Monday was the calm after the first big storm of autumn, a sunny day to packraft 8 miles along the Medway from Tonbridge to Yalding station. With recent heavy rains, I was expecting a noticeable current on the usually placid Medway whose flow is constrained by numerous locks.
I’ve been caught out on this river before by massively dropped water levels (usually during winter maintenance), so I remembered to check the river status on the website. Oddly it claimed all was normal, but the Medway was clearly up to the grass and I wondered if the five canoe chutes downstream may be closed. Oh well, each lock or weir has a handy low-level jetty so a little portaging will be some extra exercise. It wasn’t till I got back home that I saw they’d issued the warning you see above left.
The noise of the thundering weir at Tonbridge Town Lock put me on edge, and as I set off across the carpet of white scum the over-loaded weir had generated, I was mindful of the latest in a series of revelations about how much raw sewage gets dumped directly into English rivers and coasts by water treatment plants (it’s said fines are cheaper than treatment). A week ago it’s said public outrage had forced the government to reverse a vote against regulating raw sewage dumping. In fact, it seems intensive livestock production is a greater threat to healthy, biodiverse rivers. A few months ago activist George Monbiot exposed how the Wye (which we packrafted last spring) was choking to death from the effluent produced by cattle, pig and chicken installations in its catchment area. The brown, flood-charged brown waters swirling around me now took on a different meaning.
The Medway was moving like a proper unfettered river at a pace I’d not seen before. Small eddies, boils and whorls spun up to the surface at each bend or constriction, and occasionally the boat got pushed or pulled about.
On arriving at Eldridge Lock, the very shallow-gradient chute had burst its banks, so to speak, and was twice as wide as normal, with the metal edges of the channel hidden in the brown murk. A little taken aback, I was too focussed on keeping the packraft in line to take a photo. Once down, the powerful eddies belting out of the churning weir right alongside the chute took a bit of digging to get across, before carrying on downstream through the frothed-up scum. As a longer boat could have got crossed up and flipped over in the unconstrained chute, you’d think think they’d have closed it.
Downriver, the gate was closed on the Porters Lock chute, which appeared the same as normal and perfectly straightforward. With the base of the chute separated from the adjacent weir’s turbulence, I slipped under the bar, as I’ve done before, and shot the chute with ease.
The next two chutes at the similar East- and Oak Weir Locks were also unflooded if flowing briskly within their sides. But the gates were too low to slip under, so I rolled out of the boat and carried it down to the jetty.
With the strong current and a helpful back breeze, I got to the final chute at Sluice Weir in what felt like no time. Branches and other debris obscured the entry point which, even at the best of times, is difficult to nose up to to check the chute was clear without getting sucked in.
Because you never know what may be jammed half way down the chute until you tip over the edge, I decided to cross over to the jetty on the other bank and have a look before hurtling down.
Just as well as, although the chute was clear and running shallow within it sides, the thundering weir alongside span a back eddy clockwise right into the placid drop zone. The packraft would have almost certainly skimmed over to the flow, but as I was right by the put-back-in jetty, the ‘dare’ didn’t seem worth the risk. Messing about near weirs can end badly. Maybe it was a matter of timing on the day, but it seemed ironic that two potentially dodgy chutes were open, while the three straightforward ones were closed.
All that remained was the last mile or two to Yalding Weir and on down the short, deadwater canal to Hampton Lock for a wipe, roll up and the 14:40 back to London.
A quick check over my old Gumotex Sunny proved it looked as good as when I gave it away nine years ago. So I bunged it in the car and drove to Tonbridge for the ever-reliable Medway Canoe Trail. With half a dozen fun chutes to dodge lock portages, it’s about as exciting as a river gets in Southeast England. As the lush summer verdure passes its peak, in places you feel you could be somewhere exotic. It was to be a cooler day promising thunderstorms and violent downpours – a relief and an added thrill after a week of 30°C+ temperatures.
I was going to run at the official 0.2 bar (3psi), paddle for a bit then put some more in the sides to see if I noticed a dramatic difference. But when the floor PRV hissed at presumably 0.2, it felt so mushy I went right ahead and cranked the sides up to around 0.3bar (4.3psi). There was no blazing sun today so it shouldn’t be too risky, and they’ve felt that tight before.
