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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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.

Catching the first peak flow of the season in the Ardennes

Lesse 201311

Lesse 201311

The end of October and the first weeks of November have been very wet in Belgium and beyond. River levels steadily rose to the usual winter flow. The packraft season started. During the night from November 7 to 8, a waving cold front brought an inch of rain during the night. The day before I headed to the Ardennes and hiked upstream in the drizzle along the High Lesse, scouting the few short class III rapids that can be found in the upper reaches of the river.

Lesse 201311

Lesse 201311

Clattering rain fell down the entire night. My earplugs were grateful tools to catch some sleep under my MYOG flat tarp. Next day the rain stopped during the morning and when I came back to the river I encountered a brown coloured swollen Lesse, the flow rate had more than doubled during the night. I continued scouting further upstream where too many strainers made me decide to better hike back to near the colfluence with the Our river. After scouting the few class III rapids further downstream from the confluence to be sure, I finally put in.

Lesse 201311
Virée Jaiffe rapid where the river loses 1,5m over 3 drops.

Lesse 201311
Another nice short drop upstream of Virée Jaiffe.

Lesse 201311
Too many strainers in the river upstream of the village of Lesse.

What looked a bit intimidating and difficult to catch the best line through the two biggest rapids while scouting from the river side, seemed to be child’s play once in my packraft, although the swift current between the rapids asked for attention almost any time.

Lesse 201311

Lesse 201311

Lesse 201311
A submerged strainer created a nice little waterfall.

Lesse 201311

I had to portage one strainer, all other ones could be passed along or jumped. Further downstream the river was flooding at several places and I was lucky to notice a wire stretched low across the river just in time. Another time I had to fight with overhanging branches that caught my head and almost pulled me out of my raft. Packrafting at peak flows teaches you to stay focused on the river at all times. It took me almost 2 hours to float down almost 20km. At such speed fun insured!

Packrafting the Swiss Grand Canyon

End of August and I receive a last minute invitation from Waluyo to join him on a yet to define packrafting trip in Switzerland. By chance I can take a few days off. Same so for Eraz. The three of us are heading to the Swiss Alps September 1th and decide to take the alpine headwaters of the Rhine river as our target. The Hinterrhein and Vorderrhein rivers join near the village of Bonaduz to form the upper Rhine upstream of Lake Constance. The lower part of the Hinterrhein looks like a nice warming up for the somewhat more challenging whitewater of the Vorderrhein, the latter wriggling itself through a 20km long canyon before meeting the Hinterrhein. The canyon bears the local name Ruinaulta and is also known as the Swiss Grand Canyon because of its size (of course by far not to be compared with Arizona standards).

Ruinaulta 201309

On late Sunday we meet each other in Bonaduz. Our trip starts at the confluence of the two rivers. We hike upstream along the Hinterrhein at dusk and soon it is too dark to keep our head lamps in our packs. Waluyo has found a perfect camping spot on a small strip of meadow surrounded by woods and at the edge of the abysm to the river. We put our tarps and inspect each others lightweight gear, but it is Eraz his super light MYOG that receives most attention. We talk till almost midnight and finally creep under our down bags while some light rain is tapping on our tarps.

Ruinaulta 201309

Ruinaulta 201309

The morning is dry again. We warm up after breakfast with an hour playing frisbee, something we will repeat for the next mornings… and not only during the mornings. We continue our hike upstream and soon we encounter the rocky rapid in the Hinterrhein near Rothenbrunnen. We decide to inflate our packrafts on a small gravel bar in the river bed just below the rapid. The lower Hinterrhein reveals itself as a rather fast flowing river with some rather modest wave trains and a few easy swift currents. The water level in the river is lower then average and so it becomes a relaxed ride on the river. After about one and a half hour we reach the confluence with the Vorderrhein, put out and let dry our gear on the river bank with the noon lunch.

Ruinaulta 201309

Ruinaulta 201309

For the remainder of the day we hike to the west, climbing to the forested south rim of the Vorderrhein canyon with from time to time some budding views down to the river. Eraz suddenly stumbles upon an edible mushroom and is already dreaming about its delicious dessert for this evening. We eventually descend into the canyon to reach the narrow side canyon of the Rabiusa creek. Here we make our camp on the gravel bottom of the canyon and lit a camp fire. Soon the sky is dark with countless stars flickering above the chasm. A curious fox pays us a visit in the dark.

Ruinaulta 201309

Ruinaulta 201309

Ruinaulta 201309

The sun rays take a long time to reach our cold camping spot at the bottom of the canyon during the morning. In order not to get cold, this means frisbee morning!

Ruinaulta 201309

Ruinaulta 201309

The day becomes warm as we continue our trip hiking to the west. After some views over the canyon, we mostly continue inside the canyon near the river during the afternoon, scouting some of the rapids. At Schwarze Loch, the most impressive rapid in the canyon, we keep a long break and discuss the ideal line to be followed through the whitewater. Afterwards we hike all the way to Ilanz and finally put in on the Glenner before its confluence with the Vorderrhein.

The water level we encounter on the Vorderrhein has become very low however. Unfortunately that’s what you can get with regulated flow by hydropower dams upstream. However, the river gains some discharge again as we float downstream and the rapids we encounter offer already quite some fun. When we finally reach Schwarze Loch, the river its water level suddenly rises with about half a meter. We decide to take our packs from our packrafts and try to run this longer white water section. None of us has issues with taming the waves.

Ruinaulta 201309

Ruinaulta 201309

We camp at a barbecue area next to the river near the entrance of Schwarze Loch and continue on the river the day after. The rapids that follow after Schwarze Loch also make the cruiser decked packrafts of Waluyo and Eraz swallow a few buckets of water repeatedly. We regularly stop to empty the rafts, except for me. The white water spray deck on my packraft proves its functionality once again. We reach Reichenau at the confluence with the Hinterrhein before noon and decide to leave our backpacks with camping gear behind at the confluence to head to the nearby train station with only our packrafting gear for another run on the Vorderrhein, but now obviously without excess gear stowed on the bows of our rafts.

Ruinaulta 201309

Once again in Ilanz, the water level now shows a decent level. The second run becomes pure joy. We play, try some harder lines and linger for a moment on a nice wave surfing spot. After only a few hours we reach the confluence again and leave the river, this time permanently.

Ruinaulta 201309

After a camp in a small meadow in the forest above Bonaduz, we hike back to our starting point the next morning and say goodbye. This has been such a great adventure that we definitely should make a similar trip again in the future. Who wants to join next time?

Ruinaulta 201309