Bombard spent just a few days in the Channel during his first experiment. Although Bombard recorded many ailments, he reported little such swelling in the Atlantic; you do wonder if being able to move around his Zodiac more freely may have helped circulation, although Lindemann was never completely cockpit-bound on either of his crossings.

What does for many castaways is that once adrift and with all fresh water exhausted, it’s only in a state of acute desperation that they turn to seawater (or urine). By now severely dehydrated, the kidneys can’t handle the sudden accumulation of toxins and an agonising death soon follows, supporting the mariner’s lore that drinking seawater was fatal. According to Bombard the key was to drink early but drink little.

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Still from ‘Unbroken’ (2014)

With the aid of sponsors, benefactors as well as supporters in the field of oceanography, he used an early incarnation of what was to become the well-known and widely licensed Zodiac inflatable dinghy. (The Bombard brand of RIBs still survives today). He christened his own craft L’Heretique (the Heretic) which demonstrates how he thought he was perceived.

With much less experience at sea than Lindemann, in 1952 he set off from Monaco for the Balearics with an English companion and experienced sailor, a journey not without privations at sea and which on land included a hostile press eager to exploit his drama while keen to catch him out. A small store of emergency food and water was officially sealed and placed in his boat and though he was at times desperate, it was never used by Bombard – partly because certainly in the mid-Atlantic he was at times throwing excess rainwater overboard and was never short of fish, despite what many had predicted. Shipping on from Ibiza to Tangiers (where he met Lindemann) for the Atlantic stage to the West Indies, he correctly interpreted his English companion’s dithering as a change of heart for what lay ahead and so set off alone, while later praising his companion’s valuable contribution. (Lindemann interprets this episode less generously).

You can imagine the ordeal that followed. A fortnight or so to the Canaries – a dangerous stage for any small sail boat and one which Lindemann chose to skip in the kayak. And then over two months across the Atlantic to Barbados where he arrived just before Christmas 1952, desperate to let his wife and new-born child know he was alive. Pushed along by irregular trade winds but travelling off the shipping lanes, he only encountered two vessels on the way. On one ship, the Arakaka, met less than a fortnight from completion, he succumbed to a regular meal that was offered, but following weeks of raw fish, his starvation-hardened willpower went into a spin which he claimed very nearly finished him off.

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At times it reads like a voyage in outer space of The Life of Pi, full of wonder as well as terrifying episodes: strange creatures, sound and lights, phosphorescence and a loyal escort of birds and dolphinfish or dorado (which also helped replenish his larder).

As well as his physical health, his mental state and morale were also closely scrutinised and well recorded, including his prolonged despair as land failed to materialise for weeks (most of the time his longitude was out by 10° or 600 miles). He demonstrated dogged defiance as storms swamped L’Heretique for hours on end, as well as the irrational conviction of being persecuted by inanimate objects – all exacerbated by the monotonous fare, incessant damp and interrupted sleep.

Loyal ‘Kleppards’ rightly hold Alone at Sea in high acclaim and ensure that it’s still in print, but whatever Lindemann achieved, you have to salute Bombard’s bravery, resolve and not least the commitment to his unconventional experiment in surviving for weeks by living off the fruits of the sea.

Reading the book I had a thought that perhaps Bombard had rediscovered a long-lost human ability or knowledge for surviving at sea. How else does one suppose people like the Polynesians colonised the Pacific, or humans got to Australia tens of thousands of years earlier and long after any land bridge? In fact his ideas had already been raised in the film of the Kon-Tiki voyage which had been released in 1950. Heyerdahl’s Wiki page says this of his 1947 expedition:

Kon-Tiki demonstrated that it was possible for a primitive raft to sail the Pacific with relative ease and safety… The raft proved to be highly maneuverable, and fish congregated between the nine balsa logs in such numbers that ancient sailors could have possibly relied on fish for hydration in the absence of other sources of fresh water.”

The Kon-Tiki film (on youtube) mentions extracting fish juice, eating plankton as well as mixing 40% seawater with fresh, but on reading Bombard’s book you still get the feeling he took it all a big step further, critically examining the full nutritional potential of living solely off the sea, and then having the guts to put his theory brutally to the test while learning a few hard lessons on the way.

