Chapter 5 – East Coast of Ireland
“We all have limits, but most of us don’t even get close to discovering what they are.”
Northwesterly 3 or 4, backing south westerly 3 or 4, increasing to 6 later. It wasn’t a perfect forecast but it was good enough for the 32 nautical mile crossing to Ardglass in Northern Ireland. I had been troubling myself about this crossing. It was the last major crossing for a while and was essentially the crux of the first third of the expedition. Once completed it would allow me to crack on around Ireland and with summer on the way that shouldn’t be too bad should it? It was my biggest crossing so far, I would be un-escorted, I was on unfamiliar territory and the forecast was not ideal and was even worse for the following few days. It knew was probably now or never but I wasn’t really up for it. As I telephoned the Coastguard to let them know my intentions it would not have taken much persuasion from them to get me to stay put. As it was the person I spoke to was very matter of fact and just logged the fact that I would be leaving at 0700hrs with an ETA of 1500hrs at Ardglass.
I mechanically got my gear packed into the kayak and put to sea. Each gust of wind made me look nervously at the sky to see if there was a change in the weather. The sky was consistently overcast – no clues there. With only the occasional broken wave conditions were actually quite reasonable and since I was heading due west and the wind had a fair amount of north in it, I was able to bounce along quite well. Unlike the crossing to the Isle of Man there had been no sign of the Irish coast on the horizon, either last night or this morning. “Well unless someone has moved it, it is definitely out there somewhere”, I told myself and with my brow furrowed and jaw set I pulled hard to get my speed over the ground above 8kph on my GPS. Despite by best efforts I could not get it above 7kph and I began to realise that my estimation of 8hrs for the crossing was rather too optimistic. I tried to call the Coastguard to give them an updated ETA but I was already out of radio range. My Silva Multi Navigator showed it to be almost exactly 60km to Ardglass and I again broke it down into 10km sections, which took just under an hour and twenty to complete, taking a short break after each one. As I headed out the whole west coast of the Isle of Man stretched out behind me. I could see from the Calf of Man all the way up to Rue Point. The mountain tops were obscured by low cloud but otherwise visibility was good and I could still see Peel for several hours, almost as if it was beckoning me to return.
I need not have worried at all. Instead of conditions deteriorating as I had feared they might, the further out to sea I paddled the flatter the sea became and the sun even came out. For several hours there was hardly a breath of wind. Three large RIB’s came chasing after me and another very smart motor yacht passed astern, all of them heading over to Northern Ireland, obviously the place to go. With twenty five kilometres completed I could at last make out the faint smudge of the MourneMountains which lay south of my destination. I could still clearly see the Isle of Man and way to the north the Mull of Galloway. With no wind or tide to assist me it was just a case of plodding away, keeping an eye on my speed over the ground and trying to keep it above 7kph. There was nothing I could do about it, I was going to be late and I would try to make contact with the coastguard at 1500hrs to let them know I was okay. I resorted to listening to the radio to take away the monotony of what was proving to be a fairly boring crossing. I am ashamed to say that my bladder control let me down and I had to wee in the boat and I knew that by the time I arrived at Ardglass I would be smelling really bad.
As my ‘deadline’ of 1500hrs arrived I was a long way offshore and still out of radio range. I could receive some broken transmissions from Belfast Coastguard but they could not receive me. I paddled on for another half hour and tried again; still no response. I was concerned because I really didn’t want them sending anyone out to look for me. I managed to reach behind me into my day hatch and fish out my mobile phone. I couldn’t believe my luck – three bars! I got through to Liverpool Coastguard whose number was already plumbed into the phone and explained the delay. They appreciated the call and I was able to relax a little and concentrate on finishing the crossing. The batteries died in my GPS after 8hours but I could see where I was heading; with the lighthouse on St John’s Point to port, the buoys marking the entrance to Strangford Lough to starboard and the water tower on the low hill overlooking Ardglass dead ahead. The wind was increasing all the time from the south west and the last hour was a bit of a battle but I beat the yacht that had been motoring down the coast from Strangford Lough into Ardglass harbour after a solid nine and a half hours of paddling. It was great to arrive in Northern Ireland and I felt a strong sense of accomplishment. The gamble in taking ‘the shortcut’ from St Bees to Northern Ireland via the Isle of Man had paid off and now I had some days in hand according to my schedule.
