Sea Kayaking Articles from P&H Staff, Team Paddlers, and Friends

Category: Expeditions Page 1 of 2

Dre’s West Coast Adventure: Part Three, “Life doesn’t get much better than this.”

June 18

Life doesn’t get much better than this.

I’m sitting in the sun above a secluded cove eating brunch, watching seals and the tide come in, finishing a lazy brunch of eggs, refried beans, and a mug of tea. You can’t drive to this cafe.  You can’t even hike. I paddled 39 miles yesterday to get here.

The forecast was 4-foot swell, with the period steadily dropping from 12 seconds several days ago. On yesterday’s paddle, though, it seemed higher and longer. I suspected a longer period swell was coming in – there were larger sets coming through all day, breaking further out than the rest and looking scarier than the predicted 4 feet at a diminishing period.

Fog rolled in around 6 to 7 miles from the beach I was looking for, one of the few protected beaches in 30 miles either direction. It got REALLY foggy about 3 miles from my goal.  I could just make out those same big sets, that seemed bigger (I don’t know if they were or if it was the fog…), breaking into cliffs.  I couldn’t see where I was going – just the shore I needed to stay away from.

Lost people go in circles. Trusting my compass to keep me padding along the shore instead of heading in made me feel like I was going in circles. I had to keep turning out from the shore to go out past the steepening swell. I had to trust my compass and my chart. Looking at the chart, I estimated I was about 45 minutes away from the bay where shore would get further away and I would need to go in behind rocks to find my protected beach. I was already terrified, and now more terrified.  How would I navigate the rocks? There was big swell coming around them and breaking, and I wasn’t sure if there was a safe line through. I opted to go out and around. Which got me through the rocks, and turned around in the fog. I couldn’t see my shore, but I could see the rocks, and the chart showed me the direction of the line of rocks and my direction from shore. I was in behind the rocks and needed to head north to my beach.

I was terrified.

I was looking at what seemed unbroken cliffs with the big swell breaking onto them. But I saw an arch that was clearly Grenville Arch. There was a safe way in a bit closer to where my protected beach SHOULD be. And then I realized I was sitting in protected water, and the surf on this beach was much smaller. It was safely landable.

The beach disappears at high tide, so I had to make a level shelf on a ledge above the beach, with a little shelf to hold it so I wouldn’t slide, and a little “patio” so I wouldn’t slide off the cliff when I got up to pee at night. I was exhausted and still a little scared and I had massive blisters – this was all hard work.

The water came really close to my tent that night. I was up 40 minutes both sides of high tide. I got splashed 4 times and had my stuff in bags in case I needed to climb the cliff…

I was feeling a ton of stress, exhaustion and pain just 5 paddling days into my 4-month-long journey.

But before the fog settled in, there was a whale. Right beside me. It surfaced 3 times, all slow like a whale does, making its ‘pffffsssshhhh’ sound, barnacles on its back. And here I am, finishing brunch in the sun, watching the sea. And I’m so lucky I get to be here, to do this, to see this beach.

Post-Expedition Thoughts

This day was one of firsts that became commonplace. My first 30+ mile day. My first whale. My first thick fog with rocks. My first time being scared. My first hard-to-locate landing. What stands out most about it several months later isn’t the fear of the swell against rocks in fog, or the dis-orientation of having to follow my compass when it felt subjectively like I had paddled in a full circle instead of a straight line along the coast, or the wonder of a whale close at hand. What stands out months later is the beach. It remains one of my favorite beaches of the whole expedition. The day ends up lodged in my memory as a good one. Which is kind of cool.

Dre’s West Coast Adventure: Part Two, “I’m so lucky.”

June 13

I’m on Day 3 of this adventure and on my 2nd weather day! It’s amazing the difference 2 days make. (Day 1 was a weather day, and I still had my head in 2 worlds). I was super stressed the last couple days before the trip started.

Then also on the first paddling day, I had a REALLY slow start (I had to carry the boat about a quarter-mile, then all the gear), a really heavy boat, I didn’t know if it may be loaded too heavy and bow heavy, there was water coming over the bow… I was still stressed. Was it a bad idea to round Cape Flattery like this? The forecast was 5-foot swell at 12 seconds – I expected some energy out there.

The kinks ironed out, the boat performed admirably, I remember I could paddle – and I got to the Cape and the stacks off the Cape. It was gorgeous. While I still had regular thoughts that I muttered aloud, “wtf am I doing?” – they became increasingly peppered with “I’m so lucky.”

I had to take another day off today. The forecast said 7 foot swell at 7 seconds, then 6 feet at 9 seconds, then I couldn’t get the right forecast and the marine forecast on my Garmin didn’t differentiate between wind waves and swell and seemed to show wind speeds on land, not water… the beach looked big. All the forecasts agreed it would diminish. A friend sent me ten proper forecast, and indeed, it’s supposed to be smaller. The beach is already looking smaller.

So today I made the best of a ridiculously high percentage of weather days and walked to the Cape Flattery trail to see what I paddled yesterday. Gorgeous. And all I can say is – I’m so lucky.

Post-Expedition Thoughts

I don’t particularly remember that my head was still in two places the first couple days of the expedition. It’s an interesting reminder to read that several months later.

What I DO remember was competing thoughts of “wtf?!” and “I’m so lucky.” I didn’t know at the beginning of the expedition – and probably wouldn’t have guessed – that those two thoughts would be my constant companions through the next 3 months. I think that every single day, I said both of those things out loud. I still think both of those things every time I see photos from the trip – and I see them every day because they’re my screen saver now… I see the photos, and I think how unbelievably lucky I am to have had the chance to do this and to get to see all the indescribable beauty I was immersed in for 3 months. And I also have that moment of “wtf?.” As I was planning, as I was paddling, and after the whole thing was over, I’ve had this constant feeling of something surreal. I mean – really? I lived out of my kayak for 3 months? On the beaches of this country – a heavily populated, heavily industrialized, heavily regulated country?

I’m grateful for one more thing now – I feel so lucky I took this trip last summer. My initial plan was to do it summer 2020. I don’t know what prompted me to move it up by a year – but wow am I lucky I did!

Dre’s West Coast Adventure: Part One, “I only meant to go to the bridge.”

This time last year, Andrea ‘Dre’ Knepper was on an epic mission to paddle solo along all 3000 miles of the West Coast of the USA from Canada to Mexico.

Unfortunately, we were in the midst of writing a new P&H website at the time, and hadn’t yet finished up its blog page; Dre’s posts, therefore, sadly got buried in our ever-overflowing inbox.

As they say, however, every cloud has a silver lining, and reminded by Dre’s current run of interviews and podcasts, we’re finally getting her posts uploaded. We’re sure, like us, you’ll enjoy the opportunity to get lost in her words and pictures, and absorbed in the story of her incredible journey. Enjoy…

I only meant to go to the bridge.

If you haven’t met me, my name is Andrea. I’ve planned a long paddle for this summer. I plan to paddle the West Coast of the Lower 48. I’ve wanted to do this for at least 15 years. 

The first leg of the journey, after months of planning and dehydrating food and looking at charts, was almost over. But I stopped 40 miles away from the end of my 2100 mile drive from Chicago, where I live, to Portland where my mom lives and where a boat was waiting nearby for me. I stopped at Multnomah Falls. 

I’ve been going to the Columbia River Gorge and the falls area for 45 years. This evening, I decided to make a quick stop at the end of a beautiful days’ drive. 

I was just going to take a quick walk up to the bridge over the lower falls. 

But then I wanted to go around the corner for the views of the Columbia. And then I wanted to go around the next hairpin for views with less obstructions. Pretty soon, I was on my way to the top of the upper falls. And I realized, hiking along in flip flops with a small cup of mocha from the snack bar and no water, that this was why I’m taking this trip this summer. Because there’s always something so beautiful to see around the next bend, the next point, at the next rest area. This world is stunning, and I like when I get to see it. Really see it.

I like long journeys. I want to know what’s next. So I stopped at  Multnomah Falls to take a quick walk to the bridge, and hiked to the top. And I’ve been eye-ing the West Coast for a long paddling expedition for 15 years.

I hope I’m more prepared for this than for my flip-flop-attired hike up to the top of Multnomah Falls! The right gear is critical for this endeavor. I put a fair amount of thought into what boat I’d like to use. The boat I’ve paddled for 15 years is playful and fun, but doesn’t particularly like to go straight. I wanted something a bit more happy to go straight, while still responsive. I needed a boat that would fit me – most boats are too big for me. And I wanted a boat made by a company with a good solid record of consistently good quality boats. 

