Once we were let out in the Covid summer of 2020, we did a very nice coastal walk from Hastings to Rye along the Sussex coast. Hot, but not so windy, it would have been just right for paddling. Today conditions were similar for a westbound transit from Rye back towards Hastings. High Water (and a spring tide too) was at a very reasonable noon in Rye, with a forecast of 8-14mph from the east and a bit of a kick at 3pm. I was hoping for the upper limit and a bit of splashy sport, so brought the WindPaddle I’d used on the packraft last month in Scotland in much stronger winds.
It’s only a 10-minute walk from Rye station to a boat ramp on the quay where the water was still inching up the concrete as I pumped up the Gumotex.
I was taking a gamble trying my untested new rudder set up. Because I expected it to play up, I fitted the stock skeg so I could lift a problematic rudder and carry on as normal without coming shore. To be without a rudder or skeg with a backwind at sea would not be ideal. Being the ever recirculating goldfish, I forgot to try out my sail stick mount idea.
Rye hasn’t been on the coast since 1287 or so when, along with gradual land reclamation, the biggest of a series of 13th-century storms filled the adjacent marshy inlet with silt and shingle which finished off semi-abandoned Old Winchelsea and radically redrew the low-lying coastline where the Kent and Sussex borders meet. It was the same in Pevensey to the west. The gif on the left from this interesting regional website shows how the coastline of southeast England was transformed in the late medieval era. Where the Rother river once flowed directly east to enter the sea at New Romney, the filled-in bay saw it diverted south below the old hill town of Rye, now stranded two miles from the sea. The then important port of Winchelsea was rebuilt on its present site in 1288, but eventual silting saw both it and Rye’s maritime importance decline. What this area may lack in epic spaces common to the north and west of Britain, it gains in fascinating history. 1066 and all that.
I set off along the River Brede which wraps around Rye’s south side like a moat, and soon joins the Rother. It’s about 5km to the open sea.
I’m into the wind but the grass banks are under water and the wind turbines are spinning merrily; all good signs.
Rye Harbour. The tide is high and I’m moving on.
In 45 minutes I reach the old breakwater opposite Camber Sands where I recall bucket & spading as a child. The sea looks depressingly flat.
Seals at the river mouth (a few days later).
It’s nearly 10km to the distant cliffs, a two-hour haul. And with the breeze from behind, I’m soon streaming with sweat. I’m not sure my water will last.
Going with the Flow A few years ago while planning Newhaven to Brighton, I learned an odd thing about Sussex and Kent tides. For the last two hours of the incoming (eastbound) flood, the tide keeps rising but reverses westbound along the English coast as it backs up at the Straight of Dover and spills back down the sides. That makes HW is around the same time in Folkestone, and 140 miles to the west, past the Isle of Wight, but HW at all the places in between lags behind. Tidal steams are not that strong here – wind will have much more of a bearing on paddling – but this means you get only four hours eastboundflow with the flood tide and prevailing southwest winds. But if you time your run with a warm easterly off the continent and go westbound– as I did on this occasion – you get a much longer run with the tidal current; eight hours or more; maybe 45km all the way to Eastbourne. The question is: can you paddle that long.
A breeze picks up so I flick up the sail. I check my GPS and am doing 3-4kph, while I can paddle at around 5-6kph. Then the breeze drops away. I wasn’t really planning to paddle the full 30+ clicks to Cooden station, but I can always get off at Hastings, a few stops before.
At least the rudder seems to working as it should, though any quick response is dulled a little by the skeg. A rudder’s not really needed in these conditions, though it compensates for me being blown gradually onshore. I’m trying a rudder lift-line only, not a rudder lowering line as well. But once in the boat I find I can’t turn enough to even see the lifted rudder to flick it down with the paddle, so I’ll probably fit a drop-line later.