My landfall on Irish ‘soil’ was rather unceremonious. The tide was out exposing a fair amount of rather smelly mud in the harbour. I found a corner that was hard enough to stand on but it was obviously where the fishing boats unloaded their catch and the mud and sand was covered in rotting prawns and bits of crab, all mixed up with a scum of diesel. Nice! Meanwhile the yacht had ‘parked’ neatly in the marina and the young crew were off to get their showers and no doubt enjoy a good meal in a posh restaurant. I on the other hand went to find a toilet, some fresh water and somewhere to pitch my tent. I had definitely got it wrong! I told myself that next time I tried circumnavigating the UK and Ireland would be by yacht.
Having done what I needed to do including purchasing a few essentials in the Spar shop (you can imagine what the locals thought of me, stood there in the queue dripping wet and smelling of urine) I went off to hide on the other side of the harbour where I had seen a patch of grass with my name on it. A bunch of local kids came down to have a chat as I went back to my kayak. They were totally un-phased by my smell and appearance and genuinely fascinated by the idea of kayaking around Ireland. Bursting with intelligent questions, they helped me load my kayak with my purchases and pushed me off, wishing me a good night’s sleep. Good kids. My campsite might not have been as comfortable or as warm as a hotel or a yacht but the view was good and so was the soundtrack of curlew and other waders which lulled me to sleep before I had chance to finish writing my diary.
It had been a wet night and the rain woke me several times. The thought of putting wet kit on in the morning kept me tucked up until gone 7am, when I could delay it no longer and I forced myself out of my sleeping bag. It was cold, the south westerly wind was as strong as the previous evening and heavy shower clouds filled the sky leaving just the odd patch of blue. At least the strong wind had thrashed most of the rain water out of my paddling kit and I only swore once as I donned the slightly less smelly thermals.
One thing I had noticed upon my arrival in Ardglass was the amount of litter on the beaches and in the harbour. Plastic bottles, fish boxes and a Wellington boot were strewn across the beach. Isn’t it weird how those who rely on the sea for their living often are the worst offenders and treat it with contempt? The same kids as before raced down to see me when I paddled over to the harbour. I commented on the amount of rubbish everywhere and straight away one of the boys piped up, “The fisherman just throw their rubbish over the side, if they catch a seal in their nets they chop its head off and throw it back in.” I asked him what he wanted to do when he was older and without hesitation he said he wanted to be a marine biologist – like I said – good kid. I seem to be picking on fishermen a bit – I don’t mean to but I have seen a lot of evidence of their total disregard for the marine environment and their impact on it. I guess we all treat our places of work with a degree of complacency – it is after all just a job. The problem is that whilst there seems to be abundant life now, if they keep treating the sea like a dustbin what will it be like for future generations of fishermen?
The yachties beat me to it, departing ahead of me, sails set and yacht heeled over on a close reach to the south. It was a perfect sailing day with little or no swell and a good breeze. Not such a good day for sea kayaking however, especially if like me you wanted to be heading south and west into Dundrum Bay directly into the wind.
Hugging the shore I snuck around St John’s Point, admiring the unusual black and gold (Cornish rugby colours) paintwork of the lighthouse tower with the impressive backdrop of the Mourne Mountains leaning towards me from across the other side of the bay. As a large cloud approached so the wind increased and the temperature dropped. It was a gruelling couple of miles into Dundrum Bay to try to find some shelter from the land. I passed a series of reefs each with a small colony of common seals in attendance and at one stage I felt like the Pied Piper leading a procession of young seals pups away from their homes. I must have had a dozen or more small, round heads following me, each pup daring the others to get closer to my strange bright yellow craft.
Looking upriver as I crossed the entrance to Dundrum it looked a beautiful spot with its Norman castle surrounded by oak trees overlooking the village. Again I wished I had time to explore but the ebb tide was flowing out strongly and it would have been hard work to have paddled in. I later learnt that there is a plaque in the village which tells the story of how the captain of the SS Great Britain in the 19th century mistook the lighthouse on St John’s Point for the lighthouse on the Calf of Man. He ran the ocean liner right up the beach at Dundrum where it remained for 11 months until they were able to remove it. Woops!