Using my big-bladed ‘whitewater’ Corry paddle, initially it was all a bit of an effort, but that was just me adjusting to the task, not the boat. Soon I found my rhythm and by the way the lush, berry-laden river banks skimmed by, I’d guess I was cruising at 3.5mph. Not bad, but this was flatwater.
The first canoe chute came up, then the steeper East Lock and Oak Weir Lock chutes where local boys were sliding down on their backsides. I often worry that these unsedated teenagers may do something stupid to show off to their mates, like try and jump on my boat from a bridge. But the worst I got coming off a chute was a cooling facefull of splash and a cheeky “Oh, sorry mate!”.
A couple of other IKs were out, including a well-used and now ubiquitous lime green Itiwit which must be the hit of the summer for Decathlon who seem to have anticipated the demand. Passing a camping field, I also observed a new-to-me spin on the novelty inflatable toy theme: a pizza slice. It was inappropriate to sneak a photo, but it nevertheless makes me marvel anew at the sheer joyous breadth of human creativity.
In about 2 hours I reached the daunting sounding Grade 3 Sluice Lock chute which the Sunny swept down in its stride. By now I was feeling a bit saddle sore. Since I originally owned the Sunny I’ve leaned a whole lot, including the value of solid footrests and a slightly raised seat for an efficient paddling stance and comfort. What came first: civilisation or chairs? When I see pictures of me paddling Shark Bay all those years ago it’s clear I’m sitting too low with feet at butt level, if not even higher due to the sag. The Aire Cheetah seat which I thought was so hot in 2006 may have been better than the stock seats but is nothing special and doesn’t spread the side tubes out. This helps make the Sunny a slender 30″ wide, but adds to discomfort on the jammed in hips. A pad (or my shoes) underneath the seat would raise me above the sidetubes and greatly improve the paddling position to something more akin to driving a go-kart.
A footrest I’ve yet to reimagine, and may not bother before selling the Sunny. I like the look of the Grabner alloy footbars which are width adjustable and cleverly jam down between the inflated floor and sides. They cost a reasonable (for Grabner…) €80 and come in various sizes for all sorts of Grabner IKs. It might be possible to easily MYO from 1-inch copper tube or something, but welded alloy would be best at the T-join where the stress is.
With leaden skies and near constant rumbling thunder to the north, I was disappointed to dodge a good summer downpour and arrived at Hampton Lock in 2.5 hours, 8 miles and surprisingly not knackered. I splayed out the Sunny like a dissection experiment; it was clean and dry in minutes.
Someone on YouTube made a good point about drying which otherwise seems so inconsequential. When you arrive back from a tiring paddle the last thing you want to do is spend ages carefully dismantling and drying your boat. And drying it back home may not be an option because lack of space was why you bought an IK in the first place! That’s why we appreciate ‘wipe-down’ bladder-free ‘tubeless’, IKs like the Sunny.
I really want to go with you Really want to show you, Lord That it won’t take long, my Lord Hallelujah, Hare Rama….
Picked up while scanning the radio on the drive to Tonbridge, there were much worst earworms to be stuck with than George Harrison’s 1970 pop hymn.
I was on the water at Town Lock before 9am on a mid-September day set to hit 25. This was surely, absolutely, positively the very last day of summer. End of! But just after 9am something was wrong. The MRS was saggy and I knew why. Annoyingly, it tends to need a top-up a full 5 minutes in, not just by resting empty on the cold water as I get ready to hop in. I put it down to being a high-volume and thin-skinned boat which takes a while to cool down and lose a little pressure once on the water. Plus, because you sit in the middle – not the back like a normal packraft – you notice the hull sag-crease to either side and feel the flex-bobbing as you paddle. That is why the K-Pump I’d dismissed today is a good idea with the Nomad: it gives the MRS a darn good over-pump before putting in and avoids the need to do it again in a few minutes. I suppose another way would be liberally splashing the boat all over for a few minutes before final top off. Now as taut as a harp string, I set off into the low morning sun, passing trees still in full leaf but slowly losing their sheen. I know that feeling.
