Friday, September 21, 2007

Hang On, This Looks Familiar....

Now that i've actually finished paddling around Ireland, it's time for revisionism and tall tales, Oh, didn't i mention it before... i do seem to have muddled my way the thousand or so nautical miles around the Irish coastline. Somewhat against all the odds, i'd say. Certainly the slowest circumnavigation on record.

Though, actually, records for circling our great nation by kayak are a bit patchy. I've been trying to get a rough number of those who have gone around - but it's guess work at the moment. Relatively few, so few indeed, that i've met a fair few of the circumnavigators either during my own trip or at other odd times, or at least heard from or about various others. I met up with Sam, and was in touch with Marcus, the two Americans who went around separately this year. I've read Chris Duff's book: he is also American and went round quite a while ago (indeed i could tell you exactly when if i'd only raise myself from my chair and nip upstairs to have a look at the book...which i haven't). The three Dungarvanites flew round earlier this year and i followed progress on their blog. And Mick O'Meara, also from that neck of the woods went round with two others a few years back. Last year i also met the Japanese guy who paddled around not many summers before; his feat probably is something of a stand out as he wasn't a great English speaker, was navigating off a road Atlas (allegedly) and generally found Ireland fairly exotic and confusing as any of us might find Japan if we decided to - hang on, there's an idea for the next trip...! Then in Howth i met Sean and Eileen, both of whom have been around in the past. And there are numbers more.

But those numbers, added up, probably only come in at some where around twenty i've been told by people who might well know far better than me. By contrast some 448 people have been into space, and close on 1,400 have stood on top of Everest. In the case of every space voyager, and in the case of nearly all those who have trod Everest's summit, there were huge back up teams and massive logistics - but everyone who's gone round Ireland has merely pushed off at some point around the circle paddled themselves forwards for a month or two or - ahem - three and then climbed out of their little craft back at the point from whence they started. We could fit the whole reunion party of round-Ireland-paddlers into Dick Mack's in Dingle and still have room for the musicians and any passers-by; which now i think about it seems a pretty good idea.


So, anyway, i slipped back onto the beach at Reen in Castlehaven on 13 September having left on 9th June. No fanfare, no press, and indeed nobody to meet me which seemed fitting, and was - as it turned out - my preferred closing of the circle. I pulled all the gear out, and bundled it into bags, hoisted the kayak up onto Jim's kayak rack, made a phone call, then called up a taxi and headed into Skibbereen for a late breakfast and the paper. It's taken the intervening week to get round to finally updating the blog and bringing it to an end.

So as detailed in update, when last auto-written about, on the 3rd of September, i was leaving Dublin for Howth ready and keen to paddle south. Or fairly keen. Two nights of big city life, some wine-bar action to celebrate something or other, and the ten days of paddling down from Malin had all conspired to take a little of the vim and vinegar out of my movements. So,naturally i got a little delayed on route, what with dropping into Rathmines for a full Irish breakfast, and then spending several hours in an internet cafe writing up the trip from Malin to Dublin, and then ambling out - kit bag on shoulder - to Howth on the DART and having another cup of coffee and, then, having to pack everything into the kayak before launching.

With my usual luck this delay was all to the good. It may have been by accident but it meant that i finally pushed off from the Howth Yacht Club (to whom a big thank you for looking after the kayak over the weekend) in the late afternoon, yes, but just as the tidal stream turned south, and as the sun went all summery. I paddled out from the harbour, out past Ireland's Eye and turned south with the current and slid nicely down the east side of Howth Head, meeting Dave Farrell and Declan McGabhan who were kayaking up against me. As an observation, i met more paddlers within five miles of Dublin Bay by a factor of five than in the whole rest of the trip. Three women paddling from Rush to Portrane when i came down from Skerries, the aforementioned Round Irelander's, Sean and Eileen taking out their group just as i arrived in Howth, and now Dave and Declan. And there were to be more.

It was getting on for dusk though still with good visibility and i did do some thinking about the wisdom of setting off across Dublin bay which is the landing zone for ships heading into Dublin Port and boasts a confusing array of ferries, some of which go rather jauntily, especially the Sea Cat or whatever it's called. So, i could have gone right into Dublin Bay and then turned and scuttled across the navigation channel at its narrowest before making my way back out of the bay. In other words doing three sides of a square rather than just the one. Reader, of course i went for the one. I appeased myself with the faultless logic that if a bundle of large boats really wanted to - were actually trying - to run down a flighty little fella in a tiny kayak in tens of square miles of water what chance would they have? As much as an elephant trying to stamp out the life of a grasshopper in an expanse of veldt? The chance of a single piece of plankton being sucked into the gaping maw of a basking shark?

What, even, i further reassured myself was the chance that any boats would be coming in at just the time i was heading across the bay, anyway. None; zero; zilch, nada. Surely. So i plied the paddle and paddled onwards and lovely it was: the scribble of Dublin with the two spikes of its tall chimneys at Money Point was bathed in gold and looked particularly Monet-isd in his Waterloo Bridge and sunsets period. The sea was calm with the odd porpoise actually leaping, so pleasing was the evening. There were rafts of young gulls, and terns and adolescent guillemots and razor bills. And all was well with the world. Bar a troubling little dot on the Welsh side of the horizon. Which might have been a buoy that i hadn't previously noticed. Though if so, was a buoy that five minutes later had doubled in size; still a tiny dot on the far reaches of the sea's limit but not half so small as it had seemed only such a...hang on, now it's four times the size....and bigger again and whiteish...and looking more ship-like though obviously so far away that i'm going to be long across the shipping lane before it....doubles in size in half the time...i think it may be growing exponetentionally, (if i actually knew what that meant, or, indeed could spell it). It's now looking like a very distant tower block that has fallen on its side and is sliding across the ocean at a fair old rate. Now it's very definitely the Sea Cat thingy. The fast one. The big fast one. Though obviously there's no panic - given my earlier logic. In fact all i have to do is wait until i can see the whites of its sides, or more particularly one side or the other and then if it's the left/port side then i'll just speed up south a bit putting more distance between me and it. And if it's the right/starboard side then i'll just back up for a while and let it pass nicely distant before heading on. Except the bugger doesn't seem to have any sides, but rather is all bow. It's like that 'your country needs you' chap with the piercing eyes and pointy finger that follow you around the room wherever you are. I can see the wake creaming off the arse of the ship (funny how nautical terms rather drop from ones vocabulary when under pressure) and the bow wave building under its speeding bulk. Well, naturally, in the end it passes several hundred metres to the stern of me and i was fine. In fact i'd just kept paddling keeping in mind that elephant and grasshopper analogy.

But it was getting darkish at that point and my plan to try and get round Bray Head seemed a little pushy. Especially as Sam had talked so highly of Dalkey Island as a camp spot. And he was right. I pulled in amongst a mob of singing seals on a handy slip below the Martello tower (disturbing two more kayakers who had been drifting along listening to the song of the selkies). I had the tent up by dark, and the Kelly Kettle bubbling away and a meal rustled up even as the lights of the posh area of Killiney lit up amongst its villas and big gardens and waterfront mansions and architectural one-offs, which in the last of the sunset and a dark blue cloudless, star sharded night gave an air of Italianate grandeur to my view. The Kelly Kettle, by the way, has become my sole kitchen - there always seems to be enough drift twigs to light it up and i have made a little grid to take my saucepan, so the petrol stove has become so much dead weight, like much else which i don't use but keep carrying because it seems a bit daft to dump good stuff when i might as well as carry it to the end. In fact only at the end of the trip when i was sorting out gear i found that the petrol stove wasn't actually working any more having committed auto-ethenusia in a petulant huff at my neglect, my infidelity and my taking up with the Kelly tart.