Newcastle looks an attractive resort from the sea, following the curve of the bay at the foot of Slieve Donard, the highest of the MourneMountains at 848metres. With a large, very expensive looking hotel at one end of town and the harbour at the other, Newcastle is a thriving seaside town and because of the Bank Holiday weekend it was packed with visitors despite the mixed weather. The purpose of me stopping at Newcastle Lifeboat Station was to collect some post. Robin Feloy had shaped a new rudder blade for me to try and he had posted it to the lifeboat station. Because I had missed out Larne where my box of supplies was still waiting for me, I had asked for my maps and charts to be sent down to Newcastle. Unsure if they had arrived, there was no-one about when I pulled my kayak up on the lifeboat slipway. I rang the number I had for the mechanic at the lifeboat station but there was no reply. It started to rain (again) so I made the decision to stop for the day. Just as I finished getting changed one of the crew showed up and told me that my post had indeed arrived. Perhaps I should have got back into my wet gear and carried on but I was dry now and what the heck! It would be good to meet the rest of the crew and straight away I was taken under their wing, accommodation arranged at reduced cost at the Harbour House Inn right next door to the lifeboat station and I was able to recharge my electronics equipment and dry my wet kit. The Harbour Master, a retired lifeboat man who still helps run the station bought me lunch and we sat and chatted about the history of the Newcastle lifeboat and some of the problems they have experienced in recent years. His broad County Down accent was hard for me to understand – his lack of teeth didn’t help and despite the frequent Anglo Saxon I got the gist of what he was telling me and began to appreciate just what the lifeboat meant to this town and to him in particular. It was his life and he had a great many stories to tell. We were joined by another member of the crew who was part-time. His ‘day job’ is Captain of a merchant ship but on the lifeboat he is ‘just’ a crew member – not that he minds letting someone else make the decisions for a change. The landlord of the Harbour House Inn looked after me very well ensuring that another glass of Guinness appeared as soon as I was starting to run dry. The conversation that evening was fascinating. The Irish have always been great travellers and willing to go to where the work is. Much of the talk was about who was living in what country and what they were doing. Of course the internet has made the world a much smaller place and there was much pride in the achievements of their offspring. I thought people might be wary of talking about ‘The Troubles’ as they call the decades when the paramilitaries were most active. I tested the water by commenting on the heavily fortified police station in Newcastle which seemed so out of place in a town with such a relaxed feel to it. Far from being reluctant to talk about it, there was universal condemnation of all the violence, not that they had suffered that much in Newcastle, apart from a couple of policemen getting shot! Everyone agreed that the problems persist due to racketeering and simple criminality. It had little or nothing to do with religion or politics. Apparently Newcastle was a fairly middle-of-the-road town with no strong allegiances. If I went to loyalist Bangor or the more republican Kilkeel I would find much stronger opinions, even amongst the lifeboat crews.
The Guinness went down well and my resolve to finish my diary went with it. Needless to say I slept like a baby but six pints of Guinness and a cooked breakfast are not the ideal recipe for sea kayaking. The following day I encountered my first swell for some time and my head and stomach were not in the mood. Having bade my farewells and even managed an interview on Radio Cornwall I struggled to get into any sort of rhythm on the water. It took at least a couple of hours for my hangover to subside and my mood matched the weather. A grey, cold morning with frequent showers and a gusty south westerly wind meant that the first half of the day was fairly unpleasant. Even the scenery didn’t inspire as the MourneMountains were hidden by cloud. I stopped for lunch on one of the few sandy beaches on this stretch of coast. It started to rain as I sat there shivering and I began to wish I was somewhere else.
Beyond the smelly fishing harbours of Annalong and Kilkeel, Carlingford Lough forms the border between the North and the Republic of Ireland. A spectacular sea lough, it cuts deep into the heart of Irish history flanked by the sombre Mourne Mountains to the north and the craggy Carlingford Mountain to the south. Apparently there is still a Royal Navy destroyer on station in the lough but I was unchallenged as I made my way across the border. I was in time to catch the ebb out of the Lough which I hoped would help to carry me south. The tide was pouring out of the Lough at such a rate it was producing large standing waves as it met the open sea. Every so often one of these haystacks would collapse and I needed my wits about me as I used the powerful flow to ferry glidepast Haulbowline Lighthouse. I could actually see the drop in water level from the Lough to the sea and I was amazed to watch a fairly large coaster work against the tide to gain entry to the port. The chart shows a narrow cut dredged to just 6.3 metres and with the ebb tide flowing at up to five and a half knots it was quite a feat of seamanship to get such a large vessel in against the tide.