I find it terrifying to ask other people to get behind my own endeavors. I run a non-profit – and hate fundraising. And the idea of asking companies in the paddling industry if they would sponsor this trip was almost enough to make me decide to use my boat that would double the mileage of this trip with all the zig-zagging it would do. But I screwed up my courage, made a brochure about what I was doing, and asked P&H if they would consider sponsoring the trip. They said yes! So I’m paddling a brand new Scorpio LV from Canada to Mexico. 

It’s a long journey – and I love long journeys. I also like un-mediated immersion in nature. I was struck by this at Multnomah Falls. After a fire a couple years ago that burned a lot of trees and destabilized the soil, there are locking fences where there didn’t used to be. After a large slab of rock fell from the falls 15 years ago, the stone walls along the path by the pool have had posts and chain added so it’s quite difficult to hike around the pool or behind the falls. I was a bit sad – I have this amazing childhood memory of standing behind the falls filling up my canteen. That water tasted really good! It was in the days before we filtered our water, when there were signs warning us to stay on the path. Signs that were next to well-trod unofficial paths around and behind the falls, belying the fact that the powers that be didn’t enforce the rules. 

On this journey, there are no warning signs. There are no fences. There’s no one else to tell me when and where to decide not to go. There’s no one to mediate my experience or my safety. 

I don’t think it’s a bad thing that so many of our experiences of nature are mediated, controlled, regulated. The imposition of safety regulations allows folks who don’t have knowledge or experience to see incredible places. It increases access for so many people who don’t get the chance to be in nature. 

I’m often the person mediating the experience for others. I impose rules that people don’t like and sometimes don’t understand. I direct Chicago Adventure Therapy – a non-profit working with under-served youth in Chicago, using outdoor sports to build skills. Creating access for them means taking responsibility for safety decisions they aren’t equipped to make.

It also means helping them learn to make those decisions for themselves. Because here’s the thing.  It’s great to hike to the bridge at Multnomah Falls.  It’s super-crowded with tourists from all over the world. It’s got a smooth asphalt trail to it. It’s got railings and fences and locks that don’t let you get into a place you shouldn’t be. And it’s absolutely beautiful. It takes your breath away.

It’s also incredible to have the opportunity to take long journeys in nature. Where you have every opportunity to get in trouble – and every opportunity to see what’s around the next point or to hike behind the waterfall and fill your canteen. 

I’ve been dehydrating food, paddling in conditions nothing like the Pacific, figuring out what gear to use to keep myself safe. I’ve been wrapping things up at Chicago Adventure Therapy – paddling with our community at our spring retreat and at the first Midwest symposium of the season, moving our office out of my home, transferring responsibilities to my staff. I’ve picked up the boat (with help from a couple cats) and did a test pack to see if  I can take a month’s worth of food at a time. The preparations are done and it’s time to start the journey. I’m hoping to fill up my canteen this summer. Because there’s no better water than the water I get to be on for four months.

Destination Guide – Inside Passage, BC, Canada

This Summer, my partner Amy and I headed over to British Columbia to paddle a section of the Inside Passage. If you’ve not heard of the ‘bucket-list’ worthy Inside Passage, it’s a coastal route that stretches 1700km from Washington, USA, through Western British Columbia, up to Skagway, Alaska. Its major drawcards being the teeming wildlife, a multitude of islands to weave, and the perfect balance of solitude versus opportunities to re-stock in remote First Nations communities.

We had a month to play with, so opted for a 780km section of this marine passage, from Comox on Vancouver Island up to Prince Rupert, in the north-west of British Columbia. We had a brilliant time encountering wildlife, meeting locals, and living the simple life, submersed in stunning scenery. This guide is intended to help you plan your Inside Passage adventure and hopefully provide a few nuggets of inspiration and lessons learnt.

When to go

The climate is quite similar to Scotland, so expect rain and also stunning blue skies. We went mid-August to mid-September and paddled in t-shirts for 90% of the time. The great thing about Aug/Sept is the salmon are starting to run, so lots of Orca, Humpbacks, and the bears should be well fed (fingers crossed).

Where to go

Quick hit – The most compact enjoyment was certainly around Telegraph Cove. There are lots of guided trip options, amazing scenery, and loads of Orca and Humpback to get excited about.

For wildlife – The Broughton Islands certainly offered us the most varied scenery, tides, and wildlife. We saw about 60 Orca on separate occasions, Humpbacks galore, Sea Lions, Sea Otters, Bald Eagles, but no Bears…

Wilderness – The further north we travelled, the fewer people we encountered. Although most of the coast has been logged at some point, north of Vancouver Island thick forest lines the high tide mark with only the occasional small village breaking the vista.

How to get there

Fly to Vancouver and catch either a bus and ferry over to Vancouver Island, or get a floatplane to your starting point from £50 upwards.

Boat hire

We found it surprisingly difficult to hire boats. MEC hire Scorpios from Vancouver City, but then you need to get them to your starting point. Most of the companies in the north of Vancouver Island only do guided trips. The best option we found was from a company called Comox Valley Kayaks. They hire out boats for any duration and provide a drop-off and pick-up service. We met other paddlers on shorter trips who used private boat shuttles to fine-tune their drop-off and pick-up points.

Maps

There are lots of marine charts and topographic maps available of the BC west coast. Depending on the length of your trip I’d recommend marine charts from 1:40,000 scale and smaller. As our trip was quite long and space was at a premium, we opted to use a road atlas for large scale planning and the Viewranger and Navionics apps for our day to day navigation. To charge our devices we had a 17 Watt, waterproof, Voltaic Systems solar panel and battery. This system worked amazingly well, enabling us to charge cameras, phones, VHF and head-torches.

Useful info

There is a ton of useful resources out there to help you plan your paddle. The Inside Passage Facebook Group is a great treasure trove of knowledge. We downloaded the book ‘Kayaking the Inside Passage’ by R.H. Miller onto our phones which offered information on history, tides, wildlife, routes, campsites, and much more. There are various online maps from previous paddling trips, featuring notated information such as campsites, water, and resupply points.

General conditions

We found the paddling relatively straight forward. The majority of the route is sheltered by islands with only a few exposed headlands. The wind offered some challenges but was never a show stopper for us. However, we have heard from other paddlers that it gets much stronger & prohibiting. As a general rule of thumb, you could set your watch by winds picking up at 3 pm in the afternoon. Tides do get pretty strong in areas with overfalls and whirlpools so a good knowledge of tidal planning is vital. Lots of the tidal cruxes need to be paddled at slack water and it was often possible to paddle up tide by hugging the coastline. Landings are found quite regularly and we found many more campsites than recorded online or in Miller’s book. We carried up to 13l of water each and managed to fill up from taps with the back up of water purification means with us if necessary. Bears… We saw one from the water and heard another near camp whilst in our tent. Cook away from your tent spot where possible. Store all smellies in your hatches, seal them and flip your boat overnight. Get studious and read up on bear-safe camping. Again, not a show stopper, but we have heard of trips earlier in the year with a greater number of sightings & encounters.

This area really is a sea kayaker’s paradise, with something for everyone. If you are thinking about a trip out there, do it! Give me a shout if you would like to chat more about it, and happy paddling.

Destination Guide – Lofoten

Lofoten really is a sea kayakers paradise.  It combines Scotland’s intricate west coast with the mountain scapes of Patagonia and the wildlife of an Attenborough episode to create a truly magical place.  This summer Amy Dunis and I spent a month exploring this archipelago and have put together a destination guide to inspire and help you head out to enjoy these islands as much as we did.

Different places to paddle

Henningsvær – Is called the “Little Venice” of Lofoten.  You can explore and fish around the surrounding islands, then paddle into the spectacular harbor that cuts right through the picturesque town.

Moskenesøya – Is an amazing island in the south of the Archipelago that is the definition of wilderness.  Towering cliffs, soaring sea eagles, endless beaches. This is the place to go to get away from it all.

Trolltindan mountains – Towering peaks, hanging glaciers, smooth granite faces and lush green fields dotted with grass roofed huts.  A circumnavigation of this area gives you a real taste for all that is good about Lofoten.

Must sees

1. Sea eagles are by far the coolest looking bird out in Norway.  With a wingspan of up to 240cm they keep watch from cliffy headlands and saw overhead with such grace.  On our best day we spotted 11 birds with each sighting as exciting as the last.

2. Trollfjord is the crème de la crème of fjords.  1100m peaks drop straight into the 100m wide Fjord with snow capped mountains surrounding you.  Our top tip would be to get there early before all of the noisy tour ribs arrive.

3. Rulten in the Trolltindan mountain range claims the title of “Lofotens most beautiful mountain”. Paddling in crystal blue waters beneath the peak with a pristine grass roofed hut in the foreground sums up the Lofoten landscape perfectly.

