Travelling down the Seine on an inflatable stand up paddle
Stéphane Nédelec paddled 500 km in 12 jours on the Seine as far as the Pont de Normandie in complete autonomy on an inflatable stand up paddle board.
Stéphane Nédelec paddled 500 km in 12 jours on the Seine as far as the Pont de Normandie in complete autonomy on an inflatable stand up paddle board.
Stéphane Nedelec, who has already rowed across the Atlantic Ocean, set himself a new challenge: travelling down the entire length of the Seine on a stand-up paddle, completely autonomously and wild camping overnight. "I set myself several objectives: to be the first to achieve this voyage, to witness the protection of this environment and collect some of the litter and waste along the way and finally be an actor in the film about the adventure. The Seine winds its way from Source-Seine in the Côté d’Or département of north-eastern France over 776 kilometres to Pont de Normandie where it opens out in the Channel. The first 50 kilometres cannot be navigated. The Seine is just a trickle of water. The river descent will take 12 days, with about 10 hours of paddling each day and many moments when it will be necessary to get out of the water and carry the board in order to get past natural obstacles and barrages, wild camping in nature and litter collecting: a human-scale adventure that is both challenging and inspiring."
I set myself several objectives: to be the first to achieve this voyage, to witness the protection of this environment and collect some of the litter and waste along the way and finally be an actor in the film about the adventure
I set off on the water just after Châtillon Sur Seine. The Seine is still wild up until Marcilly-Sur-Seine, which is 200 kilometres away, and I don’t know whether I will actually be able to get through on the water. Right from the start, I frequently have to get off my board to lift the rear and allow the fin to pass between the stones that rise from the riverbed. Board, safety equipment, camping equipment, tent, stove and food combined weigh nearly 40 kg. This isn’t a problem at all when I am gliding through the water. But when I have to lift the board, it is an effort that completely wears me out by the evening over the first few days. This first morning was going to set the tone for the 12 days available to me for achieving my objectives. It is very cold for the beginning of May, about 2 or 3 degrees. The water flow and depth are low, which means that I have to carry the board a lot and waste a lot of time this way. The obstacles along the way become increasingly frequent: branches and trees block my way, spillways, which are like little waterfalls, and hydroelectric plant barrages all prevent me from making steady progress. On the first evening I find a perfect spot for camping. I go to bed early in order to set off at dawn the next day. I was a bit cold in the night, and with reason. In the early morning, everything around me was frozen. And my wetsuit in particular! I have to spend time warming it up and it takes me a long time to pack up camp in these conditions.~
Over the following days meteorological conditions do not improve. There are cold winds and torrential rain in succession for the whole of the first week. I frequently have to carry my gear over largely inaccessible terrain. I wanted adventure, and I’ve definitely got it! I finally reach Marcilly Sur Seine on the 5th day. I have just covered more 200 km on a section of the Seine that is largely wild. The landscapes are magnificent and I was alone in nature. My camping spots were all in superb locations, allowing me to make the most of the serenity they afforded. It is wonderful and I am completely alone to appreciate these magical moments. In spite of my fatigue and the aches and pains resulting from 10 hours of paddling each day, I feel that I am being completely replenished. I forget my everyday worries to concentrate on the bare necessities: making progress, eating properly and being able to shelter from the cold atmosphere. In spite of all this, it feels so beneficial and good to be in this calm and wild environment, even if it can sometimes seem hostile.
