Packraft sailing the North Sea – Het Zwin to De Panne

Almost 7 o’clock in the morning. The first train of this September Sunday arrives at Knokke station. It’s still dark and night outside. Low drifting grey clouds obscure the rising dawn. I walk to the beach while the latest party goers of the weekend stumble home through the otherwise empty streets of Belgian’s most mundane beach resort. At the beach I walk east and meet the Dutch border after one and a half hour at an emptying river channel. This is were the salt marches of the nature reserve “Het Zwin” make a connection with the North Sea at high tide. Meanwhile the sun has risen and is intermittently piercing through the clouds.

I inflate my Alpacka packraft and install the Anfibio Windpaddle sail on the bow. A few paddle strokes through the river channel and the small breakers and I’m floating on the North Sea. 3 Beaufort winds from ENE result in a calm sea. About 8km/h is my average speed according to the GPS. Further at sea I reach 11km/h. That’s not my absolute sailing speed however as the tidal current is now flowing the same direction as the wind with the receding tide and seems quite strong when sailing passed a light tower.

To pass the port of Seabruges (which is partly built in the sea), I need to sail 4km away from the beach. A big ship is approaching the port, but I manage to cross the sea lane on time. Just passed the harbor I cross the marine police in their speedboat. They don’t look interested in my presence here however.

Sailing or paddling on the North Sea in the Belgian territorial waters with a non motorized vessel shorter than 6m in length is allowed by law only if you have certain safety equipment with you and if winds at sea don’t exceed 3 Beaufort. 4 Beaufort is still allowed if winds are blowing onshore or parallel to the shore (you can read the entire regulations here, packrafters should especially check page 17 and 47, note the clerical error in the table).

Last year when paddling near Ostend, we got a visit of the coast guard, checking if we had taken sufficient safety measures. We were allowed to paddle on.

I continue sailing quite a distance away from the coast. Plenty of sailing ships set sail towards my tiny vessel to come and watch me closely. Approaching the sea lane of Ostend harbor, I suddenly get a visit of the coast guard. “Are you in danger?” Rescuers at the beach noticed me sailing far away from the beach, thinking that I was drifting away in something that seemed to look like a toy boat and was not able to reach the beach anymore. So they made an emergency call on the VHF radio network to which the coast guard immediately responded by speeding into my direction. Despite that I’m totally fine, the coast guard seemed to be concerned about my packraft, asking if such a small inflatable is intended to take out at sea. I’m able to convince them, even though they want me to sail closer to the beach. No sooner said than done.

I manage to cross the sea lane of the port of Ostend safely. The winds increase during the afternoon to a steady 4 Beaufort while slightly backing to NE. Waves grow to just over one meter. My average speed however slows down to around 6km/h as the tidal current reverses after low tide. Hours later, after an urgent piss over the bow (you should try this at sea, really funny!), I sail passed the port channel of Nieuwpoort, approaching closer to the French border. Am I going to succeed in sailing the entire Belgian coast in just one single day?

At the beach town of Koksijde, I see the Seaking rescue helicopter of the Belgian army returning to its base after a flight over the sea. They suddenly seem to notice this tiny vessel and return to disturb my journey by noisy flying low angled ahead of me. I can see the co pilot and the crew in the hold staring to what I’m doing. After a minute the chopper finally takes wing to its base. However, I feel something is about going to happen after this visit.

Near De Panne, the last beach town before the border with France, when looking behind my back I suddenly notice the marine police chasing me from Nieuwpoort with their large patrol boat and I’m spontaneously thinking with irony: “Thank you military colleagues!”

I start to sail closer to the coast while the police is starting to follow me along my side, unable to approach me in the shallow water close to the surfing waves. I continue sailing to the last beach apartments of De Panne and than decide to better go ashore as the police keeps watching me closely despite however giving no sign to go ashore. However before I can pack my sail I get surprised by a high braking wave. My ride through the surfing waves becomes not one to be proud of.

While packing at the beach I see the marine police anchoring to keep an eye on me. Suddenly two police officers appear on the beach, sent by the marines. After showing my ID and a short inspection of my equipment, they conclude that all is fine and I’m free to go!

The French border is only 400m away. Except for this tiny bit, I have managed to sail the entire Belgian coastline in one single day. Sailing the entire 67km in a packraft? It’s done before you realize it! However, make sure you always fix yourself and your paddle to your packraft, think twice before crossing a sea lane (I even wouldn’t think about crossing the sea lane of Seabruges during a week day!) at one of the port entrances and take the Belgian law seriously. A security check of the officials is assured!