Bombard’s extraordinary adventure brings to mind another incredible voyage that took place at the same time, that of Australian Ben Carlin who sailed and drove an ex-army amphibious jeep called Half-Safe around the world (right). It took him ten years and cost him a wife or two, but in overlanding terms nothing else comes close. As with Bombard, many couldn’t believe the jeep had motored across the Atlantic and then been driven up to London.

Although long out of print, I found an original 1953 Andre Deutsch edition of The Bombard Story for a couple of quid on the web, impeccably translated it has to be said, by a chap called Brian Connell.


Alone at Sea
couple of years after meeting Bombard in Tangiers, Lindemann also put himself to the test by crossing the Atlantic alone in, of all things, a heavily-keeled West African dug-out canoe he had made in Liberia where he was stationed at the time. Here’s a little newsreel of the boat.

He took off again a year later, this time in a smaller and less robust Klepper Aerius folding kayak (right), fitted with two masts and an all-important outrigger to partially compensate for the lack of a keel. Little changed, the legendary Aerius is still made by Klepper today. The Pouch we used on the Spey is a close copy.

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I recall being disappointed when I realised Lindemann had sailed his Klepper across rather than paddled it, which shows how little I know about ocean paddling! Indeed, I believe it wasn’t until 2011 that a 64-year-old old Polish guy Alexander Doba, managed to actually kayak paddle alone – not sail or row – between the African and South American mainland, although his specialised craft was no slim sea kayak, but a specially designed 23-foot, half-ton, self-righting contraption with a watertight sleeping compartment, similar to those trans-Atlantic rowing boats. Such features enabled Doba to keep at it for over three months, sitting out contrary wind and currents until he finally reached Brazil. Doba completed a much longer 4500-mile in April 2014 in a similar boat (left), crossing between Lisbon and Florida. As this article says: 

My kayak was equipped with an electric desalinator that produced around 4.5 litters  … of fresh water per hour. It needed electricity, which came from a big solar panel that charged the battery… I had two spare manual desalinators, which I had to use. It took me about four hours daily to get six liters for all my needs. So instead of resting or paddling more I had to pump the water. I wanted to use my legs, so I fixed the manual desalinators in a way so I could use them with my feet.

Back to the story. Overall I found Alone at Sea the less engaging of the two books, partly because there are no less than four trips covered which adds up to a lot of horrendous days and nights at sea with waves washing over his decks and smashing off rudders. The end of the Klepper trip does pick up though, as utterly exhausted through lack of sleep, Lindemann drifts through hallucinations and altered states following two weeks of terrible storms.

His great achievement was preparing himself as well as he could mentally, using prayer, meditation, what we now call ‘visualisation’ as well as affirmation (‘I will make it’; ‘Keep going west’), and what was then known as autogenic training, a relaxation technique on which he was later to write manuals. All this must have helped Lindemann keep going, when other individuals would have allowed a capsized boat to slip away. Towards the end of the book there’s a telling photo on a Caribbean quay of a hunched, emaciated but still smiling figure; Lindemann had lost over 25% of his body weight and on arrival his pulse was down in the 30s.

At one point Lindemann says an odd thing though: ‘Surely I took with me the least amount of food of any boat that has ever made the Atlantic crossing, at least much less than Alain Bombard’. It’s unclear if this is an outright accusation of cheating, or an out-of-context dig at the sealed reserves which Bombard carried but, as far as we know, did not use. Sure Bombard carried reserves; if his ‘heresy’ was flawed he didn’t want to die. He carried a radio too (it broke).

Such spats over a rival’s authenticity and integrity are common among adventurers competing for the same goal, and in his summary Lindemann goes on to mention photos published of Bombard taking on supplies of food from the Arakaka. It’s much more than the ‘shower and meal’ Bombard describes in his book but still, 50 days of fish juice and plankton was surely enough to prove a point.

It has to be said though, I did feel the supposed agonies of the ‘psychological hunger‘ which befell Bombard following the Arakaka meal (and which proved ‘very nearly fatal’) was not so convincingly portrayed. Could he have been scoffing away merrily away all the way to the finalé? Bombard also records losing around 50 pounds of weight as a result of the ordeal.