4. Renei Fjord is a stunning 3 pronged fjord that cuts deep into the Moskenesøya mountains.  It is the perfect place to paddle when the open seas are wild and a great place to explore if you are new to sea kayaking.

5. Moskenesøya beaches are by far the best in Lofoten. They are plentiful and their white sands stretch for miles.  Camped up, with a fire roaring and the sun setting is pretty hard to beat.

When to go

The climate is similar to Scotland but on average 4°C colder so the best time to go is June to August.  This also allows you to experience the amazing 24h daylight.  Prepare to experience rain and wind but you will have the best chance to experience that classic Lofoten sun.

How to get there

This depends on your trip duration, budget and how many podcasts you have.  We chose to drive as we wanted to take our boats, lots of food and not have to hire a car.  It was a 47h drive so not for the fainthearted or those with limited time.  Another option is to fly to Tromso and then transfer to Lofoten by either bus, express boat, plane or onboard the Hurtigruten (ferry).  A hire car would make life a lot easier but isn’t essential.

 

Boat hire

Reine Adventure in the south and Lofoten Aktiv AS in the North hire boats and gear but you must have evidence of being at least BC 3*.  Both companies will be able to give you some great advice on where to go with the forecasted weather.

Where to stay

Wild camping opportunities in Norway are amazing.  You can camp for up to two nights anywhere on uncultivated land as long as you are over 150m from an inhabited building.  This is a great way to save money and also wake up in truly amazing places. There are plenty of campsites with good facilities and hotels if you are feeling fancy.

Guidebook

Yann Engstad and Olly Saunders have produced a brilliant guide to the Lofoten islands with loads of brilliant day trips to do and a detailed explanation of the outer coast for those seeking to circumnavigate some or all of these magical islands.

Thanks to P&H for the use of the brilliant Scorpios 🙂

If you would like any more information about paddling or climbing in these magical islands please get in touch – Highland Kayak School.

The Westhinder Challenge

We are always looking for a good challenge, preferably one that takes us offshore. If you look at the Belgian part of the North Sea, there are no islands that you can paddle to (with the exception of the North Sea crossing to the UK). We have to do it with our buoys, navigation marks and towers. Yes, there are towers located in the Southern part of the North Sea. Two of them are drawing our attention. The first, and closest one, is the Oostdyck radar tower. When visibility is extremely well, it can be seen from the beach without binoculars. The radar sends all shipping movements to the Traffic Centre for monitoring. This tower is located some 21 kilometres offshore. What cannot be seen from ashore is the second tower located at the Westhinder sandbank. This one lies just behind the international shipping lane, one of the busiest in the world. The Westhinder beacon warns ships for the danger of the sandbank beneath. It also monitors the force of the wind and direction, which is important for the weather forecasts for this area. This tower is located some 32 kilometres offshore.
To take on this challenge you’re not only need a good physical condition and stamina, you also have to know more than basic navigation. There is always a strong tidal stream that pushes you constantly off track, the stream is never in you favour. Taking a break, even a short one, relentlessly pushes you off track. Also the strength of the tidal stream changes every hour, so you have to keep a good eye to your bearings. During the most of the challenge, you will not have any reference to paddle to. When you reach the first tower, you still have to cross the international shipping lane, which is one of the busiest in the world. Keep in mind that those very large ocean ships probably want see you, or change their course or speed for a sea kayaker. When you crossed the shipping lane and finally reach the Westhinder beacon, then you just completed the first half of the challenge. The second half, and the most important one, is to get yourself and your team back to shore safely. If you’re tired, you can’t just quit. There is no support boat to help you. There is only you and your team.
I’m proud to say that were able to put together a small international team to take on this challenge. Two very experienced and well trained Spanish sea kayakers were eager to take on this challenge. They travelled all from Spain to Belgium, we spend some days paddling together, before heading out. On Saturday 7 July 2017 we started from the Oostduinkerke beach, at 07:40 am (local time). As an extra difficulty we chose to navigate on compass, with a sea chart. We carried also a GPS, just for registration and safety precautions, not for navigation. We stated our intentions to the Coast Guard by radio before the start. We paddled at a high pace, in order to compensate a bit lesser for the sideways tidal stream. In the video you can see the buoys that we have passed, the way we have taken on this challenge. It took us seven hours to reach the Westhinder beacon. When we got there we established radio contact with the Coast Guard again, to tell them our position and that we were still in good shape to commence the way back to shore. It was 14:30 pm (local time) and we were at the farthest offshore point, being 32 kilometres. When arriving there, perhaps euphoric, we just did half the challenge. The second part, also the hardest, was to get back with the team. It’s also a psychological battle because you have absolutely nothing to look to, there are no references, and you cannot see the land for hours. The visibility was limited to ten kilometres, which is normal for us. You have to trust your navigation skills, simple as that. Even when tired, we still kept the same high pace to counter the current. We arrived back at Oostduinkerke beach at 20:55 pm (local time).
In the video you can see our GPS track log. The GPS was not turned off during our short breaks. It registered all of our movements during the challenge.
To all other sea kayakers out there who are looking for a tough challenge, this could be what you are looking for. Be well prepared for this one, both physically, mentally and be sure of you navigation skills.
I got extremely lucky to do this one with such experienced sea kayakers! Big thanks to Carlos GARCIA and Santi DOMINGUEZ for joining! It was an honour to be part of this team, and to beat this challenge together!  Check out this unique record on the Performance Sea Kayak website; http://www.performanceseakayak.co.uk/Pages/Records/Uniques/recordsUniques.php

The North Sea Crossing [Dutch]

Ik heb gedroomd.  Ik heb hard getraind.  Ik heb mij goed voorbereid.  Ik heb op 30 en 31 juli 2015 de Noordzee overgestoken per zeekajak, enkel op spierkracht, alleen en zonder begeleiding of ondersteuning van een ander schip.  Ik heb ’s nachts en overdag gevaren, ik ben mezelf tegengekomen, ik heb gejubeld en gevloekt!  Dit is het verslag van mijn North Sea Crossing.

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Ik ben fervent zeekajakker en droom er al jaren van om de oversteek te wagen tussen Engeland en het vasteland.  Wat ik absoluut niet wou is het Kanaal oversteken gezien dit niet aanzien wordt als een “open zee” oversteek.  Ik opteerde om de verbinding te maken tussen twee zeehavens en hierbij het zuidelijkste gedeelte van de Noordzee over te steken.  Aan deze oversteek gingen twee jaar planning en voorbereiding  vooraf.  Diverse vooropgestelde data gingen helaas voorbij zonder dat de meteorologische omstandigheden voldoende gunstig waren voor dit huzarenstuk.  In de week vlak voor de oversteek bleek het weerbeeld voldoende gunstig en stabiel om de laatste voorbereidingen te treffen.  Toch diende ik één dag uit te stellen door onweer.

Tochtverslag:

Op 30 juli 2015 was het eindelijk zover.  Hoewel ik zelfzeker was heb ik de nacht ervoor bijna geen oog dicht gedaan.  In mijn geval blijkt dit echter volledig normaal.  De oversteek is geen klein tochtje meer te noemen.  Vlak voor vertrek lichtte ik Oostende Radio/Kustwacht en de Dover Coast Guard in omtrent mijn bedoelingen.  Zij beschikken over een vaarplan en de verwachte aankomsttijden bij de diverse boeien en bakens.  Mijn vrouw Sylvie was mijn ondersteuningsteam te lande en zou gedurende de tocht contact onderhouden met beide diensten.  Om 21:30 uur stipt vertrok ik in de haven Nieuwpoort,  na afscheid genomen te hebben van mijn vrouw en kinderen en mijn ouders.  Het was mijn wens om zo weinig mogelijk mensen op voorhand in te lichten om het vertrek minder zwaar te maken.  Ik voer de haven buiten, langsheen het staketsel van Nieuwpoort waar ik door mijn familie een laatste maal uitgezwaaid werd.  Ik zette mijn koers uit richting de boei Trapegeer en tot daar kon ik nog profiteren van een sterke getijstroming in mijn voordeel.  De zon was dan al een tijdje weg, de duisternis was mijn stille metgezel.  Er stond een volle maan, dit kwam de zichtbaarheid ten goede maar dat wil ook zeggen dat de stroming sterker is (springtij).  Vanaf de boei Trapegeer keerde het getij en heb ik tegen deze zéér sterke stroming moeten opboksen gedurende een zestal uur, non-stop.  Ik kwam tijdens de nacht slechts één schip tegen, hoewel mijn verlichting steeds aan en in orde was stak ik hier veiligheidshalve even mijn stroboscoop aan gezien het visserschip even op ramkoers lag.  Het schip wijzigde zijn koers hierna.