The Medway would ordinarily be a fun-to-do-once southern English river if it wasn’t for the half-dozen jaunty canoe chutes installed to bypass the locks and weirs without portaging. Another way of spicing it up is to race it in a K1 kayak little wider than your hips. The first such bloke shot past me annoying close, paddling so fast he was bobbing up and down like a dashboard doggie. Soon a few others followed, including a double which must have been 22 feet long, and a guy in a plywood Wenonah with a lightning-fast single-paddle switch.
On the walk to Town Lock I’d passed several bands of early-morning Mamils browsing and clacking outside Tonbridge High Street’s 525 coffee shops – a common Sunday-morning sighting these days. But it seems a sub-species has evolved out of the recreational lifestyle gene pool – Mamiks – steely-eyed K1 kayakers, competitive City types going hell-for-leather, a club burn-up belting past at what looked like double my speed. But it seems one thing these slender 18-foot training razors couldn’t do was shoot the lock chutes, even if it saved them minutes of cumbersome portaging taken at a trot. Presumably skimpy and unhinged rudders would snap off, or the pencil-thin boat would get crossed-up on exit and flip like a fish-farm salmon.
By mid-morning there were plenty of other regular paddlers on the Medway: SoTs, canoes (but no SUPs), all enjoying a sunny Sunday on the water. I even spotted two Medway firsts: a wild swimmer bobbing along, followed by a naturist wild swimmer tiptoeing down a bank and finally, another old couple in their brand-new retirement Sevy Riviera which looked uncharacteristically pert. My sweet lord, they’re all out today.
Sweat was dripping from my nose and the back-breeze helped, but I did seem to be going at a good old lick for a packraft. I also noticed that I was paddling like you’re supposed to. I spotted this bizarre development on my last outing: I was pushing forward with my high arm (‘press-ups’), less pulling the lower arm through the water (‘pull-ups’). I was informed of this technique (along with ‘lighthouse’ torso pivoting) years ago by a mate who did a 1:1 paddle-stroke course, but don’t know what’s suddenly brought it on. Maybe I’ve had a knock to the head. Up ahead it was time to line it up and sluice on down the side of Sluice Weir – the longest, steepest and sadly the last chute on this part of the Medway. I imagine it’s given many newbies a bit of a fright, but the light and buoyant Nomad sashayed off the end with a shrug. From here it was dogwater all the way to Yalding Tea Rooms where I caught up with a young SoT woman who’d left Town Lock just before me. Following her for a while, she was definitely flagging. I knew that feeling at around this distance too, but not today.
I never know how far this paddle is, or I forget as I circle, gape-mouthed round my gilded bowl. 12 miles? At least 3 hours then, so I thought I might catch the hourly 1.12 train from Yalding back to Tonbridge. But by half-eleven I was already upon Hampstead Lock (above), 11 miles according to the official map (below). Take out the breaks and that was a moving average of 5.5mph. Five years ago I thought 3.4 was good. I need to update my avatar. Not bad for a packing MAMIK then, and a great way to end the season.
Hare Rama, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna…
Like many paddlers, when I get out of the boat I’m always careful to hold the lead and move slowly, in case I kick the very light boat away from the bank – an awkward situation if alone, especially on a Pacific island with a typhoon on the horizon. While the Nomad was dripping dry at Hampstead Lock, resting on the beam of the lock gate, a gust blew it into the lock. Bugger! Luckily, it landed right way up, but ten feet down, there was no way I could reach it. Luckily too, it was caught in an eddy caused by the sluicing and right by the wall, not drifting off towards Maidstone. This gave me time to think. I reassembled the paddle and, hanging right off the lock side and holding the blade by the tips of my fingers, was j u s t able to nudge the boat towards some slimy steps, just as a motor boat drew up to the lock, probably wondering ‘What the heck is this chap playing at?’ I’ve learned similar lessons with pitched but unweighted tents: beware the unseen gust; it blows for you.