It was late afternoon and I was feeling a lot better. As I tried to make up my mind whether to make the crossing of the wide expanse of Dundalk Bay, or make an early stop for the night the sky cleared and the view opened up inland. The mountains of the Cooley Peninsula loomed large to the north and the much flatter hinterland of Dundalk stretched to the west. A big sky with towering cumulo nimbus shower clouds dragged curtains of rain across the green coastal pastures and the sun’s rays penetrated the gaps between the clouds sending shafts of golden light to illuminate the bright yellow gorse on the low cliffs of Clogher Head to the south. They acted as a guiding light for me, the distance across the bay foreshortened by the clear air. The lads at Newcastle had said I might make Clogher Head if I got the tide right and Clogher Head it had to be. It was a ten mile crossing and I knew that sooner or later I would be caught in one of the squalls, but I was in my groove now and crossed the bay listening to ‘Drive Time Classics’ on Limerick FM. Nigel Kennedy and the Prague Philharmonic performing their version of The Doors rock anthem ‘Light My Fire’ filled my ears as I got drenched by a torrential downpour that flattened the water around me. It was inspirational stuff!
I saw several Great Northern Divers in Dundalk Bay. I had to check my bird book later to be sure – a majestic, powerful looking bird, much bigger than a guillemot, with very elegant chequered markings. I had heard of them being spotted off the Cornish coast but had never been lucky enough to see one and now I had seen half a dozen, each one on its own but all within approximately five miles of each other.
Rounding the small promontory of Clogher Head I found a perfect little ‘harbour’ for my kayak, a gap in the rocks leading to firm sand pockmarked with worm holes and a pebble beach that was steep enough to make the carry to the low grass cliff nice and short. The tide was out and I would have had a long carry on the main beach. In no time at all my tent was up and was I chatting to a gentleman out for his evening exercise; a brisk walk to Clogher Head and back. He insisted I went with him to say hello at the lifeboat station where he thought they were having a meeting. I didn’t like to keep bothering the crews who have enough to do but he was very persuasive. I needn’t have worried; they seemed really pleased to see me and the ‘Hon. Sec.’ offered to let me stay in the boathouse. I explained that I was all sorted and declined the offer of a pint – a lightweight I know, but I had only just recovered from the previous evening’s indulgence. He promised to bring me a breakfast bap in the morning.
The north westerly persisted all night and brought with it some heavy showers. By morning my paddling kit was soaking wet but at least it didn’t smell too bad. As good as his word the ‘Hon Sec’ arrived with a hot baguette wrapped in tin foil filled with sausage and bacon. It was absolutely gorgeous and set me up for the day. I was slow to get underway but by 10.30 am I was on the water and following mile after mile of beach. Fortunately a low cliff protected me from the worst of the wind and it was mostly on my back anyway. Passing the seaside town of Skerries I went outside of St Patrick’s Island and took a straight line to Lambay Island which is privately owned by the Revelstoke family. The wind was pretty strong, and heavy showers kept sweeping across from the mainland so I had my hood up much of the way to protect my face which was starting to sting. It was fairly grim to be honest with you but safe enough and at least I had the benefit of the tide.
I could see the rock lighthouse of Rockabill about three miles further out to sea but it never occurred to me that it might be inhabited. Irish sea kayaker Sean Pierce subsequently told me that a couple of wardens are resident throughout the summer from May onwards and since it was now the 5th of May, I suppose technically I should have gone out around and to have included it in my circumnavigation of all the inhabited islands. As far as I am aware it is the only incidence when I failed to go around an island that could arguably be described as inhabited. I hope you will forgive me? The reason the wardens are there is to protect and monitor the Roseate Tern population. According to Dave Wash’s brilliant book Oilean – A Guide to the Irish Islands, 90% of Ireland’s Roseates breed there, which represents 35% of Europe’s population and as such is one of Ireland’s biggest contributions to international conservation.
