Chapter 6 – South Coast of Ireland
I would like to be able to say that as I turned 90 degrees from the Irish Sea into the Celtic Sea I could feel the difference. The truth is that they were as flat as each other and any change was imperceptible. Everything was shrouded in an omnipresent greyness and only the swirling tide broke the steely satin finish of the sea. My target were the Saltee Islands some ten miles away and I could only just see them through the mist. Indeed the closer I got the further away they looked as the mist thickened around me. Little Saltee was covered in a rich purple carpet of bluebells and young bracken. It was the first time I had seen Puffins on land as they poked their heads out of their burrows to see who the visitor was.
Whilst Little Saltee was very pretty, nothing had prepared me for the spectacle I was about to see on Great Saltee. Now I know I have probably gone on a bit about the bird life I have seen so far on this trip but it all paled into insignificance when compared to the thousands and thousands of birds on every available ledge on the eastern side of Great Saltee. I was blown away by the first gannet colony on a small stack, but when I paddled further on I came across another rock outcrop that was just overflowing with my favourite birds.
Looking up (a risky business I can tell you) there were literally hundreds of gannets circling above me and the noise was quite deafening from the hordes still on the rock. A fishing boat called Autumn Dream had joined me. The skipper obviously supplements his income from fishing for crab and lobsters by bringing out paying customers to see the birds. They seemed quite used to the presence of the boat so I edged in closer. The skipper asked me if there was anything I needed which was decent of him. I should have got him to take a photo of me with the gannet colony behind but I only thought of it once they had departed. I was blown away by Great Saltee and could have stayed and explored for many hours but the tide was turning in my favour and it was time to head west. I knew that there were many more spectacular sights like that waiting for me further along the coast of Ireland.
Another long crossing to Hook Head in flat calm conditions allowed me to really get the C-Trek moving. The beauty of this kayak is that although it is a big boat capable of dealing with big seas, it also paddles really well on the flat and you really feel like the boat is running and you’re not having to push it through the water. With my new paddle as well I was motoring.
Past the curiously designed but impressive lighthouse on Hook Head guiding shipping into the long estuarine WaterfordHarbour, it was then the last crossing of the day to Brownstown Head, which I guess takes its name from the strange conglomerate of stone and rock of which it is formed. As I ran with the tide towards the headland I met two paddlers out for an evening’s after-work relaxation. They were the first paddlers I had seen since the Isles of Scilly over a month before. It was good to chat – we had a mutual acquaintance in Mick O’Meara, a top Irish marathon paddler (several times winner of the Devizes to Westminster with Jim Morrissey) and a very experienced sea kayaker. Mick had emailed offering his help should I need it. Thanks anyway Mick, but I was ‘in the groove’ you know how it is…
I found an idyllic camping spot overlooking Tramore Bay with a shrine to the Virgin Mary which I gave due reverence to.
Yet another grey day began with no sign of the sun but at least it wasn’t cold. I was angry with myself because during the planning of the expedition I had been far too ambitious about the distances I would be able to cover in a day along this coast. I had almost perfect conditions the previous day yet still I had been unable to do anything like the distance I had estimated from the comfort of my sitting room.
The coastline was very reminiscent of Cornwall, with some magnificent examples of natural arches, sea caves and stacks around Dunabrattin Head. I am guessing most people forget about this bit of Ireland as they head for the west coast but it is well worth a look. I arrived at Helvick Head for lunchtime and was met by TV cameras from RTE the Irish equivalent of the BBC. Of course they were not there to film me but the local school who were launching for the first time two currachs (sea-going rowing boats made of wood and tarred hide or in this case canvas) that they had built as a school project. They were fine looking craft and took a crew of six plus a helm. Interest in Celtic arts and crafts has been rekindled in recent years and you could see the pride that the school children had in the boats they had built. The inshore lifeboat was on the water providing safety cover and when they realised who I was they could not do enough to help, giving me a lift the mile or so to the local Spar shop and even arranging an impromptu TV interview. I felt bad that I had not warned them of my arrival as they had been expecting me at some stage and were a little taken aback when I just appeared in the harbour.
The school has Irish as its first language and the kids were all bi-lingual, mixing and matching Irish and English all in one sentence. Being typical teenagers it wasn’t cool to show too much interest in what I was up to but they listened intently as their teacher asked me questions and when I asked for their assistance to carry the kayak across the rocks to the receding water, I had two very willing helpers.