During this gust-driven mini-drama, out of the corner of my eye I’d spotted some IK activity nearby; something grey and thin; something green and fat. Turned out it was man and boy heading out for a paddle in a Razorlite 393 and a Gumo Swingbot. I’ve not seen the drop-stitch Sea Eagle before (nor a Swing, tbh) and have to say I was impressed by the look of the SE – and not just because it was next to a dumpy Swing (not one of Gumotex’s finest IKs). Those wide footrests on the RL might well help brace it, as long as knees don’t get in the way. And it had what they call a good fit and finish, but then so it should for a grand. The bloke knew his Gumboats and that a few other brands produced DS IKs near-identical to the RL. He was very pleased with the fast Sea Eagle. I’m still not convinced by the flat floor but one day I’ll getI got to try one.
Grappling to get the boat out of the muddy Medway river at Yalding one time put a light scrape on the hull. It reminded me that, along with fitting PRVs to the sidetubes, another winter job was to fit a protective strake under the bow where most scraping occurs. Better to get the protection in early while the boat is newish.
A 70 x 15cm Hypalon off-cut (close enough to Nitrilon) was 14 quid on ebay and once trimmed left enough for another strake or two. I had some Polymarine two-part adhesive (below) and glued the strip to the boat’s curved form with the floor inflated, even if that meant working the roller to press it all together was less effective. I then slathered some Seam Seal around the nose of the strake to protect it from unpeeling (less runny Aquaseal would have been better but a Seam Seal tube was open. More on glues here).
2021 Update A strake is a good idea but actually got hardly worn, so on Seawave 2 I just stuck on some Gorilla tape, maybe two layers, in the same place. Easily renewed/removed.
While the boat was filling the hallway and causing a hazard to domestic navigation I also bodged up a better system for the all-important footrest. A bit of inner tube now counter-tensions the footrest from the bow to keep it in position. It means the thing is now fully adjustable across a wide range of positions, can easily be fine-tuned from the water, removes in seconds for boat cleaning/drying and needed no extra fittings glued to the boat. Once great thing about the Seawave is the multitude of attachment points on the floor and sides.
While on the river my aged Mk1 Alpacka U-seat base went flat, split right in the U. This seat is part of a lighter and comfier system I brought over from my Amigo – an improvement on the one-piece Seawave seats. It’s currently unfixed to the boat and the thin nylon must have ripped while yanking it into position on the river after getting back in. Again, I’m trying to avoid gluing extra D-rings to the hull – they’d limit seat base adjustment options anyway.
Better then to attach the seat base to the base of the backrest with a couple of zip ties. The whole backrest/seat base can then slide forward and back off the backrest side straps and it all unclips from the boat in less than 3.7 seconds. I glued up the punctured U-seat but it won’t last, so I’ve ordered MkII Alpacka seats (left) from Packrafting Store: €70 delivered for a pair. From Alpacka US the seats cost $25 but their auto-calculated international postage is nuts, let alone tax and VAT issues. These seats have the U filled in like a webbed foot: stronger and less floppy for just ~12g extra weight.
2021 Update. I’m using the same system on Seawave 2; a non-U packraft seatbase and a used backrest off a Bic SoT with a piece of stiff plastic board slotted inside.
I’ve also ditched my old my SoT thigh straps (left). Nicely padded and effective though they were, the brass spring connectors and padding made them feel heavy and bulky at ~720g.
Instead I got some non-padded Anfibio packrafting straps (they’re different now). With my biners they come in at 270g. The delta-straps dangling off the sides are a clever idea, designed to give a more direct pull when rolling a packraft for example. Can’t see myself doing that in any of my boats. Whether you’re rolling or just paddling, in rough water the more direct connection with the boat the better. I’m a big fan of these light but effective straps now. No need for paddling.
As we’re normally way up north for the British summer, I’ve forgotten how great a sunny 26-° southern English day feels. It’s been years. If it was France it’d be normal, but in the UK it’s not which adds to the magic. A perfect day then to bang out a Medway run from Tonbridge to Yalding in my newish Alpacka Yak. Even the wind was up for it, with a stiff, 15mph breeze forecast from the southwest.