And at this point of the trip, setting off on the last leg, i am thinking of the end. Though having to play complex psychological games with myself to cover all eventualities. The poor weather up on the Antrim coast and around Dundalk have reminded me that autumn and the equinoctial gales are due at any point and i could get storm bound for days with little warning. Yet the weather feels like an Indian summer so i'm also trying to get as much mileage in as i can in case it breaks, whilst not going crazy and knackering myself, and trying, too, not to rush so much that i don't even see the east coast as it flashes past. I somewhat fail in the last endeavour; two and a half months from Mizen Head to Malin and as it turns out (rather spoiling the will he won't he beat the weather suspense) i got back from Malin to Reen which is only a day's paddle from Mizen in two and a half weeks. Thus i either had four times worse weather at the start, was four times fitter at the end, came across four times as few distractions on the homeward leg, or merely smartened up a bit and stopped hanging out in bars quite so much. The down side was that i have four times fewer pictures from the last half of the journey, and possibly only a quarter of the stories to weave into travellers' tales. But when has that ever handicapped a doughty scribbler of 'what i did in my hols' schlokky anecdote?

I'm up at dawn the next morning, packing the dew soaked tent, getting into clammy cold wet suit, launching the kayak amongst the seals and heading of towards Bray Head and beyond to Wicklow. There's a bracing autumnal chill to the early morning, but also a cloudless sky and there's a happy making sunrise and the jolly sight of the little green train that - still pretending that we're in Italy or similar - winds its way along the coast and then through a series of tunnels around the head and paces me down the coast.

People had warned me that i would find long stretches of the east coast deathly dull as it's all flat strand and dunes and beach with little of 'interest.' Perhaps because my expectations were thus lowered, and given the sunshine and the bright colours and the good weather and a general feeling of well being i was actually charmed by the landscape. A few rare figures walked the miles and miles of embankment between the railway line running to Wicklow town and the sands; i rather felt that i was strolling with them, though initially at more of a brisk pace than the average biped. This changed though with the tide and even more so as the braking effect of a rather annoying wind sprung up from the south and thus onto my bow. My pace slowed to that of even the most obese and least sprightly of the distant strollers. And then less even than that. A granny with a Zimmer frame pushing a pram could have outpaced me. And i rather think did. The waves kicked up a bit as well and finally i realised that lunch in Wicklow town was going to be too hard fought for and instead i pulled up on the beach - a wet affair through light but still breaking surf.

What was almost certainly a hen harrier(the other possibilities being a common or rough legged buzzard or a black kite, none very likely at all, though equally oddities are becoming more common in Ireland with both an osprey and a sea eagle having been spotted last year around west Cork, and the former spending most of the summer on one estuary) floated by over the marshes inland. Then with the kayak between me and the wind i lay down and fell asleep like some endangered sea mammal, my slippery skin of rubber drying pleasantly in the sun.. A few hours of that and it was time to light the Kelly and have a sup of packet soup and a cracker or two with some tuna, peanut butter and honey. Having sat out the strongest part of the contrary current i remounted, splashed out through the surf and paddled on. I skipped Wicklow and instead rounded the lighthouse on Wicklow Head and began picking up a good southerly tide down to Brittas Bay.

The biggest problem with autumnal paddling is longer nights and shorter days. By eight i needed to start looking for a place to pull in and camp. It was that point where it wasn't quite late enough to make me choose the first reasonable or even possible haul out and so i ambled on looking at beaches and headlands and strands and finding none of them quite to my liking. This especially as i hate camping on or landing on or being on sand with a passion - you get soaked coming in through the surf - or worse - all your kit gets covered in sand - inside of wet suit, coffee mug, sleeping bag etc - and you can't get the tent pegs to hold. And nearly every 'obvious' camping place was a sandy beach. Until when it was nearly dark i found a crazily steep rescue boat slip ascending onto a steep headland with - strangely a backing of manicured lawns and possibly occupied holiday houses of a most superior stamp. I found a golf-bunker size of non-sandy, thickly matted grass above a cliff and hauled all my stuff up to my airy perch. I did note a slight but piercing smell of raw sewage but ate and slept undisturbed; it was only as i was packing the next morning - again everything dew soaked, but better than wet sand, still - at dawn and brewing up a quick coffee and generally trying to catch the tide whilst it was in my favour that i saw that a low-tech solution to posh house sewage disposal took the form of a cracked pipe running down from under the lawns and spilling out from the end of the cliff a few feet from my camp spot. And i'm sure that there's some kind of political or social metaphor in that for those who care to search for it. I don't.

The real problem with the shorter days/longer night thingy is that if the six hour cycle of favourable southerly currents is early morning and late in evening as they currently were (5th Sept) i can only get a few hours of each of them and have to break travel in the middle of the day, or have to prepare myself to paddle against the current for hours to get in mileage. Frustrating. And leads to tough decisions as provided by Arklow. By starting from Brittas at dawn i had a theoretical five hours of positive water travel to ride, and in only a light wind and without rain; but then i found myself at Arklow after two hours. Bummer! Did i continue paddling taking full advantage of the favourable stuff. Or head into the Avoca estuary for breakfast, a paper and little pleasures. Go on...take a guess.

The Avoca had a powerful current running out between the harbour arms which make a narrow corridor parked up with big fishing boats, and it was a half mile or so to get up to the town and the marina which is in a little cut and basin to the right. There was another cut and basin boatyard to the left on the way in which is apparently where the Asgard, Ireland's sail training figurehead boat, and Francis Chichester's Gypsy Moth II were both built. Whilst Arklow is also know for its own vernacular traditional boat, the Nobby. In the leisure marina i fell - so as to speak - on my feet. Lorcan the marina manager not only allowed me to tie-up in berth three on the pontoon (this is a luxury as requires the minimum of effort and means i can leave everything safely on board) but also offered the run of the fantastic shower block and a quick guide to where i could get a paper, breakfast and an internet blast. Shaved, spruced, dry-clothed and away from the kayak one could almost have mistaken me for a normal person. Ruefully i realised that there wasn't a chance of me getting back on the water whilst the current was still in my favour so decided to make the best of it all and lounge and enjoy and linger and procrastinate and enjoy every minute of my lost current.

I walked up the river bank - a number of pleasing wooden boats at mooring - bought two papers (well, as you ask, the Irish Times and the Guardian), and settled in for the full Irish and a number of coffees. I leisurely checked my emails and the weather forecast at the internet cafe next door and finally got back to the Marina. I changed back into my malodorous, damp paddling kit (and noticed the one draw-back to Arklow as a stop-off point, and one well know amongst the boating fraternity, seemingly; the river is full of raw sewage - very raw - and i tip-paddled my way back out to the open seas) and fuelled by bacon, eggs and caffeine set my back against the current and the head wind and paddled happily onwards.

There was more beach and the odd house and a pleasing view or two and then dead calm seas and sun - i think, as this day is a bit of a blank, seemingly without photos, diary entry or any other markers. I did seem to have knocked off about 25 miles or so; perhaps i was listening to the radio, my time-passing vice which is allowing me a huge insight into the Bertie-gate tribunal, and the Irish farming spokesperson who every time another English case of foot and mouth engendered by the ineptly run Surrey lab is reported goes off on his rant about Brazilian beef imports, and the various murders dotted around the country. Oh and to track the boom and bust retoric about house prices in Ireland and beyond. And hear talk of recession. And listen to more Iraq-balls. And paddle in time to 60s rock and jigs and reels and drive time pop. The radio is a little bit of a vice; but it does pass the seven, eight, and nine hour days spent on the water involved in a somewhat repetitive task pleasantly enough.