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Op 31 juli 2015 om 04:48 uur kwam ik aan bij de boei DY1, al een gans eind in de Franse wateren.  Ik kon hier een allerlaatste maal mijn positie en toestand doorgeven aan radio operator Marc van Oostende Radio.  Het was de laatste vriendelijke stem die ik de komende uren zou horen.  Mijn afgelegde afstand was op dat moment 35 km.

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Na de boei DY1 begon de stroming stil te vallen en uiteindelijk te keren in mijn voordeel.  Dit was precies volgens mijn berekeningen.  Ik lag ook al voor op mijn planning wat positief was.  Ik heb de zonsopgang nog meer weten te appreciëren bij deze tocht, ze was prachtig op volle zee.  Ik passeerde de boeien Ruytingen SE en Ruytingen NW in de laatste aanloop naar de internationale scheepvaartroute.  Ik nam slechts korte pauzes om het uur om snel iets te eten en te drinken.  Vanaf de boei Ruytingen NW begon het middelste gedeelte van mijn oversteek; het kruisen van een enorme snelweg midden op zee.  De vaarroute is te vergelijken met een autosnelweg, volgens cijfers van de Dover Coastguard passeren hier per 24 uur gemiddeld 500 grote zeeschepen.  Deze geul is ongeveer 20 km breed op het punt waar ik over moest.  Snelheid is van het grootste belang alsook aandacht voor de scheepvaart.  Grote schepen zien mij NIET!  Ik dien zelf alles in te schatten en indien nodig mijn koers te wijzigen.  Het eerste gedeelte naar de boei Sandettie WSW ging als vanzelf, ik kwam géén enkel schip tegen.  Toen ik over de Sandettie Bank voer was het alsof er branding in volle zee stond!  Ik kon er zelfs surfen!

Hierna diende ik de tweede en laatste vaargeul te kruisen tot aan de boei South Falls.  Ik had de stromingen zéér goed ingeschat.  Deze zijn er bijna dubbel zo sterk als voor onze eigen Belgische kust.  Hier diende ik even haast te zetten voor vier aankomende zeeschepen vanuit de NW-richting.  Gevaar was er echter nooit, ik kon er ver genoeg vandaan blijven.

Het moment dat mij het meest is bijgebleven is toen ik voor het eerst weer opnieuw land zag!  De kliffen van Sint Margarets at Cliffe nabij Dover zijn al van ver te zien!  Dit was toen ik net de boei South Falls passeerde.  Fantastisch!!!

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Goodwin lichtschip

Vanaf de boei South Falls ben ik voor het eerst van mijn geplande route afgeweken.  Ook dit was doorgeven aan mijn vrouw.  Ik had vooraf een secundaire route opgesteld indien ik voorliep op mijn initiële planning, dan zou de stroming nog anders zijn.  Ik zette koers naar het E Goodwin lichtschip in plaats van de E Goodwin boei.  Ik bereikte het onbemande lichtschip op 31 juli 2015 om 11:45 uur (Belgische tijd) en kon er voor het eerst sinds boei DY1 uren geleden radiocontact maken met de Dover Coastguard.  De vriendelijke radio operator kon er ook mijn toestand en positie doorgeven aan mijn vrouw Sylvie.  Het Goodwin lichtschip ligt op een 14 km offshore en is de aanduiding voor de scheepvaart voor de Goodwin Sands.  De Goodwin Sands vormen een gevaar voor de scheepvaart gezien hun geringe  diepte en onvoorspelbare zeegang, een deel van de banken komt zelfs boven bij eb.  Perfect dus voor een getrainde zeekajakker om over te varen, wat ik dus deed.  De banken lagen volledig onder maar de zeegang was fenomenaal.  Er was vrijwel geen wind maar door de sterke stroming stonden er brekende golven van ca. 1 m hoogte!  Een uitdaging, maar enorm lonend!  Gek om na zo’n afstand nog steeds energie te vinden om te surfen op meer dan 10 km van de Engelse kust!!  Ik kwam er nog een tiental zeehonden, zowel gewone als grijze, tegen die bij laag water komen rusten op de banken.

Zoals men zegt, de laatste loodjes wegen het zwaarst…..   Er zit waarheid in, de stroming was vanaf daar opnieuw in mijn voordeel, maar zo sterk dat ik onder een grote hoek diende bij te sturen om de haven van Ramsgate nog te bereiken.  Ik voer de haven binnen in alle rust.  Ik lag zo ver voor op mijn planning dat zelf mijn ondersteuningsteam nog niet ter plaatse was.  Sylvie had oponthoud in de haven van Calais voor enkele uren, door problemen met vluchtelingen.  Ik kwam aan bij de enige kleine slipway die de haven van Ramsgate rijk is op 31 juli 2015 om 15:06 uur (Belgische tijd).

Ik ben aan de slipway enkele uren gebleven tot de komst van Sylvie.  Gelukkig was ik zoals altijd goed voorbereid, ik had extra kledij mee en ook voldoende drank en voedsel.  Ik heb er met veel smaak een portie spaghetti verorberd die ik met mijn brandertje opwarmde.  Daarna kon ik even rusten om uiteindelijk mijn vrouw en kinderen weer in de armen te sluiten en terug huiswaarts te keren met de ferry.

Aankomst Ramsgate

Slot:

Pas bij dit schrijven begint het mij door te dringen wat ik verwezenlijkt heb.  Ik voel elk spiertje nu in mijn lichaam.  Ik ben, zelfs na 12 uur slapen, nog moe.  Maar ik ben vooral blij!  Ik ben trots op deze sportprestatie.  Hier telde niet alleen de afgelegd afstand, maar ook het zeemanschap en de kennis en kunde om goed te navigeren en de juiste beslissingen te nemen op het goede moment.  Niet alleen het fysiek in staat zijn om meer dan 100 km te peddelen in één trek, maar ook de mentale toestand om moederziel alleen en zonder enige vorm van ondersteuning of begeleiding de overtocht te maken geven mij enorme voldoening!  Alles bij zo’n tocht valt of staat met je eigen voorbereiding en training!  Als extraatje voor mezelf komt er nog bij dat ik de oversteek in een kortere tijd heb kunnen doen dan dat ik vooraf had gepland!

Ik wens hierbij mijn vrouwtje Sylvie te bedanken voor haar grenzeloze ondersteuning bij al mijn zotte ondernemingen!  Zonder haar was dit niet mogelijk geweest!  Hetzelfde geldt voor de weinige mensen die vooraf op de hoogte waren van mijn  onderneming, bedankt voor jullie komst bij vertrek, alsook voor de talrijke lieve telefoontjes en berichten!  Bedankt aan radio operator Marc van Oostende Radio die mijn bewaarengel was tot aan de DY1 boei!  Hetzelfde geldt voor de al even vriendelijke crew van de Dover Coast Guard, zij waakten over mij van het Goodwin lichtschip tot de haven Ramsgate!

Ik hoop tevens met deze tocht het Belgisch zeekajakken in de kijker te plaatsen.  Het is niet omdat we een relatief korte kustlijn hebben dat we niet in staat zijn grootse dingen te doen!  We blijven naar goede gewoonte elkaar en andere zeekajakkers ondersteunen met onze NORTHSEAKAYAK-groep!

Technische fiche:

De GPS die de tocht registreerde werd niet afgelegd gedurende de ganse onderneming.  De gegevens zijn hiervan afkomstig en aldus correct.

  • Totale afstand: 106,7 km
  • Totale tijd: 17uur36min
  • Gemiddelde snelheid: 6,1 km/h
  • Maximaal geregistreerde snelheid: 13,5 km/h
  • Gebruikte kajak: P&H Scorpio LV (Polyethylene)
  • Gebruikte peddel: Vertical Elements Explorer Aircore Pro full carbon
  • Complete veiligheidsuitrusting met oa PLB (Personal Locator Beacon), 2 VHF radio’s, vuurpijlen, extra verlichting,….

De video kan hier bekeken worden:

The North Sea Crossing

I have dreamed. I have prepared. I have trained hard. I have crossed the Southern part of the North Sea by sea kayak on the 30th and 31st of July 2015; man powered and alone, no support or pilot vessel, no support whatsoever. I have paddled during day and night. I’ve been exhausted, excited and happy, all at the same time.

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This is my story.
I have had this dream to cross the North Sea for years, and finally the weather conditions were perfect; so I planned, made calculations to counter the tide and prepared myself mentally.

