The shell-sand skerries of Arisaig are a well-known sea kayaking destination so, blown out by the wrong sort of wind to complete our mission on Mull, we scooted over towards Morar on the warmest May day since Michael Fish was knee-high to an isobar. Arriving late the night before at the sheltered glampsite at Camusdarach (5-star ablutions), I wasn’t quite sure where we were, but somewhere out there the easterlies were howling like banshees. Next morning at Arisaig all was calm as a small posse of schoolchildren trotted by in high-viz safety wear, a tribute perhaps to George Osbourne. We were at the wrong end of the tide to enjoy Arisaig’s famed aquamarine lagoons, so headed round the corner to some beaches Gael knew from previous visits. We lunched at one, set up camp at another then headed back to the archipelago in unloaded boats for low tide. For me it had become just too darn windy to enjoy a relaxing sea cruise. Even hopping onto one of the skerries, I could barely stand while grabbing a few shots of Gael (left). Back at the camp, conditions were calmer for a quiet evening, but early next morning, as soon as I looked out the tent the northeasterly kicked off for the 90-minute headwind hack back to Arisaig. We arrived at the jetty just as the church bell tolled 9am. Nice touch – can’t say I’ve ever encountered church bells in Scotland. All that remained was a lift to Mallaig, a ferry to Armadale, a two-hour wait sun-baking outside the Ardvasar pub for the stealth bus to Broadford, then another hour for the big bus to gusty Kyle. An hour later the train left for the scenic line to Garve where the Mrs turned up right on time. I’m staggered by Cal-Mac prices for walk-ons, even hauling a paddle and some packs. You couldn’t go two stops on a London bus for what it costs to cross over to Skye. Integrated local bus services? Less impressive but I got there in the end.
I owned a Gumotex Seawave and a few years ago had the InceptK40 for a year or more. IMO these were two of the best IKs around for sea kayaking and touring. Fast stable and form. Like my paddle with my former Grabner Amigo, a longer trip with a K40 also gave me a chance to reappraise the pros and cons of these two IKs. Gael’s red K40 is the same one I tested in 2012.
As you can see in the table below, the Nitrilon Seawave is a little longer, quite a lot wider but less spacious inside. It claims a much greater payload, has space for up to 2.5 paddlers as well as fitting an optional fully removable deck and a fixed skeg. The K40 is made from a stiffer ‘PVC-urethane alloy’ fabric, has a zip-up/roll-back deck, a rudder and a single seat. The twin side-beam hull explains its slimness as well as the greater internal width. Both these IKs weigh around 17kg. New Zealand-made Incepts are hard to find in Europe or the US. One price in Germany today quotes €2500, while a Seawave with an optional deck comes in at £995 in the UK or from less than £700 when boatpark.cz were having a sale.Out of the bag the Incept runs PRVs rated at 5 psi or 0.34 bar on all three chambers, with inflation valves handily located around the cockpit. I’ve adapted my Seawave to run all-round PRVs too, all rated at 4.78 psi or 0.33 bar. Even then, loaded up I could feel my kayak flexing a little in the briny swell bouncing off the Ross of Mull. Paddling with the K40 for a couple of days, I got the feeling it was a little faster than my Seawave. Gael’s K40 was loaded a little more heavily than my boat, but my added weight easily exceeded that. Both boats run similar pressures but the slimmer, stiffer fabric’d K40 has the advantage, even though it’s a little shorter. Gael may also have a more efficient paddling technique, but overall we agreed that in the windy conditions we were experiencing, it was his rudder which made the difference when it came to maintaining a steady speed, despite its slight drag deficit. (Good page explaining sea kayak rudders).
Simply put, with a bit of rudder correction to compensate for winds pushing the boat off course, Gael could carry on paddling full steam ahead. At the same time I had to correct my steering by yanking hard on the upwind arm and trailing the other to maintain a given course, so I was only powering with one and a bit arms. This gave the K40 the edge – say 5–10 minutes over an hour.
Running a Grabner Holiday Gael is a rudder fan and thinks adding one to a Seawave would make it a perfect IK. Me, I’m not so sure the added complexity and risk of breakage is worth the ease of balanced paddling, but I think I’m talking myself into it. As long as my system is not like the Incept’s horribly mushy rudder actuation. It felt less effort to paddle Gael’s K40 than my wider Gumboat, but pushing hard on the inflatable pedals was a bit like using a cushion for a steering wheel.