Can't actually recall where i camped that night; generically there would have been the duskish searching of the shore, then the landing, and the stiff climbing out of the kayak, and noting the chill evening wind and some muttering about autumn, and then the pschying myself up to make the six trips up and down between water and camp spot needed to carry up all the kit and the kayak...this often accompanied by me talking to myself, the bags, the kayak and the weather, in a loud voice or - um, actually, quite often - voices, plural, rather worryingly. And then in the unlikely case there was anyone around to listen to me talking to my many selves, there was a further treat as i stripped off my paddling clothes, allowing the wind to dry me, before pulling on my dry (and mostly they were) clothes, setting up the tent, beach combing for drift twigs, firing up the Kelly, looking at the charts for the next day's paddle and writing any relevant details from books or chart into my notebooks, calculating tides and currents, slurping down some soup whilst whatever inventive slop i was stewing up stewed, eating whilst listening to the radio, drinking tea, climbing into my sleeping bag, ambitiously arranging my books to read (Moby Dick still unfinished, a book of Celtic poetry good for dipping into, and a pick from the second hand section of a charity shop, the Ned Kelly novel-biog by Peter Carey to hand on this part of the trip). Actually i never read more than a few lines before turning off my head torch and falling asleep, though i usually woke at just short of midnight and again an hour later to hear the two shipping forecasts on RTE and the BBC.

6th Sept: a glorious morning turned into a day of Mediterranean intensity. The sky was azure, the sands golden and a line of dark trees backing the shore looked like those pines that ran along the Riviera a few decades back. I paddled happily, as with the passing days the favourable currents are running later into each morning and so by being on the water by seven or so i'm getting the full five and six hours in my favour. As long as i don't stop for breakfast in some passing village; but there are few enough temptations on this stretch of coast, so undistractedly I come up to Wexford Bay which apparently has some strong currents - but then don't they all, and though i haven't got totally blase about currents and streams i have come to realise that i've been caught unawares more often in places that weren't obvious potential trouble spots than i have been in these flagged up places. And indeed there is a strong current heading out, but it's slightly in my favour, as indeed is the large ship that charges up the channel usefully showing me which bits of the confusing landscape of mid bay sand banks and distant spits and so forth are which. Some very large seals lie on the yellow sands far out in the bay.

I'd made good time with the tide but it was both burningly hot and i was wearied after the past three long days and so i ducked out. I closed on the spit that is Rosslare Point, saw a gorgeous, sun washed beach on the point, pulled in for a bit of a rest and almost unnoticed the afternoon had flowed away and it seemed as good idea as any to make camp. Even if it was on sand. Ah, but what sand; warm and sun-gilded and low lying so that in the morning all i had to do was drag the kayak a few yards to have it in the water on the top of the tide ready for me to be sucked round Carnsore point and well on my way. Though there was a mild drama that night when i saw a succession of flares going up further along the point. My first thought was that they were fireworks or something similarly fun based. But then my conscience niggled at me and i thought how i'd rather hope that if i'd blasted all my flares into the air and someone had seen even one of them that they might just do something. And besides it's always fun to call 999. Which i did, getting the centralised switchboard who asked me what i was on about, and then put me onto the coastguards in Dublin who told me that the Rosslare coastguard were training further along the beach. I think that morally that might have scored me a half point for future play.

I could see long lines of trawler-dredgers going round and round two buoys the next morning scuffing up some shellfish species or other, and the two bulks of ferries departing the ferry terminal; one to France, i guessed, and the other to Wales, i knew. I mused over how only a few months before (as noted in the very early pages of this blog) i'd come in on the same Fishguard ferry, looking out of the window and noting the size of the waves and wondering what it would be like to be paddling through them. And, lo, here i was doing just that.

The ferries having cleared it seemed a prudent time to dash across and soon i was down on Carnsore Point with another great field of windmills (i know nothing of these - there were seven on a bank off Arklow, and another huge amount near Cahore point - near where i spent the night i couldn't remember, but which i can now - a delightful shingle beach under a low cliff with a Mediterannean sunset and little fishing boats and ample driftwood for a fire and one of the happiest nights of the trip; isn't memory a funny thing; i could reel off every minute of some of the unhappiest nights of the voyage, but this, the jolly, warm joy filled one....?)

The beaches beyond here are another memory teaser; as a five and six year old roughly around the time that the Beatles released Rubber Soul, Revolver and Seargeant Peppers, i spent family holidays near here at Tomhaggard, and one of these long stretches of sand must have been where i enthusiastically dug sand into heaps, and ran in and out of the water and crunched my way through biscuits with sand dusting. But which one?

I got to Kilmore Quay, a busy fishing port, with a stiff €10 launch fee for all craft from the slip, and a marina which i tied up to instead with full permission. (I'm a complete hypocrite about marinas - against them in every way until i paddle into port and find i can just moor rather than having to pull out and worry about security; so as pleased to find one as is everyone who is less hypocritically against them. Ah, live., eh?). The marina is mainly full of small sport fishing boats, and one putters in just as i'm changing into shore clothes. Two large seals follow the boat into the Marina and then throw themselves high out of the water to grab mackerel from the hands of one of the fishing captains. It's like something one might find in Florida with dolphins, or more like those jumping salty crocodiles in Australia.

I find a shop and re-provision, aware both of what i need but also wondering if i wasn't able to get away without another bottle of honey if i was only going to be another week on the water. Which is a thrilling thought, in some ways. I have a pint, a huge bacon baguette and a coffee in a bar, and then find an internet terminal where i mainly check the weather. The forecast is so-so, but the weather outside in the early evening is glorious - some people are shirtless, girls are in short dresses and tee-shirts; it's still warm at six as i paddle out, passing the Saltees (i'd come in over St John's bridge a strange shingle underwater, wave-throwing 'bridge' which runs most of the way out to the little Saltee), and entering the wide bay to the west to look for a camp site. I suddenly remember reading about two small islands mid-bay and see dark shapes in the far off, and make towards them arriving at dark. I'd also, though, forgotten that they were bird sanctuaries for the least continent and fastidious species of sea bird and they were one of the least prepossessing camp sites of the trip, but with dark and being a fair bit off shore there was no option. A long haul up over a tumble of seaweed covered rocks, and then a thin strip of bumpy, guano splashed shingle that seemed to be right on the limit of high tide, whilst the interior offered no hope with it's impenetrable weeds, briars and stinky abandoned shags' nests. The littoral held the bodies, bones and feathers of those chicks of various species that hadn't made it. I camped on the shingle...

...and woke to a thick fog. It came and went and then clamped down. I had a longish crossing to get to Hook Head and the forecast was for off-shore winds rising in strength. I packed, - cold and damp, everything - launched and took some compass bearings and paddled up to check current against buoys that i found and made a safe 'under' bearing to Baginbun Head. It was eerie but also rather enjoyable in the fog and there were occasional moments when it thinned enough to give me a glimpse of something to back up my compass route against. And then it cleared altogether after a few hours and i was roughly where i expected to be and a while later i was rounding Hook Head in bright, hot sunshine and shooting across Waterford Harbour and landing at Dunmore East.

