Category Archives: Travel Reports

Travelling with packboats

Coastal Packrafting

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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.

Kayaking Summer Isles; a lap of the Taneras

Seawave Index Page
Summer Isles Kayaking Guide

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.

Let’s try and make the outside of Tanera Beg again. Two days ago I got blown off that idea.
Kayaking tour party at the north cliff of T. Beg.
But they seem to be dawdling, as if unsure whether to go ahead.
I paddle past and on to the big cave on T. Beg’s south side. That crack at the back might be passable at max HW.
The view out south towards the Wedge of Angus and Priest Island beyond.
I slip through the popular arch at Tanera Beg’s southeast end.
I notice a small second arch. The water is too high and gap too narrow to squeeze through with my Seawave, but it’s only a foot deep below, so the window of opportunity is as narrow as the arch.
What would Freud have made of this arch-threading.
Being more exposed to the southwest, Tanera Beg has some nicely weathered sandstone cliffs.
Midway through, I decide crossing over to Tanera Mor seems too easy.
In the prevailing calm the three skerries to the south don’t look that far.
It’s just over a kilometre to Sgeir Ribhinn (‘Stack C’) according to the GPS. That will take 11 minutes.
Once there, I fail to notice the double-arched cave we found last time. But this is HW. A guard-bird observes.
Over to the south side of Tanera Mor. The new owner is employing scores and spending millions here. New cottages here and there, plus tracks to isolated beaches (perhaps for stones, I was told). They now ask you not to land in the more built-up Anchorage.
There’s even a new house and other construction alongside the tidal lagoon of An Lochanach where I stop for a snack.
Two kayakers pass by. Earlier, I could clearly hear them talking behind me across the flat water, long before I could see them.
I cross the Bay and stop off on the mainland below our place to collect something.
Looking west: a buoy with Glas Leac Mor behind.
I recently read that a hazy horizon (Outer Hebrides not visible) means stability; warm, humid air.
Good viz and crisp detail = cold air and wind.
I head to Altandu, near the campervan packed campsite.
I drop-off and pick up a bucket. Coming back through Old Dornie harbour, a quarter headwind kicks up, pushing the bow left.
I use the chance to load with bow with 10 litres of bucket-water. It does seem to make a difference: the bow bites better; no correctional paddling needed, unlike the other day. A good trick to know (I’d brought the drybag up front for that purpose).
Another 13-mile day in the Summers, but I could have managed twice as far.
How easy IK-ing is without wind. As is portaging with a trolley.

Landfall on Eilean Mullagrach

Seawave Index Page
Summer Isles Kayaking Guide

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.

We rolled down the road to the Fox Point, the nearest and least effortful shore access from where I’m staying.
Apart from the clatter of the solid wheels, the set up worked perfectly: stable and smooth.
The spring tide had bottomed out so we looked for the least ankle-twisting put-in.
We have no plan so head towards the Ristol Islands across a glassy sea.
With the calm, we take on the outside shore of Eilean Mullagrach; here the refracting northern after-swell makes it a bit choppier with some alarming waves breaking over reefs.
Unless you’re a gannet, this is the only way to get onto Mullagrach, a gantry at the northeast tip.
Usually alone, I’ve never done it, but with Jon to tend the boat, I climb up.
With access so difficult, Eilean Mullagrach was never occupied or crofted. I think it’s now owned by a bird protection enterprise. Perhaps they built this guardrail and cut the steps. There’s what looks like a hut at the island’s south end, just past the (not very) high point.
Nice to see sea pink and yellow lichen again. The former mostly found on the sheep-free islands and skerries.
View south over the Summers to the Fisherfield mountains.
The channel with Ristol behind. Better get back; the taxi’s meter is running.
We scoot back north out of the channel and take a break on Ristol beach before cutting through Old Dornie harbour back to False Man inlet.
I leave my kayak overnight with a plan to come back for more tomorrow.
Next morning I’m relieved to see my Seawave hasn’t floated off into the Minch.
I top up and decide to head round the outside of Tanera Beg for starters.
All is calmish as I cross Badentarbet Bay, but as I near T. Beg an unforecast southeasterly kicks up and keeps on kicking.
The west side of Tanera Beg would be too exposed, so I divert into the Tanera Channel, using the lee of the smaller eileans.
Nice looking wooden trawler.
I’m hoping to at least visit the arch at the southeast end of T. Beg.
It’s only 500m away but it’s quite lively and gusty now so I don’t risk it.
Instead, I turn east to get into the lee of Tanera Mor, and take a diversion through the usually cut off pool of Acairseid Driseach (these Gaelic words just roll off the tongue).
A bit disappointed, I head back to slot harbour but the wind seems less bad or may have passed.
So I collect my trolley and strike out for Horse & Goat Island.
I estimate it’s about 2 miles across Badentarbet Bay. The wind drops and even becomes a NW tail breeze.
It’s actually more like 3.5 miles to the tidal channel between Horse & Goat.
By now the spring tide is at full flow against me and I wonder if the two islands have joined up yet.
I needn’t have worried; the NW breeze is stronger than any tidal current and there’s at least a foot of clearance.
I pull over for a snack and a drink. Last time I was here was with my failed Semperit project. What a nice boat that could have been.
I knew from here it would be a 2-mile into the wind hack to Badentarbet beach.
Or even more annoyingly, a three-quarter headwind. It’s less than 10mph, but despite pushing hard with my left arm, the boat kept getting pushed right. Where is my rudder now?! I should have picked up some rocks to weight the bow at Horse Island to see if that trick works. Next time I’ll carry a waterbag to do the same; it’s something I’ve read of but never tried.
From Badentarbet Beach it’s a stiff climb – 1st gear pushbike – back up the road to Polbain, but on the road the skeg-wheel trolley again makes for easy, hands free towing with the boat hanging from my shoulder via a knotted mooring line. I can walk at normal speed with loads less effort (and time) than carrying the deflated IK.
Having a trolley like this makes the IK nearly as versatile as a packraft: a boat you can start here, end there and easily transport back across the difference.

