Chapter 7 – West & North Coast of Ireland
“When miles offshore from a remote costline you are rarely on your own;
Gannets, fulmars, manx shearwaters and storm petrels are your friends”.
I had been getting far too comfortable at Baltimore so it was just as well I was leaving. Yet another perfect morning with clear blue skies and still air saw me ‘escorted’ out of the harbour by some of the lifeboat crew who were taking a relief lifeboat back to Poole – a three day journey via Dunmore East and Newlyn in Cornwall. I headed southwest out around CapeClear for the second time and this time on my own. As I crossed Gascanane Sound between Sherkin Island and Clear Island two porpoises passed by one on either side as if to remind me that I wasn’t really on my own at all.
From Cape Clear which was again washed white with foaming breakers I turned northwest towards Mizen Head. The southwest corner of Ireland is characterised by a series of mountainous headlands which jut out into the Atlantic, separated by deeply indented bays that cut inland for many miles producing some of the best kayaking and sailing waters anywhere in the world. Mizen Head is perhaps the most significant of all the headlands, like Ireland’s Land’s End it is the most south westerly point and is a fist of rock punching out at whatever storms the Atlantic has to offer. The lifeboat men at Baltimore had warned me that the swell would increase around each headland the further west I went. They were right of course and as I approached Brow Head the seas were definitely building. The Mizen Head Peninsula is definitely worth a visit with some fine-looking mountains and beaches of golden sand and very little in the way of civilisation. I had intended to arrive off Mizen Head at slack but a late start meant the tide had already turned by the time I reached the lighthouse and was running hard past the point against me. Combined with the sizeable swell it produced a nasty area of water between Mizen and Three Castle Head. The lighthouse and associated buildings on Mizen Head are another example of man’s determination to achieve the impossible, constructed as they are on a large stack on the very edge of a precipice, linked to the mainland by a bridge that spans a chasm of churning foam.
The weather had changed dramatically upon my arrival. A line of cloud that had been marching steadily in from the western horizon now blocked out the sun and the sea turned from deepest blue to pewter grey. The soft lines of the islands and headlands on the south coast had been replaced by the hard angular cliffs of the west and I felt quite intimidated as I paddled my tiny craft beneath them. It was a solid hour’s hard graft to get past Three Castle Head and out into DunmanusBay. Next was Sheep’s Head, a stiletto of cliff and mountain stabbing out at me from a cloak of sea mist that was enveloping the land. Looking to my right, the entrance to the thirty mile indentation of Bantry Bay looked every bit like a Norwegian fjord with ridge after mountainous ridge descending from misty flanks into a dark and turbulent sea.
I should have been able to see the Beara Peninsula with Dursey Island at its tip but visibility was down to just a couple of miles. Paddling on a bearing it seemed like a long time before Doonbeg Head, the southern tip of BearIsland appeared out of the gloom. Whilst I knew it was there it is always a relief when land appears where you expect it to be.
I had planned to pull into Castletown Bearhaven, the major fishing port on the west coast. I figured it might be busy though so opted for a wild camp somewhere quiet. I found a tiny inlet just west of Fair Head that had a fresh water stream cascading in steps down to the sea with a neat kayak sized beach. I even had a signal for my mobile phone. What hadn’t bargained on though were the midges and as the mist cleared, the last of the sun’s rays bathed the inlet in a golden light and the air became still so out came the biting little beasties! It was too late to find another place to stop and I just had to grin and bear it, putting on midge repellent and a head net for the first time. I had been anticipating midges up in Scotland in the summer and I knew this was just a foretaste of what was to come. Once the sun had gone down I fought my way through the bloodthirsty swarms into my tent where I soon fell asleep too tired to finish eating my dinner.
I had intended to be up and gone before the midges but I forgot to set my watch alarm and I danced a manic kayaker’s jig as I packed and changed whilst tormented by the tiny terrors. Unknown to me I had an audience; two German fellas who had appeared from nowhere and were watching my antics from the ridge overlooking the inlet. Hiding my embarrassment I engaged them in conversation. They were travelling around Ireland by car but one of them had a double kayak back in Germany and they were both very interested in my expedition and presented me with a little enamel badge of an angel carrying suitcases with shamrock leaf ‘wings’. I was touched by the thought and placed the good luck charm carefully with the crystals that Sarah and Richard Lane had given me before I left Falmouth. They took photographs and waved enthusiastically as I left – more nice people.
Another perfect morning greeted me as I left my little inlet and headed out towards Dursey Head. There was a scattering of fluffy cumulus and a light westerly that was just enough to chill the backs of the hands. By the time I had ridden with the tide to Dursey Head the wind had dropped to nothing and the swell rolled unblemished underneath me. However I could see something going on between the reefs at the tip of the headland and I arrived to find the tide surging through, causing the swell to lift alarmingly. They stopped short of collapsing entirely though and I rode the roller coaster out to sea and towards a family of three rocky islets, The Calf, The Cow and The Bull.
The Calf is a fairly insignificant reef but The Cow is far more elegant than the name suggests with a splendid natural arch and other superb rock features. The big daddy of the group however is The Bull. As I approached from the east it looked like a huge cake of rock topped by a lighthouse and glazed with the icing of thousands of gannets. As I got closer the remarkable 3D nature of the rock was revealed and I gasped with amazement. A natural arch, perhaps 75metres long and 20metres high passes right through the island, directly beneath the lighthouse. The walls of the tunnel are so vertical and smooth it is as if they were cut by a machine.
Approaching the entrance to the tunnel the cliff above is plastered in gannets that have turned the rock white with guano. As I passed beneath them it rained with their faeces and my kayak and my hat became decorated with their droppings. The swell gently rolled through the tunnel allowing me to admire the bejewelled rock walls which low tide had been exposed to reveal a beautiful array of sponges, soft corals, shells and anemones. So often in nature beauty can be seen not just in the large scale panorama but also by looking closely at the detail.
The tunnel is large enough to allow converted fishing boats carrying awestruck tourists to pass right through in calm conditions. Exiting the tunnel on the other side of the island the sky was filled with gannets, circling high above then swooping low to take a closer look, perhaps to see if I was edible. Their faded pastel yellow heads, sleek white bodies and enormous pointed wings that appear to have been dipped in ink make them one of our most beautiful seabirds but having had the task of trying to catch one that had become washed up on a Cornish beach one winter, I can confirm that they know how to use those dagger-like beaks!
An interesting feature of The Bull is that it is where the main tidal stream that sweeps in from the Atlantic splits in two, one half flooding south past Fastnet Rock into the Celtic and Irish Sea via the St George’s Channel, the other heading north, wrapping around the coast of Donegal and Northern Ireland to flood into the Irish Sea via the North Channel meeting its southern counterpart around the Isle of Man. By trying to visualise these tidal features it helped me to understand what was going on out there and how to use these currents to assist me in my journey wherever and whenever possible.
Having used the majority of a roll of film on the islands, I was reluctant to leave but I knew there was much more to come. I had decided against visiting the famous Skelligs, 20km out from Portmagee which was a real shame because they are one of the highlights of the west coast of Ireland. Monks inhabited Great Skellig from the 6th Century and lived in beehive huts they constructed on and out of the very summit of the rock they were standing on. The system of pathways and staircases that link the dwellings and places of worship are apparently incredible to see but I would have to save them for another time. A bank of sea fog that had been masking the western horizon all morning was moving closer and I did not want to be caught out miles off this potentially treacherous coast. There was enough swell to make the possibility of landing on the sheer walls of Great Skellig unlikely and in any case the island’s wells are disused and unclean and I did not have enough fresh water for an overnight stay. So I headed instead for Bolus Head, still a major crossing of nearly twelve nautical miles my course passing within a few miles of the sheer 252metre high cliffs of Scariff or GreatHogIsland so called presumably because of its similarity to the bloated belly of a pig. The mountains of Co. Cork to the south and Co. Kerry to the north were laid out before me, only the highest summits of Macgillycuddy Reeks feeling the soft caress of passing clouds. I knew I was experiencing something very special being out there on my own in such perfect conditions and every moment was filed away in my memory such that I could recall such wonderful experiences when things were not quite so pleasant.
Once the Gannets had left, reluctantly accepting that I would not be providing them with a meal for their hungry and demanding chicks, I was on my own for a while. But I was never alone for long as whenever you paddle a kayak offshore in our waters you are joined by the friendly Fulmar whose company is always welcome. These cute birds with porcelain white heads and dark soulful eyes seem to seek out your company as if they empathise with the loneliness of life on the ocean wave. Circling repeatedly, often coming within a few feet of my kayak they demonstrated a remarkable ability to judge the erratic movement of the waves to perfection, their wing tips softly caressing the wave crests, and unlike the more clumsy Shearwaters I never saw a Fulmar crash land. Instead they would tap dance on the surface tension of the sea, arching their wings to obtain lift, enabling them to resume their airborne ballet.
The Coastal Pilot had warned of disturbed seas between Bolus Head and Bray Head at the western end of Valentia Island. The day was calm but even so there was considerable movement as the deep ocean swell rebounded off the many cliffs and reefs that protect the Iveragh Peninsula and I began to feel tired as the miles caught up with me. Passing seaward of Puffin Island unsure if it was inhabited, the island lived up to its name and I was entertained by the antics of hundreds of ‘sea parrots’ as they looked down on me with childlike curiosity from their burrows or scattered in apparent panic as my path took me unavoidably through rafts of the bobbing little birds. The massive cliffs are also home to thousands of storm petrels but as yet I had seen very few of these tiny and elusive birds.
I had intended to go around the back of Valentia Island before finishing at Knightstown. Instead I decided that discretion was the better part of valour and headed into the calm waters of Valentia Sound just as the tourist boats returned from their trip to the Skelligs. It had been a hot day and as I neared the shore I performed an Eskimo roll, deliberately capsizing my kayak and enjoying the cool embrace of the clear Atlantic water before righting myself in a flourish of paddle and hip flick, feeling rather smug that I was master of my craft and that I had just experienced one of my most memorable days in a kayak.
I found a cracking little pebble and shell beach just short of Portmagee and made the most of the warm late afternoon sunshine by having a proper wash in a sea warmed by the Gulf Stream. It felt good to be clean again and the sun soon dried my kit laid out on the black rocks. After a short walk into the village for some fresh milk and bread I sat and had dinner overlooking Valentia Island watching a procession of fishing boats returning to harbour with their catch at sundown and considered myself to be a very lucky man.
The forecast remained remarkably consistent with light winds and the threat of sea fog. I had planned another big day that would put me further ahead of my schedule. I knew that I would need these days at some stage in the future and that the good weather could not last forever. I headed back out of Valentia Sound turning north beneath the towering black slate cliffs of Bray Head. The Geokaun quarry on ValentiaIsland provided slate for the British House of Commons and was sent as far away as Bahia in Brazil for use on the San Salvador Railway. Sadly the mine closed in 1884 and that led to wholesale emigration from the island. The island was chosen for the European terminal of the Atlantic Telegraph which saw the ‘English’ village of Knightstown buzzing for many decades until the Cable Station closed in 1965. Valentia is perhaps best known as a the name of a weather station that features on the thrice daily shipping forecast but I was disappointed to learn that the actual weather station can now be found on the mainland at Cahirciveen.