Passing beneath the lighthouse high up on Mine Head, the highest in Ireland, I was far away, thinking about not much at all when suddenly I saw the unmistakeable dorsal fin and tail of a basking shark. Then another, and another! I was so excited. I have only seen a basking shark once before, whilst crossing to the Isles of Scilly in 1997 and then I lost sight of it immediately in the chop. Here there were three in close proximity, less than 200 metres from the shore. I couldn’t believe it, I had used all the film in my camera. Of all the times to be without film! I paddled with them for a few minutes then spotted a beach. I raced in and changed the film in my camera doing my best to keep my wet fingers out of the mechanism but failing miserably. Thinking they had probably gone I was stoked to find them in the same place just working the gentle current, to and fro.
Again I paddled alongside one, estimating its length compared to my kayak which is 18 ft 7inches. I put the shark at about fifteen feet – a big fish! I know they are harmless but even so my heart was in my mouth as the beast suddenly turned and dived underneath my kayak, its dorsal fin and tail brushing the hull. Just awesome! Much like an iceberg the bit of the shark you see above the water is just a small fraction of the whole fish and when you see the size of its head, mouth agape you cannot help but imagine being swallowed whole. I spent the best part of an hour paddling with them, and when I finally decided I had better carry on I saw two more a kilometre or so further west. It was without doubt the highlight of the trip so far and it turned out to be the only sharks I saw on the whole journey. The Marine Conservation Society have a Basking Shark Watch and ask you to report any sightings to them via their website – www.mcsuk.org
Sea kayakers are uniquely placed to oberve these beautiful creatures without causing harassment and I was able to email my sightings to them that evening. Needless to say I didn’t get as far as I had intended that day and ended up camped on a rather grotty beach just east of Youghal but I could not have cared less I had seen five, yes five basking shark and I’d had them all to myself.
The following morning I was up and ready, waiting patiently for BBC Radio Cornwall to ring me just after 8.00am. The signal on my mobile was dodgy to say the least and sure enough before I had said two sentences the signal dropped out and they cut me off. I was gutted because I knew friends were listening. The researcher had asked me to talk about how I was feeling; the loneliness – was I ready to give up yet? I can reassure you I was a very, very long way from giving up. The loneliness was quite tough; I missed my friends and family but I was a volunteer after all and it was something I knew I would just have to deal with. Of course I felt tired, I was getting about six hours sleep at best each night and who wouldn’t feel tired spending up to twelve hours a day paddling? The way I looked at it was that I was incredibly lucky to have the opportunity and I knew it was far harder for Linda because she had to go to work for ten or eleven hours each day and I felt the least I can do was paddle the same amount.
That said, Thursday 13th May was a bad day. It was still overcast and from about 10.00am onwards a south westerly breeze picked up such that it was bang on the nose. It was probably only a Force 3 but it was energy sapping all the same and once I had completed two fairly long crossings in quick succession I was not eager for a third. I had been given the offer of a bed from Don O’Brien, a paddler from Cork. I had also been offered assistance from Ian Venner of the RNLI at Crosshaven. I had intended to push on further and not take the detour into CorkHarbour but for some reason my spirits were low, may be it was the fact that I had been pushing too hard in the good conditions but now that it wasn’t quite so favourable the idea of some human company was very appealing. I headed into Crosshaven, even though it meant I would have an early finish. I pulled the C-Trek up onto the public pontoon by the lifeboat house and got changed. There was no sign of life at the boat house so I rang and left a message for Ian. I also rang Don who immediately offered to come and pick me up as soon as he had finished work.
I sat and had a late lunch watching a very tame grey heron that was stood like a statue on one of the pillars of the pontoon, clearly waiting for something to swim past but even he did not have a neck long enough to catch fish from up there. Sure enough a few minutes later a fishing boat came steaming upriver and once moored the heron hopped on board to be fed! I chatted to another fisherman who netted salmon in Cork harbour for a living. The government had taken away 80% of his season, not to preserve fish stocks but to ensure there were sufficient salmon for the tourist fly fishermen up river. The local fishermen were being squeezed out he told me, ever since ‘the boom’ gesturing at the multitude of new holiday homes that had been built overlooking the creek. Of course if you’re not careful you take away the soul of a place which is what attracted people to it in the first place.