It is true that Lindemann succeeded in making the crossing from the Canaries with his own provisions plus what nature provided with no human assistance whatsoever. He makes another dig at Bombard’s patronage and sponsorship from Zodiac, but I read Bombard’s book as the story of a guy who primarily set off to experiment in living off the sea, but like any castaway, took what was given in moderation. His preparations and qualifications seemed skimpy because he had the sealed reserves to fall back on. His goal was not to complete the crossing in complete self-sufficiency; while at sea he also sought to evaluate the viability of inflatables as life rafts, something he continued to champion and (one reads) take on commercially long after it was all over. Lindemann acknowledges this latter fact.

So though less rigorous in his execution, whether genuine or contrived, Bombard does succeed in painting himself as a more sympathetic character, missing his family and his Bach, as well as his food. He even had a little doll as a mascot which got pictured in the book. Lindemann had a speargun. And to my mind Bombard recorded his self-diagnoses more compellingly too, though reading both books back to back I could have been desensitised to registering the finer points of Lindemann’s protracted trans-Atlantic suffering. 

Lindeman was clearly much more experienced, and better prepared, particularly mentally. But I interpreted certain anti-social and even cruel elements, presumably a consequence of the pressure to succeed in the huge task he’d set himself. This included a resolve to outdo Bombard – a guy who had no shoulders of recent predecessors to stand on and so perhaps, like Ben Carlin, has paid the price in the history books.

Lindemann’s book was originally published in 1957 and, as far as I can tell, was released in English about 35 years later and remains in print; a nicely produced small hardback with colour illustrations and a map.

A less illuminating article (in German) about drinking seawater and which cites the controversy between the two authors.

Graphene filters – a new form of desalination.

IK&P video of the Week: Framuras do the Loire

I’ve often thought of doing a really long river in France, but once you get out of the hills I get the feeling they can drag on a bit, even if it is France.
Didn’t stop these two guys; 5 weeks from Goudet near Le Puy (near the Allier) to St Nazaire bridge just under Brittany. First couple of days they had to wrestle some pretty gnarly rapids in 4.1-metre long IKs. Never mind ‘dress for the swim’ – ‘pack for the capsize’ too!
Interestingly, one suffered a flat on the Framura’s relatively sharp back corner, presumably from all that rapid rock scraping. I’m amazed those rudders survived, too.
Even with its fixed deck, sometimes I fancy a Framura. At just 75cm wide, it was the new Seaker but half the weight. But then I see how they flex, being long but only regular 2.9psi Gumboats, not 3.6psi like the Seawave. It’s quite a different. And I think those are twin-tube sides, so jacking up the psi there, then fitting PRVs, as I did to my Seawave, would not be such a good idea (the I-beam in the side tube could rip).
The guy whose channel it is has done some pretty big adventures elsewhere RTW, too;

Kayaking the tidal River Adur

See also: Bic Yakkair Full HP

In the beginning when I was keen to try anything, I paddled Sussex’s River Arun and the upper Rother too. Neither made me want to rush back to tick off the other tidal rivers of southeast England. You feel you’re in a sunken, silty, reed-chocked ditch passing below treeless agricultural land and with limited, muddy take-outs.
But Robbo was taking his Full DS Yakkair for a burn up; a good chance for me to check the boat out as well as try something new. He’d worked out the tides: putting in on a 6.5-m spring tide at 11am in Upper Bedding (the former medieval port of Steyning) would scoot us up 10km to the tidal limit under the A281 bridge near Shermanbury.

In Beeding there’s a free car park at the east end of the village by the playing fields (maybe toilets), plus a garage and a Subway nearby. Arriving with Kahuna Steve at the steep east bank just south of the bridge at 10.30 (above), the river was flowing downstream like rivers do and faster than we could paddle against it. Had we timed it all wrong? But by the time Rob and his two young chums were on the water with us an hour later, the moon was doing its work and the river was flowing as fast in the opposite direction, backed by the southerly breeze pushing through the Steyning Gap in the South Downs.

