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’