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The crossing!
On Thursday 30th of July I said my goodbyes to my family. Right before starting I sent a message to both the Belgian and British Coast Guard to inform them of my plans and estimated route. At 21:30 hours sharp I sat in my sea kayak and paddled to open sea. I waved to my family one last time when passing the pier. I was lucky, after sunset I still had some light due to a full moon; the downside was the current, a full moon means spring tide! Up until I reached the Trapegeer buoy I had the tidal stream in my favour, after that point (fully calculated in advance) I had to paddle 6 hours against a strong tide. At 04:48 hours I arrived at the DY1 buoy; it was slack at that point, but the tidal current should change direction soon. I had radio contact one last time with Marc, the friendly radio operator from the Belgian Coast Guard (Ostend Radio) to give him my current position and state. He was in close contact with Sylvie (my wife and support team) to keep her informed. After that point I was on my own until I was in range of the British Coast Guard. I paddled on, with the current in my favour this time, to the Ruytingen SW and Ruytingen NW buoys. In the meantime the sun was rising which made the crossing of the international fairway a bit easier. According to the Coast Guard almost 500 sea ships are passing through that lane every single day; I had to keep watch in order to stay as far away from those big ships as possible. I doubted that they would even spot me!

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I paddled as hard as I could, having a strong tidal current on the my side. I managed to get over the shipping lane, along the buoys Sandettie WSW to the South Falls without troubles. I only spotted 4 big sea ships but I passed them at a distance, and after that I changed my course and diverged from my planned route to a secondary planned route in order to counter the very strong tidal current that was pushing very hard from my right. Eventually I arrived at the East Goodwin light ship, where I established radio contact with the Dover Coast Guard; they we’re already fully aware of my intentions and also in touch with my wife, informing her of my position and state. The crew on the radio were very friendly towards both me and my wife.

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The East Goodwin ship is an unmanned lightship that brings the very treacherous Goodwin sand banks to the attention of ships; dangerous for almost every other vessel but ideal conditions for a seasoned kayaker. With almost no wind at all there were waves between 0.5 and 1 metres in height! In that area I saw numerous seals, wonderful!! The sand banks were the last piece of the crossing; after that I headed towards Ramsgate harbour. The tidal current was now pushing on my left side so I had to compensate heavily in order to reach the harbour. I reached the slipway of Ramsgate harbour at 15:06 hours (Belgian time). I was so far ahead on my estimated arrival time that my welcome party had not arrived yet; luckily I was prepared for that, I had dry clothes and plenty of food and drinks with me. After a few hours my lovely wife and kids arrived, it was a happy reunion!! We took the ferry back to the mainland together.

Aankomst Ramsgate

I wish to thank my wife Sylvie for her constant support in chasing my biggest dream, the North Sea crossing, as well as in all my other so called foolish plans regarding sea kayaking! I want to say thanks to Marc, the radio operator from the Belgian Coast Guard – Ostend Radio for keeping an eye out for me up to the DY1 buoy, and to the friendly crew from the Dover Coast Guard! To those people; your help is very much appreciated both by myself and my wife!

We hope that this crossing will put Belgian sea kayaking on the map, and a big thanks to my other Northseakayak-members for their continuous support!

Technical data:
The full crossing was correctly registered by GPS.
• Total distance: 106,7 km
• Total time: 17 hours 36 minutes
• Average speed: 6.1 km/h
• Maximum registered speed: 13.5 km/h
• Craft: P&H Scorpio LV (Polyethylene)
• Paddle: Vertical Element Explorer Aircore Pro Full Carbon
• Full safety gear including two VHF radios, a Personal Locator Beacon, flares, etc.

You can watch the video below:

Cape Farewell, Greenland

The idea of the trip was to try and paddle around Cape Farewell from Nanortalik and return, attempting some Alpine ascents of any suitable peaks we came across along the way.

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Cape Farewell is at the southern tip of Greenland and exposed to the entire ocean swell, it is also a committing coast with high cliffs and no easy landings; we knew this would be the crux of the trip, and we also knew Cape Farewell is the windiest region in the world, so getting a good weather window would be vitally important.

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We shipped two barrels out to Neil Jepson at the Nanortalik Tourism Service a month before we left, these contained all the food packed into day bags and the climbing equipment; we left on the 12th of August, a little later than I usually go. The later departure was due to having to wait for the kayaks to be available, which were hired through Doug Copper of Glenmore Lodge from their fleet of P&H Capellas stored with Neil. Two days and 4 flights later, including 2 by helicopter, we arrived and were met by Neil; he was very helpful and we picked up the boats and barrels that day, meaning we were able to leave the next day.

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The Capellas had skegs and I was worried we wouldn’t get all the kit in; we had 23 days’ food, all the camping kit, two 50m ropes and climbing gear. It was a tight fit with the cockpit rammed and quite a bit of gear strapped to deck bags, but it all was in and we left around lunchtime on the 14th. The boats were very heavy and, because of the gear on the back, they weather cocked badly even with the skeg down; not ideal as we headed off into a side wind!

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The first headland we encountered was exposed to swell with no easy landings and we realised this could be an awkward on our return in bigger conditions. At our first campsite we stashed 3 food bags for our return as there looked like some possible climbing in the area on our return, this also got rid of some kit from back decks. The next few days we were in the shelter of an island system, then we had another exposed headland to a campsite at Ink Gait, the site of an old Viking settlement over 1000 years ago. We camped in the ruins of an old church and also had our first encounter with a Minke Whale who came very close!

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The following day we had a mountaineering day with a rope and small rack and climbed Ikiagtqaqot to 900m, a lovely ridge scramble with small pitches of scrambling and stunning views in
good weather. We managed to get a mobile signal as we had a view of the settlement of Frederiksdal and the forecast seemed ok. We did work out on the trip that the weather changes very fast and the difference between a report from Nanortalik and out on the coast could be vast.

We did decide to go for the crux of the trip and attempt Cape Christian and Cape Farewell, this would be a big day in distance and we had a lot of fog to deal with at the start. Cape Christian eventually appeared out of the fog, but as we came around the headland the wind suddenly increased and we were faced with the sight of a large area of breaking waves over some low islands in front. The wind was now blowing hard from behind and we struggled to get the heavy boats around into the swell and wind, so we decided we had to land on a very rocky shore. Although it was a difficult landing on a boulder beach, we were glad to be safe as the wind steadily increased; we were storm bound here all day, and although the wind eased by the next day, the swell was still big.

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We crossed the bay and as we came around the Cape, the fog came in and the wind increased, but luckily after struggling around the wind eased. There were no easy landings, so we had to stay in our boats ’til we found a little shelter; eventually we landed at the west tip of Eggers Island and the following day did a new climb of 8 pitches on the scabby side of Quvperitqaqa, a grade HVS 5a called Dance with Seals.

The next few days we had good weather paddling down Ikaq Fjord, but we again got caught out crossing Anordliutssup Ima when the wind and waves picked up to a force 5 and we were committed to cross. We stopped briefly in the village of Augpilagtoq, where the villagers told us they had shot a polar bear a few weeks ago; this was our only stop in 3 weeks. We were storm bound for a day close to here, but the weather improved again and we headed south down Torssukatak Fjord, again we hit bad, windy weather at the end of the fjord and had to turn and run to find shelter. The weather was definitely changing and following a pattern of calm in the morning and windy in the afternoon, so we got early starts and got back into the shelter of Iglu Kasip Tunua Fjord, where we knew there was an old hut where we left some food; we had a day here stormbound, then headed down the fjord and camped.

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We spent 3 days here, one day again sheltering from rain, but the second day, although it was foggy, we went to try and climb a big mountain face we had seen. As we climbed, we came out of the cloud and the face was bigger than we thought, 12 pitches later we reached the top; some good climbing and the usual loose rock on a big mountain face. The climb was graded at E1 5B and we called it Keeping the Faith. We now had a week left to explore another area we had seen closer to Nanortalik; we had to negotiate another headland we had passed when it was windy the day before, but when we woke up from camp it was flat and calm in the bay we were in.

We set off and as soon as we headed onto the open sea we got the swell and wind, the next hour we battled around the tide; the swell and wind created some of the biggest seas I have ever been in and any rescue was out of question. We made it into bay and landed, once again the wind got stronger as the afternoon wore on, so we found a sheltered spot for the tent; it was now bitterly cold with snow on the tops.

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As we were now in sight of Nanortalik, I managed to get a phone signal and got a weather forecast. More bad weather was coming in 2 days, so we decided the following day to head back in rather than be stormbound again. The following day was calm and we headed back in around mid afternoon for showers and beers. We had finished a few days early, but we had succeeded in all our objectives and felt happy that we had survived some very challenging conditions.

