Chapter 8 – Northern Ireland
“I miss my bed, fresh food and clean clothes. But I will miss being on the water more.”
I was soon passing Fanad lighthouse at the entrance to Lough Swilly, the mountains of Inishowen silhouetted against a dark, rather forbidding sky. Jellyfish, both large and small, drifted ghostlike beneath me. There was something different, something special about that evening’s paddle. That was it – the silence. Devoid of even the slightest puff of wind everything was still. After the noise and hubbub of GalwayCity and the long bus journey north I had found peace and solitude and it was lovely.
It was an easy three mile crossing of Lough Swilly to Danuff Head on the Inishowen peninsula, a mountainous torso with sea loughs for arms and Malin Head jutting boldly out into the North Atlantic. Malin Head would be the first major obstacle and I just hoped conditions remained as they were. I had paddled for two hours, light was failing fast and it was time to go ashore. I found a small slipway in need of repair but good enough to allow me to wheel the fully laden kayak up past the high water mark. Darkness fell as I slotted into the nightly routine of erecting the tent and getting ready for bed. I had been fattening myself up nicely during my enforced rest so I was happy to make do with a couple of WholebakeNRG bars for supper and a couple more for breakfast. I had a text fest to let everyone know I was underway again and received one from Fiona Whitehead who had made good progress and had crossed Lough Swilly with her paddling partner Tom just a short time before me. We arranged to meet up for lunch the next day.
The wind did pick up a little in the night accompanied by some light rain and the 0535 hrs shipping forecast promised the wind would strengthen during the day. I was eager to get going; I had a feeling that even though my tidal atlas suggested I had several hours of favourable tide to carry me past Malin Head there could well be an eddy on the east side of the headland that would strengthen as time went on. As I packed my tent I spotted two orange blobs about three hundred metres east of my location. They looked like tents and I guessed it must be Fiona and Tom. I paddled over and sure enough their kayaks nestled together on the beach. It was a bit early but I decided to give them a wake up call anyway and could not resist the temptation to put on my best Irish farmer’s accent and shouted,
“You can’t camp here, now get off my land!”
Tom didn’t stir in his tent but Fiona unzipped her fly sheet and stuck her head out. Despite my rude wake-up call Fiona was gracious enough to see the funny side after a quick chat we agreed to meet up later in the day in Portrush.
A steady south westerly pushed me across to Malin Head, a headland that I had thought for a time I would never get to paddle past. There was enough of a lump in the sea for it to not be a disappointment; it is after all the most northerly point of the Irish mainland. The tide had indeed already turned westwards and I was glad I had made the early start. A series of reefs strung out towards Inishtrahull, a small island five miles northeast of Malin Head with a tall modern lighthouse helping to make one of Ireland’s most notorious stretches of water that little bit safer. I read somewhere that the rock that makes up Inishtrahull is unlike that of the Irish mainland and bears more similarities with that of Greenland, a thousand miles to the north. Indeed the under-sea valley between Malin Head and Inishtrahull can be traced through and linked up to the Great Glen in the Scottish Highlands. The island has been uninhabited since the 1960’s when the lighthouse was automated. I would have liked to have visited anyway but I was a week behind schedule now and needed to adhere strictly to my game plan of including only those islands that were currently inhabited in my circumnavigation.