With shoes, shirt and pfd in the wet bag, I slid down the chute off Tonbridge’s Town Lock, sat up straight and set sail. Overhead the wind was lifting the leaves, exposing their lighter underside, and with the river course (below) oriented right on it, I suspected this was going to be a good run. Eldridge Lock chute rolled up in under 20 minutes and that felt like at least a mile (1.3). And with no shoes or pfd the Yak felt roomy so I pushed the backrest low to get nicely jammed in. Paddle at eye level, a full draw from the feet, and I crack on.
Porters Lock already? OK then. How far is it to Yalding, anyway? Twelve something; couldn’t remember if it was kms or miles (13km), but I knew when we did it last June in my new IK that I was pooped well before the end. After Porters I pass some canoe-ers crouched on the floor of their boat, battling upstream. There’s no current but they’re sure fighting the wind. Further down the river, a couple with a camo-pattern IK are lunching by one of the locks. With the trees in full summer bloom and yellow lilies at the banks, in places the pea-soup Medway could pass for a backwater in Kakadu, with salties lurking in the shallows, eyeing up wading jabirus.
Much sooner than expected it’s the big slide down Sluice Weir Lock (above) which I knew was near the end. The short Yak surfs over the frothing base a lot better than a nose-burying kayak. I took no water on any of the chutes and the backwind even helped keep the paddle splash off me. After a quick visit to water the bushes, I top off the seat and hull. Holy moly, now the firmed up Yak is skimming along like a surf ski under the big-bladed Corry paddle. This last section was a l o n g haul last time, but I power on and there is, the Anchor Inn at Yalding. Don’t want to eat there again, so I finish off my water and check the watch. Two hours twenty. That seems fast; it was an all-dayer last time.
It’s another 5-10 minutes scoot down to the take-out at Hampstead Lock and a short walk to the station where it costs over a fiver to ride three stops back to Tonbridge. When I get home I Google Map the river distance: 7.5 miles or about 12 clicks to the Anchor. In two twenty that’s a pretty surprising 3.4mph or nearly 3 knots. I’d be pleased with that in my 14-foot IK, but in dumpy packraft? Not bad at all.
A sunny day in the south of England saw me back on the water with the Big Kahuna Man after many months off. It was a chance to anoint my new Grabner Amigo’s slick, factory-oiled hull with the Medway’s occluded discharge. If you’re interested, there’s more on why I got myself an Amigo right here.
BK Man and I started out of Tonbridge with a plan to replicate our icy winter run of last year when at times we had to crack our way down the river. Assembling the Amigo for the first time was of course simple once I had the bayonet adaptor fitted to the end of my aged Bravo foot pump, but that pump could barely manage to get the requisite 0.3 bar (4.3psi) the Amigo runs. More about all that malarkey on the mods page.
We slipped down the rather tame Tonbridge Town Lock chute (right) where it soon became obvious the Amigo was not going to break any speed records. This may be a false impression as there was a stiff head-breeze, negligible current and my lack of paddling fitness and of course the Amigo’s 3.75m and 80cm width – over half a metre shorter and 11cm or 4.3 inches wider than my old Incept. All that made for hard yakka while the slick Kahuna glided effortlessly by.
On a positive note the Medway hereabouts now appears to be fully chuted up for canoes – we could have got all the way to Yalding without getting out. As mentioned, some chutes are rather dull affairs where fixed bristles churn up the water and slow a boat down. Others, as we knew well, were steeper and more sporty numbers that you attack at full pelt (left). We like those!
The recently fitted Gumotex skeg tracked flawlessly but still kept the curly ended Amigo turnable. It will be good to try paddling without it; not such a good idea at sea but always handy in shallow rivers where the current should provide the speed you otherwise gain from being able to paddle harder with a skeg.
