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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Smells like North Sea

After some sea packrafting in Norway and France years ago, a friend and I met at the Belgian coast yesterday for some sea packrafting on the North Sea. It was the first time ever that I took my packraft to the Belgian coast. The weather forecast predicted a weak wind (3 Beaufort is definitely weak on the sea) slowly veering from west to north and only 30cm high waves, ideal circumstances to prevent any danger to be blown away from the shore or to be swallowed by giant waves. We started east of the port channel of the port of Ostend, crossed the port channel just before a ship entered and had to fight the tidal current which was strengthened by the restriction of the port channel. Then we watched the city from the sea and after a while turned our packrafts 180°.

North Sea packrafting 201308

After we crossed the port channel again, we paddled further away from the shore to take a look at the Flansea wave pioneer about 1100m from the shore. The tidal current (about 5km/h yesterday) made us almost miss the large drifting obstacle. We played a bit in its wake and both tried to circumnavigate it, which was not without danger with the strong current. Then we let us drift eastward in the current and wind, passed small fisher boats. Slowly we came closer to the shore, the rescue teams on their red lifeboats each after one visiting us to check us out and to ask what kind of strange boat we were using. As long as we did not interfere with the bathers we were fine to do what we wanted.

North Sea packrafting 201308

After a rest stop on the beach, we tried to paddle back towards Ostend against the current and the wind. We succeeded but became nevertheless so tired that we decided to stop and play a bit in the breakers. After a few pints of beer at the beach house we walked the last two kilometers back to Ostend. Next time trying to paddle the whole 67km of the Belgian coast from De Panne to Knokke with a moderate and stable WSW wind? That would be a real challenge!