Another deja vu moment; there was a feeling of familiarity which i couldn't place, until i remembered that i had holidayed here with friends when i was about ten, for a week of sailing and swimming. And the long hot summer days of childhood were given another go; it was probably the best day of the summer. Recklessly i tied the kayak up to a bit of sheltered shore by a boating centre, figuring that sudden squalls, waves or wind were looking unlikely, and still in wet suit and paddling stuff walked through the docks, climbed the steep steps up to the 'town' and got a paper and then sat outside in the sun with a breakfast and coffee at a small table overlooking a world with which all was right. And i chatted to a bunch of divers at the next table, and we came round to my the opinion, which i may have mentioned earlier, but if i haven't i should have as it's the mainspring for me doing this trip, which is that the last great adventures you can have in Ireland are on the coast and at sea; i see Germans and Dutch cycling around Ireland dodging huge SUVs tearing along narrow country lanes and think, sorry folks, you're twenty years too late, driving itself is a pointless and frustrating occupation anywhere in Ireland from a pleasure point of view and walking is less and less attractive as fewer and fewer land owners are willing to tolerate people marching across their acres. So, ironically, the only good 'road' trips one can make in Ireland are to sea (which is kind of a full circle thing given our maritime past) or in the sea, or on the shore and into the water, or below the surface.

And then, heigh ho, i strolled back down again after a few hours and set off gently paddling up the Gold Coast, a stupendous surprise for me, not knowing about it. It's like that bit of coastline in the James Bond film which is somewhere in Thailand? and is all towers of rock and fantastic arches and deep interconnected caves and so forth. Well that's what this was. And i drifted and paddled along in the late sun happy as a happy person. There were two lads out on sit on top kayaks fishing away, and then i met another trio doing the same. one of whom was Fergus Power who went up to Iceland to kayak with Mick O'Meara a few years back. They were trying to haul out mackerel for a barbecue and getting a few.

I paddled on beyond a few more towers and past hidden beaches and through a tunnel and an arch and then found a shingle beach to myself and landed and began to set up camp which is when two dogs arrived and i prepared myself for a stroppy landowner and instead met ?????? an architect who lives atop the cliff and who was coming down to cast a spinner or two. The mackerel are boiling i told him. As indeed they had been when i'd paddled in. We chatted for a while, then he fished whilst i set up my camp and threw sticks for the dog. And finally i cooked up in the still night, listening to the fire crackling and the water bubbling.

The next day was a perfect Indian summer dawn - the rising sun hit the beach as i packed and set off. But the day got worse. So i can remember little about it except the rising off shore wind and listening to the radio when i could and then a long and choppy becoming big waves and wind in the face crossing of Dungarvan Harbour when i wondered if i hadn't been a little bit too ambitious and was about to get into another Dundalk Bay type scenario. But i got across okay, as one does and rounded Helvick Head and then Mine Head and then with evening coming on and feeling tired i followed the coast line looking for a good camping place, and i guess i must have found one, though again my memory fails me at this point other than recalling it was a shingle beach found at dark and that i was backed up against a cliff and rather hoped that the wind didn't start blowing onshore at high tide in the early hours and soak me and wash all my kit away.

And the next day was windy and drizzly and cold though not actually bad but looking like it could go that way, and i had to cross Youghal Bay which the River Blackwater somewhat rushes through, getting mixed up with some shallow sand bars in the middle of its expanse and making for another of those places that people had warned me to be careful off. This time as the wind was rising from the west and so was offshore i played a little safer and headed inland, into the bay and into the wind for a while until i could get a good angle on the headland. But the wind never got worse, i rounded the head without a care and was into Ballycotton Bay where the wind began to rise again. Again i played safe, adding on a few miles to head into the bay to get a better angle on Ballycotton village. I was back in Cork now, and back on coastline i knew. A long and wet haul across the bay and i was surfing into the harbour. Ballycotton, like Dunmore East, rises high up a hill above the harbour and then straggles along a road going inland. I needed somewhere to put the kayak whilst i went ashore. The quay was being expanded and was full of heavy machinery, small beaches and quays looked insecure, and so i landed beside the Lifeboat station slip and went into to ask if i could leave my craft on the scatter of sand by the slip for a few hours.

Inside the coxswain, Ian Sheridan, was putting life back into some engine part. And the RNLI came to the rescue; within minutes he'd helped me drag the whole kayak and contents up the slip to the station door ("It'll be safer here."), showed me the shower room, said he was off to put the kettle on and left me to scrub, shave and generally tart up. I joined him in the operations room; he'd just been going over the chart and reckoned i had just on sixty miles to get to the end of my trip. He was from Howth, full of great stories about lifeboat life; amongst them, a new directive in the light of the growing numbers of kite surfers is to cut the strings as soon as they pick up the boards and sails - one lifeboat man lost a lot of his hand and others have had fingers and palms sliced open and cut into by the strings. And tales of drug pickups at sea, ungrateful rescuees, big storms and the rest. He naturally as i've found wherever i've ended up on Ireland's coastline we knew people in common.

I said i was going to walk up town to get a few provisions before setting off with the tide turn. In turn he offered me the station to sleep in if i wanted to make an early start. With the Blackbird pub opening at five it was a tempting idea and i left my options open. I walked up to Skinny's Diner for the all day breakfast. Then i galvanised myself into action with a second shot of strong coffee; i couldn't guarantee the weather lasting and once the winds picked up i could be in for weeks' of gales and it would be frustrating to be stormbound just a day or two from home - i decided to press on. But as i was walking down the street i suddenly half-recognised Rosin, the daughter of a friend, Rory, coming down the street towards me; much more miraculously she full-recognised me and the next minute i was in a garden with a beer, waiting for Rory who just happened to be on his way down to go out to fish. A wonderful coincidence, though the weather worry, and only that, gave me the strength of will to turn down the offer of a bed for the night, a second shower (undoubtably needed), food and a chance to catch up on news and play a bit of music. So, Rory and his crew chugged of in their boat to catch mackerel and i dressed once again in my noisome paddling rubbers and launched down the slip and headed west along the coast. I found a chink in the rocks that put me onto a shingle beach, just above high water mark and with a fuel bonus of Kelly Kettle twigs and huge amounts of both vile and interesting debris on the storm wave line. I put up the tent in the dark, weighing it down with rocks and sticks buried in the shingle rather than fixing it down with pegs, set the kettle ablaze and mulled over the fact that if the weather held i was only a few days from the end of the trip. I was caught in the cleft stick of wanting to finish and wanting to continue, though with the year running into darkness and chill and howling winds on the horizon the former took practical precedence.

I woke to a spectacular sunrise, packed and had the luxury earned by risking making camp so very close to the high water mark of only have a few steps to load the kayak up as it sat on the water's edge. Seemed that i might after a thousand miles or so have finally got the hang of the tides and currents lark. I hit Power Head on the east of the entrance to Cork Harbour and then rather like someone preparing to dash across a motorway put my head down and paddled the couple of hours across to Robert's Head. There was little traffic, and it was all small fishing boats, though a herd of small pilot (?) craft with blue hulls and orange superstructures came out past Roches' Point and milled around seemingly waiting for something. The something was - i guess - the destroyer or similarly naval vessel i saw steaming along the horizon from the west later in the morning; nationality unknown.

These were all very familiar waters. I'd run a windsurfing centre inside Cork Harbour one summer, quite, on reflection, some time ago, and i'd sailed in and around the harbour at different times. I'd lived in Cork city opposite the quays for a number of years, and recalled the ships coming in, as well as the ferries i'd taken first from in the city and then from Ringaskiddy when heading to England over the decades. And from Robert's Cove west to Oysterhaven i was on coast that i'd kayaked, climbed, walked, swam, explored for season after season when i'd been working in Oysterhaven as a windsurfing instructor, and outdoor trainer and management trainer. I started recognising actuall rocks and caves that i remembered, and recalling the personal anecdotage of a long and happy period of my life, intensify as i saw the Soverign Islands ahead and as i took the inland turn into Oysterhaven Bay and paddled up to the Oysterhaven Centre to say hello to Oliver and Kate whom i used to work with.