Lambay Island is quite large and very close to Ireland’s capital so it is perhaps surprising that it is almost completely lacking in human interference. The fact that it is privately owned and they value their privacy is to the benefit of the thousands of birds that populate the steep craggy cliffs, home to the second largest colony of guillemots in Ireland. I used the shelter the island’s southern cliffs afforded me to head west and thus give me a better line to cross to the Howth peninsula. I was so busy trying to see where my next point of aim was through the curtains of rain that I did not see the rock that sucked dry as a wave receded. With a sickening ‘graunch’ I ran straight over it and then stuck fast, from my cockpit to the bow of my kayak clear of the water. I was certain I had ripped a hole in the hull and waited to feel the water gush in around my legs. I started looking for somewhere to land but there was no where, just steep sharp rock. I pumped frantically with my foot pump but only a few spurts seemed to be coming out. Perhaps the pump wasn’t working properly? There was nothing for it but to rip off my spray deck and take a look. Expecting to see a gaping hole to my surprise the Kevlar hull was intact. Mighty relieved I knew I must have done serious damage to the gel coat that is essentially the waterproof shell of the kayak. I was keen to take a look and now badly needed to go for a wee! I found a small gully, a cave really, with kittiwakes and shags nesting above. Normally I would have stayed clear to avoid disturbing them but this was an emergency. The beach if you can call it that was made up of large barely smooth pebbles so I jumped out of the boat before the stones did more damage to my poor boat. Very gingerly I heaved the boat above the surging waves cringing at the sound of gel coat against rock. First things first and I unclipped my personal locater beacon (which is always clipped around my waist when I am at sea), unclipped by map case which is also around my waist, removed my spray deck which allowed me to take off my cag. This finally allowed me to remove the shoulder straps from my salopettes so that at last I could get some relief! Sometimes that process needed to be done in rather a hurry and it was important to get the timing right otherwise I could easily end up wetting myself so poor had my bladder control become! Now that I could think sensibly I rolled the kayak on its side very carefully and took a look at the damage I had caused. An eighteen inch gouge in the gel coat but as far as I could tell the laminate of glass and Kevlar was not compromised. I needed to repair the gel coat but I could do it that evening or in the morning once I’d had a chance to dry the hull properly. I had got away with it – just. I had a new rule – to look where I was going!
The next crossing was fairly committing; the weather was grim and it was likely to be fairly choppy in the middle. It was cold and unpleasant and only the thought of getting close to Dublin and thus seeing Linda kept me motivated. As I crossed, an air sea rescue helicopter flew about the bay. My worst fear is that someone sees me out in conditions that they consider to be dangerous and calls the Coastguard assuming that I must be in trouble. Thankfully these guys were just doing exercises and gave me a friendly ‘thumbs up’ and a wave as they flew low over head checking on my welfare. I guessed they might report my position to the Coastguard and I found out later that’s exactly what they did do: Thanks chaps!
I crabbed across the wind to the Ben of Howth, passing the curiously named island Ireland’s Eye and the busy yacht harbour of Howth. I had once caught the ferry into Dun Laoghaire and remembered the Bailey Lighthouse guiding shipping into Dublin Bay. I was a little anxious that I wouldn’t find anywhere convenient to camp and didn’t fancy the prospect of fighting my way into Dublin Bay against the wind. My luck was in and I found a small cove that fitted the bill on the south side of the Howth peninsula which has some very expensive looking houses perched high on the cliffs looking south. My luck didn’t hold out though because as I landed and started the laborious routine of emptying the kayak and carrying all my kit the 100 metres to the only level patch of grass I could find to pitch my tent, it started to rain heavily. My hands were freezing, I was tired, cold and hungry and to cap it all I had lost the bite valve on the end of my drink tube so I had absolutely no fresh water. A dog walker was sheltering from the rain beneath the cliffs at the back of the cove and he watched me with wry smile on his face as I trudged up and down the beach with bag after bag in the wind and rain. He must have thought I was completely mad and I would have been inclined to agree with him. It threw it down all evening and feeling fed up, I got in my sleeping bag and cuddled a boil in the bag meal in a vain attempt to get it up to at least body temperature.
The next day was my last before a proper break. The wind had abated a little and lost its cold northerly trend and was now coming from the milder west. Despite heavy rain waking me at about 5am by the time I was ready to go my kit was almost dry. Indeed the sun came out long enough to dry the hull of the C-Trek so I could affect a repair. Upon closer examination it was obvious the rock had been close to piercing the hull and had only been prevented from doing so by the strength of the laminate. It was a huge compliment to the builders, Kirton Kayaks. Despite being a very light boat for its size they had clearly not compromised on the strength of the materials and I was extremely grateful for that!