Speaking of nature and the environment, at this point in my journey, I can already see that in spite of the low population density, the first signs of litter are in evidence. they get caught up in and collect the branches that rise up from the riverbed of the Seine: hundreds of plastic bottles, as well as gas bottles, parasols, all kinds of packaging, a fire extinguisher, plastic beakers and cutlery. I even saw an old car. It’s really upsetting to see the damage caused by our civilisation. All this waste will end up in the oceans at some point in the future! I don’t know how, but we have to take action. I carry on collecting litter along the way. I am aware that unfortunately it is just a drop in the ocean. But that won’t stop me from continuing during and after this trip.~
At the end of the 5th day I camp just after Nogent-Sur-Seine. This is an important stage because I come across the first barges that will be part of my experience as far as Paris. I have to deal with the waves they generate. After a short period of adjustment, I find it pretty fun when the barges pass by. I adopt the same technique as skiing downhill through moguls, with my knees well flexed, and everything goes smoothly.~
I make better progress after Nogent. The Seine is still relatively wild even if it is much wider and deeper than when I started. The current is stronger as well. I progress more slowly than I had originally planned. I often have to deal with headwind that is so strong it literally stops me from moving at all in some places. Light boats are not permitted to pass through the locks and so I lose precious time carrying all my equipment (about 40 kg) and finding somewhere suitable for getting back on the water. I stay as determined as ever though. I continue to paddle for more than 10 hours a day.~
Every time I have to take the board out of the water and set up my trolley, I have to detach my watertight bags . I pull my board along on the trolley for several hundred metres. I put the board back on the water and re-attach all the equipment. Even the shortest distance over which I have to carry everything takes at least thirty minutes and requires lots of energy. ~
At the end of the 6th day, I have to face the fact that I am running too much behind schedule to complete my journey in the allocated time. I put a brave face on things and decide to go for a pick & drop in the car to make up for lost time. I am unable to allocate the necessary time to extending this trip for various reasons.~
The first is that I have not got the necessary authorisation for crossing Paris. Priority is given to commercial navigation, and the authorities are unlikely to grant me authorisation, even as a one-off. So I will cross Paris with my board and equipment, but I’ll be on a motor boat from Alfortville to Puteaux. It would have been lovely if it hadn’t been absolutely tipping down in a way that only happens rarely… And I set off again.
Passing below the towers at La Défense is an incredible experience. You feel so small! I know Paris and the suburbs well. But seeing it from the Seine gives me a completely different vision of it. These towns which I always considered to be so grey are much more attractive and appealing viewed from the river.
Passing under the motorways in the suburbs on my paddle board, where I had spent hours and hours stuck in my car in never-ending traffic jams is an enormous pleasure. It was as if I was out of sync with time. I told myself that when I got back to reality, I would never see these landscapes in the same way again.
At this point in time, the speed at which I am making progress is of little importance. I’m just making the most of the opportunity I have. The opportunity of observing the hustle and bustle around me and the giant towers without any stress. The bridges are so big that the cars seem tiny, and I am even tinier still. The contrast with the preceding days when my environment was just greenery is really striking. It is both comical and a bit bewildering. But the large numbers of boats on the water quickly bring me back to reality.
After Paris and from day 7 to day 12, the sun comes back out. It still isn’t very warm, but is much more tolerable. The only downside is that in the bends of the Seine, I often have to deal with a strong headwind. I progress much more quickly than in the first week, but these strong gusts of wind still take a lot of my strength and energy. Instead of covering around forty kilometres a day, I am now up to nearly fifty. The Seine is wide and deep. I no longer have to get off the board at all unless I need to carry it. In fact, the physical effort required is not the same and my body, or more precisely my arms, have to adapt to this daily rhythm again.~
Luckily I am sleeping well at night and I continue to really make the most of these moments in nature. The weather carries on improving little by little. It hardly rains at all now. The landscapes change with medieval towns such as Vernon or Les Andélys following on from each other and adding a cultural touch to my journey. I’ll have to come back to enjoy a bit of real tourism!~
As I get close to Rouen and right up to the Pont de Normandie, the novelty I am confronted with is the presence of much larger boats, container ships, cruise ships and tankers, which generate such enormous waves that sometimes I have to kneel down on my board to avoid falling. Paddling in a kneeling position is also the technique I use to progress against the headwind on some sections of the river. In this way, I reduce my exposure to the wind and wear myself out a bit less, despite the uncomfortable position. Slowly but surely, I become aware of my accumulated fatigue and my breaks get longer and longer, in spite of myself.~
I haven’t given up collecting litter. I have noticed that the amount of litter and the range of discarded objects has increased since Paris. The most obvious are the incalculable numbers of condoms and sanitary towels. Again, this is really upsetting. It is a consolation of sorts to observe how diverse and abundant the fauna is: herons, ducks, swans, egrets and coypu can all be spotted over the entire journey. This is reassuring. It would be lovely to be able to observe without them being surrounded by plastic bags. Despite the fact that my litter collection is a minute gesture, I carry on. I think that even the small amount I am able to collect is helpful and if it inspires a maximum number of people to do the same, we will all contribute to protecting our immediate surroundings. When I reach Rouen, I have covered more than 450 kilometres using just the strength in my arms to travel through magnificent landscapes. I arrive in the city right at the end of the day, the 11th day since my departure. In theory I have another 125 km to cover, which is too much to do in just one day. So I accept that I will have to resort to a second pick & drop, as the shooting commitments for the film of my adventure mean that I have to complete my journey the following day. I camp for the last time on the banks of the Seine, a river which I now feel that I know intimately. It has given me so many wonderful things. In my head I can clearly see the landscapes and I know that sometimes the river pushed me to reveal my inner strength, once again taking me beyond my limits to continue to make progress. It was also the source of some wonderful chance encounters, such as the incredibly welcoming couple who put me up for the night during the Maisons-Laffitte stage of the journey. And also all the river dwellers who gave me the benefit of their advice and experience. I spent time talking to impromptu supporters who found out about my adventure on the spot. With the exception of a few lock-keepers and barrage managers who don’t view small craft kindly, I have always been made to feel welcome and received encouragement. ~
The last stage of the journey gives me the opportunity to pass under the Pont de Tancarville and the Pont de Normandie in succession as the culmination of my trip. After paddling all morning, I decide to take a break for lunch just after the first bridge. I have 15 km left to do to complete the trip.