This was all a bit of a root around in my memories and a trip down memory estuary. I pulled up the kayak high enough to be above the rising tide. School groups were heading out to sail, kayak and generally get wet and learn something about team building and self reliance. I headed into the reception, from where i could see my kayak and its relation to the rising tide on the beach CCTV monitor, a new bit of technology. Talking to Oliver and Kate - whose day i totally disrupted - felt familiar, making the rest of the trip that had gone before suddenly seem less substantial. Pitting years of familiarity up against a few months of novelty.

It was beginning to feel like the beginning of the end of the trip. But there was still the Old Head of Kinsale to get round, which pokes so inconveniently far into the sea that it creates rips and currents that have a bit of a reputation. My plan for that night was to get to 'this' side of the old Head and then round it on the morrow. But fuelled by Oysterhaven pizza, bean salad and coffee i found myself closing on the head with light still in hand, and even better realising that it was calm enough to head into the eponymous Hole Open Bay and go through the Open Hole. There is a bit more to this than such a simple phrase suggests. Or perhaps there isn't. The Old Head at i's narrowest has three natural tunnels that cut right through to the other side, saving going round the head itself and thus cutting down on both time and risk (and possibly engendering another question on just what 'going around' Ireland is defined as). But - to tell the truth - i'm not over keen on long dark tunnels especially when it's getting dark and when of the three tunnels all i have heard is that one is good and clear, one is chocked halfway through and impassible and the third is meant to be navigable for a kayak at highish tide; what i haven't heard is how i'll know which tunnel is which. And you can call me a wimp, but i don't fancy getting half way through a tunnel and finding myself aground in the dark and having to Braille my way out. In fact i've almost convinced myself that i'd much rather go round the head, and that only partly because i can't seem to find any tunnels let alone three of 'em.

But then suddenly in one of the many dark caves in the cliff wall that i'm passing i notice a small, exact square of light in one corner of its receeding darkness - it's either a very small exit hole on the far side or it's a bit of a long way through. Dusk is on its way. To hell, - both metaphorically and according to popular Grecian myth's depiction of same - and i paddle in. It might be any of the three, but at least i can literally see light at the end of the tunnel. The walls glisten and then grow darker and then i'm paddling in your actual dark save for the dull small patch of light ahead. And then it's growing and it's obviously big enough for me to go through, indeed amply so, and then a few more paddle strokes and a helpful surge of water and i pop out like a grinning champagne cork on the western side of the head and i'm heading west. This is (and sincere apologies for the personal turn this blog has taken from its even handed, objective former self, ahem!), even more nostalgia - the coastline where i spent my boyhood years - climbing and exploring and bird watching and swimming and having adventures, sometimes with friends and sometimes alone. And i recognise tiny little cliffs that i can recall being frozen on whilst i tried to find the next handhold whilst i scaled them. And the small beach where i found a storm beaten, dying shag that i carried home dead and then practised my keen but amateur taxidermy on. The ledge where i'd swim from, above a cave out of which once exploded, 'putting the heart across me,' a seal that had been up on the shingle at back in the darkness (ah, there's that watery cave mistrust in embryo, perhaps?). And where when i was a little older i'd bring friends on moonlit nights with bottles of wine to watch the silvery path of light across the sea towards the Barrel Rocks that with its low wave washed bulk and warning pole stuck straight up meant that in my younger years i'd thought of it as an oddly permanent submarine. And then at dusk i arrived at 'my' beach - where we'd come for years as a family for evening picnics after haymaking in the summer, and where as kids i'd played with friends, and where i launched my attempt at a windsurfer after seeing a picture of one in an American magazine which disappointingly refused to surf, sail or indeed float with my weight on top of it.

I landed by the old boathouse and started making camp, and just as i had the Kettle lit and was noting that there was a real September chill in the air a flash of torch marked Tasha whose family live by the beach coming out to welcome me in with a apple and berry pie. We sat and drank tea and then we walked back across the rocks to the beach - rocks and pools and paths i still knew inch by inch after decades or running and climbing and shrimping across and through them. Or perhaps didn't because as i returned to my camp i slipped on one rock, tried to save myself by a goat like leap to another one, slipped on that and skied into a knee deep rock pool. I sloshed back to my tent and fell asleep to the sound of the surf. And with the regular seven second flash of the lighthouse on the old Head that i could see on clear nights from my childhood bedroom (or do i just mis-remember that i could).

I woke to grey. I had camp down and packed into the kayak when Tasha - ah my gratitude - arrived with a breakfast thermos of coffee. A pod of porpoise undulated across the sea, and then a dolphin or two jumped further out. Caffeined to the hilt I pushed off into the sea to join them.

I was now crossing the entrance to Courtmacsherry Bay, and could look inland to where i'd spent most of my years as a boy. I'd thought that maybe i'd paddle into the bay and cruise around Harbour View, perhaps visit a few old friends, even head under the causeway bridge and up the estuary to the Kilbrittain stream and actually kayak on the waters where i'd spent hundreds of days and evenings from when i was about eight onwards in various home made boats, and rafts, or fishing for tiny trout, or falling in or sitting and talking and dreaming about heading off on trips. I thought it might have been instructive in some kind of way to have the adult-sized kayak filling - as it would have, almost side to side - the tiny stream of water that seemed big to me as a child. But there was no time for such self-absorbed diversions - i could feel both a change in the weather and the end for the grasping if only i'd put in some goodly paddling. I set off paddling in as goodly a fashion as i could muster.

I passed Horse Rock - the black chunk of rock that i'd been told by my father was so called because a shipwreck had stranded horses on it and they were kept alive by men rowing out bales of hay to them, which as a seven year old i struggled to disbelief - and on which there was a seal that slipped into the water. Then there was Seven Heads and the wind going up and down and the sea getting lumpy but made bold by the thousand miles behind me i still decided to cut straight across Clonakilty Bay to Galley Head. Galley Head i saw to my stern when i left Castlehaven three months or so earlier. It was a wet old push to get to Galley and on the far side there was a reef that threw up a breaking sea that i splashed through, whilst thinking that though i couldn't rightly recall anymore i rather thought that this size of seas would have seemed worryingly large and unpredictable to me only a few months back and what with being mixed in with being off shore against big cliffs would have made for unhappy paddling, whereas now it didn't seem to bad at all, in fact positively pleasant seeing as how all the waves and current and wind were mostly behind me and therefore giving me a free helping hand. And that therefore perhaps i'd learnt a little about paddling in the past months.