The uncomfortable effects of swell rebounding off the sheer cliffs of Bray Head could be felt many miles out to sea and it made for a slow crossing of DingleBay to the BlasketIslands, the most westerly in continental Europe. My aim was to pass outside of all of them even though only GreatBlasketIsland which was abandoned in 1954 but has several summer cottages and Inishvickillane (where the ex-Taoiseach or Prime Minister Charles Haughey owns a holiday home) can be considered to be inhabited. Great Blasket has been described as ‘wallowing like a whale in the darkening sea surrounded by its twelve young’. Each island is different; Inishvickillane has a level plateau with rugged rock formations surrounding it on all sides. Further north Inishnabro is like a two faced woman with a soft side covered in pink thrift facing the mainland and a dark menacing side with needle like claws take would take a swipe at anything that got too close.
An Tiaracht, the most westerly of them all is formed from two pyramids of rock linked for now by a saddle through which the sea has forced a gaping wound that gets deeper with each storm. I was unable to pass through the archway as it was guarded by partially submerged rocks that would have smashed my kayak had I dared to enter. Instead I paddle seawards of the most westerly lighthouse in continental Europe (Iceland boasts the most westerly of all), although its design is rather disappointing in comparison with many of the spectacular lighthouses I had already seen. There was no doubt that I was on the Atlantic edge of Europe and the sense of exposure was quite daunting. I had passed a significant landmark in my journey around Ireland and the British Isles. Everything left to do lay to the east.
I made my way past the intimidating fortress-like black pinnacles of rock that form the cliffs of Inishtooskert which looked every bit like a set from Lord of the Rings and as I did so a fishing boat edged gingerly to within feet of where the seething waves smashed themselves to bits in a frenzy of surge and swash.
Next time you tuck into west coast crab or lobster just pause a while and give a thought to these guys who are out there day after day in virtually any weather to bring us the best in sea food. I have been fairly critical of fishermen up to now in this account but there is no doubting their skill and tenacity and they certainly have my respect.
I had been so busy taking photos that I was completely unaware that the sea fog that had been threatening all day had chosen this moment to drift inshore. The mainland had completely disappeared and I had not had time to take a bearing. At least the faint outline of Great Blasket Island gave me a point of reference. I headed for Sybil Point whose crags had been in the background of many of my photographs before the mist had hidden it from view. Again I was pleased when the mist-wreathed cliffs appeared through the gloom. I had been expecting another bumpy ride and sure enough it was very slow, very uncomfortable work through a mogul field of clapotis to Smerwick Harbour and calm water. As I traversed the jagged cliff line of Sybil Point hundreds of fulmars flew past heading south and west and as they appeared ghost-like through the mist and passed within a few feet of my head I became mesmerised by their random flight patterns and began to feel quite giddy. I had been hoping to make Brandon Bay but again I was shattered and needed to get off the water. I had not been able to get out of the kayak for over nine hours and had just kayaked in some of the most dangerous waters of the journey so far. Both my body and mind needed a rest. When I rang Linda later that evening I could not disguise the fatigue in my voice and it was obvious I was reaching my limit and I needed a proper break from paddling.
I just knew that the next leg was going to be hell. I had to pass beneath Brandon Head whose towering cliffs rose to the summit of Brandon Mountain 950 metres above sea level. Facing northwest the swell would be hitting the cliffs at an angle setting up a cross sea. Added to that the wind had turned northerly and the tide running out of the Shannon would be against me too. I’m not saying I had psyched myself out before I started but I decided to put my buoyancy aid on for the first time in several days.
As I left Smerwic k Harbour I tried to convince myself the swell had dropped but I soon knew I was in for a fight. There were waves everywhere coming at me from all directions, breaking across my decks and smashing me in the face. I had developed a technique where I would head-butt the wave as it came over my deck towards my face, my hat deflecting the worst of it from my eyes and stopping the saltwater shooting up my nose! It was like trying to paddle a bucking bronco, as my body was twisted this way and that, tearing by lower back muscles and ripping my stomach as I tried to work my trunk and save my tired arms. I found it impossible to paddle with any sort of efficient technique and it became a grunting arm-only exercise. Being much smaller muscles they tire more quickly than your back and abdomen and I had to paddle in bursts because anything other than flat out meant I hardly moved forward at all. I normally paddle at a pace I know I can sustain all day if I need to but this approach was just no good for this section of coast. It was probably the toughest conditions of the journey so far and demanded that I paddled as hard as I could or else turn around and go back to Smerwick, and that was never an option. Perhaps it wasn’t sensible to time the paddle so that I was going against the tide but I was mindful that the wind was forecast to increase to a 6 later in the day and that would have made it impossible. So I shouted and swore at the wind and myself, slowing making ground and unable to appreciate what is undoubtedly a beautiful and remote coastline.
I did note the handful of white-washed cottages surrounded by a patchwork of tiny field enclosures of bright new grass that clung to the lower slopes of Brandon Mountain. The green blended to brown as the land rose ever more steeply high up into the clouds. Shafts of sunlight strong enough to penetrate through the cloud picked out the colours in such a way that I wished I had a zoom on my waterproof camera. Instead I had to commit the image to my memory and keep on paddling. It took four long hours to pass by Brandon Head and by the time I neared the western flank of BrandonBay I was all but exhausted. The C-Trek kayak had handled the conditions brilliantly and I was never in any danger of capsizing and once again I silently thanked Rob Feloy and the boys at Kirton Kayaks for giving me such a great boat to paddle.
I was well across Brandon Bay before the sea reorganised itself into some sort of rhythm. Don O’Brien had told me about a dive school on the narrow spit of land that separates Brandon Bay from Tralee Bay. He seemed to think there would be accommodation there and I had decided I would take a much needed rest and re-charge my body’s batteries and those of my lap top. Some nice clean surf broke on the reefs lining the channels between the Magharee Islands and the point. I found the way in to Scraggane Pier and sure enough a big dive RIB came roaring in from one of the islands, laden with divers and their gear. I gave them a chance to sort themselves out then enquired about accommodation. The instructor could not have been more helpful and got one of his trainee divemasters to give me a hand up the slipway with the kayak and then transported myself and my gear in the back of a transit van a few hundred metres up the road to Harbour House. The rather corny name of ‘Waterworld’ immediately makes me think of some pleasure park on the Costas but in actual fact it is Ireland’s largest dive centre run by Ronnie and Pat Fitzgibbon. From humble beginnings they have turned an ordinary bungalow into a very smart leisure complex with 13 en-suite rooms, all the facilities of a B&B and a well organised dive school, with heated indoor swimming pool, gymnasium and sauna. They made me feel very welcome and I booked in for a couple of nights spending that afternoon and evening catching up with my admin, delighted that I had chosen to stop as the wind increased to a Force six north-westerly which would have made the crossing to Kerry Head very unpleasant indeed.
The wind was still blasting in from the northwest the following morning but it didn’t matter as I had stuck with my decision to take a day out of the kayak. I couldn’t rest completely though and took the opportunity to go for a couple of dives. Having sat on the surface for such a log time it was fantastic to get underwater again and remind myself that there is a whole world going on down there that most of us just never see. You may think there is little to see in the seas around the UK and Ireland and they are undeniably less spectacular than diving say in the Red Sea, but you just have to look a little closer and there is colour and life everywhere down there and especially in the verdant waters off the west coast of Ireland. I saw jewel anemones, crayfish, lobster and a truly massive edible crab. Despite the wind and swell the diving was excellent and there is almost always safe diving to be had in the lee of the MaghareeIslands. I was very impressed with the professionalism of the skipper and the Hungarian instructor who led the two dives. The whole set up at Waterworld is impressive and they gave me a generous discount on my accommodation.
Finishing off my diary that afternoon I received a text from Jim Morrissey who was returning from Roaring Water Bay where he has a seaweed research project, to his home in Galway. It was well out of his way but he took the trouble to come over and see me and it was really good to see him and catch up. I hadn’t seen Jim since the Devizes to Westminster Race in 2003 and then we were a bit focused on the race and didn’t really get a chance to chat. Jim has been on the kayak racing scene for as long as I can remember and describes himself as a diesel engine, “I just keep plugging away”. What that actually means is that at the age of 36 he is one of the top Irish marathon paddlers and is going faster than ever. He was due to represent Ireland at a World Cup race in France in a couple of weeks time but his laid back attitude meant that he stayed chatting until nearly eleven with a four hour drive still ahead of him. He gave me loads of useful information about the coastline I was about to encounter, some of which he told me is very committing. I heard about some of the races he had done recently including a World Series Ocean Ski event in South Africa which sounded horrendous. They were sent out into huge swell that would have made Brandon Head look like a doddle I’m sure. Jim cut his foot during the jump start and left a trail of blood in the water behind him in one of the most notorious regions for attacks from Great White Sharks. Indeed a surfer had lost his leg and was fighting for his life on life support that very week. It is not unusual for sharks to attack skis, usually taking an inquisitive bite just to see what they are made of, but if ever there was a motivation to paddle as fast as you can! I have a rule when choosing my kayaking destinations and that is to always be top of the food chain!
The wind gods were smiling on me once again when I finally left Scraggane Pier after consuming a full Irish breakfast taking a moment to admire the fibreglass-hulled currachs hauled up on the slip way. There was still enough wind to produce a small chop which occasionally broke over my front deck but I was soon back into the groove, heading for the flat thumbprint of rock that is Kerry Head. By the time I was half way across TraleeBay the breeze had started to increase as the land heated up under a clear blue sky. There is nothing more frustrating than listening to the weather forecaster on the radio repeatedly say “generally light winds” when you are head-banging into a solid Force 3 to 4. “You should get yourself out here pal!” I muttered to myself. But I was making steady progress and followed Linda’s advice when it seemed like I wasn’t getting anywhere: to occasionally look over my shoulder and see how far I had come. I know she gave this advice to the staff at her school recently (in a slightly different context admittedly) and it is well worth remembering for all aspects of life.
By Kerry Head I was in need of a comfort break but could not find anywhere to get out safely without damaging the kayak on the rocky shore which was being washed by a small swell. I had been practising a technique whereby I balance with one foot on a rock and the other still in the kayak, whilst I attempting to wee. It sounds simple but when you consider the rise and fall and surge and retreat of the swell it is quite a tricky operation and needless to say it doesn’t work for a number two which is what I needed on this occasion after such a large breakfast! Anyone watching what followed would have wondered what kind of an idiot I was as I leapt out of the kayak into what I thought was waist deep water only to slip off the submerged rock I was aiming for up to my neck in an ocean that has yet to reach anything like swimming temperature. Of course the shock of the sudden immersion was enough to quell any desire I had to go to the toilet anyway!