A great way to improve the K40 would be to be to fit something like a Grabner rudder (left): hard plastic pedals pivoting on a rigid bar. The actual pivoting- and rudder-lifting mechanism at the back looks like a standard sea kayak arrangement with a rudder pin. We both agreed the K40’s generic hardshell rudder blade is too small for this boat when the seas get lumpy or the winds exceed F4. A longer blade is needed, but that creates more drag. Better just to accept an IK limitations and not go out in those conditions, as I found once, though I’ve just remembered the skeg-steering idea a visitor suggested to me last year: pivoting the half inserted Gumotex skeg using cords (left) to fix an angle against a steady wind.
Especially when loaded, my Seawave’s fixed skeg can be a bit of a pain at the shore. You need to drag the boat in on a flowing tide but I don’t like the idea of the heavy IK pressing on the skeg unless it can gradually sink into the sand on an ebb. At other times I needed to find a rock, use my Pelicase or lean on the K40. But that’s all a small price to pay for the benefits the skeg brings at sea. I’ve thought of fitting a retracting/trailing skeg to get round this, but if I go that far I may as well try and install a rudder. Chinese SoT ones on ebay go for just 20 quid and it could help review my dormant sailing experiments which I recalling during the backwinds of Mull.
The other impression was the initial tippiness of the K40 – yikes, it’s been a while since I’ve experienced that. In fact it soon went away and anyway was helped by the thigh straps which again, I’m reminded don’t snag the knees as securely as my set ups in the Amigo and Seawave – possibly because the front mount is too far forward (using the rudder pedal mounts). But then again, I should have bothered to adjust the rudder-footrest towards me a good few inches. just as Gael moved my footrest tube away to suit his longer legs when we swapped boats.
As well as being narrower, the K40 gives the impression of a more box-like hull (left) with more prominent chines which aid edging. On a proper hardshell sea kayak edging can be used to turn the boat (lean right to turn left – no, I never got the hang of it either) but I doubt the K40’s hull was designed that precisely. A hardshell’s retractable skeg (where present) is used to carefully counteract the kayak’s weathercocking rather like a rudder.
I don’t recall steering using the K40’s edge (with the rudder up), edging was more a way to keep the boat level with the help of the thigh straps when riding up side waves and to limit swamping. The rounded Seawave is more raft-like in its stability, as Gael soon noticed, but gets there in the end thanks to high pressures and a long waterline. The Incept was also much more roomy thanks to the slim side tubes. That makes the thigh straps more important and I actually missed the packraft-like jammed-in feeling between my Gumotex’s fat side tubes. The seat didn’t feel as comfy and secure as the packraft/SoT set up on my Seawave and all-in-all, I felt a bit out of sorts in the Incept which helped me realise how well my Seawave is suited to my sort of paddling. About time – it’s taken a few IKs to get there.
Fellow IKer Gael proposed we meet up during his May visit to the Hebrides; his chance to get a closer look at places he’d passed on the SSKT. Once he’d done his own thing on Mull I suggested Coll and Tiree as a satisfying and remote offshore destination. Those two outer Inner Hebs may claim to be the sunniest places in the UK and looked interesting in Google sat, with many sandy coves. But it also became apparent that all that sunshine required unusually strong winds to blow away the clouds. Whatever’s blowing in the Inner isles on a given day, on Coll and Tiree you can bank on double. Sea Kayak Oban admitted that they’d only managed to run two tours there in six years.
When we met up in Oban Gael had already made contingency calculations, multiplying several locations by the state of the tide and then dividing the result by the 5-day forecast and subtracting our IKs’ average speed in knots. According to his complex computations, a three-day run out of Arduanie around the Slates would work out best for us.
After a brilliant seafeed at EE Usk on the waterfront (left) we squeezed my moto into Oban Backpackers’ storeroom and set off to Arduanie where a sleet shower pelted us while we loaded the boats. The rest of today was actually going to be OK weather, a bit windy. Tomorrow less bad but Friday might be a tent bound zip-in according to the forecast, so our Kindles were charged up.