Don O’Brien arrived to collect me and like the good Irishman he is took me straight to the pub for the finest pint of Guinness I have ever had. We then went back to his large, newly extended bungalow on the edge of Cork. Don is a lovely fellow, quietly spoken but very charming and extremely fit. He clearly has the same approach to life and his paddling as I have and I felt we were very much kindred spirits. I hope to have the pleasure of paddling with him soon. He is married to Lisa, they are both teachers and have three young children, Conor, Aoife and Darragh who are all as bright as buttons and extremely well behaved. People say I have set myself a challenge – it is nothing compared to bringing up three kids but between them, Lisa and Don are doing a fine job. Don also gave me loads of advice on good places to camp around the south west coast which he knows intimately having paddled most, if not all of it at one time or another.
I awoke to the smell of fresh bread. We had chatted with a glass of red wine until nearly midnight and I had mentioned that the things I missed most were fresh bread and fruit. After I had gone to bed, Don stayed up especially to set the bread maker so that I would have fresh bread to take with me in the morning. That is the famous Irish hospitality for you. Don dropped me back down to Crosshaven for 7.15am so that he had time to drive to work. It was ideal for me as it meant I was away by 8.00am taking the ebb tide out of Cork Harbour. It was another peaceful morning, and I was thankful because I had a big crossing to the Old Head of Kinsale, the first of many major headlands towards the west. The sun came out for the first time in several days and visibility was exceptional, foreshortening the distance to the headland. When I began the crossing it seemed as if I could reach out and touch it but it was nearly midday by the time I landed on a small patch of sand I had spotted on the otherwise steep-to headland. Again a south westerly breeze set in but once I was in the shelter of the headland the sun was gorgeously warm and for the first time I was able to sit in the sun without shivering and tucked into my fresh bread sandwiches – thanks Don!
Don had told me about the tunnels through the headland at its narrowest point. He said they would be negotiable at mid tide and sure enough I found the first tunnel as described beneath the ruin of a tower. It must be 150metres in length and at the narrowest point just a couple of metres wide. Once through, emerging into a choppy sea and bright sunshine I turned around and went back the way I had come. The idea was to go around Ireland not through it! As I paddled the last few metres back out the eastern end of the tunnel a seal pup chose that moment to swim in. I don’t know who got the biggest surprise, me or it!
Once out around the point passing beneath a very attractive lighthouse perched on the edge of a steep cliff dropping sheer to the sea I could feel a change in the movement of the sea under me.
The first true swell since Land’s End rolled gently under me, heavily disguised by a short chop kicked up by the south westerly breeze. I was thankful I had found that beach on the Old Head of Kinsale because I had another big crossing to undertake to Seven Heads which took a couple of hours to complete due to the Force 3 in my face. Despite the wind it was a stunning afternoon with a blanket of cloud over the land on my right and more out to sea on my left. The south coast however was bathed in glorious sunshine and Ireland shone its legendary emerald green.
It was 4.30pm and high water when I arrived off Seven Heads. I had been contemplating another crossing to Galley Head, clear and inviting across ClonakiltyBay. I decided against another two hour crossing however and headed in to find somewhere to camp. I eventually found the ideal spot over looking the surf beach on InchdooneyIsland with its rather incongruous hotel and apartment complex. By the time I had finished my diary it was nearly midnight and once again the lap top’s battery died on me.
It was mid May and not a breath of wind disturbed the lazy swell that pulsed into the bay. I was underway in good time and out towards Galley Head. I saw 5 or 6 Common Dolphin, working together to encircle a shoal of fish. They took no notice of me as I paddled in a large circle around them; I could clearly hear the ‘puffs’ of breath from their blow holes. I snapped away with my camera, fruitlessly trying to get all their dorsal fins showing together. It is always a pleasure to see dolphins and I was concerned that I had seen so few despite some good conditions for spotting wildlife. These were the first I had seen since crossing back to Land’s End from the Isles of Scilly. Of course the populations of Common and Bottlenose dolphins in the English Channel have been decimated by the French ‘pair’ trawlers whose huge football field size nets trap and drown dolphins in alarming numbers. Are these breeding pods in the Channel that would normally migrate to these waters? If nothing effective is done by the UK and European governments to prevent this by-catch from fishing for sea bass then I will seriously consider joining those prepared to take direct action to stop the slaughter. It cannot be allowed to continue, it is a bloody disgrace and we should all boycott eating sea bass unless you know for sure that the fish has been caught using dolphin friendly methods just like we have to with tuna. I have kayaked, sailed and even surfed with dolphins – truly wild dolphins. There really is something unique about their interaction with us and if we are not careful it could be something that our children will never get to experience.