After that pantomime I had another, longer crossing to Loop Head across the Mouth of the River Shannon, Ireland’s longest and largest river. I had been warned about the busy shipping lanes but perhaps because it was the weekend that I only saw one small coaster leave the estuary and after a long, quite tedious paddle into the headwind I eventually gained the shelter of the cliffs at the tip of the finger-like promontory of Loop Head, passing beneath the lighthouse and through a narrowing chasm between the headland and an impressive rock stack with fulmars and kittiwakes nesting above and guillemots stood like sentries on the rock ledges below.
The pungent odour of ammonia from their guano was quite overpowering. No longer protected from the wind and swell by Loop Head I ducked into RossBay, finding another wave cut platform and one of the very few places it was possible to land on this coast.
After a brief comfort break I had a slow and uncomfortable paddle towards Kilkee. What was left of the northerly swell combined with a chop produced by the northwesterly breeze and bounced off the sheer cliffs producing a horrible backwash that was no where near as bad as Brandon Head and should hardly get a mention in comparison but it was hard going all the same. Fortunately I was distracted by the weird and wonderful rock formations: I spotted apple turnovers, Swiss rolls and pain au chocolate – (can you spot the theme here)? There were bays that looked like someone had taken a big bite out of a wedge of cheese and cliffs like slabs of Vienetta that had started to melt into the sea.
As I plodded up the coast I passed the rustiest fishing boat I have ever seen. It looked like it should have featured in a ‘Mad Max’ movie, there was not a bit of fresh paint on it. I continued heading north but a short while later this fishing boat came chugging past and the skipper gave me a friendly wave and held up a coil of rope offering me a tow. Not only was it against my rules to accept a lift or tow, by the look of the boat I decided I was better off on my own so thanked him but declined his kind offer and followed him up to the Kilkee. When I arrived in the bay of this attractive little seaside town I headed into the large new slip way protected by a sizeable breakwater. There were a number of men stood watching me as I came ashore. One of them, a weather beaten fella about the same age as me, asked me where I had come from and when I told him he was amazed. He told the others and I soon had an audience of local fishermen listening to my story. We were joined by the skipper of the rusty boat who turned out to be a real character. I had to ask about the boat which he told me had come from Newlyn. And the reason why it is so rusty?
“Paint don’t catch fish!”
I lost count of how many times I shook hands as they wished me “Good Luck” and the fella that had first spoken to me gave me a handful of fresh crab claws to go with my supper. Is Kilkee the friendliest place in Ireland? I had identified a patch of grass near the slip way which was a little more high profile than my usual campsites and all evening I had passers-by talking to me, asking me where I was from and offering their support. I took the liberty of asking one chap if he knew where I could get some more fuel for my Trangia multi fuel stove. It is so efficient that I had only now used up the fuel in the two bottles that I had started the expedition with (approximately two litres) and I had been cooking most nights. The man offered to get me some from his house and would not accept payment. I waited tactfully until dusk before putting up my tent since I was overlooked by a row of houses and didn’t want to offend. I aimed to be away again first thing the following morning.
After my experience along Brandon Head I had not been looking forward to the day when I would be paddling along the Cliffs of Moher, the most famous cliffs in Ireland which rise sheer for over six hundred feet. The last time I had seen them was on a holiday to Ireland many years ago; the swell had been huge with horrendous backwash. As I set out from Kilkee though the swell had reduced to such an extent that only small waves broke gently on the reefs protecting the bay. Yet again I could not believe my luck. I passed more of the wonderful rock formations that make this southwest section of Co. Clare’s coast worthy of a visit then headed across to Mutton Island and Mal Bay by-passing the famous surfing beach of Spanish Point, so called because it was here that survivors from wrecked Armada ships swam ashore only to be executed by the high sheriff of Clare.
I was joined briefly by a flock of several hundred Manx Shearwaters, which circled me several times before settling in a large raft further out to sea. Conditions were perfect – not a breath of wind and warm sunshine. I was soon across LiscannorBay which is where I had intended to stop for the nightand it was only lunchtime. I found a small cove in the lee of the headland to have a late lunch perched on a rock set on a wave cut platform that looked just like a beach yet it was entirely devoid of sand. The shallow incline of the bedding plane sloping gently into the sea produced the same effect. Jim would have enjoyed looking at the luxuriant seaweeds that proliferated in the warm clear water where large fish (probably salmon) were hiding, invisible except for the tell-tale ridges of water they produced like miniature submarines as they darted about. With just a week before the start of the salmon netting season their days of freedom were numbered. I could have remained there all day soaking up the sun’s rays but instead forced myself back into my kayak, turning the corner and begining my traverse of the Cliffs of Moher.
A tired swell rolled silently beneath my kayak before dying on the rocks at the foot of the cliffs but its lack of energy allowed me to weave through the spectacular natural arches and peer into the gloom of the massive sea caves that make the 16 km Cliffs of Moher one of the most dramatic day paddles the Irish coast has to offer.
There were birds everywhere, puffins, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, kittiwakes, black backed gulls – even a peregrine falcon stooping on unsuspecting feral pigeons. I was beginning to run out of superlatives to describe the coastline of Ireland and even though I had seen the cliffs before from above, it still took my breath away to see the the highest vertical cliffs on the Irish mainland from the perspective of a kayak.
As I approached the famous view point of O’Brien’s Tower I was delighted to see three sea kayaks approaching from the opposite direction. Tom, Joanna and Bernie were heading down for lunch in one of the coves near Hags Head – what is your secret Tom? It was great to see them and Bernie kindly took a couple of photos of me and the cliffs because taking photos of yourself whilst kayaking solo is rather problematic – your arms just aren’t long enough!
From below O’Briens Tower I headed out to sea, towards the lighthouse at Inis Oirr on the southern point of the eastern-most of the Aran Islands, Inisheer. It is only a short crossing but as I made my way out from under the dominating Cliffs of Moher, Galway Bay opened out to starboard with the unusual ‘silver mountain’ of Slieve Elva to the east, the mountains of Connemara to the north and nothing but ocean to the west. The Aran Islands are effectively an extension of a huge limestone plateau called the Burren and the exposed silver grey rock shone like a vast parabolica in the bright sunshine. The soils are thin to non-existent in amongst the limestone pavement but what the islands do not lack is rock and over the hundreds of years of human habitation an intricate maze of dry stone walled field enclosures have been constructed which have allowed farmers to cultivate despite the lack of trees to protect crops from the wind. The soil in the so called ‘lazy beds’ was produced from mixing seaweed with sand and manure and whilst they may not have necessitated deep digging, the toil involved in hauling the first two ingredients from the shore meant the farmers were far from lazy. It was worth it though and potatoes have been grown very successfully for centuries. Indeed during the famine of 1848 caused in part by the potato blight on the mainland the islands remained blight-free and the islanders had hundreds, if not thousands of ‘refugees’ from the mainland camping on the islands who they successfully managed to feed with fish and potatoes.
My first landfall on the islands was at Gob na Cora on Inisheer where the wreck of ‘The Plassey’ remains since the terrible storm of 1964 which caused her to miss the channel through South Sound resulting in her being swept high onto the rocks by huge seas. The islanders put their own lives at risk to successfully save everyone from the doomed vessel which now lies forlorn, as a monument to the bravery of the islanders. The bravery of the islanders was never formally recognised by the mainland government and there is a move to rectify this with a plaque commemorating their heroism.
I arrived on Inishmaan to another ‘welcoming committee’ of local fishermen. The Aran Islands are part of the Gaeltacht – regions of Ireland where Irish Gaelic is the vernacular speech and some of the islanders have difficulty speaking and understanding English. Their accents were so strong that I kept having to apologise and ask them to repeat their questions. I really felt for the first time that I was in a foreign land and it is reassuring to realise that there are still some places where things are slow to change. The men are weather beaten and rather stern-looking with eyes used to looking to a distant horizon. But they were very helpful and warmly welcomed me to the islands. I wondered if I would have had the same reception had I arrived if a 50ft motor yacht. I am sure that the fact that I had arrived in a craft smaller than their own currachs made them accept me as a fellow waterman.
It was beautifully peaceful and apart from the odd tractor and occasional car that would not pass an MOT test back home, the only sound that broke the silence was the repetitious call of the cuckoo which reverberated around the surrounding hillside. Once fed, I took a stroll over the hill to take in the sunset which was developing into a stunner. Pausing to chat to anyone I met, no-one seemed to be in a hurry and seemed genuinely pleased to see me. Whilst they do have a few B&B’s and a hotel on the island, most tourists head for Inishmore their larger neighbour, so they are happy to see anyone who has made the effort to visit their island.
One chap told me how, when he was a child in the fifties, the school had over a hundred children. Now there are just twelve. It is a struggle to get the youngsters to stay and the population is steadily dwindling. Holiday homes will soon out-number those with permanent residents and the traditional way of life is under threat as never before. The islanders have embraced many of the benefits of the modern world, there are three wind turbines on the west coast and a mobile phone mast. Apparently last winter there were only two days when it would not have been possible to have left the islands, communications are so good with regular flights and a reliable ferry service.
I went for a pint in one of the island’s two pubs and all the conversation among the men was in Gaelic. Not for the first time since my arrival on the island I felt like a foreigner but fortunately one couple took pity on me and included me in their conversation. He is German and she is Irish and they have decided to make Inishmaan their home. He has three Occupational Health practices in Germany and they effectively commute on a Friday, usually driving the whole way continuously in one day because she doesn’t like flying! He told me how he would drive at 220km/hr and then I told him that I was a traffic cop! As I walked back to the tent a gentle breeze off the Atlantic kept the midges away and the lights from the mainland lay like a necklace around GalwayBay. I slept very contentedly knowing that I was now well ahead of my schedule and that the forecast remained good for the rest of the week.
The fishermen were loading their curraghs with homemade lobster pots, weighted with flat rocks weaved into the base of each pot. The beauty of the design and construction of a curragh is that they are so light that even with an outboard engine fixed astern, the craft are light enough to allow one man to launch and recover using a trolley. They wished me luck on my journey as I headed around the back of Inishmaan then northwest bound for Inishmore. The lack of swell was a huge bonus as I can imagine the west coast of Inishmore can be really tricky. The cliffs are not terribly high but they are sheer and even with a small swell the backwash was significant. I could feel the pressure waves in my ears as the swell thumped into the limestone slabs, trapped air sending explosions of spray high up the cliff face. Evidence of the speed of erosion can be seen by the semicircular remains of the prehistoric hill fort Dun Aengus; three concentric ring enclosures balanced on the edge of 300 ft cliffs over which the rest of the fort has fallen into the Atlantic since its construction in around 1100 BC.
There was nowhere to get out along the west coast and there was too much swell on the slipway at the top of the island to let me land safely. So I resigned myself to peeing in the boat and headed back in to the mainland in the form of Golam Head. It was a beautifull day and the warmest so far. The Twelve Pins or Benna Beola, an omnipresent feature of the Connemara landscape, dominated the view inland. Although not terribly high at just over seven hundred metres these mountains rise up suddenly from the low expanse of peat bog and loughs that characterise this part of Ireland.