Yes it’s another tidal Sussex ditch with lots of day-amblers either side, but who can complain being on the water on a sunny day in a boat you brought in on your back and gangs of menacing swans to dodge? Robbo was spinning like a break-dancing turtle in his tiny Twist, Steve was piloting his old Feathercraft Kahuna, the folder nursing a broken plastic rib from last year’s Danube run. And E&L were in Rob’s dropstitch Yakkair which you can read about here.

As we cruised effortlessly northward, the chat subsided and the river got narrower. Reeds and fallen trees closed in to just a boat’s width at times. Upstream I noticed a couple of access steps on the west bank – maybe private but the only way of getting off the river with some elegance, if needed.

We reached the fork in about an hour 20. Northwest leads to Bines Bridge, romantically depicted by renowned 1960s illustrator, Michael Codd. Look him up: he’s rendered loads of idealised Sussex illustrations from the late-medieval iron ore industry right back to Neolithic hunting scenes.

Taking off up the east arm, very soon a submerged weir slowed down the three skeged IKs. The Yakkair needed a lift over. Then a fallen tree appeared to block the way but the boats squeezed through. Here we met a local couple in their new Itiwit 3-seater. These must be the most popular IKs around right now, maybe because Decathlon were able to meet the huge demand after the first lockdown this summer.

From here the scenery picked up briefly. The fields didn’t run to the water’s edge and riverside willows dangled over the stream. We reached the four-arched bridge near Shermanbury about 2pm for a snack (easy take out on the right), but had it in our heads we should turn round pronto. It soon became clear the spring tide here kept rising up to 3pm, a full 2 hours after Shoreham, maybe pushed up by the day’s wind.

The weir bar that has been six inches below the surface on the way up was now two feet under. Good to know The wind had strengthened and was now in out face so there was nothing left but to have a work-out. Steve and I pulled ahead as gradually the flow turned our way; the Downs making a good marker for where we were headed.
We got back in about an hour 30 and managed to crawl out without covering ourselves and the boats in mud. As Steve sagely observed, anywhere else in the world there’d be a civilised jetty to encourage paddling.

About the Adur tides:
High tide in Upper Beeding (Steyning) is about 45 minutes after Shoreham and about 2 hours at Shermanbury. That brings up the brain-twisting notion that water levels are rising upriver while falling at the estuary. Somewhere a spooky patch of slack water is migrating silently upstream.
With a skeg the weir bar is submerged enough about an hour before a high spring tide at Shermanbury bridge. Neap tides may not submerge it so just take the left fork towards Bines Bridge and see how far you get.

Next time it would be fun to start in Shoreham, at least 7km downstream from Upper Beedimng, and take more time at the top end – maybe at the Bull Inn near Shermanbury bridge – before riding the current and tide all the way back. You’d hope there’s a mud-free take out or slipway somewhere in Shoreham harbour.

Five years with a Gumotex Seawave

Seawave Index Page

Darn. I put my Seawave on eBay to ‘test the water’ and it went within hours.
Still, it’s an excuse to show some of my favourite Seawave shots in five seasons of fantastic paddling. What a great boat that was. So great that, with nothing better available at the time, in October 2020 I bought another Seawave (left).

Medway: Rise of the Mamiks

MRS Nomad Index Page
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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.

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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.

Gurur Brahma
Gurur Vishnu
Gurur Devo

I’d not done it in yet the MRS but 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.

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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.

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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.

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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 (left and right) – 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.

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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 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.

Really want to show you, Lord that it won’t take long, my Lord
Hare Rama, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna

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Afternote

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.

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After-afternote

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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 it – 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 get to try one.

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Kayaking the Swanage Stacks

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Ten minutes after a paddling away from a tranquil Swanage seafront bathed in a Turneresque light (above), we found ourselves battling a stiff breeze rolling off the Ballard Downs on the north edge of Swanage Bay.
The odd whitecap scurried by, a sign that the IK Limit was not far away. This felt like more than the predicted 10mph northerly. We dug onward, and once tucked below the cliffs the pounding eased. The northerly was probably amplified as it rushed down the south slope of the Downs and hit the sea. We’d paddled through that turbid patch – a bit of a shock before breakfast. What would it be like once out in the open round Ballard Point? Mutiny was afoot.