I was snuggly wrapped in my new, lightweight Anfibio drysuit (tbr) as we set off for a late lunch on Shuna’s east shore before curving around into the wind to cross to Luing. From here we worked our way down to its southern tip then made a dash to Scarba, eyeing up the sinister and all too near Gulf of Corryvrecken which gave me the heebie-jeebies.
Gael had been told of a camp spot overlooking another tidal phenomenon, the Grey Dogs, and once pitched up on the moderately dry platform, we walked over to survey the Dogs where a metre-high standing wave rose up and collapsed every few seconds. Even though we were in neap tides it did this continuously all evening; only at 6am did I see the waters briefly still.
That night the rain closed in and pelted down. We huddled under a tarp – a good last-minute decision to take that – then made the delicate acrobatic contortions to get out of our gear and into our tents without spreading the wet.
Early next morning the Dogs dozed under clear skies, but by the time we were on the water they’d risen again from their submarine lair and water rushed along the channel’s shores like a river. Even Google sat snatched its picture with the Dogs in spate. In fact, during neaps, either side of the breaking waves looked flattish water, but who knew how a boat would react in there so I assumed we’d head directly north. But when Gael turned his K40 purposefully into the Dogs’ maw I gulped and bleated, ‘We’re not going in there are we?’ Too late, the current had caught me and the ride was on.
What looked like flat water between the boiling shore and the midstream surf zone was actually a rolling swell a metre or two high but easily manageable in an IK. Gael rode into the middle for a play – the picture right shows the turbid water between us – and soon we were flushed out into the Firth of Lorn on Lunga’s west shore where the sea state was more placid. What that place must be like to paddle in spring tides doesn’t bear thinking about, but obviously some lap it up. There’s probably less risk than tackling the same sort of white water on a river.
Strictly speaking, Scarba isn’t part of the Slate Islands to the north, but this whole area is well known to boaters for its convoluted tides and associated races. For a paddler, the water pushing up and pulling past the isles and channels creates all sorts of complexities in route planning, something which Gael grasped far better than me.
As we approached the lighthouse at Fladda he pointed out a cross-current where he advised we pieleffe. What was ‘pieleffe’, some kind of French nautical term? No: ‘paddle like fuck’. Oh, OK then. Now safely on Fladda’s slatey beach we took a tea break, me still a little frazzled after running [alongside] the Grey Dogs [in neaps] and not being torn limb from limb by clashing whirlpools.
Fladda had a big walled garden and similarly well-protected longhouse attached to the lighthouse. On the adjacent island of Belnahua the 19th-century ruins of quarrymen’s lodgings survived. Apparently, there was another island somewhere here which they’d excavated well below sea level until there was only a rim left. Then came a great storm and washed it all away.
We headed with the brisk tide over to Cullipool harbour on Lunga; the unusual jetty is built of vertically set drystone slates, not something I’ve seen before. From here it was up to the Cuan Sound as the sun began to creep out. Once inside we hit dogwater so that a proposed lunch at the pub by the bridge became overruled by our appetites. A grassy shore on Seil island did just as well and provided space to dry out the tent.
The channel narrowed and became lined with expensive-looking holiday homes which rather tainted our exposure, and as we neared the bridge we passed the only other paddlers we saw, a couple in a canoe letting the tide wash them south. At Telford’s late 18th-century [Clachan] Bridge over the Atlantic we swapped boats. While I shot ahead in the K40, against the current Gael’s impression of my Amigo wasn’t so amicable. Compared to my Grabner, his Incept is a good 20% faster (or less effort, if you like). A lot of the time on this trip Gael was coasting while I felt like I paddled non stop which may have explained my fatigue. I dozed off at lunch and slept like a log overnight, no matter what fits the tent was having. Near the top of Seil we pulled past some sailboats to the back of an inlet and pitched the tents with taut guys in preparation for windy Friday.
In fact, that day dawned fair; a cold front from the northwest brought in lovely clear air in which the Incept seemed to glow. Gael suggested we edge out to the outside of Seil to see if the sea was manageable to Easdale. We probed outward and while I’d not have gone on alone, by the time we were committed it was only two miles to Easdale. There were no actual whitecaps, just large waves that didn’t even swamp my boat but required momentum to maintain direction. A plastic coffin would have been in its element here, slicing the waves like Bruce Lee attacking a jelly.