In between the fun chutes, the simpering Medway crept by. BK Man combed the water as gently as if he was brushing Kate Middleton’s perfumed hair, while I hacked away like the Barber of Seville with my too-large Corryvreckan paddle; very light and stiff it may be but it’s not the blade of choice when unfit. Also, the boat’s secondary seat lugs tended to catch my thumbs, the spare packraft seat was a bit sloppy on the factory oil and I was in dire need of a footrest: all things to refine or fit once relocated up north. Later I just rested on the seat back with no air padding from the Alpacka seat and that was fine and enabled a good back posture, though I do worry about snapping that seat bar in a hard hit or clumsy moment. It did dislodge a couple of times as the boat flexed down steeper chutes. I suppose a stick or even just a strap will make do as a replacement.
You can see from the pic on the right that even with my weight and only .25 bar in the side tubes, the Amigo is as straight as a boiled hardshell and unlike the Sunny of old. In future I’ll pump it up to 0.33 or so to compensate for the cooling once it gets in the water.
By the time we got to the sporty Sluice Weir Chute (lef and right) I was knackered, sore and starving, a torment made worse by the gusting breeze and the succulent aroma of wild garlic emanating from the lush, green river banks. Southern England in early summer really is a great place to be an insect.
We had high hopes of snaring a good feed at Ye Olde Anchor Inn at Yalding, but it was so poor it wasn’t even worth a picture. I ate as well in primary school back in 1968. What a waste of a great location; someone keel-haul the chef! Next time we’ll revert to the tea room on the other bank. As we approached the Inn we were puzzled by a string of schoolkids in mini kayaks lining up to slip down the flat Yalding weir face. Like some neoprene Pied Piper, their teacher or guide was actually pushing away the orange safety booms so the little mites could slip through and potentially plummet to their deaths. I suppose the river police must allow it. At the low levels we knew the flat slide down the weir face was not so suited to our long boats – the Kahuna’s nose would dig in to the concrete at the base and spin the back around while I’d scrape my skeg all the way down to the sound of melting plastic. Btw, check out this vid of what happens at Yalding when they open the taps. Scary!
Gastronomically unsatisfied, we lowered ourselves back into our boats for the short hop to Hampstead Lock (no chute). Here, in the full spirit of The Pack Boating Way, we dismantled our boats, walked 5 minutes the station and caught the train back to Tonbridge. I can confide that like a Sunny, an Amigo is so easy to dry, just splay it out (right) like a Peruvian hamster entree, give it a wipe, roll it up and off you go.
One thing I can to say about the Grabner – you do appear to get what you pay for. Construction appears to be flawless – far superior to the Incept, better than Gumoes I’ve had and with not a smudge of stray glue or ill-adhered creases, gaps or lumps. Once the set up is optimised it’s an IK that ought to last many, many years. More Amigo action to come up in the Summer Isles in the next couple of months
The Medway is not a river I’d choose to run in mid-December. I’ve kind of given up on English rivers, with all the access hassles, angling aggro. The Southeast of England is more congested than most, with a lot of canalisation and locks. But the other day, a week before Christmas, Steve and I drove down to Tonbridge to give Kent’s historic river a try.
He’d invited me to take his Feathercraft Big Kahuna folding kayak for a spin. The Medway would be just as wet as the Thames, but a bit nearer and easier to train back to the car. Feathercraft‘s Big K was a folder I was thinking of getting at the time so it was a real fluke when I realised one of the few people I knew who was into paddling actually had one. Then, as we tooled up in the town car park I realised I’d forgotten the Sunny’s pump. what a plonker! It had been a while since I’d paddled my Gumo Longboat down south but luckily I’d also brought the Alpacka packraft which Steve was curious to try. A slick Feathercraft paddling alongside the dumpy Denali was not how we’d planned it, so having messed about looking for the right put-in (the map guide above was not so clear) we decided to just get as far as we got before dark and train back to Tonbridge.
Either they’d built the dock platforms extra high to discourage canoeists, or the water level at the Tonbridge’s Town Lock was a good 2 or 3 feet lower than normal. It made launching the Kahuna 4 feet below the dock too awkward. Even getting into the Alpacka would have been tricky, so we plodded on into the woods out of town and found a muddy bank from which to deploy our portable water craft. Watching Steve assemble the Kahuna proved it was a pretty quick job – maybe 25 minutes out the bag. I can’t say I was hanging about twiddling my thumbs by the time I’d pumped up my packraft, put on a drysuit and clamped the two halves of my paddle together with that satisfying ‘click’.