The Connemara coast is the complex network of inlets and reefs that make navigation quite a challenge – especially with a road map like the one I was using! Exquisite vanilla white beaches that would not be at all out of place in the Caribbean are in abundance and despite the lack of palm trees (in fact there are no trees at all), the quality of light and the clarity of the water make the scene seem very exotic. I stopped for lunch just inside Golam Head in a tranquil inlet, populated by shelduck and ringed plovers. I finally got a close-up look at one of the watch towers that I have seen on almost every major headland on the Irish coast. Constructed by the English, fearful of further attacks after a failed invasion attempt by the French in BantryBay, most of them are now ruins but the tower on Golam Head remains remarkably intact.
I was in no mood to rush by this stunning scenery so I just pottered along, island hopping across the entrance to Kilkieran Bay. I had realised there was no way I was going to make it to Clifden in a day so I was in no rush, I would stop early and have another easy day tomorrow. I had to stop at Clifden to collect my next box of supplies so I just soaked up the scenery and started to think about where I would camp. I was quite taken with the idea of camping on one of the small islands just off the coast and with that in mind I stopped at a tiny little harbour to collect some fresh water. A retired gent, sat on a bollard greeted me as I floated in. We agreed that it was a beautiful day and I asked him where I might find some fresh water. Whilst there were several holiday homes dotted around the harbour none were occupied at the time and he offered to take me in his son’s car to the nearest house where I should be able to get water. Walking with the aid of sticks he looked as if he was long overdue a hip replacement or two and I felt genuinely sorry for him. He had worked on boats all his life and would still be out there now if his body would let him. The old boy dropped me outside a smart looking bungalow and I rang the bell. The woman who answered grudgingly let me have some water out of the hose pipe. I think the old boy must have had her share of charm.
Returning to the salt water I’m not sure why but I decided against camping on St Macdara’s Island, inviting though it looked and instead paddled on around Mace Head past a weather station (which, I was later to discover is operated by the University of Galway) and into one of the most idyllic beaches I have ever seen: a sweep of opalescent white gold sand, as soft as driven snow that squeaked when you walked on it, granite boulders sculptured by wind and waves leading to ancient sand dunes covered in a carpet of buttercups and daisies. The view of the Twelve Pins and RoundstoneMountain was to die for and the water so clear and the sun so warm I was able to have a good splash about to get rid of the last few days grime and dry off by walking about in just a pair of shorts.
I received a text from Jim Morrissey to say he was at Clifden looking for me! I rang him to apologise and explain where I was camped and Jim and his wife Sarah spent the next hour trying to find me.
They made it just in time for a truly splendid Connemara sunset and they had a belated tea whilst I enjoyed a can of Guinness and some custard doughnuts that the ever thoughtful Jim had brought along for me. It was a treat to share ‘my beach’ with friends and good to see them so happy together. The midges soon had the better of us as dusk fell and after another epic trek through the Connemara scrub to get to the road, Jim and Sarah still had a two hour drive to get back home. I felt very humble that they had taken so much effort to come and see me.
The clear sky saw the temperature drop significantly overnight. I caught up with my diary first thing so I was slow to get underway, still in ‘Connermara Dreamtime’. I slowly worked my way towards Slyne Head passing numerous deserted ‘desert island’ beaches on the way. As I passed one small bay so the familiar dorsal fins of four or five bottle-nosed dolphins broke the surface. I had thought it impossible to improve upon the image before me but the sight of the dolphins made it just perfect. They took a quick look at me but decided I wasn’t going to be much fun and carried on their way, swimming into BallyconneelyBay. I was now in a dream-like trance with a warm glow inside – no I hadn’t just pee’d in the boat!
Heading up towards Slyne Head the route seemed to be blocked by a wall of reef. I seemed to recall from the pilot there was a way through and I was able to confirm this with a couple of fishermen who stopped for a chat. As I snaked my way through the shallows I looked down, admiring the multitude of colours; seaweeds of every shape and size. If only Jim were here to name them for me. I had the next best thing though because Jim had given me a book he had co-written with some colleagues from the University: “A Guide to Commercially Important Seaweeds on the IrishCoast”. Jim is one of the leading researchers into seaweed cultivation and often surveys the coastline by sea kayak. As I tried to identify the different seaweeds I suddenly became aware of a long dark pointed shape directly beneath me. My heart missed a beat – a shark?! No just the shadow of my kayak on the sand you idiot!
As if by magic the tiniest of channels opened up ahead of me and I weaved through, spotting a beach with my name on it on Slyne Head. Time for a spot of sunbathing! It was lunch time and there was not a soul around – do you know that special feeling when yours are the only footprints on the beach? It was one of the most perfect days I can remember apart from one sad fact; Linda was not there to enjoy it too. I had been missing her terribly since saying goodbye to her at Dublin airport and whilst I was really enjoying my time on the west coast of Ireland, I was also looking forward to late July and the Northern Isles when I would hopefully see her again.
As I sat and ate lunch overlooking a narrow channel through which the tide was flowing gently north I watched as an old fisherman navigated his currach through the tiny gap without reducing speed, demonstrating why these craft are so ideally suited to the type of inshore fishing that is a mainstay of the economy of the west coast.
After lunch I headed out around Slyne Head which is not really a headland at all but a collection of rocky islets with the outermost being Illaunamid on which the lighthouse is situated. I was pretty sure it was uninhabited and I could have taken a short cut through one of the many sounds between the islands but thought I had better go out around just in case. It was worth it to see the large number of Atlantic grey seals, including some really big bulls on the reefs. Built in 1836 the lighthouse is interesting too; all black surrounded by white washed walls. There is another unused tower, grey with slates peeling from its walls that was built at the same time but badly sited and so became obsolete. When the light was manned the keepers constructed an exact replica of their lighthouse in miniature on a small lake on the island to amuse themselves. It is accurate in every detail including the relative height above the water and the number and length of the flashes.
I could only imagine how treacherous Slyne Head could be on a stormy night with waves crashing over the myriad reefs. No wonder stories abound of drownings of lighthouse keepers, shipwrecked sailors, drunkenness and even murder.
From Slyne Head I worked hard all the way into Clifden, feeling the benefit of a gentle morning’s paddle. I arrived at 5.00pm and was greeted by an associate of the lifeboat crew who arranged to have my supply box brought down to me. Various people stopped by to chat and later that evening I recorded an interview for the local community radio. To make the most of the perfect weather I decided against taking a rest the following day.
At 8am I left Clifden Bay with a gentle tail breeze to help me along and a flood tide in my favour all morning so I was quickly outside of Talbot, Cruagh and High Islands and heading for Inishark (its name means Sea Monster Island) and with a name like that I thought it worthy of a visit even though it is no longer inhabited. Inishark was home though for many pairs of black guillemots, shy birds who took off whenever I got too close, their bright red feet dangling like the flaps of a plane as they twisted and turned in flight. Perhaps I was beginning to suffer from scenery fatigue but I did little more than glance at Inishark before thinking to myself,
“Yeah, nice island, right – NEXT!”
In the sound between Inishark and Inishboffin I saw my first Great Skua, a bird that flies with the arrogance of a species that knows it is top of the food chain, this one was heading south like a Viking marauder looking for something to bully. Gliding low and fast, directly towards me staring me out, its thickset shoulders and hooked beak looked quite menacing from just three feet away!
I have heard people rave about Inishboffin; it is an English-speaking island popular with tourists, but I thought it was fairly unremarkable, just a low, undulating island when viewed from the sea so I did not stop. However the next island on my itinerary, Inishturk was a bit special. Described in the Irish Cruising Club West Coast Pilot as “the most remote inhabited island on the west coast”, the cliffs on the western (ocean) side of the island are vertical cascades of twisted rock which provide nesting for hundreds of puffins. With a human population of less than 100, this may begin to rise again now the island has a regular ferry. Whilst previous Irish governments were ambivalent towards the fate of the islanders, modern thinking is to support the island communities which are now seen as an important part of Ireland’s heritage.
Then the full splendour of Clare Island came into view. It has always held a little place in my heart after seeing the band the Saw Doctors sing their beautiful song about the island live at Exeter University. Now I was finally seeing the island for myself and I was not disappointed. There are many contenders for the most beautiful of Ireland’s islands but Clare Island would get my vote. The cliffs on the Atlantic side rise sheer to the highest point of the island at a staggering 461m. The landward side is much more benign and the whole island looks like a sleeping brontosaurus with a pristine white lighthouse balanced on its tail. ClareIsland is famed as the stronghold of ‘The Pirate Queen’ Grace O’Malley, daughter of Owen O’Malley, chief of the west coast islands. When her father died she made herself queen of the Clew Bay area through fearless and un-scrupulous warfare and piracy and earned the affection of her ‘subjects’ and her place in Irish legend by being one of the few Irish chiefs to stand up to the English. When she met Elizabeth I in London in 1593 she insisted on being treated as an equal but she was canny enough to switch sides when she realized she couldn’t beat the English and her son was created first Viscount Mayo.
I have since met one of Ireland’s top women kayakers; Eileen Murphy who represented Ireland at whitewater slalom and marathon racing for many years and in 2005 completed a solo circumnavigation of Ireland by sea kayak. A very feminine, almost diminutive figure, she is a formidable character who has been given the nickname of ‘The Pirate Queen’ by her peers and from my observation of her in action it is very appropriate.
Hundreds more puffins swooped down from the towering western cliffs of Clare Island in an erratic, comical air display, their wings beating like clockwork toys and their little orange webbed feet used to steer like their black guillemot cousins. They had to work hard to keep their fat white bellies in the sky but they kept circling me all the same, having a really good look – finding safety in numbers. It is difficult to not be guilty of anthropomorphism when describing these birds since they seem to have been created for our amusement. Further out the puffins were replaced by Manx Shearwater and I finally saw one of these masters of low flight crash into a wave! It disappeared from view as if pretending to be a guillemot but surfaced again very quickly, shook its whole body from beak to tail, then took off again to catch up with the others hoping they hadn’t noticed.
I had made such good progress in the favourable conditions that even though I had only intended going as far as Clare Island it was only 2pm and I kept going, heading for Achill Island which would put me another day ahead. Instead of taking the shortest crossing to Achilligbeg Island off the southern tip of Achill I aimed for Keel intending to make that my stop for the night. I knew that the redoubtable Achill Head waited for me the following day, as did the highest cliffs in all of Ireland, beneath the summit of Croaghaun on the north side of Achill Island. The forecast for the following two days was not looking too great and by getting as far as Keel as I was giving myself the best possible chance of making it safely around Achill Head and continuing my journey north.