I had been watching a steady procession of shipping, coasters, tankers and ferries go in and out of the port of Dublin and I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to get across the channel without getting in the way. I needn’t have worried, by sheer luck I timed it to perfection and nipped across without a problem. That said, I had only just crossed the entrance to Dun Laoghaire when the fast ferry came blasting into the bay and into dock with frightening speed. She doesn’t waste time with rope, using magnets to hold her to the gantries which allow access and egress for cars and pedestrians. Within the time it took for me to finish the crossing of Dublin Bay she was gone again. Apparently it crosses the Irish Sea five times a day in summer.
Dun Laoghaire looked much smarter than I had remembered. I was relieved because that was where Linda had booked our B&B. I had thought I would be stopping at the lifeboat station in the harbour but as it was I had the opportunity to get further ahead of myself and was aiming to get to Wicklow before taking a well earned rest. Arriving on the far side of Dublin Bay I admired the Martello Tower on Dalkey Island, guarding Dublin from Napoleon in around 1804-5. I headed south following a gravel beach and low cliff to Bray and Greystones, the coastline fairly unremarkable apart from some small collections of sand martin nests dug out of the sandy cliffs by these tiny birds and the railway which hugs the coast all the way to Wicklow. From Greystones the ebbing tide accelerated me southwards and past ten miles of beach. Little Terns joined the abundant Common Terns in the hunt for sand eel. By 4.30pm I was gliding into WicklowHarbour where I met James Potts, the mechanic of the Wicklow lifeboat. He was extremely helpful and offered to let me stay in the boat house. I stowed my kayak in the sailing club boat pen having been given permission by a man who very quickly became a friend.
Charlie Kavanagh is an RYA Yachtmaster Instructor/Examiner and runs South East Cruising School. He was busy getting his two yachts ready for the season. Saltee Dog, a Sadler 32 was still up on the hard in the sailing club enclosure and I gave Charlie a hand to finish polishing the hull. Charlie is a large fella, with a mop of black curly hair and a goatee beard. Although by his own admission he is fairly outspoken, he talks a lot of sense and is clearly well liked by his fellow boat owners who stopped by to see if he needed a hand. I found him extremely knowledgeable on all things nautical and a lot more besides. He has recently had a letter published in the local newspaper openly critical of Sinn Fein who are working hard to increase their popularity in the south of the country. He painted a hypothetical picture of Gerry Adam’s ‘private army’ taking over the state and ruling by force and intimidation. A scary scenario and Charlie is a brave man to have stuck his head above the parapet in this way. He invited me for a pint in the sailing club bar later that evening. Wicklow Sailing Club is home to the Round Ireland Yacht Race and I was keen to learn more about the race. A tough challenge for any sailor, with a theoretical shortest distance of 704 nautical miles it was now definitely on my list of ‘must do’s.
At last a rest day and a chance to get my chores done; laundry (even I couldn’t stand the smell of my clothes any more!) and a bit of shopping, then it was time to catch up on the diary. I had promised to give Charlie a hand when the crane arrived to lift ‘Saltee Dog’ into the water. I ended up suspended from the crane in a bosun’s chair at the top of the mast doing some last minute fixes – anything for a buzz! I thought it would be good practice for when I go solo yacht racing…
I also had a sobering lesson in boat ownership. Charlie had paid for some work to be done on his second yacht, Merry Bee’s engine. Sadly it was to no avail as she failed to start and the diagnosis was a blown head gasket which is fairly terminal for a sea water cooled engine and the look on Charlie’s face said everything. We had a few pints of Guinness at the yacht club later that night in consolation.
The following day was one I had been looking forward to for a long time. Linda was flying into Dublin Airport at 2pm. I caught the 7.35 am train into Dublin (we had to swap to a coach half way as they were working on the line – sound familiar?) I was on a mission to find a waterproof camera to replace my Canon A1 that had leaked back on Bardsey. In the very last camera shop I could find in the whole city of Dublin I managed to find what I was looking for. I resolved to try to look after this one as perhaps they are not designed to sit all day on the deck of a sea kayak?
I arrived at the airport two hours early – eager or what! When Linda finally walked through into the ‘Arrivals’ hall I was ready with my camera to take a snap before she knew what was happening. I was so pleased to see her, my hands must have been shaking and the photo is completely blurred. We had an unnecessarily long bus journey to Dun Laoghaire due to my incompetence at interpreting bus routes, which left us with little time to get back into Dublin city. Instead we had a very nice meal at The Purty Kitchen in Dun Laoghaire and then went for a stroll along the pier to look at the yachts and enjoyed a truly special sunset.
