I’ve done a few IK paddles in Southeast England between Rye and Portsmouth, but the Sussex and Hampshire coasts aren’t that inspiring. So it’s about time I started exploring the far more interesting and much more extensive Southwest Coast. From the Isle of Wight to Cornwall and back up to the Severn there are scores of inshore excursions possible in an inflatable. Just as in the far northwest where I mostly sea paddle, all you need is a fair tide and paddle-friendly winds, the latter a bit less rare down south.
So in the face of predicted moderate winds I cooked up a 50-km Jurassic overnighter from Weymouth to Swanage in Dorset. I’m pretty sure they opportunistically rebranded the plain old Purbeck or just ‘Dorset’ coast as the ‘Jurassic Coast‘ soon after that 1993 movie and haven’t looked back since. Like much of the Southwest coast, the beaches and country lanes become a logjam of holidaymakers on a warm summer’s day. On the water, our paddle would pass below sections of cliffs a couple of miles long and take us to the famed landmarks of Lulworth Cove, Durdle Door arch (top of the page) and Dancing Ledge. We could even carry on back north past Old Harry’s Rocks and across Studland Bay right into Poole Harbour to catch out trains home.
Compared to using regular (solo) packrafts, my confidence in my TXL for sea paddling is a revelation. After all, it’s still just another blobby, single-chamber packraft. It must be a combination of the added size giving a kayak-like perception of security (as I found in my MRS Nomad), as well as the responsiveness and speed from a longer waterline and, I now recognise, the sometimes noticeable added glide from the Multimat floor. There’s also the fact that paddlechum Barry was up for the Dorset run in his similar MRS Nomad, making this untypical packraft outing less daunting.
For some bathymetric reason – possibly the Atlantic tidal surge backing up in the Straits of Dover, plus hidden offshore shelves – the tides off the east Dorset coast are very odd: they can rise or drop all day, but have a range of just two metres, about as low as it gets in the UK. That ought to mean moderate ebb flows pushing up against prevailing westerlies, plus we were heading into neaps. And while often cliff-bound, if we stayed alert to escape routes we could easily bail and walk or climb out with our packrafts.
East of Lulworth Cove the Jurassic Coast‘s bucket & spade Babylon is interrupted by a 5-mile wide Danger Area – an army firing range. This was probably not one of UNESCO’s criteria for World Heritage status, but the SW coastal path also gets closed for a similar distance. Barry’s Reeds Almanac had a page or two on this (left), as well as useful tidal flow charts (drops to the west; rises east). I left it to Barry to call the ‘0800 DUCK!’ number, but imagined surely they’d leave the target practice to the off season. In fact they’re all it most of the time Mon–Fri, including an evening session 9pm to midnight: all we had to do was click this.
With a plan taking shape, I in turn bought a copy of Pesda’s South West Sea Kayaking in the hope of being alerted to local anomalies. I’m glad I did. It turned up with just hours to spare and identified that the run from Kimmeridge Bay round the Purbeck corner to Swanage was a grade up from the easy section from Weymouth. With headlands, submarine ledges and long lines of cliffs, without a foot recce I decided we may be better off skipping this bit.
I’ve been looking forward to getting back to Dorset’s amazing chalk pinnacles near Studland which we paddled in the Seawave one calm morning back in 2019. Today the tide was right and the sun was out; it was just a bit chilly and on the windy side; a good day to see how my Sigma TXL might perform at sea.
A couple of paddlechums were also up for a pre-dawn departure; Barry rode down with his similar MRS Nomad S1, while Nimbus – yet to fully embrace inflatable paddlecraft – brought his 17-foot, plastic P&H Scorpio sea kayak (left). Even at ~30 kilos, it was a proper boat for the conditions and we imagined he’d run rings round our packrafts.
Early all-day parking is a problem at Studland as the car parks don’t officially open till 9am and anywhere else you’ll get towed and Twitter-shamed. But we slipped into Knoll Beach parking at 8 and were on the water before 9am. By this time a one-metre tide was about 90 minutes after HW, and we set off into a steady onshore 12-mph northeasterly which would stop Barry and me running away with ourselves. By the time we turned the right angle at the Point for the run SSW along the cliffs, we ought to be able to put up our sails to catch up with Nimbus, except I forgot my WindPaddle. Oh well, I’d just have to paddle the full four miles and get medevaced out.
The tides at Swanage aren’t the classic sine wave. Every other tide rises and falls normally, but in between is a mini low and high. Who knows how or why but I suppose the reservoir of Poole Harbour, plus the English Channel funnel have something to do with dampening every other surge. Either way, the range was only a metre today and is hardly ever more than two down here; not enough volume to raise any strong currents. Nimbus later calculated a southerly flow of around 1mph which may help explain our higher than expected packraft speeds.
Part of the reason I got the longer TXL was to try more coastal packrafting, even if the extra bulk and weight (actually only 450g more than my previous Rebel 2K) might set me back on overnighters. This is not a paddle I’d have attempted in my backheavy 2K, even with a deck; it’s just too slow to be enjoyable. But having owned a 2.9-m Nomad S1 like Barry’s, I was fairly sure the TXL’s near identical length, buoyancy and similar ‘footprint’ would make a difference. There is something about sitting in the middle, not the back end of a boat, that makes it feel more reassuring. Unlike my Thames paddle a week earlier, I decided not to fit the TXL’s inflatable floor pad in search of a better glide. As things were, in today’s wind and chop the stability from a lower seating position would be more important.