Turning into Easdale port was a welcome relief but it had only taken me two nights out to find people annoying and the place suffering from what I perceived as tourism fatigue. Coaches pulled in and disgorged passengers who milled about for a few minutes then moved on. The so-called village shop looked like nothing more than a stockpile of porcelain and lace trinkets; I couldn’t wait to move on. What must locals think when their village becomes colonised like this? Make hay I suppose.
We decided to head back to the car, across the bay’s side waves, back through Cuan Sound then more dogwater and a grassy extended lunch by the big tree on Torsa island. Then it was back out into the sideslap across the mouth of Loch Melfort to Arduanie.
After some 33 miles of island hoping I’d caught enough sun to turn my head into a beetroot and we’d tackled a variety of easy sea conditions. It had been fun exploring the more commonly visited locales of Hebridean sea kayaking, all accessible and escapable, notwithstanding the complex tides. And a chance to do so with someone who grasped the concept of ‘3D’ sea kayak navigation was an added bonus – like a free course. Plenty more to see down here. Back at the jetty we lashed the boats to the roof and headed south to the Mull of Kintyre.
With a day to spare after our two-night run around the Slate Islands, Gael suggested we head down to Gigha off the Mull of Kintyre. I’ve always wanted to visit this Scottish appendage and for Gael, Gigha had a special resonance as the starting point of the Scottish Sea Kayak Trail which he completed two years ago. Quite an achievement alone in an IK.
First of all though, I was ravenous for food on a plate not mush in a bag. We pulled into a cafe in the pretty port of Tarbert for some 1980s decor and food to match (right), then marched over to the Co-Op to see what was going cheap. Whatever I’d been eating on the Slates, it hadn’t been enough
We camped opposite the island, then once the wind abated next morning, carried the boats onto the ferry. Once underway I came over all lethargic on account of the Slate paddle (or perhaps the gluttonous Tarbert episode). It wasn’t helped by pushing a headwind up to Gigha’s northern point on our anticlockwise lap. Finally we turned downwind, portaged the sandy isthmus at Eilean Garbh and moved on to the next sandy beach for a long lunch break and what had become my customary doze. Out on the northwest horizon pale blue humps marked the Paps of Jura. I read this short book partly about Jura recently (no so satisfying); among the Inner Hebrides Jura seems to have a certain allure.
Whether it was a pumped up seat, a good rest or the benefits of three days’ sea kayaking, I got belatedly reacquainted with my paddling mojo. I sat up straight, drew like a pro and soared across the waves like a surf ski, while Gael dabbled along the shore. The ocean side of this narrow island was a bit wilder, but for me lacked the features and interest of the far northwestern coast. Or maybe is was pre-doomed by the stigma of being too far south to be exotic.
We covered the 5.5 miles to Gigha’s southern tip in an hour thirty; a good pace for a pair of bloats. Back on the sandier mainland side we dipped about looking for a secluded wild camp but there were too many properties or not enough space. And with little wind now, the boathouse campground looked less inviting than a 3-mile scoot back to the mainland.
We set off, giving the day’s last ferry a wide berth by aiming for a big green buoy about halfway across. Once there and still feeling on form, I decided to PLF to the mainland jetty just to see if I could. Halfway there, with steam pouring from my drysuit’s vents and the tide pulling us south, Gael passed in the Incept without too much effort. I hammered away regardless as the jetty crept closer and touched down in 48 minutes, a minute after Gael. A good, end-of-tour burn up to clear out the cylinders. It was good to see some other islands and with easy access and escape routes, Gigha would make a great first circumnavigation for a beginner. But as always, the wilder isles to the north and west hold more intrigue.
In early 2016, Feathecraft dropped the Java/Gemini and Aironaut to stick with folding kayaks. In 2017 Feathecraft closed for good.
In 2007 I was already looking to move on from my Sunny to something a bit longer and self-bailing (I thought this was a good idea at the time). The two boats that appealed to me were Aire’s hefty and wide Super Lynx and a Feathercraft Java (since then many new contenders have come on the scene). I decided to treat myself to the more expensive but lighter Java and picked one up from the clued-up FC dealer in Durango.