Patrick had told me of a beautiful beach on the east side of the Inishowen peninsula. Culdaff Bay is one of Donegal’s gems and was bathed in sunshine whilst I did some stretching and ate a quick lunch. I knew I would have to keep moving if I was to make Portrush before the weather closed in and hugged the coast southeastwards, still fighting the tide. I did wonder how Fiona and Tom would be getting on around Malin Head as the tide seemed to have accelerated considerably. As I approached Inishowen Head I took a chance, cutting through a gully between two rocks with almost catastrophic results. Stupidly I had neglected to look over my shoulder to see the size of the next swell as I entered the gully and the water sucked away from beneath me, exposing a rock bang in the middle of the gully with what amounted to a sump either side. As the wave built behind and surfed me forwards, my bow was sucked down into the sump, and I felt the stern of the C-Trek rise alarmingly. I was close to forward looping an eighteen foot, fully laden sea kayak which would not have been pretty! Bracing tightly on the sides of my cockpit with my thighs I twisted the kayak, trying to spill water off the deck as the water rushed around my chest. The sea released its grip and the buoyancy in the boat forced the bow up, slamming the stern into the barnacle encrusted rocks to my left. I winced at the sound of fibre glass against crustacean and I winced again as the left blade of my beloved Lettmann paddle scraped rock too. I shot through the gap and landed in an untidy heap on the other side nervously looking to assess the damage to the C-Trek. The only thing visible was one of the aluminium stops on my rudder stock had been bent. I had got away with it – just! Cursing my stupidity I took a more cautious line through the rest of the reef system.
From Inishowen Head I felt the full strength of the south westerly as it rushed out of Lough Foyle, kicking up a chop liberally splashed with white water. I headed towards Castlerock until the angle of dangle was such that I could catch a few runners past the busy town of Portstewart and on towards Portrush. I passed several fishing boats with salmon nets strung out optimistically. The draft of my kayak is far to shallow to make crossing these nets a problem but as I passed one set the attendant fishing boat came motoring after me. I thought the skipper was about to give me a telling off but the skipper and his crew were just curious to have a look at my kayak and wanted a chat. They remarked on my speed – I told them it would be a different story if I’d been heading the other way into the wind. They wished me luck and returned to their nets. During the last hour conditions deteriorated considerably with squalls of wind and rain bearing down on me from the west. I was pleased to enter the sheltered harbour at Portrush and even more delighted when Anthony, the mechanic of the Portrush lifeboat arrived and without hesitation offered to let me stay in the boathouse. I gratefully accepted as Portrush did not look the sort of place that welcomes people camping on the seafront. I had a supply box waiting for me too and it would be a lot easier sorting and packing it in the dry. I had a very pleasant evening troughing a monster chicken kebab and chips (sorry Sarah – all your healthy food advice was in vain!) and watched the highlights of the day’s football in Euro 2004 on the telly whilst planning the next paddle leg.
There was no sign of Tom and Fiona, I guessed the weather had caught up with them before they could make the crossing to Portrush and I hoped they had found some good shelter because the forecast for the next day was not pretty.
Indeed it turned out to be another day of enforced rest, this time caused by the weather but it gave me a chance to modify the seat in my C-Trek to give me a bit more back support. I also did some filming for the local TV Channel. The rest did me good and I worked on my stretching pleased with the improved strength and flexibility in my back. All the signs were that the bulge in the disc had pushed back in and as long as I was careful and worked on my core strength, there was no reason to worry. I knew that the following day was going to be a decisive one in the context of the Challenge. I needed to at least stay in touch with my schedule to have a hope of completing the first circumnavigation of the UK and Ireland and all its inhabited islands. Of course there was always the option of just doing the mainland but I was determined to stick to ‘plan A’ if at all possible. But I badly needed to get across the North Channel to Scotland and make progress north and weather conditions were far from ideal.
I was so preoccupied with working out tides and route options that I completely forgot that I was supposed to have been speaking to Radio Cornwall live first thing in the morning – sorry folks! I said my goodbyes to Anthony and James at the lifeboat station. James gave me a miniature bottle of Black Bush Irish whisky to celebrate with when I had made the crossing to Scotland. He told me it was the best whisky in the world, and I thought that maybe the inhabitants of the next country on my itinerary would have something to say about that? Anthony could not have been more helpful; I loved listening to his stories and I can only thank him for making me feel so welcome.