Since Rouen, I have been really aware of the tides. The closer to the Channel I get, the more striking it is. I had calculated that I needed to be on the final stretch at the beginning of the afternoon in order to benefit from the elements. And I was right!~
I completed the final 15 km in less than an hour. The current combined with the ebb tide and a light tailwind this time. The perfect conditions for celebrating my arrival under the majestic bridge which marks the entrance into the Channel. And enjoying the incredible feeling of having achieved my goal, in spite of the kilometres that I was unable to complete on my board.
At the end of 2017-beginning of 2018, I rowed across the Atlantic, which was 4,700 km in 47 days alone at sea. My friends and family often said that travelling down the Seine on a Stand Up Paddle was a breeze in comparison. They wondered if it was more a leisurely tour than a real adventure. I wasn’t really in any doubt before the first paddle strokes. And now I’m completely convinced! Going down the Seine on a Stand Up Paddle in complete autonomy is a real physical challenge. And with no-one to turn to when faced with the challenges of the natural surroundings and obstacles of this beautiful river, there is no room for doubt, and I had another exceptional adventure. In the end, I covered slightly more than 500 kilometres of the total 776 km that make up the Seine. 500 hard and demanding kilometres. But 500 kilometres of pure happiness in the end! It’s such a great feeling that I’m looking forward to setting off on another adventure!~
Friday 5th July, a few weeks after the end of my trip on the Seine and I had been looking forward to this day with impatience. Early in the day, I join the Itiwit teams on the premises of the Decathlon Watersports Center in Hendaye to tell them all about my adventure and share my feedback with the equipment designers. I am greeted by Jérôme, the Ambassador Manager for the brand with whom I have been in close contact since I started preparing for my trip. Itiwit’s idea is toimprove equipment on the basis of user feedback on their product in use in extreme conditions, and the idea for me is to come up with potential new adventures as part of this partnership. The team makes me feel really welcome. I understand straight away that these are people who are passionate about what they do. With about sixty photos to help illustrate, I tell them all about my trip. The discussion is enriched with loads of questions, all of which are precise and relevant, and take place in a friendly atmosphere. I can see that they absorb all the details that will enable them to develop new ideas. The end of the morning is spent visiting the site. Jérôme explains how they operate in detail. I gain a better understanding of how they manage to produce high-quality equipment at an affordable price. I subjected the equipment to severe testing over the course of my 12-day trip on the Seine and overall, everything survived the shock. The watertight bags enabled me to keep my clothes dry despite the endless capsizing at the beginning of the trip. The board has suffered some scratches, some of which are deep, but didn't prevent me from progressing. There’s no doubt about it, it’s really solid stuff. On the site, the teams have their offices, of course, but they also have several workshops where they can build prototypes from A to Z. They can then test the equipment immediately. Their premises are ideally located next to the sea. They design, they test immediately, they adapt, they test again, it all happens really quickly... For each piece of equipment, a product manager, an engineer and a a designer work together as a close team. At the beginning of the afternoon I talk to Antoine and Adrien, the two team leaders. In terms of the new touring board that Itiwit is launching next year, I explain what I would change in comparison with the board I used. Nearly all of my suggestions had already been implemented thanks to feedback from other Itiwit ambassadors. These discussions between product designers and creators and product users are very definitely extraordinary moments of sharing. This day of sharing and discussing with an ultra dynamic team filled me with enthusiasm. Now I’ve got loads of ideas for preparing my next adventure with the support of the Itiwit by Decathlon teams. Working in direct contact with this team undeniably opens up the field of opportunity. I’m filled with a burning desire to head back out onto the water!