Set up is pretty straightforward: you slot in the alloy keel- and skeg pole and then the side poles, velcro them all in place, attach the seat by too many straps, pump up the four sponsons and off you go. Realistically, 20 minutes is a good assembly time. It’s a sleek-looking boat for an IK; still today nothing else comes close, but one of the biggest hassles are the cheapinflation valves: basic turn-and-lock elbow valves seemingly off the end of a Thermarest (or indeed an Alpacka packraft where they work fine to top up, not inflate). The thin plastic hose on the hand pump supplied pushes on, but when it’s hot or wet it twists off, or if you pump too hard it blows off and the air leaks out. As it’s an open (not one-way) valve, you have to screw it shut quick. Maddening! I thought for a while there was some component missing from the pump but no, this was it. I found holding the hose onto the valve with one hand while pumping the two-way pump with the other was an awkward but more effective way of inflating. Even if it’s bigger, give me a foot pump any day. Or regular one-way Halkey valves and a K-Pump. At 28 inches (71cm) wide, it’s just two inches narrower than the Sunny but feels much morem chiefly because you sit high ON it, rather than in it. FC are right in describing the Java as an inflatable sit-on-top. As you can see in the pics, under my 95kg weight, the poles are more there to aid the hull profile than enable longitudinal rigidity. It’s 15 feet 4 inches (4.65m) long but you can’t get much into the last foot-and-a-half at each end; the usual problem with IKs. The thigh straps are a nice touch or an admission that you may need them to keep upright. I took it out for a scoot across the Vallecito reservoir in Colorado one evening with the two inner (floor) bladders not too firm and was relieved to find it not too tippy. On the way back I struggled with the pump some more to firm up the inner sponsons and found it less stable but still OK, and probably faster. And before I got caught out, I practiced getting back in off the water; as long as I crawled aboard without any sudden movements it could be done in calm flat water. But who ever falls out in calm water?
The retractable skeg is a great idea that’s only really possible on a self-bailer, but with the middle sponsons firmly pumped up the actuating string which comes up between them gets jammed. It’s best to manually make sure the skeg is fully down before setting off – but this negates the retractable feature. At least you know that if it snags on the river bed it will just pivot up (but then won’t come down again). A good fix to help the skeg pivot with the string lever would be to have the string passing through a short section of thick garden hose or plastic tube jammed between the sponsons so enabling it to slide freely. The slot through which the skeg passes is also the bailing hole, designed I am told, to suck water out of the boat with a venturi effect as it moves over still water (less effective in a current going with the boat). Can’t say I noticed water rising as I stopped, but it sounds plausible.
Paddling without the skeg was OK on flat water but with it deployed you can power on. The solid footrests, thigh straps and comfy seat (also inflatable) all help here. One problem with the footrests is the angle they sit on: the poles force your knees outwards into the paddle arc. I also wondered how secure they were, screwed down to merely butt against a protruding rivet in the pole. A flat rather than pointy end to the securing screw pin sitting against the 2mm-high rivet might be better and could easily be done. Anyway they never shifted during the easy paddling I did.
The Java has neat cargo nets: easy to use and secure. I’ve since bought a pair for my Sunny. Inflation valve design apart, workmanship is what you’d expect for over $2000 with good attention to detail. The ‘envelope’ or hull doesn’t really need to be sealed in any way as the four sponsons or bladders slot into their respective cases and, with the poles, make this pile of nylon and rubber into the only IK I know that looks close to a proper sea kayak.
Next day in Colorado disaster struck. I left the boat drying on the roof of the car in the forest camp – black hull side up… and went out very early to Silverton on the steam train. It had been a week of huge storms in the Rockies and camped in the forest I figured it would be OK in the shade and probable afternoon storm. But on the way back, when the bus driver mentioned it was a hot afternoon in Durango I thought “oh dear, I hope it hasn’t…”
It had. The thick black hull rubber had caught the sun nicely as it passed over the clearing and ruptured three of the bladders or sponsons. My lovely new boat, not one day out of the bag was a floppy mess. I yanked out a limp bladders (easily done) and found the rather light, flysheet-like ripstop nylon split, and pinprick holes in the airtight PU coating. That was the end of my Java paddling in CO. (A happy ending. I ordered a full set of sponsons from FC in Vancouver and when they discovered the boat was nearly new they generously offered to supply them free of charge. Good on you FC.)