I headed out into a choppy sea and a moderate north westerly breeze. For some reason I was not focussed, distracted perhaps by spending too long on land. I was becoming too accustomed to creature comforts; sit down loos and chicken kebabs. As soon as I emerged from the harbour I was straight into a small tide race that ran down the west side of Ramore Head and out to sea. As I turned right to head down the coast I got caught by a breaking wave that very, very nearly had me over. I had to throw in a big slap support on my right hand side to keep me upright. To have capsized at that point would have been interesting – was I awake enough to perform an Eskimo roll and right the kayak first time? I was just metres from the rocks and if I had failed to roll and been forced to bail out it could have been disastrous. It shook me up a little to be honest with you and I began muttering to myself, telling myself to get a grip and concentrate. Fortunately I had a short break to gather my thoughts as I passed inside of the Skerries and then I was back into the chop again, encouraged to see how quickly the tide was carrying me towards Benbane Head and Giant’s Causeway. I had rather expected Giant’s Causeway to be a bit of a disappointment, such touristy things often are but whilst the basalt columns are perhaps not as large as the postcard photographs might suggest, the cliffs that surround the Causeway are well worth seeing. Like a huge cathedral organ, the hexagonal columns of rock stripped bare by the forces of erosion are softened in places by a thin covering of soil and grass, which shone a vivid emerald green in the bright sunshine and contrasted with the deep blue sky and virgin white clouds that formed from the updraft as the wind was deflected by the towering ramparts. The cliffs extended for a couple of miles and as always the most spectacular view was to be had from a kayak.
East of Benbane Head the waves increased in size and steepened alarmingly, forcing me to brace on the faces of several six to eight footers as they toppled over themselves in the confusion of backwash and tidal swirls. I needed a break and headed into White Park Bay, a fine stretch of golden sand just prior to Sheep Head and the small village of Ballintoy. Last night’s chicken kebab had got the better of me and it was just my luck that a young couple were walking up the otherwise deserted beach towards my chosen landing site. As I glided in through small surf onto what appeared to be soft sand I suddenly saw some large white quartzite pebbles hidden beneath the foaming surge. With a crunch the hull of the C-Trek landed on a pebble and I flinched; a sick feeling in my stomach, certain I had holed the kayak. Jumping out of the cockpit as quickly as I could and dragging the boat beyond the clutches of the next breaker I tipped the kayak on its side and inspected the damage. Again, the tough Kevlar laminate had saved the day and I had got away with just a few cracks in the gel coat. I disappeared quickly into the dunes and when I emerged clutching my bag of toilet tissue the young couple were polite enough to appear not to notice. They asked me about my trip and expressed a desire to take a year out themselves. Of course I encouraged them to pursue their dream.
The wind seemed to have eased a little and I was contemplating pulling a rabbit out of the hat. The Mull of Oa, the most southerly tip of Islay was clearly visible to the north. I fancied giving the 30mile crossing a go. If I succeeded it would save me a day and help me get back on schedule. I quickly double checked the tides and rang the Coastguard advising them of my change of plans. I had only intended to go as far as RathlinIsland thinking the conditions would prevent me from attempting a crossing that day. I advised them I would head out and assess it again once offshore.
Before launching I dragged the kayak sideways through the surf to a piece of beach clear of pebbles and protected by a small reef. As I did so waves swamped the cockpit and filled it with water. I was unable to lift the kayak to empty it so clambered in anyway and sealed my spray deck. The couple who were watching from the beach must have wondered how I had got this far if I made such a performance each time I got on the water. The kayak was heavy and unresponsive as I waited for a lull in the surf before heading out. The beauty of a foot pump is that you can empty the boat as you paddle and ‘pumping for Britain’ I soon emptied the boat but it still took an age to put me east of Bull Point on RathlinIsland. My boat speed was reduced to a head-banging crawl by the wind which had more north in it than west. Indecision can be fatal in potentially dangerous waters like these but I changed my mind again, realising that Islay was beyond my reach in the circumstances. I turned eastwards again and ferry glided across the race already forming to the north east of Bull Point by the tide which had turned and started pouring out of the North Channel, emptying the Irish Sea. Spring tides meant that flows would be at their maximum and up to six knots in places. Since my top speed was about the same it was a sobering thought that I could be paddling flat out and getting nowhere. I tucked into the north shore of Rathlin Island, passing beneath the ‘upside down lighthouse’ of Rathlin West. Perched precipitously on the cliff edge 62 metres above sea level, the accommodation has been built on top of the light to keep the light as low as possible and prevent it from being obscured by low cloud. The overwhelming stench of guano almost made me wretch as I paddled close to the cliffs which were packed with nesting seabirds. I tried to find a balance between causing minimal disturbance whilst at the same time trying to stay out of the opposing tide stream. The sky was filled with small fat black and white bodies, wings a blur, as they raced out to sea only to return almost immediately. I tried to dodge the fishy pooh as it splattered all around me. I passed a solitary bull Atlantic Grey seal, lying disconsolately on a rock, a deep gaping wound on his neck, no doubt the result of a lost battle with a dominant male from a nearby colony.