Now i was caught on the triple horns of a dilemma - a sort of trycitops of a dilemma. I could head onto Baltimore, stopping at dark wherever it happened en route, for an arrival tomorrow thereby overshooting my starting point for the sheer hell of it. Or could just go to Reen, the spit of stones and sand and mud where i'd actually set out from and which i could just reach before dark and thus finish the trip that very day. Or i could stop anywhere from Galley on and make my decision in the morning. The latter option seemed pleasing and i toyed with the idea of heading into Glandore and getting a bite to eat and a pint, but realised that really i wanted to be alone and savour the last hours of the trip and revel in the glorious sunset. I crossed over to Rabbit Island and made camp on my own little deserted paradise. I set up my tent between the two ruined houses on the inland side and then walked to the south beaches to pick wood and look across to High and Low Islands which had been part of my paddling grounds for one happy half year, and then look beyond them at the sea rolling out to the horizon. It was a perfect evening. I cooked up the most luxurious of the ingredients left in my stores into a haute cuisine slop; the tuna in OIL! Three spoons of peanut butter. The good rice. Two packets of soup. It was a fine example of my stew making. I sat outside the tent with a mug of tea looking up at the sky and the stars listening to the waves slapping on the shingle beach. Later in my tent i listened to the weather forecast; pretty much whatever came up now i'd be able to get back to Reen in the morning. And even if i had to spend a day on Rabbit Island, then that was just extended pleasure. The forecast suggested that the next day was going to be poor with rising winds from the south west. I fell asleep planning to head to Reen the next day and not onto Baltimore; i'd arrive back where i started from and not beyond. Why not?

During the night i heard a resonant gnawing sound from the canoe. Twice i got up to investigate. Rats and rodents had been flagged up as menaces on so many of the islands around Ireland that it seemed a little hard if only an hour or so from the end some rat gnawed a hole in the bottom of my kayak. The sound continued on and off all night, and i woke on and off all night. In the morning i found that an apple that i'd left under the netting deck 'safe' had been gnawed through the mesh - a real country rat as there were plenty of far more luxurious foods around for a lot less work if his tastes had been a little more sophisticated.

The morning was cold. But then the sun came up. So up, indeed, that when i finally pushed off it was - for the first time on the trip - without my jacket and with bare arms. I skulled over to High and Low Islands and drifted amongst their rocks and surprised seals. The bad weather wasn't in yet and i didn't want the trip to end. I headed across to the rock at the mouth to Castlehaven, mentally ticking off landmarks, pausing to drift for long minutes, feeling the sun on my skin, licking the salt of my lips, hearing the calling of the gulls, watching the odd comorant or shag pop to the surface and then snake back down into the depths again..

It suddenly struck - and struck me as highly humorous - that i was coming back into Castlehaven from the opposite side to the one i'd left from. When i'd tried to define the trip before starting out i'd claimed that i wanted to do nothing more than turn right - or starboard, indeed, or west, if that's your fancy- when i departed Castlehaven and then just keep paddling until i could turn right again and find myself back again in Castlehaven. And that was what i'd just done. What a really silly idea.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Worth a Thousand Words and can Launch a Thousand Kayaks

The four following pix are just a sop until i get down to writing - er, um, well somewhere around four thousand words to update the last of the trip from Howth to the finish at Castlehaven. Because finish i have.

The first pic shows the crap weather i've been enduring over the past weeks.

The second shows how very light i was travelling and how i became more and more shipshape and Bristol fashion with ever passing (nautical) mile.

The third shows either that i was actually on the water at least once in the past three and a half months - or a new found adroitness with Photoshop.

And the last is a triumphant grin at pulling a fast one on geography and geology; rather than battling my way round the Old Head of Kinsale i headed into Hole Open Bay which does what it says on the tin - there is a narrow, dark and rather claustrophobic tunnel that burrows right under the head. I shot through it and saved myself an hour's paddle, some sloppy waves and found myself on the homeward leg.

In the final two days i kayaked round about 100 kms in two shots - didn't want to get to the end that speedily but with autumn coming in felt it would be peeving to get caught by gales only a few miles from the end. But the forecast's had all the accuracy of the previous few months; it's still gorgeous weather here in West Cork and i'm getting used to sleeping under roofs again.

Instead of paddling for x hours every day am now involved in the far less rewarding arm activity of typing for similar amounts of time each day. So there will be a final blog update here in the coming day or so. Until then...

Monday, September 03, 2007

DUBLIN OR QUITS – DUBLIN BACK or DUBLIN FORWARD.

This is going to be very short and succinct (muted cheers, mutters of ‘bloody good thing, too,’ rustling of papers, and sound of eyes skim reading ahead to end).

Last heard of I was leaving Dublin whistling along to Miss You, and Start Me Up, a trifle tired and frayed around the edges but with the many hours of bus riding back to Malin Head in which to recover. The weather was not nearly as poor as it had been. So was merely poor in comparison to a normal late August day. Spent a night – again – in the wonderful Sandrock hostel – Rodney and Margaret becoming old friends at this point, and with the view of the sea and the guitar to strum.

The next day – 22 August – I set off on the last half of the trip – so some 600 miles ahead of me. The first hurdle was getting round Malin Head. Poor weather had stopped Sam for several days, and I’d spent almost a week not getting a window to get round in. It’s one of those points on the coast – being the most northerly, give or take a headland or two – where the seas coming in from the Atlantic get confused about which way to go and so mill around aimlessly like an unruly mob trashing things. A bit like the Mizen at the other end. Whilst staying on Malin I spent an afternoon with the coast guards talking about water safety, their work and so forth; Firstly it was great to meet three of the men – Pat Lynch, Manus Patten and Patrick Canning - whose voices I heard each day on the west and north coast reading out the shipping reports on the VHF radio. I’ll write about this at greater length when I have more time, but whilst I was there there was a sudden emergency with a small sailing boat sinking with three people on board off Clifden and I got a first hand experience of the team swinging into action calling up helicopters, reassuring the dunked sailors, guiding in the lifeboat – some of whose crew I’d met when I was Clifden down at the sailing club and when playing music around the bars – which launched and found the boat with incredible speed. It was all very reassuring.

I had also gone up to the Met station and met metrologist Sean Venn and chatted to him about the summer’s weather. Asked to sum up the conditions over the past months he thought very briefly and then reckoned that the summer had basically been ‘winter.’ So there it is – we’ve all be kayaking around Ireland in November and December, just with longer hours of daylight.

I got round Malin at first attempt – it was bobbly with an lot of reflected waves and some big chop but then it all smoothed out and I headed off along the coast into the afternoon and finally camped the first night back on the seas at a small beach, one of the few landing spots along the rugged, cliffy coast. A delightful little patch of grass by a stream and black, as I soon found, with little bastard black flies.

But I have a wonderful new luxury in my life, a one pint Kelly Kettle. I was given this by the Patrick Kelly of Mayo whose family manufactures them – visit www.kellykettle.com. Basically it’s a chimney stove – small and lightweight that shoots the fire made with a few twigs up the centre of the pot which contains water. It lights and blazes in any weather, takes almost no fuel other than a few bits of drift twigs or whatever and boils water in scant minutes. But it does so much more – I quickly discovered that I could cook on the little fire pan filled with embers, and in fact haven’t used my petrol stove since getting the kettle. And when the screaming millions of midges come out of hell to plague you/me, then you can throw some damp grass onto the kettle fire and set up a smoke screen. Oh, and you can warm your hands on it, and there’s a cheerful glow at night to sit round. Whilst left primed with twigs and a twist of paper the night before I can light it from my sleeping bag and get up to hot, fresh coffee. It’s a brilliant bit of kit, and weighs ounces. Everyone should have one. Or two. One of the small ones and one of the big ones. And it also has wonderful old-fashioned properties like allowing you to burn your fingers until you learn not to pick it up the wrong way. And teaching you elementary combustion lore. Every child should be presented with a Kelly Kettle at the age of ten to put them in touch with the real world and give them responsibility and let them burn their fingers and feel the pride of starting a fire properly and making a cup of tea or hot soup. But enough fan club gushing and back to the trip.