So ends another great 12-mile day out in the Summer Isles whose configuration enables numerous ways to spin out a trip as pirates, winds and stamina allow, and all without getting too far out.

Packrafting the River Wye

Rebel 2K main page

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, 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 ‘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 back yard.

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.

Chepstow jetty at LW; messy.

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.

Guildford to Hampton: the Long Wey Down

Seawave Index Page

One of England’s first navigations, dating back to 1653. That’s probably why this historic canal feels quite natural and river-like, apart from the virtual lack of current.

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.

Because of the Wey’s multiple channels and numerous weirs and locks, I tried British Canoeing’s PaddlePoints website, a comprehensive database of paddleable river map routes with handy icons (above) for put-ins, parking, hazards like fallen trees, feral teenagers (I’m not joking) and so on. You can reset to delete extraneous icons (‘Covid-19’ ?); I just wanted to clearly locate the locks and weirs and river’s branches, though on the day ‘Navigation [this way]’ signs at junctions were clear. Closer scrutiny of the map shows that in places the blue line guides you along the old, choked-up river, not the Nav, and not all weirs (an important feature to know about) are shown as icons, even when they’re clearly evident on the Sat view underlay. And so the Map view (as above) can give a misleading impression of which way to go. As you’ll see below, at one point the blue line even guides you over a weir. Common sense prevails of course, but you can imagine some beginner clutching their PaddlePoints app on Map view getting sucked into a weir. I realise now this content is user-generated like OSM or Google Maps, and so errors, inconsistencies and lack of moderation are inevitable. As such, you can report icon-points, but it’s unclear if the route (blue/green line) can be corrected by users. If nothing else, PaddlePoints helps identify which rivers you’re allowed to paddle in England and Wales, and what the rules there might be.

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.

Clapham at 7am. It’s all a bit of a blur.
In Guildford I slip onto a closed towpath and enjoy a quiet set-up without the usual ‘Oh Mr Porter, is that one of those inflatable canoes? I’m thinking of getting one…’
Just around here I realised I’d left my Garmin out in the sun to catch a signal… Should have gone to Starbucks.
I’m trying out some old runners as water shoes instead of my usual Teva Omniums.
Do they really believe this or is it just juvenile baiting?
Alternative use for a big slackraft.
At Bowers Lock I spot my first Intex of the day, a 100-quid of K2 Explorer on its maiden voyage with daughter and dad.
Under an old bridge a real K1 belts past with barely any wake. Looks like fun but what happens when she stops? Same as the bike on the left, I suspect.
As canals go, not so bad.
Triggs Lock. With a little work this side sluice could be a fun canoe chute (lens finger shows scale).
All they need to do is get rid of the guillotine and add a galvanised chute at the end.  
How about it, National Trust? It would be like turning Downton Abbey into a Discount Carpet Warehouse!
Soon after lunch at Papercourt Lock I pass two chappies also heading for Weybridge in something called a Sea-Doo.
Flip yer paddle round, mate, you look like an amateur!
Not another lock, TFFT! Just some general-purpose gates to hold back Viking raiding parties.
At this scenic and willowy point the canal runs right alongside the M25 London orbital motorway.
The tyre noise is like Niagara Falls.
Mile 12 at Basingstoke canal junction. By some civil engineering synchronicity the M25, Wey Nav, Basingstoke Canal and a railway mainline all cross or meet at this point. In its way it demonstrates the history of post-medieval commercial transport: rivers > canals > railways > highways and airplanes. That’s my MA thesis, right there!
At New Haw Lock I need water but the lawn-mowing lock keeper says there’s no tap for a couple of miles.
It’s an awkward portage over a narrow road bridge too. Luckily, this chap helps me out. Thanks, chum!
Coxes Lock with a doable weir to the side. I may try it next time and risk censure from the NT.
Well, according to BC’s PaddlePoints website, that’s the way to go!
Weybridge Town Lock. Another awkward portage over a road bridge on the left.
In places the Weybridge backwaters look like an Everglades retirement village.
As I approach the Thames Lock at Weybridge things get wobbly and I have an out-of-boat experience.
Amusingly lock-themed gates close the footpath so us portageurs can pass.
Finally at Thames level, hallelujah. And there’s a tap set into the jetty too. I drink like a camel then me and the boat have ourselves a wash.
Over six hours from Guildford, but even with a drink and food to spare, I don’t have another three hours in me to reach Richmond. Maybe I can do two hours to Kinsgton.
Now on the Thames, I become a great admirer of roller portages.
The game’s up at Hampton Court Bridge if I’m to have enough energy to roll up the boat. The station is right there.
It’s a warm evening on the Thames and they’re all out in boats and the riverside parks. The Rule of Six? Do me a favour!
The skiffs collect bird poo while two lads fire up their Intex Challengers. I’ve seen more Intex IKs today than anything else.
Why? Because they cost from under 100 quid, float just like a Seawave [but track like a bin bag].
And he may be saying to himself: ‘My god, what have I done?’
Dusk back at Clapham Jct. All up, only 21 miles. I blame ten portages, no resting and my nifty but 3-kilo Ortlieb roller duffle.
With too much food, it all made the boat just a bit too heavy to carry easily. Where the lock-side grass was lush I dragged the boat, but I have a better idea.

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)

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.

bomeur

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.

bomber

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.

unbroken
Throwing up. Still from ‘Unbroken’ (2014)
bombardment

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.

unborj
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.

pi

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.

Olek-in-Mid-Atlantic2

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).