And so it was fairly late by the time I arrived in the rather derelict harbour of Gubalennaun Beg Quay near the village of Keel which overlooks the beautiful white crescent of Keel Strand. The beaches are the only gentle thing about Achill – it is a hard, uncompromising place with high mountains and sheer cliffs with only the thinnest of peaty soils spliced with bare rock. Ireland’s largest island it has few natural resources which probably explained why in the 50’s and 60’s it became an important fishery. Basking shark, like any other pelagic species have to negotiate Achill Head on their migration north. Achill Islanders used to catch basking shark by placing V-shaped nets across KeemBay where the currents would sweep the unsuspecting beasts into the killing ground such that they would be unable to turn and escape. Men in curraghs would then harpoon the huge but defenceless fish and tow them into Gubalennaun Beg Quay for processing.
The tanks where the oil from the shark’s liver was kept still remain, rusting memorials to a fishing industry that was as brutal as it was unsustainable. I met a fisherman called John McHugh down at the harbour who told me how, when he was in his teens he would butcher the shark carcasses, spending his days knee deep in guts and filth, stacking the meat that would be processed into animal feed – if it didn’t rot first. The shark liver oil was sent to Germany for the cosmetics industry. He told me how there were two companies working in competition and the rivalry was intense.
“There was a buzz about the place”, he reminisced, then added looking slightly embarrassed;
“It was slaughter really – the bay was red with blood – in summer we would catch 50 to 60 a day”.
Inevitably the basking sharks became fewer in number and shark liver oil became too expensive and was replaced by petrochemicals. The industry collapsed and now at last, basking sharks are a protected species. John told me how they were starting to come back; three had been seen off Achill Head the previous day and he was delighted to see them returning. I suggested the harbour should be made into a museum as a reminder to all of the folly of unsustainable fishing methods. Of course you cannot blame the individuals involved who were just trying to earn a living. Times had been very hard before the shark bonanza and it is completely understandable that the local people were keen to enjoy the good times while they lasted. It is up to governments to monitor, take control and ban unsustainable fishing methods but so often they are far too slow to react and one can cite many examples – the dolphin by-catch from pair trawling for sea bass and the critical shortage of cod in the North Sea to name but two.
Achill Island was the setting for a book that formed part of the syllabus for my O’Level English Literature exam. The oddly named Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge tells the story of a woman whose rejected suitor burned down a barn and tossed her onto the flames. It made little sense when I read it then but rather more now that I had seen this harsh land for myself.
A lamb lightened the mood somewhat as he stood listening intently to my radio whilst I toured the harbour photographing the colourful lobster pots.
Before heading off the following morning I had two radio interviews to do, one for BBC Radio Cornwall and one for Pirate FM an independent radio station who seemed to be taking more of an interest again having come to my launch but not contacted me since. I was keen to get underway however as the wind was as forecasted, building from the south east. I paddled as far as Keem Strand to recce the conditions towards Achill Head before ringing the Coastguard for a forecast and letting them know my plans. It was marginal but I was prepared to give it a go. I always like to have an escape plan but on this occasion there would be no going back once I committed myself to the headland. The wind and tide would be pushing me northwest to the point but then I would hopefully find some shelter from the wind and swell once I turned to starboard and into BlacksodBay. A couple of fishermen bobbed about in a curragh off the horseshoe beach at Keem Strand, tending to a net they had strung across the out-flowing current. The older chap seemed genuinely concerned that I was intending to go around Achill Head and warned me to stay close to the cliffs and pass through ‘the gap’ to keep out of the tide. I thanked him for the advice hoping that the meaning of what he had told me would be clear once I had got out there. As soon as I left the sheltered but choppy waters of White Strand I was out in a big lumpy swell that got even bigger as I headed west. The westerly swell was meeting the easterly chop and also rebounding off the cliffs producing some fairly alarming clapotis which I stayed well out from. It was a wet and bumpy ride but with the help I was getting from wind and tide I soon found myself looking for ‘the gap’ the old boy had spoken about. There was a large rock about fifty metres off the headland, did he mean that? Then I saw exactly what he was referring to as a 3 metre wave reared up from nowhere and collapsed in an explosion of foam and spray smack bang in the middle of the channel. By keeping as tight to the cliffs as I dared I sneaked between the submerged reef and the needle point of Achill Head. It was extreme stuff and I knew there was absolutely no margin for error.
Turning hard right I was past the point and straight into a devastating headwind blasting out of Blacksod Bay. The huge bulk of Croaghaun was deflecting the wind, channelling it down through a saddle between it and Achill Head, straight into my path. I had expected a bit of wind but perhaps not quite this much. For a while I made no headway but by finding it within myself to dig a little deeper I managed to pull myself into some shelter beneath the crumbling cliffs. Okay, so this was going to be a fight that I had to win – I knew I could not stay there and I could not go back. With a renewed determination I went out into the maelstrom again. I struggled past the hanging valley and stared in awe up at the truly mountainous cliffs of Croaghaun. The summit of the mountain is 665m and I estimated the cliffs to be sheer for at least perhaps 400m. The scale was mind-boggling and I could only really appreciate it when I caught sight of some seagulls soaring around the highest reaches and was able to see just how small they were in comparison to those flying at lower levels. Like all mountains Croaghaun was producing a weather system all of its own and she kept sending downdraughts that would rip at the surface of the water and attempt to tear my paddles from my grasp. I held tight though and thankfully the gusts were short-lived; the air would suddenly be still and I was able to sprint until the next gust arrived, defined by the dark line of turbulent water that fanned out towards me. By stopping and starting in this fashion I worked my way past the megalith to Saddle Head which was the point I had chosen where I would go for broke and head out across Blacksod Bay towards the Mullet Peninsula.
The fetch was a good ten miles so the easterly wind had plenty of time to build up a nice steep chop by the time it got to me. The swell that had been all over the place off Achill Head was now more organised as it pushed into the bay and rolling underneath me at a tremendous speed, 5 metres in height between peak and trough and as much as 100 metres between crests. This was a swell that had come a long way and was not going to be stopped easily. The stocky little island of Duvillaun More was a match for it though and the swells boomed and pounded the cliffs relentlessly. I headed between the reefs of Duvillaun Beg which protected me from the worst of the wind but brought me into close proximity to some big reef breaks which extended all the way to the Mullet peninsula. I had not encountered big surf since Anglesey and as I headed inshore for a much need rest I had to watch my back as the set waves were breaking a long way out. I had spotted a corner of the beach where the waves were more manageable and timed it nicely to run ashore without incident. Despite the overcast sky it was still quite bright with the sun doing its best to burn through and I had a pleasant lunch laid out on the soft grass watching some fine looking waves held up nicely by the offshore wind.
Black Rock, a prominent lighthouse rock and the InishkeaIslands lay just a few miles offshore but there had been little debate in my mind. Don O’Brien, my friend from Cork is one of the few paddlers to have camped overnight on Black Rock which is decribed as one of the most difficult lighthouse rocks on which to land and is inaccessible in anything other than very settled conditions. The Inishkeas are no longer inhabited and thus did not fit the criteria of those I felt compelled to go seawards of. It was far too windy to be going offshore unnecessarily and the size of the waves breaking on reefs between the islands was enough to convince me that I really did not want to go out there. Certainly the reputation of the Inishkeas is not good for on the 26th October 1927, ten young men from both islands out fishing in currachs were tragically lost in a sudden storm. The community spirit was broken by the loss and lead to the islands being abandoned by 1939. I had no desire to add to the statistics and resigned myself to staying inshore. They were the first group of true islands that I had not gone seaward of and I felt sad that I would not be able to visit them.
I made a mess of launching, getting pushed sideways by the surge and subsequent retreat of the waves, such that I ended up going backwards in a very un-cool fashion through the soup of broken waves before I could sort myself out turn and head out through the surf. I timed it awfully and got smacked on the top of the head by the guillotine lip of a breaking wave which sent cold water shooting down the back of my neck. I was a bit out of practice with this surf malarkey and I was embarrassed to see a couple watching me from the beach. Around the U.K. and Ireland? Based on that performance I bet they didn’t fancy my chances!
The offshore wind had just enough south in it to give me a push up the west side of the Mullet Peninsula. I hugged the shore as best I could to avoid being blasted out to sea but I had to concentrate hard as I didn’t want to get caught by one of the 3 metre set waves that were breaking much further out than the rest. I hope I am not giving away any secrets when I tell you that this section of Ireland’s west coast is a surfer’s dream with reef, point and beach breaks to chose from and you are guaranteed a peak to yourself.
I did not see any humans surfing but I did see a school of six dolphins riding the swells. They passed so quickly by that it was almost as if I had dreamt seeing their shiny gunmetal grey bodies break clear of the surface then dive into the heart of the rolling wave, accelerating shorewards. They were in their element, riding the swells in then expertly turning and heading back out during a lull. I saw one burst out through the back of a wave getting ‘big air’ in the process. It was a move that would have scored nicely in any surf competition. People often ask me what was the most memorable moment of the whole journey and whilst there were so many that it is almost impossible to single out one, the sight of these wild creatures gracefully surfing the Atlantic swell is a memory I will treasure for ever.
At Carraun Point a reef extends about a quarter of a mile out to sea and waves were breaking on either side. I had done enough now and began looking for somewhere sheltered to land. I didn’t fancy taking on my next obstacle, Annagh Head in these conditions. Unlike the Mullet coastline so far, which had a string of islands running parallel offshore, Annagh Head would be unprotected and the swell was likely to be much bigger. I headed into an unnamed bay with a similar set up to SilverBay on Holy Island, Anglesey – big surf in the middle of the bay and a sheltered cove on the far side protected by a reef that would produce a cracking point break in the right conditions.
I was pleased to be ashore and staggered up the beach with my kit and the kayak, only now fully appreciating how strong the wind was. I found a hollow in the grass covered dunes occupied by a small herd of cows. They did not seem to mind sharing their pasture with me and became increasingly curious as time went on, drooling as they watched me eating by dinner (it’s okay – it was pork). It does rather put you off your food though having a big black cow stood five feet away staring at you intently with huge brown sorrowful eyes and heavy globules of saliva hanging from its mouth!
I awoke as usual for the shipping forecast which was not good ESE 6 to 7, with a small craft warning in force. Certainly there were white horses in the bay cutting across the persistent westerly swell. I decided to take a walk to Annagh Head before making a decision. As I strolled up the lane, a huge hare hopped slowly back into its field where its mate was waiting. They are a rare sight back home – they seem to be common place here. They both sat on their haunches and stared nonchalantly back at me, totally unafraid. The sky was full of the sound of skylarks that had been airborne since dawn, busting a gut to show who had the most powerful voice and the greatest repetoire of tunes. Next time you hear a skylark, just listen for a while –they never repeat a song. Stonechats shouted at me from almost every fence post and a grey heron took off from the marsh where a pair of mute swans had made their nest.
A lapwing swooped above the lines of cut peat laid out to dry. The landscape of the Mullet peninsula is relatively unspoilt and gives you some idea of how much of the rest of the U.K. and Ireland must have looked in years gone by. Each abandoned cottage, surrounded by its own land and overlooking the sea is just begging to be renovated and property prices are less than half that of Cornwall due to the strong pound when compared to the Euro. Now there’s an idea!