I was to encounter more wildlife upon my arrival at the Rabbit Islands after a great crossing from Galley Head escorted by scores of Manx Shearwaters, flashing the white undersides as they twisted and turned to the rhythm of the swell. Incidentally, I have never seen one feeding. They have a diet of small fish and squid yet I can’t imagine how they can possibly catch any flying so low and fast.
The Rabbit Islands are a small collection of islets and reefs just a mile or so from the shore. I headed into a lagoon like pool in the lee of one of the largest islets fringed by reefs each with a collection of sunbathing seals. I got out to take some photos and the pool was soon dotted with the heads of seals come in to take a loser look at the visitor in the strange yellow boat. I found a small colony of shags, each with a nest containing three pale blue eggs. I was very careful not too disturb them as I took their photo then left them alone. Back on the water, a pair of seal pups were playing with the line from a lobster pot. Balancing on the submerged rope they did not seem to notice as I glided towards them. One of them surfaced so close to the C-Trek that when he snorted I felt the spray on my face. Snotted on by a seal – how cool is that?
There were young seals everywhere and as I slid silently through a gully I passed one fast asleep on a bed of kelp so close I could easily have reached out and stroked it. Its head was arched back in ecstasy and its front flippers were tucked neatly against its belly which was covered in soft, silvery gold velvet. It was blissfully unaware of my presence and I resisted the urge to take a photograph lest I disturbed it and gave it the fright of its life. When I was a ‘safe’ distance away one of its cousins surfaced next to the sleeping pup and woke it, presumably explaining what had just happened. In a very belated panic it flipped off the rock into the water in a very undignified splash.
From the Rabbit Islands I headed out to The Stags, a collection of rocks off Toe Head for no other reason than because they were there and I fancied visiting them. They were certainly not inhabited but their jagged outline intrigued me. More like fangs than horns, either way they would do serious damage to any vessel that got too close as the supercarrier Kowloon Bridge did in November 1986 when sailing from Quebec to the River Clyde. It sank with its cargo of iron ore creating the largest wreck in Europe at 300metres and the largest by tonnage in the world. It lies in 6 to 36 metres and its vast size is evident by the distance to the flag marker SW of the rocks. I must dive on it one day.
There was enough swell to emphasise the drama of the location but otherwise conditions were perfect and I can’t tell you how good it felt to be offshore on the south coast of Ireland. I just couldn’t believe my luck that the weather was improvingas I approached one of the most exciting sections of the expedition, the Atlantic Coast of Ireland.
Staying offshore I headed for Kedge Island and another remarkable natural arch, much larger in span than the Old Head of Kinsale but almost as long. The tunnel tapered to the west and as I paddled through I had been expecting the westerly swell to be coming towards me. Instead I found myself surfing through the tunnel at high speed on a three foot wave! As the wave broke on my back deck I was spat out the other end like a pea shooter narrowly missing the barnacle encrusted rocks on either side. Nice one Morley! Due to the narrow entrance on the west side of the tunnel the swell had perversely wrapped itself around the island and entered from the east very nearly catching me out. Another life gone – how many left?
During the last twenty four hours I had been forming a plan. I was due for a rest day once I arrived at Baltimore. I was feeling good and didn’t need a rest and conditions were perfect. I had texted Don O’Brien to see if he fancied paddling with me out to Fastnet Rock. Now before you ask how that fits in with the solo principle of my expedition, it was to be a day paddle and we would start and finish at Baltimore. Fastnet Rock is not inhabited but it is such a significant landmark and perhaps the most beautiful and notorious lighthouse on the coast of Ireland that it would have been a shame to to paddle past without going out to see it close up. By the time I arrived in BaltimoreHarbour, Don had replied in the affirmative and that allowed me to take my time, relax and enjoy the rest of the afternoon.