Sam was obviously the problem with this year’s crap weather. The very day that he finished his trip in Dublin the Azore’s High began to assert itself and the weather improved quite a lot and the winds though still strong were still paddlable and quite often from a helpful direction. It was still cold and wet a lot of the time, but a small price to pay for being able to put nautical miles under my keel. (yeah, I know kayaks don’t have keels, but if I’d written the technically correct ‘rocker’ then many of you would have thought it was a typo and….). The 23 was a stormer – one of longest days in distance, and at eight and a half hours non stop paddling in time; crossed the entrance to Lough Foyle, entered Northern Ireland and pushed on beyond Portrush to camp at dusk – and here’s a problem, the days were getting markedly shorter and I was often making camp in the dark if I’d started late to catch tides and currents. I camped on a storm beach below the Gothic majesty of Dunluce Castle. Woke to a poor forecast and a grey drizzly day, but I am a tiger of the seas now and pulled on damp neoprene, mounted my charger and set off into the waves that soon settled down to a gorgeous sunny day. Rounded the Giant’s Causeway – if you like all things hexagonal then this is the geology for you. And passed the Rope Bridge of Carrick-a-Rede – which is what is says it is, a rope bridge high above the waters crossing a chasm to a small island with nothing on it, all of which inexplicably forms one of the most popular tourist attractions in northern Ireland. I was picking up the very speedy current that accelerates as a significant proportion of the Atlantic tries to squeeze itself between the NE of Ireland and the SW of Scotland. It’s a free ride if you get it right. And I could see the Mull of Kintyre across the way – close enough to look like an easy half day paddle. And of course that very irritating song popped into my head and I found myself humming it as I paddled until I chose to stick my knife blade into my brain and take out the memory cells that hold onto vile songery with a few swift stabs. I camped in the most glorious scenery on the Antrim Coast. Though had a late dusk visit from the inshore lifeboat – I guess someone saw me, lonely paddling into the dusk and got a bit carried away and so I had a shouty conversation above the howling of the wind to the RIB crew as they hovered off the rocks. They seemed disappointed that I didn’t need or want rescuing; ‘are ye SURE you DON’T WANT US TO PICK YOU UP….REALLY SURE?’ It rained most of the night. And was grey and raining when I set off the next morning early.

Basically the tide and the wind did all the work – it was only looking at the map that evening that I realised that in just a few hours I’d done around 20 miles, at a speed twice my normal. But it did go a bit wrong towards the end when the wind blew up even stronger to a 5 gusting 6 and I was getting swept along in large waves and with no obvious landing place. With dark coming on. Until rounding Garron point I saw a small slip; I pulled in and hollered to someone I could see in a nearby house if I could camp on the waste ground. They got their husband to come and talk to me, who dashed my hopes by saying, ‘No, you can’t…’ before raising them to new and unprecedented heights by adding because it’s all rocks under the grass, so you’d be better off camping in our garden, and coming in for a beer.’ Brendan sailed this coast, and so we talked currents and buoyage whilst his wife, Pat, cooked me a huge fry, and Judith and her son Christopher chatted to me. And then to top it all, I was shown to a shower – well, needed but also a glorious luxury. I fell asleep, fed, clean and pink, lying on soft grass and with stars above me as the sky cleared.

I set off early the next morning, 26th, just past dawn to catch the current south. Smart move – as in another shortish day I made huge current assisted distance, crossing the mouth of Larne Lough in a nasty sea and wind, to stop for the middle of the day and let the winds blow out, parking my boat in Allain and Liz English’s garden slip in Brown’s Bay whilst I went off to have a long and leisurely breakfast with the Sunday papers, before continuing on into the evening. I camped on a small beach, I think – all becoming a bit of a blur at this point, even looking at the map. I was pushing hard as I became more and more aware that I was running out of time and that if I didn’t finish or at least get a huge amount of the remaining trip done before the equinoctial gales blew up in – what – early-mid-late September, then I might not get around.

The next day was similar. Still the current on my side. Still high winds, but still possible to keep paddling. And again a mid-day break of several hours to wait for the tide to turn, this time in Donaghadee. I was able to pull the kayak up right into town on a patch of sand in the harbour. I changed from damp stinky neoprene into damp stinky civvy clothes and went off and had two fried breakfasts. Finally towards low tide I went back to relaunch and set off again; bugger – I hadn’t realised that the whole harbour dried and the kayak was now about quarter of a km from the sea; it took me half an hour of dragging and hauling to get it down and launched, before I set off again. That night I stopped after dark, setting up camp on a small island, of Portavogie on a bed of shingle.

If you’re still reading this, you can see how the need to keep moving is turning this part of the trip into a paddle-fest with little in the way of distractions and ‘stories.’ Things did happen – meetings with remarkable seals, and dolphins and porpoises, and conversations with people here and there; but essentially I’d become the zen monk of repetitive paddling. Funny how time works; the first hours slunk by, slow minute by slow minute and then suddenly – WHHOOOOOOSH, zooooooooooooooooom – and five hours had gone by and it was twenty miles further down the coast. Which was good of time to do.

Another day – another paddle. Feeling pretty tired at this point, and I was now battling head winds and big seas. I appear to have got just a little fitter over the past months, as I can keep paddling away hour after hour at full bore without actually keeling over. Still I was pretty tired that night so dispirited that with the spring tides it was a long carry up from the low water mark in the dark, by torchlight. And I gratefully made camp on a spit of shingle. But then about midnight just was I about to go to bed I began to wonder just how high the tide might come at High water at about 1.30 am. I looked and pondered and went down to the coming in waters and shone my torch around looking for the tide mark and then finally reluctantly moved the whole bloody camp further back still onto a patch of nobbly grass. The next morning I checked where I’d had base camp 1. Not only would I have been flooded, but where my tent had been pitched first time around there was now a dead, decomposed and gut dumping porpoise lying on the shingle.