‘Merdeway’ Steve had called it, not having done it either and expecting the usual jetsam slalom through a neo-urban river’s boat-stabbing detritus. The Kent countryside is not like the wilds of Scotland and the Medway didn’t exactly look like the Everglades in springtime. He’d picked up the official river guide somewhere but it looked a bit basic to me. If we’d looked online right here or here we’d have found out why the river was low. In fact Steve had checked online and just saw ‘Green – All Clear’ at Allington, rather than a skull and crossbones. Having paddled the Medway several times since, I have the Environment Agency officers or whoever a bit slack with announcing river level anomalies which could affect paddlers The river hereabouts had actually been closed for boating a few days earlier because Eldridge Lock – the first out of Tonbridge – was about to get a make-over and was wide open, running a dodgy, 3-foot drop followed by a train of nasty-looking eddies (below). This is how paddlers come to grief. You’d think they might have put up a red flag or a boom or something! It’s just as well we’re not hard of hearing because whatever that ominous rushing noise was, we wanted a look first which meant clambering through more cloying mud up the exposed river banks and onto the lock. I’ve since been informed that there should have been signs at Town Lock and the bridge 500m upstream of Eldridge Lock saying “Danger – Works ahead – River closed” but I can’t say we saw them.
Looking down on it (above), with a fast run up a long boat like the Kahuna would probably have speared itself over, but I’m pretty sure that with half the available speed, the Alpacka would’ve merely plopped over the edge like a wet mattress and promptly flipped backwards (or ‘bandersnatched’ as they call it in America). Soon after, I’d get sucked into some lethal hydraulic tumbler with all the plastic bottles and dead badgers. Urgh, gives me the creeps. I don’t like canal locks at the best of times.
Just past here we swapped boats; I eased myself into the yellow Feathercraft and shoved backwards off some rocks. Without any anatomical adjustments, first impressions were not good. The seat back was too inflated, pushing my shins off the foot rests up onto the underdeck. Plus Steve’s Bending Branches paddle, hand carved from a narwhal’s tusk by a blind Inuit shaman, seemed all wrong in my hands. It took me 5 minutes before I even managed to turn the 14-foot boat round but once Steve deflated the backrest I felt more at home.
Man, it sure is nice to g li d e smoothly and quietly along a river after half an hour pack-splashing left to right like a ferret in a whirlpool. This surely is at the heart of kayaking’s appeal: smooth, quiet, weightless, waterbound progress. The £2200 Big Kahuna was a pleasure to paddle, once you’re in it’s all go, but getting in an out was the usual ballet on barbed wire for me, and there are a lot of locks on the Medway Canoe Trail. It can’t be all that bad though. Last summer Steve has spent weeks and weeks Kahooning down the Danube (above) with a posse of Germanic Rührschaufellen.
Back on the dreary Medway, there was a conspicuous lack of complaining emanating from my Glorified Green Inner Tube. Could Kahunaman be secretly enjoying the little packboat? We swapped back to our own paddles, much better for me. I was breaking in my new oversized and super-light Werner Corryvrecken, and could now really shift the Big K. Every stroke translated to a breeze across the face. It had been a long time since I felt that in a packboat!
I knew there was a canoe chute somewhere on this river, which added an un-Kentlike thrill. I never even knew the Brits were into these like they are in France where they’re called glissades and are a lot of fun on a hot summer’s day (let alone the portage aggro they save). Porters Lock was the chute – or ‘canoe pass’ as they call them here – but suddenly the idea of being hurled down it wrapped in a rubbery sarcophagus of alloy tubes filled me with horror. I really do have a problem with these SinKs! We got out and recce’d the raging sluice which drops all of a metre or maybe even two over 10 metres or so. That done we deduced confidently that at least one of us might survive the drop and crawl to the bank alive to paddle again.