Baltimore has to be my favourite spot on the planet – sorry Cornwall! As well as being incredibly beautiful and surrounded by the some of the best sea kayaking and sailing anywhere in the world there is just a vibe about the place. When Linda and I visited the previous summer (again in perfect weather) I had really been taken with the place. It was great to be back. I pitched my tent next to the lifeboat station, a convenient distance from the village and out of view of passers by.
Walking into the village I found that I had struck lucky and it was the last day of the annual Fiddle Fair at Declan McCarthy’s Pub. Everyone was sat outside in the glorious sunshine and the afternoon was filled with an intoxicating mix of pipe and fiddle, Guinness and laughter.
I chatted to a young Scottish couple down from Edinburgh looking for work. They had been sleeping rough for several days under a makeshift tarpaulin they had found on a beach and a bit of old carpet. It had only rained once – I thought I had it tough! It would have been easy to write them off as a couple of typical ‘crusties’ but these two were intelligent, adventurous (he was a sailor and she was a climber and they both had coaching qualifications in each) and like all of us they were just trying to find their way in life. They had the promise of work and accommodation in a few weeks time and until then they intended to have a look around and chill out. I wished them luck. I returned to the pub later that evening just as the final gig of the Fiddle Fair got underway. Tuning up, the band sounded like a gang of alley cats spoiling for a fight but as soon as they started playing for real I was blown away – they were absolutely brilliant! Called ‘Fiddler’s Bid’ they were down from Shetland of all places and they were so good I was sad because Linda wasn’t there to enjoy them with me. I sent her their CD which was a poor second but it would have to do until we could travel to Shetland together.
The band played three ‘encores’ and it was nearly 1am before I headed back to the tent so I made the most of a lie in the following morning. I found a fascinating book in the post office; ‘Baltimore, A Perspective’ by Alfred O’Mahony. I discovered the name Baltimore comes from the Celtic God of Fire and Fulfilment and the history of the village and the surrounding area is a fascinating mix of Gaels and Celts, English and Spanish, Vikings and pirates. Like everywhere in the west of Ireland it suffered terribly during and after the famine but now it is booming and property prices are soaring thanks to tourism with building plots alone selling for two hundred thousand Euro. As is often the case, it is in danger of a being a victim of its own success and even the islands are filling up fast.
Don arrived as arranged and we were soon heading out along Sherkin Island towards Cape Clear and Fastnet. It was so good to have some company on the water and we chatted as we paddled, perfectly matched for pace. Don is a strong paddler and like me does not like to hang around so he was the ideal paddling partner for such a trip. He paddles a Nordkapp Jubilee manufactured by Valley Sea Kayaks, a kayak with an excellent expedition pedigree and it seemed to be pretty much the same speed as the C-Trek. Again there was a solid swell running and enough to make it interesting and with hardly a cloud in the sky and a light south westerly breeze it was perfect. We stopped for a brief bite of lunch generously provided by Don in the idyllic natural harbour of Ineer on the south side of Clear Island then we headed out to the Rock passing Cape Clear the most southerly point of inhabited land in Ireland and the last sight of their homeland for millions of emigrants who left Ireland bound for the New World. On the same theme Fastnet Rock was known as the Teardrop of Ireland.
It is only a six mile crossing and it seemed to take no time at all before we were riding the swell through a field of foam trailing away from the reef. We had arrived at slack and had no trouble posing for photographs beneath the stunning lighthouse, at 54metres the tallest rock tower lighthouse in Ireland and all of the British Isles and one of the best examples of stone masonry you will ever see. Its construction at the turn of the century was under the supervision of James Kavanagh, an Irish engineer but the granite and the stone masons came from Cornwall. Each of the 2,074 blocks of the finest, blemish-free granite was produced by hand by the men of John Freeman and Sons of Penryn. They cut 5 or 6 courses before shipping them out to Crookhaven on the southern coast of Ireland, leaving the top course behind to ensure a perfect fit for the next layer. Cornish masons were then employed to construct the tower on the rock itself and between 9th June 1899 and 2nd May 1903 there were only two occasions in those four years when it was possible to work for a period of 5 consecutive days or more due to the terrible weather conditions. Staring up at the tower now it looked as perfect as the day it was finished. The lower courses are stained black with algae but otherwise the smooth golden brown granite curves gracefully up to the light high above, the glass of which was smashed by a wave during a terrible storm when the lighthouse was still manned.