It was about 1.5 miles to the arches at Old Harry’s headland, so I set off directly across the bay, hoping for flatter conditions further out. That wasn’t the case; the odd wave was breaking, but the TXL moved across the water purposefully. Sure, it rolled, pitched and yawed in the side waves, but sat down low I felt completely at ease, maybe even more than in my Seawave IK? Barry was clearly having the same bouncy fun in his MRS and I’d assumed the P&H would have raced off, if for no other reason than to maintain stability. But later Nimbus said the Scorpio felt a little on edge in the high-frequency chop and couldn’t have gone much faster than us on this stage.
You’d think the two long, light packrafts’ would have been blown about, but the central, kayak-like position and added buoyancy made them easy to control (with skegs fitted) and the high sides kept most of the water out. I picked up maybe a litre over a mile and a half and didn’t miss a deck at all (though I did appreciate the drysuit).
Even with photo faffing, we reached the stacks of Old Harry in about half an hour, and it hadn’t felt like any more of a struggle than in an IK. It was really quite a revelation how well the TXL (and Nomad) were performing with just an extra 50cm or 20% in the waterline over a regula packraft. The lightness of the boats must have something to do with it. Round the outside of the Point the wind and tide were fighting it out in a tidal race. It made me realise how well timed our visit in the Seawave had been three years ago. We’d arrived here in much calmer conditions but also around mid-tide with a less nasty looking race. Going round the outside today may well have been doable but set aside unpredictable currents, waves can also stand up and break out of nowhere. It was more fun to slip through on the remnants of the outgoing tide between the mainland and Old Harry’s stack. Next time I come here, I’ll make sure to arrive at the top half of the tide so all the arches can be threaded.
After a bit of promo filming for the new book, we turned 120° to the southwest and expected to have the wind behind us, but it remained a case of dealing with sidewaves plus cliff rebounds, so we kept out to sea. Despite the packrafts jigging about like popcorn in a hot pan, we managed to make progress south along the cliffs, the Scorpio now edging ahead.
After being jostled around, Barry decided to air up his AirSail, but even with two of us, pumping it up properly in the chop proved too tricky. For easy deployment on the water, the sprung-hooped Packsail (like the old WindPaddle) is a much better idea, even if it’s more bulky to carry.
We rounded Ballard Point where the cliffs turned into Swanage Bay, and with the wind now on our backs, the GPS recorded 6kph (see graph below). As usual though, it didn’t feel that fast as the boat squirrelled around from the stern. I thought about moving myself further back (relatively easily done in the TXL unlike the fixed solo Nomad) so the lightened bow trailed downwind, but it wasn’t really that bad, it just felt sloppy. Sailor Barry was now keeping up with Nim until we all rolled up on Swanage Beach, aired down the packboats and made a beeline for the cafe for a superb Full Swanage Breakfast.
The cafe let us leave the boat among their bins out back, but I was overruled on walking the four miles back over Ballard Downs back to Knoll Beach. Barry clearly had a liking for taxis which I consider more of an emergency service. “It is not the Packrafting Way!” I squealed as he put a bag over my head and shoved me in the back. Nimbus kept a diplomatic silence. Back at Knoll Beach, Barry roared off on his motorbike while Nim and I wandered back the way we’d paddled to check out at Old Harry’s from above. The tide was now at its extended low period and the wind had swung to the southeast, sheltering Studland Bay. Down below, a lone kayaker was just setting off. “That looks fun, a. We should try that sometime.”
Judging by this outing, the TXL has proved to be just what I’d hoped: a dependably agile coastal cruiser with all the other benefits of a packraft. More sea paddles to come.
Ten minutes after a paddling away from a tranquil Swanage seafront bathed in a Turneresque light (above), we found ourselves battling a stiff breeze rolling off the Ballard Downs on the north edge of Swanage Bay. The odd whitecap scurried by, a sign that the IK Limit was not far away. This felt like more than the predicted 10mph northerly. We dug onward, and once tucked below the cliffs the pounding eased. The northerly was probably amplified as it rushed down the south slope of the Downs and hit the sea. We’d paddled through that turbid patch – a bit of a shock before breakfast. What would it be like once out in the open round Ballard Point? Mutiny was afoot.
“Let’s see how it is round the corner, then decide,” I informed the crew. “Aye aye, cap’n sir.”
We eased around the corner expecting the worst, but were greeted by a magical sight: a line of 200-foot high chalk cliffs receding to a distant group of stacks and pinnacles glowing in the soft morning light and all soothed by a gentle breeze.
It was only a mile from here to Handfast Point aka: Old Harry, passing several stacks, arches, caves and slots. Ever the goldfish in its bowl, I’d got distracted before looking up tide times, but judging by yesterday evening’s paddle around Brownsea Island in nearby Poole Harbour, it was a couple of hours into its southerly ebb. We arrived at Harry’s about mid-tide but with still just enough water to paddle through most of the arches as well as some narrow slots which were already running too fast to tackle against the flow (below). A bit of a tidal race swirled past the Point, but nothing dramatic.
I’ve been planning to do Swanage for years and it was even better than expected. It must have been packed out yesterday on the bank holiday, but today, before 9am we had the place to ourselves. It’s a fascinating geological formation and all the better explored from a paddleboat.
Lit by a rising sun and on the top half of the tide must be ideal timing for a visit here. All up, it was only a two-hour roundtrip from Swanage seafront and in similarly good conditions would be easily packraftable from the north off nearby Studland beach.
Hope to paddle this again, one time.PS: Little did I know that this summer 2019 paddle would be out last sea paddle in the Seawave. Not since my original Gumo Sunny on which I learned and did so much, have I owned an IK for so long and had such fun times. What a great boat that was.