“Let’s see how it is round the corner, then decide,” I informed the crew.
“Aye aye, cap’n sir.”

We eased around the corner expecting the worst, but were greeted by a magical sight: a line of 200-foot high chalk cliffs receding to a distant group of stacks and pinnacles glowing in the soft morning light and all soothed by a gentle breeze.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was only a mile from here to Handfast Point aka: Old Harry, passing several stacks, arches, caves and slots. Ever the goldfish in its bowl, I’d got distracted before looking up tide times, but judging by yesterday evening’s paddle around Brownsea Island in nearby Poole Harbour, it was a couple of hours into its southerly ebb. We arrived at Harry’s about mid-tide but with still just enough water to paddle through most of the arches as well as some narrow slots which were already running too fast to tackle against the flow (below). A bit of a tidal race swirled past the Point, but nothing dramatic.

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I’ve been planning to do Swanage for years and it was even better than expected. It must have been packed out yesterday on the bank holiday, but today, before 9am we had the place to ourselves. It’s a fascinating geological formation and all the better explored from a paddleboat.

Lit by a rising sun and on the top half of the tide must be ideal timing for a visit here. All up, it was only a two-hour roundtrip from Swanage seafront and in similarly good conditions would be easily packraftable from the north off nearby Studland beach.

Hope to paddle this again, one time.PS: Little did I know that this summer 2019 paddle would be out last sea paddle in the Seawave. Not since my original Gumo Sunny on which I learned and did so much, have I owned an IK for so long and had such fun times. What a great boat that was.

Urban kayaking: East London

The plan was simple. Put the IK in at Limehouse Basin where I finished up last week, and take an easy canal-paddle up around what are collectively known as the Bow Back Rivers threading through the Olympic Park, then portage over Three Mills Lock onto what becomes Bow Creek. Here, we’d ride its tight meanders on an ebbing tide down to the Thames at Trinity Wharf. Hard left and, keeping on the north bank (naughty), for what looks like an easy beach take-out at Lyle Park, a mile downstream.

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The whole 8-mile run included just two locks to portage. Compare that to 13 locks and two closed tunnels for the similarly long Regents Canal I pack’ed last week.
Things didn’t get off to a great start, but next day we were back and on the water before 8am. We set off up arrow-straight Limehouse Cut. Dating from 1770, it’s London’s oldest canal, built to evade the Lee River’s final twisting meanders on Bow Creek which we hoped to paddle on the wat back. (Very detailed history of this river). Two miles on, a thick mat of spongey duckweed backed up around Bow Creek Tidal Locks. Tendrils of weed caught on the paddles and flicked all over the boat.
eastlondonBow Creek ebbs and flows right alongside the near-stagnant Limehouse Cut/Lee Navigation, but this was surely once a single river system. The River Lee’s (or Lea) source is in the hazy Chilterns of north Luton, and reaches the Thames via Bow Creek, 42 miles later. The Lee River Navigation is paddlable from at least Hereford (Mile 27.5). In England, a ‘navigation’ in fluvial terms means a public right of way for all craft, with a precedent going back centuries. Not all rivers in England are a navigation.
This whole underused wasteland between Strafford and Hackney was massively redeveloped for the 2012 Olympics, including the two new tidal locks mentioned. Before that, on the spring tide you could paddle up Bow Creek all the way to Hackney Marshes for some fish and chips. But while great for towpath activities, it seems the developers behind the refurbished network of waterways and new bridges didn’t consider paddleboat access either side of the locks. Odd, seeing as it was the Oh Lympics and all.

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Our first trial came at Carpenters Road Lock (booking required a week in advance). It has a unique radial design with gates lifting a bit like a bulldozer blade. The CRT is very proud of it. Even though it’s permitted, as a single kayak I wouldn’t expect to use this or any lock; portaging is always quicker. But I would expect it to be fairly easy to get out and portage around a lock, just as I did 13 times or more last week on the Regents Canal. Maybe I’m going soft, but clambering up a 12 feet of rungs set in the canal wall, hauling the boat up, and then carrying it half a kilometre to the next accessible put-in doesn’t encourage paddling. What next; the cliff climbing finale from Deliverance (right)?