Back home with new bladders, we went to Scotland and I tried out the re-bladdered Java alongside my old Gumotex Sunny. G-friend’s first impression was that I was too big for it probably due to its SoT stance. She had a point. And also it was too fiddly to set-up for my keep-it-simple prefs. She had a point again, and although it’s amazingly light for what it was, it’s still pretty bulky. In Denver I’d spend hours packing it carefully for the flight back for fear of having the near yard-long hull poles damaged in transit. On my bathroom scales in the blue holdall ready to paddle it weighs 17kg (37.5lbs). The boat’s envelope alone (no seat or tubes) weighs 9kg (19.8lbs). In other words, about the same as my Sunny but two and a half feet longer.
On the lochs the long, thin Java slipped along, with a speedof 10kph (6.2 mph) flashing on the GPS for a second, though 4mph was a more sustainable speed (video above). Let me tell you that is a very good speed for an IK, comparable with the Incept K40 I bought a few years later. (There are more useful speed stats on inlotusland’s blog about a lake near Vancouver in a blue Java.).
The Java kayak didn’t really feel right to me: the old problem of too narrow and me sitting too high for my weight. An experienced hardsheller would probably not have any issues. We went on to a freshwater loch, a little windier by now. I tried to visualise myself in a fairly normal one-metre swell out at sea. The rocks I added for ballast hadn’t really added an impression of stability (as they can do on other tippy IKs) and overall, with the height/width relationship I didn’t feel confident anticipating the less than flat calm conditions I wanted to be able to face.
Back at the chalet the biggest hassle of all: the Java takes hours to dry, maybe even days. But dry well it surely must, especially when rinsed after a sea paddle. Sure, I’d read about this in some reviews, but it now dawned on me that the problem was common to all bladder IKs (like all Aires). Water will always get in the hull sleeves/envelopes holding the bladders as well as other crannies, and once there will always take a while to evaporate. A spin in my basic Gumotex Sunny reminded me what a great boat it was: quick to set up, fast drying and good enough performance. If only it bailed. [2020: I now think self-baling is not essential for a tour boat; i just used my Sunny beyond its abilities].
The Java got itself sold on ebay. Lesson: try before you buy and if it’s not possible (as it wasn’t for me in the UK), be prepared to eat your mistake.
In 2011 I gave my sun-faded Sunny away and got myself an Incept K40 Tasman. The K40 was less fiddly than the Java to set up, though the time taken is about the same, but I still miss the ‘pump and go’ simplicity of the Sunny. That is why I then got myself a Grabner Amigo. But I sold that and got a Seawave, my best IK yet.
London made worldwide headlines this week for rioting, arson and looting. Along with scores of others, our high street got done Monday night, and next afternoon all the shops were closed, braced for a re-run that instead moved to other English cities. The map on the right only shows the bigger events in London up to Tuesday; many more passed unreported.
But Wednesday the tides were favourable and the weather were fair for a 17-mile cruise down the River Thames from Richmond to Tower Bridge. We’d planned the run before all this aggro kicked off as I’d not paddled through London for years and fancied doing it in the Incept. In fact we ended up paddling all the way to Greenwich, about 21 fast and briefly hairy miles.
Richmond is a prosperous suburb stuck under the Heathrow airport flight path; no rampaging here, thank you very much. Steve and I set off just below the town bridge at 1pm, right at the turn of the tide, even though 20 minutes earlier the water was still clearly charging upstream. In fact I read that in the upper tidal reaches, the Thames floods quickly and ebbs slowly. Again, the K-Pump was used to inflate the Solar which Steve was using as his Feathercraft was in detention. I’ve found the K is much more effective at getting a firm fill than the squidgy Bravo footpump. Maybe it’s a river thing, but when the tide ebbs with the mild Thames current, it’s on the move almost straight away. With the help of a strong southwesterly that day, very soon we were cruising along at an easy 5 or 6 mph, and that speed barely relented until the very end when we took out just before low tide at Greenwich.
The 15-mile run-up to Westminster initially feels quite rural in places. Riverside willows swung their tresses in the 15mph breeze as we passed the handsome riverside dwellings of affluent west London with barely a high-rise in sight. By Putney, home of the famous Oxford-Cambridge boat race, we were halfway to Tower Bridge and the greenery give way to urban development and the odd industrial site. Around here you get a few people rowing those slim Oxbridge rowboats, and it occurred to me later that for some reason they’re excused from wearing life jackets. A boy drowned near here in one of these rowboats, a week or two ago. Near Battersea heliport the wobbling wind sock stuck out sideways like a road sign, pointing downriver towards banks of million-pound apartments built in the last boom-but-one to accommodate London’s growing class of needy oligarchs. There were more barges and pontoons moored mid-river now. All easily avoided of course and just as well as the way the current was ripping along, their flat prows made a nasty hazard; like an an upside-down weir, that might easily pull a kayak down and drag it along under the entire length of the barge.