The gorges of the Haut-Allier – The jewel of paddling in the Massif Central

Last May I spent four days packrafting on the upper Allier river in the French Massif Central. After multiple small streams gather together from the northern plateaus of the Cevennes, the river gains some volume and throws itself in a shallow but wild forested gorge downstream of the town of Langogne. Here the river bed contains one boulder garden after the other. There are even waterfalls up to one and a half meter high and several rapids rated class 4. Water levels were however very low in the upper reaches during my trip, actually too low to run everything smoothly as the dam of the Naussac reservoir did not release any flow (it does however during the summer months).

Despite the low water during the first two days, I had lots of fun and portaged the more tricky passages. After a night tarp camping in the gorge along the river, I continued passed the town of Chapeauroux towards Alleyras where the valley changes to a deeper canyon. The river has a more gentle flow here. It did remind me of the Tarn river further south.

Paddling is forbidden between Alleyras and Monistrol and so I hiked through the vast forest on the plateau to the next section, probably the most famous part of the river. After another bivouac along the river, I exchanged ground for water again below my feet in the morning. Monistrol to Prades is often paddled and thus here I met the first other paddlers. The canyon becomes quite remote and deep here. Despite from the train track on the canyon slopes, there is no single hiking path running through the canyon. Once on the river passed Monistrol, the only way out of the canyon is following the river for the next ten kilometers, forcing yourself a way through the many rapids. Bigger rapids followed as the famous “Roche qui Pleure” or the “Crying Rock”. Passed Prades the canyon walls gradually lowered and the river soon started to flow over a vast alluvial plain with long flat water sections alternated by short gentle rapids.

After another night along the river I took the train in Langeac to Monistrol to run the last part yet one more time. There will certainly be a next time on this river for me, hopefully then with some water release from the dam! Lots of fun on the Haut-Allier. The jewel of paddling in the Massif Central as many people describe this river, it seems to be quite true.

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Packraft discrimination

Last weekend a small group of Flemish and Dutch packraft enthusiasts headed to the whitewater track of Arras in Northern France for a day practicing and playing.

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However, some things didn’t work out as we had hoped. Many of us didn’t yet have a lot of whitewater experience and so tipping and swimming was regularly part for some of us. A discussion with the manager followed at noon as he wanted us to pay for a 2 hours course we had asked beforehand but didn’t got at all. Soon it became clear we were nuisance in his eyes for his big raft clients on the track and he never wanted to see us again with our packrafts on his track in the future. Instead we would be obliged to rent his own kayaks. Our packrafts were non-technical boats in his eyes, only suitable as toys in a pool and not suitable for a white water track. Once again packrafters were discriminated! The discussion went on for more than one hour! Finally we managed to come to an agreement and we were able to practice again in the afternoon, be it without any support anymore of the rescuers on the shore. We didn’t bother anymore and enjoyed our time in the waves.

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All pictures taken by Lucien and Peter.

North to the Cape – a thruhike through Scottish snow and water

During March and April earlier this year, I went to Scotland to hike through the northwest part of the Highlands between Fort William and Cape Wrath, the most northwesterly point of the mainland. The Cape Wrath trail was my guide, but I departed from the route many times to more than double the total distance of the official trail. The weather was typically Scottish with 33 days that counted at least a few hours of rain among the total 37 hiking days of the trip, including 7 with rain (or snow) all day long. Up to half a meter of snow fell on day 3, snow which still lasted a long time in the mountains for the remainder of the trip. Spring and more sunny days finally arrived during the last week.

It’s been a relaxed walk with a camp on the ridge of Suilven and the final hike along the coastal cliffs towards Cape Wrath (much more recommended than the official route over the inland peat if weather permitting) that have been the two main highlights of the trip. The pictures complete the story.

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Wave surfing the Amblève river

Last Friday Willem and I headed to the middle reaches of the Amblève river in the Belgian Ardennes for a day packraft trip. We originally wanted to make a multi day trip over the Ourthe river, but the huge amounts of rain caused too high water levels for a legal float on nearly all rivers in the Ardennes including the Ourthe. The Amblève river however remained an exception and was now the only decent choice we had left. No whining at all! This became the fourth run on the river for myself, the best so far with such a pompous flow. The Amblève is a nice class II river in its middle section with lots of scattered boulders in the river bed which create nice playing spots. A beautiful artificial wave surfing spot can be encountered under the bridge at Stavelot, but pay good attention to avoid the thin metal rod in the left section under the bridge. This rod could literally slash your packraft in two like a circular saw! The biggest waterfall of Belgium follows at Coo. One day I’d like to skip this portage and throw myself over this 13m fall! Hmmm, just keep on dreaming… Some impressions in the video.