Two miles downriver at Three Mills Lock, (which I read was closed for repairs) we had to get up an even-higher ladder jammed behind a derelict? barge. To access the tidal stretch downstream of the lock, the only way was another long wall ladder, but it was behind temporary barriers. I could have wandered on to the Channelsea River to look for an easier put in, but where it joined Bow Creek (right), a cable or pipe to the crane floated across the surface, blocking the way. On a wild river you portage as long as necessary, sometimes miles. But either side of a lock on an urban waterway, how far do you go?


To be fair I’d timed the tide all wrong. I thought (correctly) that mid-ebb could be a fast run on the Bow, but in my greed for speed I’d failed to appreciate that at the tidal extent (the lock and adjacent Three Mills Island, left, 3 hours before LW at Bow Creek mouth), mid-ebb has already gone shallow. You’d need ropes to get down to a boat.
I suppose the easiest way to do Bow Creek is to paddle up with the tide and then let it take you back –  this must be what local hardshellers do. With a packboat you can dodge such backtracking. But not here it seems. And whichever direction you do it, once you’re in Bow Creek, I don’t think it’s easy to get out of the high-walled channel.
Our East London paddle occurred during a mini-heatwave with temperatures up in the mid-30s. What better place to be than on the water. But not in it: that morning the news reported a staggering three drownings yesterday, all on the Thames and all separate incidents.
Lacking the hoped-for thrill of the Bow Creek finale, the route we took wasn’t so interesting from the water, though would be a nice walk or cycle if you’ve never seen the Olympic Park in real life. From the water, you see a lot of high rises or backs of factories or construction to make more of the former. Even with its dozen or more portages, I found the Regents Canal much more diverse and interesting.

Below, some pictures from our day out.

Limehouse Basin 7am.
A week earlier, covered in duckweed.
A normal-height floating jetty on the east side of the Basin. More of these needed upriver.
Thick weed clogs Bow Docks which drop to tidal Bow Creek for the Thames. But there is no easy way to access Bow Creek from the bank. You must book the lock in advance.
Three Mills Island complex – there’s been a tidal mill here since Saxon times they say. There’s a cafe.
Under the Bow Flyover. The Lee is the notional boundary between the East End and East London. In some pubs it pays to know the difference. Aabout 1200 years ago in Alfred the Great’s time, it was the frontier between Danelaw (Vikings) and Wessex (Anglo Saxon England).
Loads of building all around. London will be utterly brilliant when it’s finished.
How deep is a canal, you ask? This deep, but often less on the sides.
Belladonna and blackberries.
Old Ford Lock (Lee River Nav) to the left. Just after, Hereford Union canal leads back west to the Regents Canal near Victoria Park. We follow the Swan right under the footbridge along the Old River Lea, passing below the stadium. Note the two different spellings of Lee/Lea, Ley being the original Medieval spelling. I realise that nearby Leyton + Leytonstone have the same derivation.
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Nesting heron.
Carpenters Road Lock. How do you get up there? How indeed.
Actually quite easy out of an open IK. Don’t drop the lead!
We could have turned south here under this bridge and taken City Mills River back to the Lee River Nav just north of Three Mills Island and so back down to Limehouse (see map below). A closed loop with no locks which would be an OK canoe or even a SUP. You can rent Moo Canoes at Limehouse.
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Instead, we portage for 500 metres to the Waterworks River. A superb trolley surface.
9am – time for brekkie in a park before crossing the bridge. There are a couple of snack huts here.
Round the corner from the lock, yard-high put in on the west side of Waterworks River. Gate by the steps locked for no reason so down the ramp past a site entrance. Below the bridge is a short ladder and the gravel riverbed is only a few inches deep.
The Swan Highway Patrol.
The famously elegant Mittal sculpture – and some twisted red thing on the right.
Once a quick way to tart up old flats, cladding removal now in progress.
You want your water bottle or what?
Awkward and mucky take-out at Three Mills Lock. This is where your 3-metre lead comes in handy.
Good thing with IKs: light and bouncy.
I walked off for a recce all the way down to Bow Locks but found nowhere to put in – not even ladders. This spot above was about the easiest place, but still required clambering over fences to get to a walkway 9 feet above the bank scrub. With all the attendant construction and secretive film studios, you’d need to be quick to dodge the hi-viz jobsworths. This point is just north of the Three Mills complex where…
…you’d pass almost immediately under the Mill building. There’s a very shallow weir at low tides; maybe nothing at higher water.
View downstream on the bridge above that mill race. This is 3 hours before LW at Bow Creek mouth, but even at HW access is still awkward.
Reluctant to retrace the nearby Lee Nav back through the weed morass and down the Cut to Limehouse, I wipe off the duckweed and roll up.
We set off for the hot two-mile walk back to Limehouse.
Wouldn’t be an urban paddle without one of these!