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Distance Paddled:

270km over a 21 day period (approx. 15 paddle days, 4 days stormbound and 3 climbing days)

 

Kayaks:

2x Plastic P&H Capella 166s with Skegs

 

 

Paddlers:

2x Werner Paddles and 1 Set of Spare Paddles

 

 

Paddling Kit:

Palm Aleutian Dry Suits

Palm Buoyancy Aids

Palm Nova Wellies

Palm Spray Decks

 

 

 

Tent:

Terra Nova Heavy Duty Hyperspace

 

 

 

Sleeping Bags:

Mountain Equipment Titan 850 Down Bags

 

 

Stove:

MSR Whisperlite Combo

 

 

Climbing Kit:

2x DMM Alpine Harnesses

2x 9.8 m DMM 50M Ropes

12x Quick Draws

5x Slings and Krabs

Double Set of Wires 1-10

9 Assorted Cams

Helmets

Rock Boots

 

 

Other Gear:

30m EPIRB

VHF RADIO

Mobiles (although only a few places had phone coverage)

Various Camera Kit

 

 

The Team Would Like to Thank the Following:

P&H Sea Kayaks

Gino Watkins Funding and Arctic Club

Welsh Sports Association

BMC

Palm

Mountain Equipment

Werner Paddles

DMM

Cotswold Camping

Wild West Beef Jerky

A to Z Expeditions

Bromsgrove School

 

Volga River, Russia – Source to Sea Kayak Descent

Distance:  2300 miles/3702 kilometres

Duration:  71 days

Kayak:  P & H Scorpio 170

 

The 7 rivers 7 continents project is a multi-year undertaking to make paddling descents of the longest river on each continent. 22 000 miles in total:

Amazon River (South America) – 4125 miles – completed 2007/2008

Missouri- Mississippi River (North America) – 3780 miles – completed 2012

Volga River (Europe) – 2300 miles – completed 2014

Nile River (Africa) – 4132 miles

Yangtze River (Asia) – 3916 miles

Murray-Darling River (Australia) – 2904 miles

Onyx River (Antarctica) – 25 miles

 

My descent of the Volga River began around 400km north-west of Moscow following an intense 5 hour car journey from the capital.  If you’ve ever driven in Russia, you know that breaking one’s speed PB is a requirement on every car journey.

The ultimate source of the river sits amongst the green, rolling Valdai Hills.  Unlike the Amazon and Missouri-Mississippi River sources, access to the river’s beginning is a breeze.  Marked by a small shrine, an imposing church and a scattering of houses, the source is easily reached.  There is even a souvenir stall set up!

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Like big rivers the world over, the Volga’s source is auspicious in it’s humble beginnings.   A small pond-like body of water over which had been built the aforementioned shrine. Just a few weeks earlier it had been frozen over.  As I set off the rain began in earnest.  It was cold, bleak and once more I found myself alone in a strange land ready to undertake another big river descent.

The river’s drainage was contained in a small, marshy valley.  I walked on it’s sides, across it’s middle and along its course.  I had left my heavy, fully loaded P & H Scorpio kayak a few miles from the source.  It sat in the front yard of a family’s house by the edge of a small lake.

A few hours in, thigh deep in very recently thawed ice water under a heavy grey sky is not great fun, but it is what it is, necessary.  I burst out of the dense, wet forest on to the lake shore and made my way to the nearby village where my boat lay.

After being stuffed full with hot tea along with meat and pickle sandwiches, I bid farewell to my first river saviours and dragged my kayak down to the water’s edge.  A brief repack and I was paddling.  The clouds parted and the sun burst through with surprising intensity.  Now it was really on.

The upper Volga, indeed the entire Volga is akin to one giant lake.  A total of 9 dams choke the river and reduce it’s flow to a near standstill.  No mean feat over a couple of thousand miles.

The first meandering lake is alternately populated by rustic, grey, Soviet-era (and much older) wooden house villages and enormous luxury holiday surely owned by that infamous character, the Russian oligarch.  Homes styled with their own (totally unnecessary) lighthouses, pirate themed boat houses, marbled columns, Ibiza style gazebos and fire pits.

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My first few days on the river were punctuated by bright sunshine and frigid blasting winds swapping with rainy squalls.  My dry jacket, wool cap and thermals were put through their paces.

That first week, 2 weeks of a long journey are always the same.  That period of adjustment from comfort, warmth and cleanliness, to, well, the opposite of all those things.  To me, long kayak journeys, no matter the hardship are really just one big holiday, so I try not to complain too much (or at least out of earshot of anyone else).  Life is simple.  Stay dry, stay fed and watered, stay upright.  It’s pretty straightforward.

The first dam, appearing below Selishche, is small and guarded by private security contractors.  Their knuckles covered in tattoos, sporting old and rumpled uniforms and cigarettes hanging from mouths, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  With a flourish of my official looking letter from my hosts, the Russian Geographical Society, well adorned in government stamps, the lads jumped into action.  I was ready to pull my boat around the dam on my kayak cart but they indicated we, the 3 of us would carry it.  A few hundred metres of struggling with my heavily laden kayak and I was back paddling, kind of.  The first couple of kilometres below the dam was boney with little water.  Knuckle dragging and actually dragging my way downstream was arduous.  The river was just 20m across and wound its way this way and that through the dense pine forest.

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With sun shining, the Volga was magical.  With rain about slightly less so.  I passed several groups of paddlers who had spent a long weekend kayaking on tributaries of the river.  At the town of Staritsa I was keen to resupply with food.  A couple of young boys on bicycles stared down at me from the high river bank.  I asked them where a “magazin” or shop might be in my best Russian.  Nothing.  “Magazin?”, I repeated.  Oh yes, over there somewhere, they waved.  Not exactly reassuring.  Just downstream was a huge steel bridge spanning the river.  Below it on river right were a couple of trucks.  Here, I thought I could leave my boat and head into town.  As I approached I realised one of the old trucks was loaded down with about 10 kayaks!  Sweet!  A group of young Russians had just taken off the river after 4 days paddling the Volga and a tributary.  I was immediately invited to join them for tea and food.  Instead of allowing me to venture into town they began putting together bag loads of food for me.  Cheese, sausage, bread, cookies, tea, spaghetti, tuna, corn, apples, pickles, milk and juice.  Their trip was over and they were headed back to Moscow.  Their kindness was amazing.  As I paddled away, the clouds cleared and the sun shone.

After 8 days I reached the city of Tver.  My first chance to upload some photos and write some articles for publication. I spent 2 nights in Tver, also resupplying and getting lost in my first Volga city.

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After Tver I began to meet and visit with more and more people. Their welcome and kindness was hard to believe.  I had not expected this sort of welcome.  There are always nice folk on every journey but on the Volga it seemed everyone was smiling at me.

A few days later I reached the second dam at Dubna.  This time a significant hydroelectric dam whose construction included a lock for ships.  Entering (and leaving on river right) was the Moscow Canal.  Had I so desired I could have paddled this waterway all the way to the centre of Moscow!  But my destination lay a couple of thousand miles to the south.

I was met by a new friend at the portage.  Ilya was a giant of a man who worked as a security guard at the dam.  It was his day off and he and friends had celebrated his wife’s birthday the night before.  Instead of loading my kayak on to my cart Ilya insisted we carry it.  Oh man!  It was heavy.  I think both of us had some national pride helping us.  Me the Australian and him the proud Russian.  We took a few rest stops for Ilya to smoke a cigarette and share the vodka he kept in an army issue water bottle on his belt.  After 5 breaks to reach the river once more I was feeling pretty relaxed!  The first of many vodka battles on my journey.

Days continued unabated.  Long hot days, long wet days, always punctuated by meeting people on the Volga.  On resupply in larger towns or cities, someone was always more than happy to keep an eye on my kayak.  In small villages it wasn’t necessary.

Russians love the Volga!  On weekdays and weekends in particular, every day saw people camping, relaxing, fishing, swimming and boating.  Even when I felt totally alone, around a bend I would see a cluster of tents and people about.  It was great to see them making use of this giant river, not just for industry or commerce but for it’s true wildness.

I paddled on and on.  Each dam portage took on average a hard hour.  From landing on the concrete wall of the dam to putting in below I unpacked, did multiple carries, dragged my kayak trolley over busy train tracks, busy roads, through dry scrub, down steep hills, repack and away.  From start to finish I pushed as hard as I could.  Portages are never much fun.

Below each dam, there was actually some flow.  It was a surreal feeling to have spent days and weeks on what amounted to one long lake to be suddenly carried along in a swift current.

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In the city of Yaroslav I visited with the Russian emergency services group, EmerCom.  They look after safety on the river for all users, from sunbathers, to fishermen in boats, to the cruise ships and tankers that were now becoming more common.  On a Saturday afternoon, some of the younger members eagerly volunteered to patrol the packed beach with a pair of giant binoculars. Tough gig.