We swapped back to our own boats and interestingly, Steve admitted afterwards he had a lot of bother regaining control of the long Kahoo and thought I’d sawn through one of the tubes as a jape. It transpired that just a short spell of nuance-free packrafting – requiring as it does all the poise and balance of sleeping cat in a sofa – had been sufficient for his cerebral cortex to delete eons of kayaking skills. Or so he thought, though actually increasing the pole tension on his FC at the swapover had altered the hull dynamics to tippier and less turnable. Eventually he lined it up and slid down the chute like a component on a production line. No big drama; nor for me in the raft.
Clambering over the next lock, we came across a barge lady chopping up wood in advance of the next cold spell forecast in a few days time. Three more locks to Yalding she said, our planned take-out at Mile 8 by the famous thatched Anchor pub. As we dropped the boats in we realised this stagnant back channel was actually under an inch of mostly intact ice. No problem I thought reboarding the Kahuna, the pointy end will cut through it like an icebreaker making a nice sound effect and a path for the Alpacka to follow. No it won’t. Instead the bow will ride up onto the ice sheet and start tipping the boat sideways if the ice didn’t give way in time. Yikes! Even in a drysuit I was getting chilled and didn’t fancy tipping myself into the pea-green, near-freezing waters of the Merdeway. Meanwhile, propped in the handy packraft, Steve attacked the ice with his sturdy narwhal tusk as the boat bobbed and spun around.
He had more success in the raft because the kayak’s distant prow was too far ahead for me to reach up and hack at the ice – plus my super-light Corry didn’t have the clout to do any more than scratch and slither over it. The patch of iced-up river was only about 30 metres long and Steve bashed on through along the bank like a contestant from whatever they call It’s a Knockout these days, until we were free again and on our way to Yalding. Now you know, when the Ice Age returns, packraft better than long kayak.
By the time we got to Sluice Weir (below, another time) I was back in the packboat. We could see the chute on the right but access was blocked by a big tree trunk (above). I nipped out to have a look from above and was a bit shocked: this chute was twice as steep and twice as long as Porters. Where were we, Alton Towers all of a sudden?
Rather tellingly the Medway Canoe Trail website features lots of shots of wholesome young couples with great posture shooting down Porters chute with toothsome smiles, but you won’t find a trace of the Juicy Sluicey Weir chute other than sexed-down refs that it’s a bit on the steep side for long boats [which may bury their nose and send you flying]. In a packraft: who knows how it would handle it, but on a warm summer’s evening it would be fun to find out. A couple of degrees above freezing in winter had less appeal and anyway, Steve was paddling commando with no skirt or dry suit and was already feeling the chill. Had the bank been accessible and not a scrum of brambles I’d have tried wading in and pulling the tree away, but a few minutes in that near-freezing water would have got nasty, let along the worry of slipping and getting sucked on a boatless ride down the chute. Maybe we’ll go back with a saw and a rope some time. [Again, I’m told a more explicit sign warning ‘Warning: steep chute’ is in the pipeline.]
From then on it got to be a a bit of trudge for me in the packboat towards Yalding. Steve was getting cold hanging around waiting for me and I was getting puffed out trying to keep up, and both our feet were numb from the cold. In the end he instructed me to hook up and towed me along by my packrafting ears. The GPS had proved what was fairly obvious, the Kahuna was easily twice as fast as the Alpacka and as you’ll see in the vid, a pointless head-to-head race had me thrashing at the water like a drowning addax, while Steve pulled ahead calmly, lighting a cheroot and texting in bids to his broker.
We arrived at Yalding and managed to haul ourselves up a wall onto the pub’s forecourt where they screw the ashtrays to the tables. We rolled up our boats and inside had a tea and a burger, waiting out the icy chill until the train back to Tonbridge was due. All of 8 miles we did in 4 hours or so. The classic run is from Tonbridge right through to Allington in Maidstone, 20 miles it says. And from there as far again to Rochester is on the estuarine tides and beyond the reach of river byelaws. But once the Eldridge lock is fixed up and with four other chutes on the way to Yalding, the Medway sounds like a fun run between the tame flatwater stages and portages. The river agency have certainly done a good job building in kayak-friendly infrastructure.
I’ve paddled the Medway several times in inflatablekayaks and packrafts – it’s fun. Search ‘Medway’