A curious stone structure shaped like half a beehive hut with rusting steel panels extending seawards is situated overlooking the ocean on Annagh Head. I found out later it had been designed and built by some American art students as a memorial to a local teenager who was lost at sea. His body was never found and the shelter is meant as a place for contemplation and meditation. It also serves as a good windbreak and sheltered me from a heavy downpour.
The wind was gusty and had enough East in it to convince me that once around Erris Head, crossing Broad Haven would be very difficult. I decided to rest that morning and review my decision after lunch. As I strolled back towards my tent a lady whose dogs I had befriended offered me a lift into town. It was looking like more rain so I gratefully accepted. The small town of Belmullet spans the isthmus between BlacksodBay and Broadhaven. A canal now links the two so I guess the Mullet peninsula could now be considered and island. There big plans for the town with tourism top of the agenda. A shame in many ways but inevitable I guess – too many people like me who want a holiday home. A warm bacon roll made me feel much better about missing a day’s paddling. I found a computer shop that doubled as a travel agent and internet café and so I spent an hour catching up a little on my correspondence. It was always a humbling experience logging onto my message board and reading the many messages of support, many of them beautifully written by folk I have never met. It was impossible to reply to them all and I focussed on keeping my diary as up to date as possible. I heard from Fiona Whitehead who was making steady progress making the most of the fine weather. It was great to be ‘sharing’ the experience with a fellow paddler even though we had never actually met. Fiona had crossed the St George’s Channel arriving at Rosslare about a week after I had passed through. I knew the media would love the idea of a race but I was not interested in playing their game. How could it be a race when, by including all the inhabited islands I would be paddling over 2000 miles further?
Even though I went to bed early I had a bad nights sleep with wind and rain rattling the flysheet. I awoke to the sound of more rain and I have to admit I struggled to convince myself that I really did want to get out of my warm sleeping bag. I listened to the forecast which was an improving one and I could find no reason to delay any longer. I knew that the swell would be big up to Erris Head but hoped it would moderate as I crossed Broadhaven. The wind definitely had a little bit of west in it which would help with the open crossing. I rang the coastguard and overheard them dealing with an incident on the east coast in DublinBay. The Howth lifeboat had just picked a body out of the water and the crew were still looking for one more. It was a sobering moment and my immediate reaction was to change my mind and stay put. I quickly went through my rationale for getting on the water: just because there was an incident, albeit a very serious and tragic one on the east coast that was not a reason for me to remain ashore. I informed the coastguard of my plans and left them to get on with the rescue.
I had a struggle against the wind paddling out of my sheltered cove and to Annagh Head but that was good news because once I had turned 90 degrees to the north and then east towards Benwee Head it meant that there was a good chance the wind would be behind me for the rest of the day. As predicted it was big and lumpy to Erris Head and the sun was dazzlingly bright making it hard to see the many reefs that blocked my path. The northern end of the Mullet peninsula is dramatically different to the south with sheer cliffs and no beaches. Remaining cautious in testing conditions I passed inside of the lighthouse on Eagle Island and was pleased to arrive safely at Erris Head because as soon as I passed through the gully between the headland and a tall stack the water on the other side was calm. There was nowhere to get out though and I had to cross my legs metaphorically to make it across Broadhaven without peeing in the boat. Perhaps I go on about this aspect of my day but life gets broken down into very basic needs when doing an expedition like this and the ability to go to the toilet had become a fundamental element of my existence. Urinating in the boat whilst unhygienic was sometimes unavoidable but I did my very best to avoid doing it simply because I couldn’t stand the smell!
With some ugly looking clouds with their associated squalls approaching I raced across Broadhaven to the shelter of KidIsland as fast as I could. The waves were on my rear starboard quarter and kept trying to turn the C-Trek towards the wind. Thank goodness for my rudder! I don’t wish to sound arrogant or too provocative but I would like to have seen someone make that crossing in a rudderless kayak, skeg or no skeg! I had not read or heard any mention of Benwee Head so I didn’t know what to expect. It proved to be one of the most interesting stretches of cliffs that I had encountered so far with so many classic rock features that I lost count of the number of caves, stacks and arches that I saw. I gazed in wonder as I paddled past, weaving in and out of the rocks as the swell had all but disappeared. I headed into the ideally located refuge of Portacloy where the line of cliffs is broken by a beach of vanilla sand. A group of divers were returning to shore and I was impressed to see a compressor on a trailer being used to refill their tanks. After a brief lunch stop (why are there no rubbish bins in Ireland?) I continued east, unsure of my destination for the night. I had received a text message from a chap from Belfast, Andrew Dutton who had asked if it would be okay to meet up. I could tell from the considerate way he had asked that he knew what expeditioning was about and that sometimes you just don’t want to see anyone. My journey was so long however that I was always grateful for the opportunity to see and speak to people and I was just starting to get a little bored of my own conversation! Conditions were good for making miles though and I was reluctant to stop too early. The high cliffs which had been my friends, protecting me from the worst of the wind finally receded leaving a long line of seemingly uniform rock less than 50metres high which when studied close looked as if they were made from Lego with a few blocks missing. Square-cut gullies and caves pockmarked the cliff face and guillemots perched on many of the ledges, heads bobbing anxiously as I passed.
I decided to call it a day at LackanBay and found a small deserted harbour that whilst a little smelly would do nicely as my temporary home for one night. I rang Andrew as soon as I landed and took the opportunity to have a strip wash using a fresh water butt filled by run-off from the fields above. It was great to get clean and give my paddling clothes a good rinse. At least I would be semi-respectable for my guests! Andrew and his girlfriend Kate Thompson arrived in her very flash red Mazda MX-5. Not what I had expected but I found out that Kate (much like Linda who owned an MGF) had always wanted a sports car and had been determined to own one whilst she didn’t need a crane to lift her in and out of it – her words not mine! She admitted it was not the ideal paddler’s car but even so I was impressed by how much gear they had fitted into it. Kate put up their tent whilst Andrew and I chatted and then she brought out the M&S bags of goodies. Both Andrew and Kate have done some seriously adventurous extended journeys and knew just what I was likely to be missing. I was gutted that I had already eaten yet another dehydrated pasta meal as all this fresh food kept coming out. Kate insisted I kept some for the next few days and I can promise you the Bourneville chocolate went down a treat on the crossing of Donegal Bay the following day. Just how three of us fitted into the MX-5 to get to the pub is probably best left to your imagination but Kate managed to keep it below 60mph. The change in atmosphere when we walked into the pub was a classic case of cutting the air with a knife but when the locals realised we didn’t each have two heads they relaxed and resumed their conversations in Irish. One old chap was fast asleep on a bench seat and got a bit teasy when he woke up with a start to find us sat next to him but the regulars soon calmed him down and he left us alone. It was great to chat to Andrew and Kate and find out about their travels both past and planned. The Guinness went down a treat too and we were the last to leave the comfort of the bar and return to our tents. It was well after 1am before I got to sleep but I still managed to wake in time for the inshore waters forecast on RTE1 (Ireland’s equivalent of BBC Radio 4 but with a lighter touch and some music) at 600am. I was away by 8.30am after saying goodbye to Andrew and Kate who were heading slowly back to Belfast and work – now there’s a thing!
My plan for the day was to save some miles by doing a big crossing of Donegal Bay and head for Rathlin O’Birne Island and then into Glen Bay and the village of Glencolumbkille. I will admit to not having a chart and failing to work out exactly how far the crossing was but it must have been in the order of thirty miles. Conditions were excellent at first, with a gentle tail breeze. It soon clouded over but despite some angry looking clouds running in squall lines either side of me obscuring the Donegal coast I experienced only light rain and moderate breezes. There is something mysterious about the way storm petrels, tiny sea birds not much bigger than a swallow appear when the weather looks a bit ‘iffy’. These delicate creatures are like harbingers of doom and always increase the tension I feel when I see them offshore. I worried unnecessarily though and when the large silver grey flank of Slieve League and the tiny (in comparison) lighthouse on Rathlin O’Birne Island appeared out of the gloom it showed my dead reckoning to be spot on and I paddled on with increased confidence.
The further out I went so the swell came back with a vengeance; a short steep swell that became increasingly uncomfortable the closer I got to the majestic cliffs of Slieve League described in one guide book as the highest marine cliffs in Europe. It was becoming a source of amusement to see how many sets of cliffs would be recorded as the highest in Ireland, the highest in the British Isles or indeed the highest in Europe. My guess was that each tourist board would measure their cliffs in a different way to make sure that theirs came out on top! Whatever the truth behind the claim the cliffs leading to the summit of Slieve League at 595m are impressive and shone like amber in the watery sunlight. The heat and humidity of the day began to take its toll on me in my sleep deprived state. I had hoped to go on past GlenBay but even though I arrived off Rathlin O’Birne Island at 2.30pm after a six hour crossing I was inclined to head into GlenBay to find a campsite. The swell, at around 4 to 5metres was the biggest of the trip so far and GlenBay was a lumpy mogul fieldof clapotis as waves bounced off the cliffs on both sides. Luckily the gorgeous golden beach is protected by reefs from the worst of the swell and I negotiated my way into the mouth of a small river. It was bang on high tide and I was able to paddle upriver a few yards to a small beach of fine sand dotted with clumps sea holly and backed by turf covered rocks that provided one of the most picturesque campsites you can imagine bathed in warm sunshine.
After collecting some water from a nearby cottage and seeking permission to camp I was looking forward to having dinner with a panoramic view of the the glen leading up to the mountains of Co. Donegal on one side and beach, sea cliff and ocean on the other. Unfortunately the midges had other ideas and I was soon confined to my tent where I caught up on some much needed kip.
The following day’s forecast was not great with a small craft warning in force but due to my early night I was awake and on the water for 5.30am hoping to at least make it around Dawros Head to the shelter of Portnoo in Gweebarra Bay. I had been worried that the surf might increase in size during the night making it difficult to get out but the opposite was true and I was able to marvel at the huge cliffs on what felt like one of the most remote stretches of coast in Ireland. Beneath the rocky ramparts of Slievetooey I met a couple of white haired fisherman out in a small day boat with a surprisingly small outboard engine pulling up crab pots by hand. I felt much more secure in my kayak as I watched the small craft get tossed about in the remnants of swell which was still quite energetic at times. They wore oilskin salopettes and boots with no lifejackets. They would not have had a hope had the boat capsized. But they were probably as alarmed to see me bobbing about on my own in my kayak. The chap operating the outboard certainly knew how to handle his craft as he put it with a few feet of where the waves fell over submerged reefs. I was pleased to see them release a fearsome-looking conger eel from one pot but alarmed to see them breaking the claws off crabs and throwing the now helpless bodies back into the sea. This could only have been because they were too small to land. Did they not think that if they threw them back in unharmed they might grow a bit and get caught again in the future, or am I just being naive?