At every stop, I longed to stay.  Just sitting, drinking tea, eating, laughing, talking with these people of the Volga was incredible.  The Russians I had met were so full of life and so friendly.  A start contrast to the brainwashing I had been given since birth of life behind the Iron Curtain, its dreariness and its underlying anger to the West.

A month into my descent of the Volga and it had surpassed everything I had hoped for.  The beauty of the river, the welcome of its people was difficult to believe.  But it just continued to get more amazing.

At the city of Kimensha I had been battling a headwind all day.   I was a little over it.  Just beyond the bridge that spanned the river I thought I could see a giant wooden raft.  Could it be?  As I paddled closer the raft revealed itself.  It was a huge hybrid Kon-Tiki (the balsa raft built by Thor Hyerdhal to cross the Pacific) with a wooden body and three giant inflated PVC pontoons.  Around it milled a dozen people.  I had to explore this!

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The raft was named, “Rus”, the old word for Russia.  It was a boat for travelling the world!  Piloted by just 3 crew it had been all over the Arctic, the Berents Sea, Greenland, Canada, Black Sea and of course the Volga.  I was welcomed with tea, beer and a stew for lunch.  A television crew arrived and I was honoured to help push the 3 tonne craft into the water and raise its mast.  What a boat!  I stayed the afternoon with the boatmen and as the sun was setting pushed off to paddle a couple of more hours downstream.

It was slowly becoming clear that the Russians of the Volga were not people to sit still.  In just a few short weeks I had met ocean sailors, whitewater kayakers, parachutists and round the world cyclists all by the banks of the river.

My descent continued.  The river grew wide and wild.  Powerful winds whipped up breaking waves.  They crashed on steep shores and on concrete embankments in front of towns, creating such confused water.  I dared not miss a stroke or a brace or I would be wrong side up in an instant.

It felt strange to still think of the Volga as a river.  It was so wide with huge bays and coves it could not be so.  Late in the afternoon but still with plenty of light to paddle I chanced upon a group of kite surfers.  High winds for me a nightmare, for them it was time to play.  10 kites jumped and sped across the water.  As brothers in arms I stopped to say hello.  Immediately dragged over to their camp I was fed a late lunch, vodka, tea, dried fish and beer.  As luck would have it a few of them were headed to the shop in town.  I took a ride with them and filled up on pasta, sugar, sardines and chocolate bars. Perfect.

Another dam, another portage over.  For a while the water flowed, then as before slowly petered out.  Flat water, still water to paddle.  The large city of Nizhny Novgorod loomed ahead.  From start to finish the urban centres on the Volga stretched for some way.  With masses of tankers, cruise ships and small boats about it always took longer than expected to clear them.  At Nizhny, the river Oka entered from river right, in the centre of town.  As the slowest moving vessel, I played chicken with all the other boats.  Jet skis roared by, expensive speed boats complete with bikini clad models, cut across in front of me.  The city itself was clearly divided into ancient and modern.  It’s impressive Kremlin dominated a green hillside, while in front and behind modern apartment buildings loomed.  Almost past the city, a cable car stretched across the river. It took passengers on a scenic ride from Nizhny Novgorod to the smaller city of Bor on the left bank of the Volga.  As I floated by I wished for more time to explore the city.  Slowly, very slowly the days left on my visa had started to enter my mind.

Again, the river’s flow subsides and it’s banks move further and further apart.  The Volga’s beauty continues.  Where are the factories and industry spewing pollution into it’s waters?  If they exist they are well hidden from view.

At the city of Cheboksary the sand river beaches are packed with sun bathers.  Families, children, girls in bikinis, young toughs cruising in cars, old men deep in conversation with one another.  More jet skis and fast boats zip this way and that.  I stop at a concrete marina.  Once more my friends at EmerCom lend a hand.  I trudge up a steep hill to the shop for resupply.  Dimitri, who works for the emergency services offers their quarters for me to stay.  I am just a few miles from the dam and even though late in the day I would like to portage it.  I thank him for the offer and put back in.

All my journeys suffer from a personality disorder.  With 2 goals on every descent, source to sea and the gathering of images and stories from the river – it is supremely difficult to find a balance.  Ensure the success of one and jeopardise the other.  Turning down an invitation to stay the night, to talk, to drink in order to paddle some more always grates.  But failing to reach the river’s mouth and the sea is finite.  A difficult decision to make.

I am buoyed by the knowledge that approaching the huge city of Kazan I have a few days at least to reenergise, resupply and explore.  I have friends in the city and eventually spend 4 days in hastily arranged press conferences, television appearances and sight seeing.  I make new friends and find a city that captures my heart.

7

Some of the weather I have encountered on the river so far has been brutal.  Storms which creep up from behind the low mountains which line the Volga and then unleash rain, wind, lightning and thunder have been both exciting and un-nerving.  Multiple times i have completed big open water crossings with minutes to spare before the water is whipped up into a white foaming mass, waves breaking in every direction.  Good assessment of conditions on my part or just luck?

Beyond Kazan, I spend 5 days battling this inclement weather.  A couple of times, people stopped me and established that they had seen me on television.  I was famous on this little part of river.

The river twisted and turned, the left bank disappeared from view as another might river, the Kama joined it.  Wind blew hard from the west.  The sheltered bank was almost entirely stark and steep cliffs.  Hardy vegetation filled any small break in the rock.  Finding a camp site as night rapidly approached became an unsettling task.  I crossed to the other side, exposed to wind and waves but with more camping options.

Now the right bank vanished.  The water stretched for almost 30 kilometres from side to side.  As I high braced into overhead crashing waves and surfed sometimes down their open faces I wondered if perhaps I had erred in judgement.  Too late now I pushed on.

At the city of Ulyanovsk as darkness set in I had resigned myself to a camp beside an old factory.  Before I had a chance to make landfall a voice called out.  A man waved to me from the bank.  That night was not spent in a tent beside an old factory.  I slept inside a Dacha or summer house.  I also experienced my first Banya or Russian sauna complete with being flogged with birch branches and running naked into the Volga.  Dinner was a huge event with new friends, talking about the Volga and the similarities between Russian and the West.  The river, as usual, provided for me.

8

I left early in the morning after a bacon and egg breakfast and straight into a day of the hardest paddling of the entire descent so far.  Weather reports suggested that the day was about to get pretty windy.  From the edge of the city to the next point was 25 kilometres in a straight line of open water.  Following the river bank would add another 10 kilometres on top.  I had been through some difficult paddling in the week previous and felt up to most things the river could throw at me.  The crossing turned into a 7 hour affair.  Not once could I dare to miss a stroke or a brace.  I fumbled when I could with a chocolate bar for energy.  For 6.5 hours I needed to pee.  No chance.  Relieving myself in my boat was a serious consideration.  As I collapsed on shore in mid-afternoon under a grey sky I swore never to make myself as vulnerable again.  Then I took a pee.

9

The gods of the river must have decided that more than a week of rubbish weather was my penance paid.  On an afternoon a few days after my less than fun crossing I nudged my boat onto a wide and long rocky beach, the water crystal clear below me.  The entire day had been almost without a breath of wind, the scenery out of this world.  Low rolling hills, dotted with groves of trees, small villages here and there.  Now a dry camp with the huge expanse of the Volga in front of me.  These moments more than outweighed the days of rain and wind.

From the Tolyatti dam to the city of Samara, the river continues it’s brilliance.  In one day I saw hundreds of sail boats and catamarans, kite surfers, paragliders, mountain bikers, campers, fisherman and people just making the most of the resource they had on their doorstep, the wonderful Volga.  It was amazing to witness.  At Samara the city lines river left.  On river right opposite hundreds upon hundreds of semi-permanent encampments exist.  Come the weekend thousands of Samara citizens cross the river in taxi boats, bus boats or their own boats to spend a couple of days relaxing and often partying.  I struggled to find an empty spot to erect my own little camp.  I eventually did and set to work on my tent.  As I finished it a couple of young Russians walked by and said hello.  I replied in Russian and of course they immediately knew I wasn’t one of their own.  Upon hearing I was an Australian paddling the length of the Volga River they literally dragged me back to their party camp.  The World Cup was showing on a tv, speakers blasted Russian electronica (all powered by a generator) and the vodka flowed.  I spent the night dancing, singing, laughing and talking with yet more beautiful people of the Volga.  By now the welcome I had received on my descent was becoming surreal.  How could it always be so amazing?  How could every single person I met be so friendly?  On all my travels I had not experienced such a thing.

I left Samara early the next morning trying to convince myself I had no hangover after the previous night’s festivities.  It kind of worked.