At Vauxhall Bridge, by the snazzy MI5 secret service HQ, we saw one of the London Duck amphibious tourist barge-buses drive down the bank. It submerged itself into the river and chugged past (left), managing to look as ungainly on the water as it does on land. The Ducks do a token 10-minute sweep of the river past Parliament, but having gone on one years ago, I can tell you it’s a hot, noisy ride. I reckon they are more fun to watch than to be in.
We grabbed a few shots as we passed the Houses of Parliament (that how HP Sauce gets its name), and I thought it was going to be a smooth, quiet passage through the busy two-mile section of the river from Westminster to Tower Bridge, as it had been last time.
But as soon as we passed under Westminster Bridge alongside Big Ben (left), the character of the river changed and waves were standing up to 5 feet high. The flow gets constricted and backs up by the pier supporting the London Wheel which, along with the masses of tourist boats, effectively halves the width of the river, while the current and tide pushed through, exacerbated by the wind. I’d heard of these waves below London Bridge but had never seen them this big. We’d come down so fast from Richmond that we’d hit the busiest section of the Thames, packed with manoeuvering tour boats and jetties, at the peak of the tidal flow. Suddenly the river was rather lively.
Rush hour on the river As always the best kayaking shots are the one you’ll never see: of Steve in the 10-foot long Solar teetering over wave crests and my long bow rising and then slapping down into the troughs. What pics I grabbed (on the left) were pretty mild. Holy moly, you don’t see all this looking down from Waterloo Bridge with a flat white and a Telegraph in hand, but it may only last a short time or be limited to certain conditions. It’s worrying too, how you’re quickly transfixed with dealing with your own predicament; if one of us had tipped in here, the other would have had real trouble turning back in the current and traffic. But we got through (I’ve probably exaggerated it all) and even got used to the more manageable standing waves, if not always the cross swell flung out by the wake of passing tour barges. These wide, twin-hull Thames Clippers can really shift, accelerating up to 15-20 knots, although it’s actually the older, mono-hull tour boats that punch out a wake you want to watch out for, and is probably why their speed is limited. As it is, I read there’s no speed limit on the tidal Thames below Wandsworth, merely common sense is required, plus a risk of a big fine from the PLA. I was momentarily freaked out by all this, but although I didn’t dare glance back or try and take photos, Steve seemed to be keeping pretty cool in the tiny Solar. I’d not applied any of the mods I’d lavished on my old Sunny, and with its crap seat and soggy footrest offering little support, paddling the Solar in heavy conditions was a bit like balancing on a midstream log. This was all at times more intimidating than anything we’d done on the Class II Ardeche a couple of weeks ago, and I was thinking it really was high time I slipped on my Incept’s thigh braces. We stopped off for a breather at the South Bank and enjoyed a coffee and lemonade for only £5 while tourists wrote messages in the sand of the now exposed river bed.
On to Blackfriars, Southwark and London Bridge, where mid-stream there were ranks of frothing, churning whitecaps. We didn’t want to go there, and kept to the right, looking for less speed and flatter water behind the HMS Belfast tourist warship and on to Tower Bridge (left) where all was calm and it was no drama to pass under the middle, as more tourists above waved. It may sound like a scene from a James Bond movie, but in 1952 a #78 double-decker bus successfully jumped a three-foot gap when one of the ‘bascules’ lifted unexpectedly. The postcard (right) dramatises the event. Having got to this point so fast, we decided we may as well carry on the hour or so to Greenwich, as we knew down here the river opened out, tourist boat traffic dropped off and there were no more bridges or other fluvial furniture to cause weird wave formations.
Out past Wapping and Rotherhithe, the Thames is lined with converted warehouses or new apartments, shielding the less glamorous council estates of the East End. Soon we’re passing Canary Wharf, once the Port of London, now a mini-Manhattan of office blocks (left) built in the 1980s when the whole recent financial boom kicked off in London. Those guys weren’t having such a good week either – one trader on the TV news was filmed swatting his Perrier off his desk in frustration at that day’s collapse, but at least they weren’t running amok and setting fire to their ties.