I creep along the expanse of Winchelsea Beach. It’s hot work in a backwind. Eventually I reach the start of the cliffs where the coast turns more east-west, putting the wind directly behind me. But paddling at effectively wind speed, there is no cooling effect. More familiar with paddling at the other end of Britain, I’m not used to 27°C.
Then, as predicted, around 3pm the breeze picks up and I can get the sail up.
Paddling half a mile from the shore, initially it was hard to know if I’m moving and at what speed. So waking up the GPS screen was a handy way of telling if the sailing speed was worthwhile. With the odd gust I reach nearly 7kph, but average less than 5kph, a bit slower than paddling, but I’m not dripping like a leaky tap or needing to drink. In fact I could nearly doze off.
The cliffs inch by. This is the sea end of the Wealden sandstone formation, less high and steep than the better known chalky Seven Sisters to the west, or Dover’s white cliffs to the northeast. Both chalk cliffs are part of the same formation or bed, but when the land was squeezed and uplifted to the dome or hump was eroded away to expose the older sandstone below. This is what they call the Weald, and near Tunbridge Wells, East Grinstead and Frant, the weathered sandstone ridge produces small outcrops where I started rock climbing as a teenager (right).
I pass the Stade, the east end of Hastings where the cliffs drop back down. A few souls are enjoying the last day of summer on the shingle beach.
I keep going to the pier and decide to have a leisurely take out there. It’s gone 4pm so another 10km to get the train 6.15 from Cooden would be a rush.
Landfall by Hastings pier. Compared to the fabulous Summer Isles, for me these southeast coast paddles lack drama and interest, but are easy to reach if tomorrow’s weather looks good. We walked Hastings to Rye again a day or two later; it took about the same time and was more enjoyable (though it was cooler). The rudder foot pivot worked fine, though needed a bit of re-tensioning at the pier. Next time I can confidently leave the skeg off, though I can see a rudder would only be needed when sailing or paddling in windier conditions. That is all I have to say for now.
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.
Around here the inshore sea paddling is exceptional, even if packrafting the inland lochs is also pretty good. Having done most of the latter routes, I thought I might try some coastal packrafting. Garvie Bay arcing west to Achnahaird Bay looked like a good one and happens to parallel probably the best walk on the peninsula which we’ve done many times. That route could be a 20-km combination of cycling, walking and paddling, but as it was the last calm evening for a while, we thought we’d go out together in the kayak and I’d try the packraft on the way back. That way everyone got to play.
A light NW breeze blew onshore as we cut across Achnahaird Bay like a blue fin tuna. The approach of HW meant we slipped through the submerged skerries of Rubha Beag and into the crab’s claw inlet of Camas a Bhothain (Bothy Bay). This seemed a good spot to deploy the packraft with the aid of my exciting new gadget, a mini electric pump. I unrolled the boat over the water and let the pump buzz away for a couple of minutes, topped off with the hand pump, then clambered aboard.
Paddling away, I realised this was the first time I’ve paddled my Rebel 2K unloaded and I was a bit shocked by the bow yawing. Now fully back-heavy, one good swipe of the paddle and it could flip a 180°, just like my old 2010 Alpacka Llama.
Ah, but in my haste to launch the lifeboat I’d forgotten to fit the also-untried skeg which comes standard on the 2K. I waddled over towards Rubha a Choin beach and slipped it on easily, while the Mrs transferred to the Seawave’s front seat.
I’ve been ambivalent about the value of a skeg on a packraft, but now back on the water the yawing was notably reduced. If you think about it, a packraft actually pivots from a point around the middle of your swinging paddle, not from the stern, as it feels from the seat. The centre of mass behind the pivot point does make an unladen bow yaw more, but the stern will yaw too; just less and unnoticed.
On the Wye my 2K was fully loaded with the centre of mass moved forward and which minimised any yawing, even without a skeg. (With a heavy load over the bow a reduction in yawing is well known with packrafts). Now unloaded and with the bow riding high, swish-swosh yawing was exacerbated, but is actually happening at both ends of the boat. So any type of fin or extension of the stern (like the post-2011 Alpackas – right – and all subsequent copies) will constrain this, while not affecting steering. So, bottom line: skegs work on a packraft and are easy to retro-fit.