The rain rather matched my mood as we took the bus back to the airport the following morning. Saying goodbye was going to be tough so we did it quickly and I walked away with a tear in my eye. There was nothing else for it but to crack on with the expedition and I headed back to Wicklow even more determined to get moving around the coast of Ireland. I was on the water by 4.15 pm and had 4 hours of favourable tide past the huge lighthouse on Wicklow Head, the tide race a bit of a disappointment since Wicklow Head is reputed to have the fastest tides on the Irish coast.
If you remember, the excuse for Linda to fly over and see me was to bring me my new paddle; a carbon fibre wing paddle manufactured by Lettmann of Germany and donated by Paul Ralph of Marsport. I had only ever tried other people’s Lettmann paddles before as I could never afford to buy my own. They are at the pricey end of the market but that is because they are the best. Normally it can take days, sometimes weeks to get used to a paddle. The ‘feel’ can be quite different, even of paddles of the same design. It was a gamble swapping paddle weeks into a journey and I could have been asking for trouble from wrists and muscles suddenly having to adapt to a different stroke. But I was delighted to find that as soon as I put the first blade in the water and pulled on it I knew they were perfect. The right length, the right angle, the right blade size and so light! The quality of manufacture was exceptional – I have made a few paddle blades myself so I know how difficult it is and these were flawless. If you are thinking about buying a new paddle take a look at the Lettmann range – you will not be disappointed and you can buy them in the UK through Marsport in Reading.
I stopped just north of Courtown on a deserted beach that stretched for miles in either direction. Camping on sand is always interesting: you end up with some very strange beasties in your tent with you including Sandhoppers and Shore Bristletails, spiders and beetles. In fact I could have done a very interesting study of the inhabitants of my tent, it’s enough to put you off camping for life. They say you swallow 8 spiders in your lifetime whilst asleep; I think I have already had my share!
The sea was perfectly calm the following morning as I packed the boat. A porpoise swam purposefully past, heading north. The sky was overcast but it was noticeably warmer. The coastline south was rather mundane but I was kept entertained by the comical antics of the hundreds of terns, diving and chattering all around me. I stopped for lunch on yet more deserted beach. As I waited for the Irish station South East FM Radio to ring me to do an interview another porpoise swam past. How do you convey how special that is over the radio?
The sun came out in the afternoon and I enjoyed perfect conditions as I crossed the entrance to Wexford Harbour, a vast expanse of golden sand bordered by coniferous forest to the north and the town of Rosslare to the south. I became aware of a commotion behind me. Turning I saw an aerial dog fight between two common terns and what I think was either a Pomarine or Arctic Skua. My guess is the former as its body was more bulky than the Arctic. I hesitate because I have never seen one before but it was definitely one or the other. I have seen many Great Skuas, off the north of Scotland and once on a crossing to Lundy. Perhaps I need to get out more but I was very excited to see this bird which is described in my bird book as ‘a scarce but regular passage migrant’. In the end it gave up chasing the tern which had a sand eel dangling from its beak. It settled on rather nonchalantly on the smooth surface of the sea then, dignity restored took off again, heading north back to where it belongs.
As I approached Rosslare Harbour an Irish Ferry completed its crossing from Pembroke. This is the point at which I would have arrived had I decided to cross direct from St David’s instead of taking the ‘detour’ north. In retrospect I was very glad that I had made the effort to visit Anglesey and the Isle of Man. They are both very special, very different islands and it would have been a shame to have missed them out of my journey. Only time would tell whether it was a good call as far as the success of the whole expedition was concerned. I was back on schedule and summer was fast approaching so things were looking good. I had a nice bit of tidal assistance past Greenore Point but although I had intended to finish the day on the south coast, when I saw the perfect campsite overlooking the Tuskar Rock lighthouse I decided that would do and made camp on a bed of grass surrounded by sea pink in full bloom in warm evening sunshine.
There was no sign of the sun the following morning. In fact I was not going to see the sun for another three days! I thought I would catch a little bit of ebb tide to Carnsore Point but it seemed to have turned already. As I carefully weaved through a rock garden, there seemed to be a pair of terns on every boulder. In the deeper water bottling seals forced me out into the opposing tide so that I did not disturb them. The wind turbines on Carnsore Point whispered eerily in the wind and mist. As far as man-made structures go I think they are beautiful and there should be far more of them both on land and at sea.