Urban Packrafting: London’s Regent’s Canal

See also:
Wandle: An Urban Packrafting Nightmare
Urban Packrafting: Kebab Death Weir Tunnel
Kayaking through London
Urban kayaking East London

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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.

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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.

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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.
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Bear with me, I’m still waking up.
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Cables and cladding at Edgware Road tube.
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New apartments, offices and the Fan Bridge at Merchant Place in Paddington Basin, the ‘Paddington Arm’ terminus of the Grand Union from Birmingham.
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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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In 2018 the Canal & Rivers Trust (formerly British Waterways) provisionally opened the 250-metre-long tunnel 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.

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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.

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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.

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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 BCU licence (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.

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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).

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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’…

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… 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.
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At London Zoo all was quiet. Not a squawk, a yelp or a roar.
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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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!

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A lifeboat houseboat. No worries about rising sea level or tsunamis here.

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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.
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I move on but it’s high time to…

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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 Spirodela polyrhiza. The museum organises  boat tours through the tunnel two days a week. Maybe they’d agree to some slipstreaming.
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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…
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… and in need of a waterside snack at City Road Lock. It’s only 9.30.
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By 10am I’m refreshed and on the move again. I put back in below the lock with a plop.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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A populist ambush. These Eastenders are such wags.
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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.
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Another trickling spillway below a lock. I’ve lost track where.
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Nosferatu guarding someone’s tent. Sure beats a shopfront on the Strand.
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More gas holders near Cambridge Heath Road. You always find them near waterways as the huge tanks need to float on water.
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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.
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It’s that Nosferatu again. You just can’t get rid of him.
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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.
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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.
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Is that a real turtle on the sunken kayak or a rubbery Hacknean joke?
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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.
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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.
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Architecture-spotting: new, old, industrial, domestic, elegant, ugly – is all part of the fun on the Regents.
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I probe a weed-clad lock. Locks are creepy places.
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Canary Wharf ahead – the former Docklands of London which was the Regents’ very raison d’etre.
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And here we are at Limehouse Basin and the first actual moving boat I’ve seen since Paddington.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A lot of weed to clean off.
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All wiped down and rolled up.
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I set off to walk upstream along the Thames for a bit.
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The river looks really quite choppy and a strong spring tide shoves an abandoned kayak upstream towards Wapping.
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Bored [sic] as a coot? Not on the Regents Canal! Thanks for reading.

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Wandle: An Urban Packrafting Nightmare

See also: Kebab Death Weir Tunnel

We had a good look, then shot this underground weir and were spat out the other end, grinning and alive.

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Years ago I recce’d South London’s Wandle ‘River’ from Merton Abbey Mills to the Thames at Wandsworth – a varied urban run of just a few miles – and all from the safety of my pushbike.
It’s not far from where I live but I decided the Wandle held too many elements which played to my watery phobias, not least near the end where the current sucks you into a series of sunless tunnels (left) under a shopping centre and former brewery. Sounds like a perfect setting for a macabre Gothic horror story.

But not everyone is so timid. Tim from Longshore International went down there with a couple of his boats. Full story with a description of the real hazards and more photos on the Longshore Blog.