All the remains is a packraft’s agonisingly slow speed. These are not boats made to enjoy the sensation of flatwater paddling; they are boats to enjoy getting to out-of-the-way places easily. Any type of disturbance to progress, be it wind or current, may slow you to a stop, or worse. Something like the longer Nomad S1 I had would be better for this while still being packable. Still, in these ideal conditions it’s nice to float along observing the coastal features.
Paddling back down the east side of Achnahaird Bay, a back-breeze made progress feel achingly slow. Lately, I’ve come to value metres per second (m/s) as a metric of wind or paddling speeds. Something moving past you (or vice versa) at three metres per second is easy to visualise, though I suppose we can all visualise a 3mph walking pace, too. It’s what YR uses and is easily converted to ‘double + 10%’ for miles per hour (so 5 m/s = 11.18 mph). Or just double it and you nearly have knots (5 m/s = 9.8 kn), for what that’s worth. Crawling past the rocky coast it looked like I was doing 1 m/s at times. We had a race: diminutive Mrs in a big, long kayak; me in the packraft. Within ten seconds the Seawave streamed away while Bunter frothed up the water like a cappuccino machine.
Oh well, you’re as fast as you are. Like cycling in Tajikistan rather than Kazakhstan, for the best experience match your routes with your mobility and conditions. Next calm day I’ll do the full Garvie loop.
Another forecast of calm winds in the Summers. Or is it? The BBC and YR reports are contradictory: the former has too-strong-for-IK winds from the south; the latter shows light winds from the north. Others show light winds from the south. How can they all be so different? Maybe I should just look out across the water? All looks serene so let’s make paddle while the sun shines. I wheel back down to False Man’s Harbour and set off with two hours before high water.
No side PRVs? Am I missing not having added pressure release valves in my side tubes, as I did to my original Seawave? Not really. I am running 0.3+ bar in the sides (official: 0.25) but temperatures up here in NW Scotland are hardly tropical. I try and leave the boat in the shade at the house and de-air the side tubes for a couple of seconds after a paddle, effectively manually depressurising the sides to about 0.2 bar, rather than having fitted PRVs do it for me automatically. The more vulnerable stock PRV in the floor purges automatically at 0.25. On my next paddle I have to top up all three chambers with the K-Pump as I would have to do with all-round PRVs anyway. About 30 kpumps brings the sides back up to over 0.3 bar. The difference now is I use a manometer to check I the sides about right. Before I would just pump until the side PRVs purge. It’s about a minute’s more faffing. As with a lot of things I do to my IKs: sails, rudders, decks and now, trolleys and headwind weight transfer – it’s fun to experiment. But in the end they’re all largely over-shadowed by the simple enjoyment of paddling. With sides pumped to >0.3 bar I find I can cruise easily in the near-still conditions at 6kph.
After a fortnight of chilly north winds and a diminishing woodpile, today was one of those rare days in the Summer Isles (far northwest Scotland) where you could paddle pretty much where you liked in an IK. It was also a chance for me to try out my new skeg-wheel trolley which Jon, who was staying down the road, had made for me. With no boat of his own this time, we set off in mine to see what we might see.
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.
All hands to the barrel pump! The day will be long, sunny and warm. High time to tick off ideas matured over the winter months of Lockdown. First on the list: the River Wey from Godalming to Weybridge in Surrey. Or should I say, the historic canal called the Wey Navigation which is paralleled in places by the old river. It’s one of England’s oldest navigations (commercial inland waterways) which once connected the Thames with the Navy base in Portsmouth. At the time a safe way of transporting stuff, including munitions produced near Godalming, without risking encounters with Napoleonic marauders in the Channel. For years I’ve been unsure whether the Wey was a dreary canal with more locks than the Tower of London, or a grubby, semi-urban river with weirs and other obstructions. Turns out it’s a bit of both but better than expected. All I had to do was RTFM!