The river meandered south putting us into the wind, but it was good to crank up some solid effort. Even here the odd Greenwich-bound tour boat still threw out their mini tsunamis which crashed with a roar along the banks behind us and were fun to negotiate up to the point where you thought, ‘ooo-er, hold on a minute, am I’m surfing here!?’ Otherwise, the broad river gets a bit dull along this section and soon enough the wooded hill of Greenwich Observatory and the prime meridian peeped out from behind a bend. Steve was a bit pooped for spinning the ill-fitting Solar along at Incept speeds. And having used my huge Werner Corry paddle, I too was suffering from some elbowitis. We came ashore by the Cutty Sark tea clipper, lifted the boats carefully over the broken glass and gravel, up over a fence, aired down and headed for the station. We did this 21-mile run on a neapish tide of just 3.8m – they drop to 3.5m and rise to 5m this time of year at Richmond (it’s about a metre more at London Bridge). That took us only 4 hours actual paddling which must be the fastest 20 miles I’ve ever done in a paddle boat. Slowed down by locks, inland of Richmond the freshwater Thames can be a bit boring, but I wouldn’t fancy coming through Westminster at the height of an ebbing spring tide on a busy summer’s day with a backwind. At such times it’s probably not a place for total beginners in tippy hardshells, but as long as you’re ready to get stuck in, it is of course good fun and you can be sure of a big audience. Just make sure you clip on a Go Pro to catch the action! The tidal Thames starts at Teddington Lock, about three miles upriver from Richmond. Google Maps (sat view) shows a mysterious sluice called Richmond Lock just downstream of the Twickenham Bridge (A316), 10 minutes downstream from our put-in at Water Lane, but which I did not recall. Steve checked on Streetview which explained all; it’s an ornate old iron footbridge that’s only a barrage some of the time and there’s a slipway for kayaks on the left. At any other time it’s just another bridge.
You don’t need any sort of permit or BCU membership to kayak the tidal Thames, as you technically do upstream of Teddington. As long as you’re wearing a pfd, keep right and stay out of the way, the police patrolling the river will probably ignore you.
A fun shorter packboating section would be the 8 miles from Putney to Tower Bridge, both with good transport links and passing all the classic London profiles which people of my age will recognise from the idealised Thames TV logo (right) from the 1970s. Once the tide drops enough, exposing the sandy riverbed, taking out is easy enough with a packboat, even if it means climbing up a vertical ladder as we did last time (top left). Elsewhere there are several steps or jetties. Gallery below. Click on the big picture at it goes to the next one. Includes pics by Steve L.
First sunny spring day around here so we went out to try out the flip-out disc sail I made over the winter on my Llama and Steve’s Big Kahuna. Wind was forecast at about 8 mph but was gusty – a bloke in a dinghy sailboat said it was up to 15 mph. Folded and clipped on the packraft, the sail sits out of the way and can be opened and – more importantly – closed easily with a twist, as long as you have a clip of some sort to keep it closed (and that clip is attached to the sail so it does not spring off and sink to the bottom of the lake…).
Initial impressions were disappointing, I did not rip off across the reservoir like a hooked marlin out of a Roadrunner cartoon. But watching the vid back it’s clear the boat did noticably drift downwind across the reservoir with the sail aloft, often at speeds similar to paddling (about 3 mph). Problem with the sail on the Alpacka was the boat soon turned off the wind one way or the other, swinging left and right. The pointier Kahunayak was better, especially once Steve trailed his paddle like a skeg. Didn’t get to try that on the Llama as I was fiddling about with the string trying angle the sail so as to steer the boat into the wind. This worked quite well in correcting the direction as you can see in the vid, but staying in that position was a problem. Could this be due to ‘wind-spill’ off the flat disc sail which lacks dishing like a WindPaddle? Maybe. It will be interesting to try it on my ruddered Incept IK when it turns up, as well as the new-shape Alpacka which I am picking up next week. More testing to come this summer up in windier Scotland with my all-new packboating flotilla. Or just enjoy this 2014 video from Finland by JP. More here at leftbound.