At the city of Syzran the river makes a sharp turn to the south.  It’s inside bend a maze of wetlands and small islands.  Rather than stay on the wide open river I paddled into this confusing paradise.  Birds called and fisherman sat bobbing about in their boats. Signs indicated that at least part of this area was a protected zone for birdlife.  The area was more wild than other parts I had paddled through.  The trees, vines and bushes were reluctant to ever part in order to expose even a small place to camp.  Fortunately I discovered a fishing camp on an island.  Deserted but well maintained with even the grass mowed.

10

Another dam at Balakovo.  Portage takes 80 minutes with hauling over multiple railways tracks, through scrub and mud to pop up beside the dam’s guard post.  I drag my kayak up behind a security officer toting a machine pistol and his civilian buddy.  They haven’t spotted me and I have to announce my presence.  I attempt to allay their confused looks with my by now pretty polished Russian language explanation of my journey.  I also present my letter of introduction from the Russian Geographical Society.  It has become my “magic letter”.  It’s air of authority and liberal covering of government stamps works wonders.  The guard steps out onto the busy road which crosses the dam and waves his baton.  Cars speeding in both directions come to a halt and he motions me across.  I thank him and wave somewhat embarrassed to the motorists who have stopped to let me cross.

A couple of days later I am passing the city of Saratov.  Again it’s a weekend and the river is alive with people.  Unfortunately the 2 windiest days of my entire journey so far are forecast.  Even tracking down small side channels offers little respite.  I just grind out the miles.  A boardwalk in front of the city hosts a skate competition, small beaches are full with taxi boats ferrying people to and from small islands and camps away from the city.  I resupply at a shop and chow down on crisps and fizzy drink.  The wind continues to send the river into a fit.  Waves push my boat from all directions.  It’s hard work to stay upright and all this with an audience of hundreds.

On these days I paddle hard under a perfect blue sky, the river lined with houses perched on rocky cliffs.  More invites accepted, more food offered and vodka consumed.  This descent, hard at times really is a dream paddle.

For the next few days the river is straight and wide.  Hours and hours of paddling every day and at times it feels like I am on a treadmill.  The high banks like cliffs change little.  Stopping to resupply is a welcome change.  I stop in an ancient village where 9 out of 10 crumbling wooden houses seem deserted.  Searching for water, I occasionally spot a babushka (grandmother) down a side street.  The village has a bunch of wells lining the main street.  Most are not functioning.  One thankfully, is.  I arrive to the well at the same time as an old lady with her own water bucket to fill.  I ask for her to go first but she won’t have it.  Embarrassingly, I need her help to control the water flow.  We chat about the Volga in Russian and walk together back down the road.

11

In the meantime back down by my boat, a group of 6 men have landed in their fancy speedboat and commenced a mid-week BBQ.  With 7 hours of the paddling day left, I was expecting some big mileage.  Not to be.  I ate my fill of meat, bread, vegetables and unfortunately drank my fill of vodka too.  A highlight was all of us jumping in the boat and speeding out into the middle of the Volga, at this point 3 miles wide.  Under a clear sky, I spent the next hour jumping from the boat into the cool waters of the river miles from land.  An unforgettable experience.

Late in the afternoon I was finally able to extract myself from my new friends.  After an hour and a half of slow, vodka affected paddling I decided to call it a day.  What a day.

Volgograd in sight.  The 9th and final dam separates me from this city where in WWII, the Battle of Stalingrad cost some 2 million lives.  A difficult 1 hour and 15 minutes of lifting, dragging and pulling sees me put back in on the Volga.  After failing to get any sense from a boat crew who are well past simply drunk I spend the night on a floating cafe with my new Armenian brothers.  I am welcomed aboard with huge smiles and as usual stuffed full of food and vodka!  We talk, dance, laugh and swim late into the night and some of the morning.

A day or two below Volgograd the river is still moving.  Not atypical for a river usually but on the Volga a pleasant surprise.

Villages that touch the river become less frequent, as briefly do the number of fisherman and river users.  For two consecutive days I am trapped in the open when huge electrical storms hit the river.  I can see small towns in the distance high atop sheer cliffs.  Creeping up behind then and headed my way, enormous black cloud mass, lit by lightning in quick succession.  As the storms hit with a harsh mix of rain, wind and electricity it is hard not to duck lower in my cockpit.  As if that might make me a less appealing target.  Each time I push on and in between squalls find good camps on huge river islands.  Sometimes with neighbours, often alone.

I make camp above the city of Astrakhan one beautiful Saturday afternoon.  The entire day I spend talking and waving with Russians playing by the river.  Sometimes entire beaches are packed with swimmers and campers.  A jet ski here and there, boats too.  It is a real party atmosphere.

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My final push to the Caspian sees me in a quandary.  To enter the delta region all visitors must hold an authorisation from the FSB (the modern day KGB).  I have the authorisation.  Applied for 60 days earlier and granted a month ago.  Unfortunately the FSB office is only open for business Monday to Friday, not the weekend.  Should I wait till Monday, another day and a half to get a hold of my document or make a break for the prize?  In the days above Astrakhan I had heard stories that taking the main channel to the sea was forbidden, permit or not.  Heading down there without having my authorisation in hand seemed like asking for trouble.

As the sun dipped below the horizon, the Volga was lit up in gold.  I ate my dinner of pasta and sardines looking out over the river, trying to decide what to do.  It would be a massive blow to get within a few miles of my goal and be picked up by the authorities for some sort of infringement.  I looked over the paperwork I used the apply for my permit.  I had listed the exact towns and villages through which I would pass on my way to the Caspian.  The all lay on the main channel.  How could there be a problem?  I decided right then to go for it.

Another city to clear.  The wind was blowing hard, the river wide and boat traffic was everywhere.  Just below Astrakhan, small beaches lined the banks.  Once again it was a full party atmosphere on the river.  Windsurfers whipped back and forth across the river dodging huge ships, water police were busy inspecting recreational boats for life jackets and registration.

Invitations to join BBQs and parties came along steadily.  I stopped over the day now and then to say hello before moving on, a smile permanently etched on my face.  As I had done over the past couple of months of paddling I shook my head in wonder at the welcome I had received in Russia.  It was almost too much.

With the river still flowing reasonably strong, channels began branching off on river left.  The delta was growing wider and wider.  Thousands of small channels now snaked their way to the sea.  My route left me on the main channel heading south west.  At times less than 100m across I shared the waterway with petrol tankers and the like.

My final evening on the Volga was low key.  I pulled out at a small boatyard and jetty.  Two rustic houses amongst recently mown grass.  Still in PFD and paddling gear I wandered up to the smaller of the two.  Inside was Alek, a big bear of a man who oversaw the place.  Gruff at first, once I explained my presence he was pleased to have me camp by the river on his place.  Another glorious sunset came and went.  How many of these have I been fortunate to witness on my big river descents?  Hundreds, surely.

13

On the water by 7am the next day I couldn’t help but wonder when around the corner would come a navy patrol boat to end my journey.  I continued to pass small villages on huge delta islands, connected to the mainland by a short ferry ride.  In a couple sat massive navy ships at anchor, sailors working on board.  Did they see me?  I was getting more paranoid the closer I go to reaching the Caspian Sea.

Now the main channel I was on became ram rod straight, at it’s end lay the sea.  Indeed now on either side of this man made stretch lay the Caspian, reached by even narrower channels.  On my maps the area should have been deserted but still I would see old abandoned fish processing factories, crumbling houses and light poles.

One house, half fallen into the water already looked empty.  A large dog appeared, then an old man, followed by one younger.  I paddled over to them and chatted a while.  They were living deep in the delta, miles from any town in a house only barely there.  They seemed to be among the happiest people one could ever meet and pointed out the next turn I should make to reach the small town of Vyshka where my journey would end.

After a confusing maze of tiny waterways and thick jungle like vegetation all of a sudden I paddled out into open water.  Was this the sea?  There was some islands a mile south of me but excepting them it was indeed the Caspian.  A half mile to my right I could make out the town of Vyshka.  A name and spot on a map of which I had dreamt for many months.  I slowly paddled toward it.

14

After some 2300 miles and 71 days I had kayaked the Volga River, Europe’s longest river from source to sea. I had paddled a river so beautiful that it was almost unreal.  Picturesque lakes, pine forest, rolling hills, rocky cliffs, open dusty steppes, huge cities and small villages.  It was stunning.  But what really had made my descent one so special were the people of the Volga.  From beginning to end the Russian people had welcomed me, cared for me and extended a hospitality I had never expected as a stranger.  As I neared my final takeout I was genuinely sad to be finished.  My time on the Volga River was over, it was time to go home.

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