So I was faced with the question – should I stay on Rathlin or attempt the crossing to the Mull of Kintyre and the Scottish mainland? Decisions, decisions! The Mull was so tantalizingly close, just sixteen miles away, although I would have to paddle twenty to find suitable shelter at MachrihanishBay. The critical thing was that I would be paddling east and therefore not directly into the wind which was a steady F4 gusting 5 from the north north west. The tide was flowing hard in the opposite direction: wind against tide conditions should normally be avoided but there was little swell and the biggest waves I could see breaking in the Channel I estimated to be around five foot. If I could cross the relatively smooth water on the lead in to the Mcdonnell Race that had formed north east of Altacarry Head I could use the wind to my advantage to push me across the Channel towards the Scottish mainland. It was undeniably a high risk strategy; should I be unable to make headway against the tide I risked being swept into the race and then being unable to regain the shelter afforded by Rathlin Island.
I decided to give it a go – I would head out into the flow and see if I could paddle against it. I popped a couple of boiled sweets in my mouth to give me the burst of energy I would need to traverse the race. I could tell I was anxious because instead of sucking them slowly I crunched them in seconds. I dived out into the flow, glancing nervously back towards the Rathlin East lighthouse, trying to see if I was losing ground. It seemed to be okay so I edged the C-Trek angling the bow to cut across the current and worked the rudder with my feet to ride across the waves. I love this committed style of paddling. It makes me feel alive. To know I am pushing the limits, my own and perhaps what is recognised as ‘safe’ within the sport with no margin for error. Irresponsible – maybe. Exciting – definitely! The trick is to recognise and understand what could go wrong; what you will have to do to put it right; what is possible and what is just plain suicidal.
After an hour the excitement had worn off, I had cleared the race and was making slow progress towards my goal. The view was spectacular; the Mull of Kintyre dominant to the west; to the south the North Channel, gateway to the Irish Sea; behind me the hard angular coastline of Antrim; and to the north the mysterious and elusive mountains of Islay. I had been unable to raise the Coastguard to advise them of yet another change of plan but two thirds of the way over a Royal Navy destroyer ‘D95’ crossed my path. I called her up using my trusty Silva S12 handheld VHF radio and got a reply. I asked the radio operator to pass my location to Belfast Coastguard and advise them of my new destination, Machrihanish on the Kintyre coast with an ETA of 2000hrs. As professional and polite as you would expect from the navy, he repeated my message to him and wished me a ‘safe voyage’. I don’t know why but it gave me a buzz to think I was speaking to a Royal Navy ship in mid Channel.
The last third seemed to take forever and as I approached the Kintyre shore I had to duck close inshore to avoid the tide which had turned again and was threatening to drag me south, down towards the Mull. I worked the eddies and finally, after eleven and three quarter hours afloat, pulled into MachrihanishBay, completely exhausted. So much for taking it easy for a while! My back was tired but otherwise fine. My newly modified seat and backrest had done its job. Quickly and efficiently I unpacked and dragged the boat over the short stretch of soft sand to put it above the high water mark, erecting the tent on a grassy knoll, relying on the breeze to keep the midges at bay. As I cooked dinner I was entertained by a spectacular Hebridean sunset, hopefully the first of many in my journey north.