The wind that had been forecast did not seem to be materialising and the sky suggested the weather was set fair for the day. I changed plans and headed for the large island of Arainn Mhor or AranIsland. I stopped briefly on the low rock strewn islet of Roaninish where I was bombarded by terns indignant at being disturbed, however briefly. A pair of harbour porpoises passed by as I approached AranIsland which is another contender in the island beauty contest. The fertile slopes on the south of the island are divided into narrow strips running from the cliff edge up to individual cottages in a scene that has hardly changed for generations. With a fairly stable population of around 650 the east side of the island looked fairly busy but as usual I was heading around the outside where the cliffs were as they have been for a thousand years, teeming with birdlife and untouched by human influence – apart from a very nice lighthouse that is.
I passed by the granite sea cliffs of Owey Island admiring the restoration jobs on some of the derelict cottages and then stopped on Cruit Island which is actually linked to the mainland by a short causeway, for a snack and a rest. The spring sunshine warmed the pink and gold granite reminding me of home. I was aiming to get as close to Bloody Foreland as possible before the end of the day. The northwest tip of Ireland with Tory Island sat like an apostrophe eight miles north of the mainland was a significant turning point in my circumnavigation and I was keen to make it out and around and onto the north coast before the weather, which had been threatening for days, did finally break. Gola Island and Inisirrer, the most northerly in the chain finished off my day of island hopscotch before I found a great little spot with a concrete slipway to haul the kayak up and a bed of soft grass to lie upon. The breeze kept the midges at bay and local folk kept me chatting most of the evening.
The first day of June didn’t start too promisingly with an overcast sky and a stiff north westerly breeze but I judged it to be okay for the crossing to ToryIsland. I would have wind against tide in the sound but could use the wind to help me ferry glide across the tide. As I sat on a rock having my breakfast I reached down for my mug of muesli and felt my back twinge. It was enough for me to wince but I thought little more of it. I have suffered a catalogue of back problems in the past, mainly due to bad posture and as Tim Edbrooke the Devon and Cornwall Police Physiotherapist kept telling me, not taking myself seriously as an athlete and neglecting to do the necessary stretching and recovery work. I am still of the ‘no pain – no gain’ school of training and rarely give a thought to proper warm ups or warm downs and don’t have the patience to do a thorough stretching routine. I got on the water and had a good hard paddle out to ToryIsland, running the tide race with ease and being overtaken by the ferry whose few passengers waved as it went past.
Word of my imminent arrival had obviously spread quickly through the small island community and I was greeted by no less than the King of Tory, Patsy Dan Mac Ruaidhri a charming man whose title was bestowed on him in 1993. Many Irish islands have had a tradition of rule by an uncrowned king, but only Tory island continues the tradition. Patsy Dan makes a point of meeting every ferry and welcoming all visitors to the island. A skilful conversationist he asked me where I was from and immediately found a Cornish link to the Newlyn School of Painting; a style similar to the ‘primitive’ Tory art pioneered by the late James ‘Jimi’ Dixon who was watching a visiting English landscape and portrait painter, Derek Hill at work on the island in 1968 and commented that he thought he could do better! I got the impression that wherever I had come from Patsy Dan would have been able to make a connection to make me feel more at home. Patsy Dan is himself an accomplished artist and accordion player. The title of ‘King of Tory’ is not inherited; instead he is elected by his island peers as someone who will command respect. He may be called upon to settle disputes over land and actively promote the interests of the island and by all accounts Patsy Dan is doing a first class job.
I took a quick stroll around the village of An Baile Thiar, admiring the 3,000 year old ‘Tau’ cross and making some purchases in the island’s one shop including a fascinating visitor’s guide to Tory by Coilin MacLochlainn.
I read how there have been some significant, often traumatic changes to both the landscape and the way of life on Tory throughout the four and a half thousand years that it has been inhabited. Many mainlanders mourn the decline in the ‘traditional’ way of life that has occurred on Ireland’s west coast islands during the latter part of the twentieth century, but then what does ‘traditional’ mean? Isn’t the latest transformation of Tory’s economy to one largely based on tourism just another in a long history of such changes? At least now there is recognition of the need to preserve what remains of previous cultures and to protect the natural environment. In the past there was ignorance or even worse a desire to destroy anything that did not conform to the thinking of the time. The history of Tory and the challenges it faces today are similar to those that face many isolated offshore communities around the whole coast of the U.K. and Ireland and it is up to all of us, including the islanders themselves to realise the value of what they have around them and look after it. Like many islands I have visited the inhabitants of Tory could start by picking up some of the rubbish – most of it having been blown over from the mainland!
As always my stay was far too brief but time and tide meant that I needed to be going to catch the east-going flood. First I had to do my circuit of the seaward side of the island which was in the case of Tory a real treat as the cliffs of Dun Bhaloir at the north east tip are quite special. The absence of rats and foxes on the island makes it a haven for ground nesting birds such as puffins, terns and storm petrels were found on the island. Tory is also one of the last places you will hear the sound of the corncrake – a globally endangered species that migrates from Africa in spring to nest in the hay meadows of the islands and highlands of northwest Donegal and southwest Scotland.
Leaving the bird-filled skies of Tory I headed east across the ‘Roof of Ireland’ to the imposing headland of Horn Head, another ten mile crossing. I now had several major headlands between me and Rathlin Island which would be my jump off point for a return to British soil. I pushed on past Horn Head when in retrospect I should have stopped. I was aware of my back tightening up and going into spasm as I tried to surf the sloppy following sea. Foolishly I kept going and finally landed on the most beautiful beach I had ever seen on the Rosguill peninsula. The pristine beach of untrodden golden sand is divided in two by a rocky islet and backed by a stunning mountain giving a quintessential ‘treasure island’ feel to the place.
Normally I would have wished to have been able to stay there for days it was so remote and tranquil, but I could barely appreciate it because I was in so much pain with my back. I knew I had to keep moving before I seized up altogether and this was no place to get stuck with an injured back.
I pushed on hardly able to paddle now, grunting with the effort of blocking out the pain. What a state to be in – I could hardly believe it! After a couple of mistakes in navigation trying to find a suitable place to stop for the night and managing to get myself even more wound up, I eventually reached to the spot on the map I had originally picked out as a likely place to camp and so it proved: a small beach overlooking the main strand of Ballyheirnan Bay on the Fanad Peninsula, Co. Donegal. I always try to avoid the main beaches as it normally involves a long carry and lots of people. I had chosen well and with high tide I only had to carry the kayak a few feet to place it above the high water mark. It might as well have been a mile though as I just could not bend sufficiently to lift the kayak up no matter what I did. Just as well there was no-one watching as I grunted and shouted at myself to little effect. I couldn’t leave it where it was though and in the end I managed to half lift, half drag the kayak across the sand and up onto a metre high rock shelf to put it out of harms way. The next challenge was to get changed and put the tent up and all sorts of expletives came out as I grimaced and got on with it. Exhausted by the effort I had no energy to cook and made do with a cold ‘boil-in-the-bag’ meal. I knew I was going to have to take at least a day off and felt gutted that all the hard work I had put in to get myself ahead of schedule was now going to be in vain.
It was now two months since the start of my journey and I couldn’t get out of bed! I lay in my sleeping bag looking out across the bay to a stunning morning. Things had been going so well but now I was completely incapacitated. I was angry with myself for having ignored the warning signs, depressed because I knew exactly what I had done and how long it would take to mend and started feeling very sorry for myself. The weather was great, I would have had a tail wind to blow me past Mailn Head and I could have been back in the U.K. (CountyAntrim) by the end of the day. Not that I was eager to leave Ireland, far from it but it would have meant cheaper phone calls (I had just found out from Linda that my bill for May was £250.00!)
There was nothing else for it but to make the most of a wasted paddling day by getting my diary up to date and making a CD of photos to post to Dom for the website. I went for a walk with my laptop to find some nice person who would let me sit and type all day. As luck would have it overlooking the main beach in the village of Rinboy is Atlantic House, a bar and guesthouse and the proprietor made me extremely welcome. I set myself up in the corner of the lounge and hardly moved all day, editing pictures and typing away. I was fed exceptionally well and entertained by the Fanad Accordion Band whose young musicians were undertaking individual examinations. From what I heard they are exceptionally good and I am not the only one to think so as they were All-Irish Champions last year. The ladies who supervise the children (mainly girls play the accordion and boys play the drums) could not resist asking me what I was up to and when I showed them some of the photos I had taken of the west coast they were reminded of just how beautiful there country is. It was great to chat to them and I wished them luck in the coming season of competitions.
I was still working away at 11.00pm but decided it was time for a pint – I broke the mould and went for a Carlsberg! I got chatting to a lobster fisherman called Patrick who invited me back to his place for a night’s sleep in a bed and the promise of a hot shower in the morning. The thought of a shower and even a shave was tempting and he seemed like a decent chap! It was raining heavily by this time and I hadn’t fancied the walk back to the tent in the pitch black. Patrick took me first down to the pier to check on his boat, a Cygnus fishing boat from Penryn in Cornwall! His scruffy little terrier ‘Ratty’ went everywhere with him including out on the boat. As the little fella made himself comfortable on my lap I could smell the lobster in his salt encrusted scrawny coat. Patrick is extremely proud to be an environmentally sensitive fisherman and got upset when I started recounting tales of fisherman breaking off crab’s claws and the like. He had ‘been there and done that’ he told me and come to realise that the only future was in small boats, fishing locally and managing their own resource. Patrick is a deep thinking man with a real artistic flair, demonstrated by the way he has decorated the cottage and garden with driftwood and the large rusty buoys that you can occasionally find washed up on some remote and inaccessible storm beach and presumably come from the big deep sea trawlers. He fishes for lobster in the summer and had spent the last couple of winters building a very impressive extension to the bungalow. His wife works as a lecturer in Belfast and was on holiday in Portugal with a friend. The kids were away with grandparents which left a spare bunk bed for me. But before hitting the sack Patrick introduced me to Poitin – an illicit malt whisky that can be found in the back of most drinks cabinets on the west coast of Ireland. I have to say that whilst it is certainly strong and brings tears to the eyes, it is very tasty and did wonders for my back ache!
After saying we would be up at 6.00am both Patrick and I overslept. When I did roll painfully out of the small bunk bed it took considerable effort to get dressed. Patrick had consumed an extra glass of Poitin which probably explained why he was even slower to wake up. The wind and rain lashed the conservatory double glazing and I knew that unless there was considerable improvement both in my back and in the weather I would be going nowhere. Patrick dropped me back to my tent, eager to see my kayak. It turned out I was camped on his father’s land but it was ‘no bother’. Indeed he knew exactly where I had chosen to come ashore and described how he used to play on the ‘wee headland’ as a kid. The beach below my tent was his favourite as it is the best place for cowrie shells.
Whilst Patrick went off to lay a few pots, I took a walk to the post office, a mile and a half up the road to post the CD of photos to Dom and a load of 35mm films for processing to Linda. I had hoped the walk would help to loosen my back off but unfortunately it only made it worse and I spent the afternoon lying in the tent in a great deal of pain. The weather had improved considerably and although there was a stiff breeze it would have been ideal for a fast blast to Malin Head but I knew I was in no fit state to be on the water. Already the inertia was getting to me but I could do no more than lie on my back and read my book until sun down.
