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!

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15 thoughts on “Packraft sailing the North Sea – Het Zwin to De Panne

  1. Awesome! Quite an adventure despite not being in a faraway wilderness. Two things are quite ashtonishing: 1) the potential of packraft sailing and 2) the amount of interest from the officials! 😀

    • Yeah, the Belgian coast is mostly too built up to be an interesting destination, but the idea of packrafting the entire coast was something that was already on my mind for longer. I had just received the sail and winds/weather was perfect, so the destination for a first test sailing was quickly made. It was lot’s of fun but not something I’ll soon repeat at our coast.

      • I believe that! An interesting challenge but once done…

        On the more gear oriented side of things: Did you use a skeg (I saw photo of one somewhere…)? And if so, how it worked? And what was the angle to the wind you traveld?

        • I did not use a skeg here, but built one afterwards. Haven’t been able yet to test it properly enough to comment on it. As for the angle to the wind, I was able to sail at about 45° to the wind direction. The stronger the wind, the more difficult is becomes to maintain a bigger angle has been my impression so far.

  2. Wow, thats all I can say. I really enjoyed the way you describe your thoughts about police of sea. Today I was swimming on a sea front in Limassol , a kite surfer was surfing in the open sea (usually closer to shore to my experience so far), maybe about 2 km away from shore or more, and also, he or she liked to move just besides huge cargo ships as they are marooned in deep waters outside the city coastline. I was afraid for the safety of that kite surfer as usually they surf nearby the coast not that far and not among huge ships and not with high wind like today. Maybe if a coastguard was there I would notify them and tell them about this crazy kit surfer who takes upon huge ships among white waves and high wind.

    I was trying to get into his or her mentality too, cause im sure he or she enjoyed it a lot doing what he /she was doing. I was thinking about how responsible that person might have to be, in order to take this huge risk for his/her life. In the end all ended well and the kite surfer came ashore and in fact almost every day many surfers here go to the open wild sea among huge ships and so far I heard very few accidents of which most had a happy ending and most were because of the weather conditions changing fast and not due to the surfer’s mistake. I have huge respect for anyone taking such risks because apparently, because of very low reference of deadly accidents, they also take a huge level of responsibility with it.

    • Lots of kite surfers encountered during this sailing trip too. There are even kite surfers crossing The Channel between France and England, so I guess most of them know what they’re doing.

  3. Well done, looks like you had a good swell and wind to put your sail to the test. Based on the numbers it looks like the slightly smaller Anfibio sail (as compared with Cruiser I’ve been using) is pretty capable and powerful once the wind hits the sweet spot. Reaching 11 km/h is faster than I’ve managed to push my raft (without tidal help though, guess it makes a difference) even in close to 9-10 m/s winds. Something to try and beat once the autumn winds kick in 🙂

    • Hey Joni,
      Yes it’s difficult to compare the different sizes of the sails if not used next to each other. I think the tidal current reached at least 4-5km/h at the moment when I was sailing around 11km/h. Will have to use the sail on an inland lake to properly measure and get to know sailing speeds in fuction of wind speeds.

  4. Cool. And also of interest for packrafting lakes and wide, slow moving parts of rivers. I experienced the later with a head wind on the Nahanni a couple of years ago. A lot of work and very little distance to show for it. Of course, it made up for the parts of the river when everything was happening way too fast…

  5. Pingback: New Packrafts on the Market! | Korpijaakko

  6. Great story! I am glad to see more packrafters using the sail. I use the Windpaddle sail with my packraft in Seattle, Washington State U.S., and Baja Mexico. It adds a whole new element to the packraft. Keep writing your sailing adventures, the inspire me to do more sailing trips!

  7. Wow man, awesome adventure!

    And what a coincidence… We saw you beaching that evening in De Panne! I’m a local beach guard, off duty at that moment. Having an evening walk with the girlfriend, I spotted the police boat and wondered what was al the fuss about. Looked to me as if you knew what you were doing and there was no emergency. The police however seem to be attracted to everything that is not a sailing ship nor catamaran, I have experienced…So it’s good to take the law seriously (and even better to respect the sea).

    Looking forward to read more of your adventures!

    Liam

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