An English Packraft Gathering

Storm Bronagh was coming.

We watched as belts of rain and 50mph winds swept across the UK and considered whether we should cancel the first English Packraft Gathering, scheduled for the next day, on the edge of Brands Bay, Poole Harbour.

A few who had planned to camp in hammocks, understandably sent their apologies — no one wants to be woken by a falling tree branch.

Then we noticed a break in the weather. A brief lull between Storm Ali and Bronagh and trusting in our Weather Apps, we raced for the coast.

Studland Bay in September was breezy but stunning. In minutes we had inflated our packrafts and were off, paddling southbound alongside a sweeping white sand beach.

The original plan had always been to paddle to Old Harry and explore the surrounding caves, but an offshore wind picked up and with it the prospect of being swept out to sea, so we did what the English do best and diverted to a pub, atop a nearby cliff.

Packrafts weigh next to nothing, which gives you the unique opportunity to adapt plans at a moment’s notice. So we hopped out, and in the footprints of smugglers, followed a footpath up a secluded wooded valley to The Bankes Armes, Studland.

A roaring log fire was keeping the locals warm inside but they probably wouldn’t have appreciated us squeezing our 9 foot inflated packrafts in, so we had a pint and some food in the garden with a view out to sea. It was here that a couple of extra packrafters found us and feeling fortified we decided to have another crack at Old Harry.

The ride out was fun. We whipped along underneath the white cliffs with the tide and wind behind us, nervously eyeing our speed, which climbed until we were notching 8km an hour across the ground. A packraft’s top speed when paddling alone is about 4km an hour so simple subtraction indicated we wouldn’t be paddling back the same route.

As we neared the headland we bailed. The RNLI had better things to be doing than rescuing us. And again we had an option other watercraft users don’t — we paddled into the shore, slung our packrafts over our shoulders and hiked back under the cliffs.

Then it was back to our ‘wild camp’ site where more packrafters had arrived and pitched their tents.

The sun stayed out and the wind dropped so we decided we just had time for an evening paddle before food.

Launching from the site into Brands Bay we paddled off into the sunset.

More turned up after work just in time for a barbecue and a long evening around the fire, talking about past expeditions and planning new ones.

Storm Bronagh, when it arrived at 8am the next morning, wasn’t quite the tropical cyclone that had been predicted, but it brought enough rain and high winds to take the fun out of packrafting.

Despite the conditions, Fraser Christian from Coastal Survival gave a fantastic and entertaining introduction to survival and foraging along the coast. Some of the highlights being; the ‘Two is one, one is none’ principle, the importance of psychological and physical preparation, ‘you won’t have to use two sticks if you’re carrying a lighter’ and the quote of the day, ‘remain confident and upbeat even if you’re pretty certain you’re all going to die.’

From top left: Packraft HQ (that nearly came down in the high winds), cows learning from Fraser, foraging along the harbour foreshore, fire lighting and a motley group of slightly bedraggled packrafters.

Then with the weather worsening, and some of the tents looking like they might take off, we considered our options.

We congregated at the Shell Bay restaurant and after a great meal, split in different directions; some back to London, some to a kind offer of a warm barn nearby and a couple to catch an early ferry to France.

All in all, it was a great couple of days out with old and new friends, making good use of Weather Apps and packrafts.

The talk was of an expedition down the River Wye next year. Watch this space — we’re fully prepared.

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