The following day I was still in a mess but by mid morning I figured had laid around long enough – it was time to get going again. I reckoned that if I could get my gear packed and the kayak down to the water’s edge that would warm my back up enough to allow me to paddle. In the past when I have had back trouble, one of the few places it hasn’t hurt is when I have been sat in my kayak. I was in no rush though as it was spring tides and the waves were surging right up to the rock ledge that was protecting the C-Trek from being washed away. I would need to wait for the tide to recede a bit to allow me to launch safely. I read and dozed until 11.00am when I snapped out of my lethargy and got on with packing my gear. I was still in a lot of pain but I had just had enough of lying there feeling sorry for myself. With considerable effort and much swearing I dropped the tent and packed my gear. Rolling around of the turf I tried also sorts of positions to enable me to get by paddling clothes on, my neoprene shoes proving almost impossible. I managed to get myself ready in about an hour and a half, now all I had to do was get the kayak to the fast receding water. I dragged it half off the rock shelf, then by holding onto the cockpit and leaning right back, I managed to rest most of the weight of the kayak on my knees and with a pathetic shuffle, inched my way down the beach. It was excruciating and I should have realised by then that it was a fruitless exercise. But I was in a positive mindset and nothing was going to stop me getting on the water. Crawling around on my knees I managed to pack the kayak and with a half squeal, half grunt I dragged it the last few feet down the shingle into the water. I was sweating with the effort of it all so my back should have been well and truly warmed up. I went to sit in the kayak and only just managed to lift my feet into the cockpit. Right, spray deck next – not easy but I got it on. Now sit upright! Go on, sit up! With a grim realisation I found I could not sit up. As soon as I tried, tensing my abdominal muscles to pull me forwards a stabbing pain shot around the base of my spine and into my buttocks. I sat back again trying to think. There was enough shelter in the bay, if I could just get paddling…
I paddled, if you can call it that around in circles on the flat water inside the reefs, now exposed at low tide. No matter what I did, no matter how much I willed myself to sit up I just could not do it. Malin Head is Ireland’s equivalent to the Pentland Firth with big tide races and overfalls. It is a challenging paddle at the best of times and I knew it was well, well beyond me. I would be a liability as soon as I came out of the shelter of the headland and I did not want to be rescued. I had to admit defeat and resigned myself to at least another day ashore. I could not go back to the same beach – there was no way I would be able to carry the kayak up onto the rocks so I let the waves push me onto the main strand where I crawled out of the boat like a shipwrecked sailor washed up on a desert island. What now? It was low tide and a hundred metres of sand separated me and my kayak from the high water mark. I knew I would have to go through the whole laborious process again of unloading the kayak bit by bit and carrying it up the beach. As for the C-Trek itself I just didn’t know if I would be able to shift it. I shuffled up the beach with a couple of dry bags at a time which is all I could manage; any sudden move sending my back into spasm. That done I then put the trolley wheels on the stern of the kayak, praying that the sand was solid enough that the wheels wouldn’t immediately sink. I then put a rope through the toggle on the bow and over my shoulder which would allow me to lift the front of the kayak without bending my back. It worked and I slowly wheeled the craft up the beach to the soft sand and sea weed at the limit of the morning’s tide. That was it; I could go no further with it. By this time I had worked myself up into a right tiz, thinking too far ahead and beginning to question whether the expedition was over. I knew my back was in a state; I needed help and I was an awful long way from home. I was going to have to ask for help and my pride was hurting. A retired gent was watching me from where he was working on the flat roof of his shed, adjacent to his bungalow overlooking the beach. He waved at me, indicating that I should bring the kayak over to where his land met the beach. The sand was soft and I knew I couldn’t do it on my own. I shuffled over to him and in tears explained what had happened. It turned out to be Patrick’s father and he took pity on the pathetic, blubbering specimen of a man stood dejectedly before him and offered to give me a hand. Patrick had told him about me and he was very understanding. Between us we managed to get the C-Trek onto his land away from the reach of the next spring tide due that weekend. He told me I could leave it there as long as I needed and I knew it was safe. I then fetched the rest of my gear, got changed by once again rolling around on the grass and went up to Atlantic House to see if they had any spare rooms. Thankfully, despite it being the bank holiday weekend there was a vacancy and I knew I would be okay for the night.
I rang Linda to explain the situation and she understood the seriousness of my predicament. I also texted Jim Morrissey and Andrew Dutton to see if they knew of anyone in the area that I might be able to stay with for a few days until my back was better. Jim rang me back and after talking it through with him he suggested that I went to their home in Galway where I could use his chiropractor to get some proper treatment. After all, he reminded me, I still had a long way to go. I knew he was right and had to agree to let him drive the four and a half hours it would take to come and get me. Jim arrived just after 1am and fortunately I had two beds in my room at Atlantic House and no-one seemed to mind that he crashed there too.
We had a very enjoyable drive back to Galway, stopping off at Letterkellen to enable me to get some early treatment from a chiropractor there which Jim, efficient as ever had arranged. Dr. Victoria Mc Kinney, an American from Michigan was excellent. She came in especially on a Saturday to treat me – I think she was curious to meet the mad kayaker paddling around Ireland. She had done some paddling herself and very quickly identified that I had some lateral displacement in my spine. I have a history of back problems and have had an MRI scan in the past which showed that the discs between L1 and L2 in my lower back are degenerated and these are the source of all my problems. Dr. Mc Kinney also found some problems in my upper back and neck and after some fairly scary manipulation and several grunts and groans (on my part!) she at least got me upright if not exactly pain free. I am very much obliged to her for coming in especially to treat me.
Jim and I put the world to rights on the long drive south, arriving mid afternoon at their gorgeous bungalow near Lake Corrib. Jim has more kayaks in and around his place than anyone I know. Single and double sea kayaks, racing skis, white water racers, several K1’s and a couple of play boats. So friends of mine take note – it’s not just me that has a propensity to ‘collect’ kayaks! Sarah’s parents were over from Wales in their very smart VW campervan resplendent with an Open Canadian Canoe on the roof. It was great to see them too and we had a very enjoyable evening.
The month of June was sliding by and it was difficult not to become frustrated. It is amazing how a bulging disc can have such a dramatic, debilitating effect. According to the chiropractor in Galway, what had happened was that over a period of time the disc between my lowest lumbar vertebra (L5) and my sacrum had degenerated to a point where it was trapping the nerves that extend around my pelvis. It was causing a misalignment in the rest of my spine and leaving me powerless, like a rag doll, completely unable to support my own weight. It was a weird, very painful experience. The x-ray of my spine taken at the start of the week was enough to make me weep. I could easily see the pronounced S-bend in my vertebral column when viewed from the rear. At least I knew there was a genuine problem and I was not just being a wimp! I am not completely sold on the chiropractic philosophy of drug free treatment. I am sure that for maintaining a healthy body it is a good idea to see a chiropractor regularly (if you can afford it!) After all the spinal column is literally the nerve-centre of the body and I am convinced that a lot of ailments can be attributed to problems in the back. However for the treatment of a specific injury like mine I am not sure that adjustment alone will do the trick – the ‘chiro’ was getting no movement out of my lower back at all until I started doing the stretches that Tim Edbrooke had suggested having spoken to him at length on the phone. The ‘chiro’ kept reminding me to ice it but that wasn’t possible during the day when I was wandering around Galway City without access to a freezer. So I have to admit to popping a few ibuprofen anti-inflammatory pills to help reduce any swelling. I also purchased a neoprene back support that did wonders for my figure and helped to stabilise my spine whilst I was moving about. I felt sure this multiple approach was the best way to tackle the problem and I just hoped I was right – only time would tell. My back was responding to the barrage of treatment that I had been subjecting it to and Tim believed I could get myself back in the boat without travelling back to the U.K. and that was good enough for me. I had considered flying back to Exeter so that I could get treatment from him but Linda suggested I think hard about how I would feel in the future about breaking the journey in this way. It felt slightly against the ethos of the expedition to be running home at the first sign of trouble. Thankfully Jim and Sarah seemed okay with me staying for a few more days at their place so the plan was to remain in Galway until the middle of the following week when I hoped to be fit enough to travel back up to Donegal and recommence the adventure, albeit at a rather slower pace for a while. I figured if I could paddle a bit, stretch a bit and rest a lot then at least I would be travelling in the right direction whilst getting back to full strength.
What I did have to do was learn from my mistakes and listen to my body more closely. The warning signs were there all the time – for a few days before my back went completely I had been rubbing sores on my left hip, a sure sign that I had become tilted in the boat. Liz Cowell, when she saw me at Ravenglass suggested I did some daily stretching and I wished I had taken on board her advice. I also knew I would have to look at the way I carried the kayak as I was sure that it was one of the main causes of my injury. A trolley is all very well when the surface is hard sand or concrete but does not work over rocks or pebbles. I had been partially unloading the kayak before carrying it on my right shoulder up to a place of safety. It was not easy and it does not take a genius to work out that doing that first thing in the morning when your body is not warmed up or at the end of a long day is not good. I hoped the neoprene back support would help considerably.
By the end of the week I was able to paddle gently on Jim’s paddling ergo, a machine similar to a rowing ergometer but designed specifically for kayaking and by the start of the following week I was able to go for a gentle paddle in a racing K1. I knew I would never be able to repay Jim and Sarah for their kindness in allowing me to stay in the comfort of their beautiful home. They had kept my expedition dream alive by their hospitality and generosity.
Saying ‘Goodbye’ to Jim he told me to forget my English reserve and gave me a big bear hug! He was off to Crestuma in Portugal to represent Ireland in another World Cup Kayak Marathon race. The previous night he showed me what a gifted musician he is. He has a room full of musical instruments including a full drum kit, several guitars and a keyboard. He can play them too – so much talent in one man it’s just not fair! Sarah, like most women with gifted partners does a good job of keeping his feet on the ground and together they make a great couple. I would miss them both tremendously, and Buster the Cat too!
After a ten hour bus journey, I finally arrived back at Rinboy, where I had left the kayak in the custody of Patrick’s father. Patrick was also there to meet me off the bus and help me get the kayak onto the beach. I had a bit of sorting to do before I was able to launch, but despite the late hour I was determined to get on the water that evening, not just as a gesture of defiance but because conditions were perfect. The north westerly had dropped away to nothing and the sea was settling all the time. After saying ‘Thank you’ to Patrick and his father who both gave me a push to send me on my way I was afloat by 8.30pm and testing out my new and improved body with the occasional hard pull on my paddle. Everything seemed fine so I settled into a familiar rhythm just as if nothing had happened. I was content. Right now this was where I wanted to be. There is nothing quite like the motion of the ocean and the ‘swish swish’ of paddle strokes and a storm petrel fluttered by, welcoming me ‘home’.