Compared to the similarly popular Medway, which I’ve done loads of times in IKs and packrafts, summer and winter, the Wey Nav feels less agricultural, more scenic and has an interesting history if you slow down enough to look. But it lacks the Medway’s unique canoe passes which scoot you down the side of each lock (right), avoiding up to three laborious carry-rounds per mile. Parts of the original river survive in places to either side of the canal, which is what caused me confusion. I now realise the Navigation (managed by the National Trust) gets priority in terms of water levels and maintenance. As a result the occasionally nearby River Wey might be shallow or chocked up with fallen trees or rubbish. But you can combine both to make loops like this.
I fancied a full dawn-to-dusk recce: as much as I could fit in from Godalming (where most paddlers start) before my tank ran dry. I might even reach Richmond on the Thames, a section I enjoyed last December in the Arrowstream. That is actually quite a haul: 20 Weymiles plus another 15 on the Thames, including no less than 17 lock portages on the two rivers. But the great thing about ending a paddle in an urban area is I could air down when I got worn out and rail home. Thirty-five miles? Dream on, bro! I’ve only paddled two days since September so was far from paddle fit. Then again, the pre-dawn brain wasn’t on top form either: I set off in the right general direction, but on the wrong train.
Oh! Mister Porter, what shall I do? I want to go to Godalming And they’re taking me on to Hoo [k], Send me back to Woking as quickly as you can, Oh! Mister Porter, what a silly boy I am!
After backtracking, I decided to catch up with myself at Guildford, 5 miles downstream of Godalming and missing out 4 of the Wey’s 14 locks. I dare say I’d appreciate that later.
Just before the GPS packed up at Basingstoke canal junction, I was averaging 5.5kph on the move. Pretty good with no current to speak of. On the livelier Thames I estimate I was moving at up to 10kph before I withered. Same as in the FDS Shipwreck in December. My tall BIC backrest (left) initially felt great then collapsed on itself. Usual story: needs a stiffer insert. I was trying out my new footrest tube attachment points which worked great. Only when one heat-welded strap broke near Addlestone was I reminded how essential footrests are to comfort, efficiency and stamina. I jury-rigged something up between two D-rings which have been staring in the face all this time.
My 2021 Wey Survey of UK Paddling Trends
Hardshell canoes: 1
Hardshell kayaks: 1 (+ 2 K1 racers)
Hardshell SoT: 1
Vinyl IKs (cheapies): 5
PVC (bladder) IKs 3
iSUPs: 10+ (mostly women on iSuPs, too)
PFDs worn, almost none then again, mine’s more of a handy waistcoat)
FDS spotted: none (interesting as readers here are mad for that page)
“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.
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 withFrenchman 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.
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 waspossible 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.
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.
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 licensedZodiacinflatable 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 sealedand placed in his boatand though he was at times desperate, it was never used by Bombard – partly because certainly in the mid-Atlantic he was at timesthrowing 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 forwhat lay ahead and so set off alone, while later praising his companion’svaluable 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.
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, resolveand 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 A couple of years after meeting Bombard in Tangiers, Lindemannalso 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 Speyis a close copy.
I recall being disappointed when I realised Lindemann hadsailed 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 guyAlexander Doba, managed to actually kayak paddle alone – not sail or row – between the African and South American mainland, although his specialised craft was noslim sea kayak, buta 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, Lindemanndrifts through hallucinations and altered states following two weeks of terrible storms.
Hisgreat 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 Lindemannkeep 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 quayof 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 Bombardcarried 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 Lindemanngoes on tomention photos published of Bombard taking on supplies of food from the Arakaka. It’s much more than the ‘shower and meal’ Bombarddescribes 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 ‘psychologicalhunger‘ 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’sprotracted 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.
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;