Don has had a love affair with the lighthouse ever since he spent his school holidays in Roaring Water Bay from where he could see the light flashing when he went to sleep at night. I felt very privileged to have visited it with him. By the time we started heading back the tide had turned and we were carried east, deciding to cut inside Clear and Sherkin Islands to make a round trip out of it. The powerful Atlantic swell pounded the unyielding rock of Cape Clear, the strata stripped bare, but for the thinnest of soils by the wind and rain. We rode the swell into RoaringWaterBay and it became obvious how it got its name as boomers thundered onto unseen reefs.
Chatting with Don as we paddled at a comfortable pace our conversation covered such diverse subjects as politics, history and religion. I was keen to learn more about Ireland and Don was knowledgeable and happy to answer my questions. I began to understand how history is still very much a part of life in Ireland whereas in England it tends to be confined to academic study and the pursuit of the leisure classes. Such a simple thing as your family name has so much more significance in Ireland. From your name can be determined your likely religion and your family history. If your name has a O’ prefix or a Mc prefix it means ‘son of’ or ‘from the clan of’. Some people have the same name without the prefix. Don explained the phrase ‘took the soup’ or ‘took the shilling’ which describes how during the English occupation of Ireland some men took up the offer of free soup and pay of a shilling to join the English army. To make themselves less conspicuous they were encouraged to drop the prefix, thus an O’Sullivan became a Sullivan. To this day there is some stigma attached to the idea that your forefather ‘sold out’ to the English. Don told me that the name Sean is a good Catholic name but Morley is definitely Protestant. The picture is a complex one however with Protestant towns in southern Ireland and Protestant churches within Catholic communities that hark back to English rule. But thankfully southern Ireland today is a much more tolerant place than the North and until very recently had a very relaxed attitude to immigration. But good Europeans though they are even the Irish are greatly concerned about the influx of Eastern European immigrant workers and there is much debate on how they can tighten up controls on access to health and welfare and Irish citizenship.
I was also beginning to understand a little of the Irish psyche. The Irish are very good at not taking themselves too seriously and much of their humour is directed at themselves or the sometimes chaotic way their country is run. At the same time the Irish are immensely proud of their homeland and whilst they may be willing to travel all over the world to find work, they never forget where home is and what it means to be Irish. This idea of nationhood is something the Cornish will identify with but the English are perhaps less and less familiar with as time goes by.
Don insisted on buying me dinner that evening too and I very much hope that one day I will be able to return the favour when he and his family come to visit us in Cornwall. It was one of my most memorable sea paddles and not just because of the fantastic scenery. Thank you Don!
Once Don had departed for home I met up with the crew of the Baltimore lifeboat in the pub and took receipt of my box of supplies that had been waiting for me at the Bushe Inn. The landlord just happens to be one of the crew. I asked if it would be alright to leave my laptop on charge at the pub overnight and it gave me an excuse for a late start in the morning.
Another person who had offered assistance was Jim Kennedy who owns a sea kayaking school in nearby Skibbereen (www.atlanticseakayaking.com). I first met Jim when we were training together at Richmond Canoe Club in West London. He went over from Ireland specifically to train at the club which boasted such talents as Jeremy West, later to become double world sprint champion and the Wells brothers Paul and Michael who were just about unbeatable in K2 on anything other than flat water. I wasted my time at Richmond but Jim remained focussed on his training and went on to represent Ireland at international level, returning to help set up a coaching system in his own country that has since turned out some world class paddlers like Conor Holmes, Gary Mawer and Jim Morrissey. Jim is one of life’s enthusiasts and his energy is infectious. As Ireland’s first level 5 sea kayak coach his knowledge and expertise is without question and I hope to return to do some paddling with him in the future. Certainly his trips to Baja in New Mexico look very tempting. As we said god bye Jim shoved a 50 Euro note in my hand. When I protested he said it was from him and Mick O’Meara and that it was not about the money – it was just something to lift my spirits when things were tough; just the thought that it was there would be enough to keep me going. On that basis how could I have refused it? I promised to spend it wisely.