The next day was another eight hour plus current surf on one hand and paddle into strong head winds that late in the evening took me across Carlingford Lough and back into the Republic. I camped at dusk at Cooley Point. And woke on the 30 August to strong westerly winds gusting up to a 6. Westerly meant the winds were off shore, and I was faced with Dundalk Bay to cross, which across its mouth from point to point is about ten miles. I did some calculations and figured that the risk of the offshore wind getting stronger and me not being able to hold my course and getting pushed out to sea and across the North of England was unacceptably high. I gritted my teeth and prepared to inch my way up the north shore, into the sloppy wind driven waves and gusts that were strong enough to stop the boat dead. I shore crept for four hours to the head of the bay, then crossed over the entrance and then made a huge mistake. I hadn’t noted that Dundalk bay is extraordinarily shallow and very big. This is a poor combination. Rather like emptying a bath – when the bath is full there’s hardly any movement on the surface as the lower waters swirl down the plug hole, but as the last inches drain away suddenly all the water’s rushing towards the plughole and god help the hapless spider that’s been gently breast-stroking around. Well, reader, I was that spider. At first I exulted as with the wind and the current behind me I shot off down the miles of open bay before me. I even stopped paddling and had a bite to eat. But then, even though a few miles from the nearest shore, I suddenly found I could see the bottom a few inches below me. Well, I didn’t want to get stranded aground on mud for the coming twelve hours so I paddled out towards the shipping channel further into the centre of the bay where the waters were running at huge speed towards the open sea. I did some basic calculations – speed of ebbing tide, wind that was now sitting in as a solid force six off-shore, against distance across both tide and wind to reach the southerly point of the bay’s mouth at Dunany. With a rather sickening jolt I realised that I had very little chance of making it – I guessed I was doing something like 6 or 7 knots down the centre of the bay, and by the time I’d paddled the four or five miles across the bay I’d have been swept far out into the Irish Sea, and would be reduced to the shameful need to send up flares and wave my arms around and call the lifeboat (if my VHF was high enough above the waters to get a signal) and gnash teeth, and sob a little and flush scarlet with embarrassment, and if I was really unlucky and stupid (and I seemed to be both that day) end up capsized and drowning. This was not a pleasing scenario. So I decided to fight back a little. I turned the kayak back into the wind and current and for the next four hours wound myself inch by inch against the forces which so wanted to poke fun at me. It was like spending four hours climbing up a rope – arm muscles at full force, trying to stay relaxed, judging just how much energy I should expend in complex equations where I tried to come up with a paddling pace I could keep up for however long it took to reach shore whilst still trying to make some headway. The idea was that by inclining the kayak just a little shorewards and keeping paddling enough to stop myself losing any more ground than necessary the kayak would ferry glide over the hours. Well, it worked, but it was a worrying four hours, and I was too tired for any air punching exultations when I was finally inland from the headland and only a few hundred metres off shore. And then a strange thing happened – instead of taking my sorry arse shorewards into the approaching evening and setting up camp I decided that I had to take my fear – and I had been fearful – and keep going around the headland and prove to myself that I hadn’t been beaten by the sea and that I could overcome my own stupidity and that I was still competent to be out on the sea. So still in big seas, but close enough to the shore to know that I could stay in control I rounded Dunany point. And then there was another problem, with dusk approaching and with low tide almost reached and on springs the coast line was a huge distance from the water. Stopping anywhere would have meant a long carry of the kit, kayak and caboodle. So I kept going and going and going until finally I found some rocks a little closer to the shore than elsewhere and ran the kayak aground onto a patch of sandy mud and climbed out. Nine hours of paddling in big winds and against unpleasantly choppy and then nastily large waves, with only a couple of oat biscuits and a carrot. My legs staggered a little as I tottered around. Then in the dark I carried everything up and over an assault course of weedcovered rocks and found a tiny patch of grass as a drenching drizzle came in and I set up camp and cooked in the rain and fell asleep.

Surprisingly the next day I woke with a spring in my step and happy as the proverbial. I had time to kill whilst the tide turned, there was a cold wind and odd bits of drizzle, so I walked the few miles into the town of Clogherhead where I found a shop doing take-away breakfasts. And then the sun came out and I sat on the wall outside and ate and slurped tea, and then strolled back through harvested fields with blackbirds singing and poppies and lovely land-based nature. I thought I’d take an easy day but the devil was on my tail and I rounded the head with the current behind me and sheltered from the strong offshore wind by the sand dunes as I paddled along a few metres from the surf line and it was straight line travel, and so I travelled, down past the mouth of the Boyne river (once I’d planned to be there at the time of the Stones’ concert so I could have paddled up stream to Slane), and escorted by a flotilla of terns who may well have been showing their gratitude for the very happy day – it seemed so long ago – in spring when I had spent an afternoon as a volunteer watching over their patch of shingle where the colony nested.

And on I paddled through the day, untiring, and steely of gaze. Until I’d passed Skerries and had Dublin on the horizon and dusk coming in. Another long carry over seaweedy rocks to a patch of grass under a cliff. Up with tent, a view in the darkness across to Wales, the moaning and singing of the seals, Kelly Kettle lit and cooking away.

The next morning was the 1st of September, autumnal in feel though sunny and my birthday. I was going to give myself a present and make Dublin that day. Even though there was strong offshore wind. Long carry down to the sea across the rocks. Hopped in and paddled off. One of the problems is where to leave the kayak when taking a day or two off, and I was about to take a day or two off in the whirling circus of luxury and delights that is Dublin. I came up with an audacious plan: The Howth Yacht Club. Four hours of splashy paddling against and across the wind and I was pulling into Howth harbour, just as Eileen Murphy and Sean Pierce, both round-Ireland kayakers, were taking a bunch of paddlers out to round Ireland’s Eye. (check their trips at www.shearwaterseakayaking.ie ). The yacht club were charming and despite my unsavoury appearance and palpable odour gave the kayak house room in the park. I changed, packed up things to take into town, stuffed everything else into the kayak, and sloped across the road to the first café I found; a late afternoon breakfast and paper, and then when nourished and happy I took the DART train into Dublin, kit bag on my shoulder, stubble on my chin, hat on head and every inch the returning sailor.

Now after two days of R and R, some partying, meeting friends, downloading pix and writing emails, buying maps and a few oddments I’m ready to go back to sea again. So this is a sign off, before taking the train back to Howth and pulling on my damp wet suit and heading south, on the last leg. There is still anxiety as to whether I’m going to beat the autumn weather, and hope that I might get a clean run and lose no days to winds. Tune in to find out what happens next….

Monday, August 20, 2007

SHIRKING THE PADDLING THING – AGAIN.

If you’re in anyway interested in sea-kayaking, then this is not going to be the blog entry for you. I’ve been – not for the first time – diluting the minimum amount of actual paddle action required to make any forward progress with the maximum of diversion and off-sea activity. The last week has been a master-class in not kayaking around Ireland.

Last significant entry – bar even more significant announcement that Sam Crowley completed his circumnavigation earlier today by, I imagine an ability to focus on the task in hand and keep going whatever the distractions, which is so unlike the home life and mindset of your current correspondent – was that I was sitting out poor weather on Malin Head at the exact halfway point of my own aimless circling of Ireland. I may have promised to update my Malin days, but as I haven’t actually left there yet it would seem a little risky to spill the beans on all those nights in various pubs and the characters I met in the days I was based there. I’ll do that when I’ve put some distance behind me and am no longer relying on those same pubs and characters to provide shelter and amusement.

Though I will say that being based in the wonderful Sandrock hostel has been a bar to rushing off into potentially and actual bad weather. So, as I may have mentioned, happy days reading, playing the house guitar and lounging. Though I was looking forward to the Malin Head Christmas Party in the Crossroads Pub. I even had a drink in the afternoon whilst they were putting up the decorations and I felt the atmosphere growing. So much so that I persuaded a Canadian couple and a German girl to march up the road through the drizzle for some carols and mince pies. But by the time we got there there had been some mysterious change of heart and Christmas had been cancelled. There was still a bit of a session but it just wasn’t the same. As a manqué investigative journalist I can’t leave Malin Head until I know why Christmas was cancelled after all the lead up hullaboo. There was, though, a wonderful clear night on the walk back and so a chance to see the streaking ‘shooting stars’ of the Persid showers in the moonless, blackness of the bible-black night.

There was a bit more fun the next night, also at the Crossroads, when there was a dance. I wondered along with a couple of Germans, and it has to be said that my heart sank a bit when I saw that the live band was one of the ubiquitous keyboard, drum machine and whooshy sound effect and backing track computers played by a one-man-band, but in fact it was all very jolly. Not many people actually got up to dance, of course, apart from a couple of dogged waltzers, a few handbag circling girls, the two German sisters who demonstrated the ‘disco fox’ to a riveted bar-front of farmers and fishermen, and – at one point or two – myself trying to make something faintly salsa-ish from the relentless country covers. But then the two Germans took the evening to a different level by asking the one man-band if they could perhaps sing a song. Which they did – the Everly Brother’s ‘Dream’ – in time-stopping harmony, that silenced the whole of a late drinking bar. As did the double harmony folk song they sang next. I was desperate for them to sing ‘Stille Nacht’ and reinstate the Malin Head August Christmas tradition. But it was not to be.

The next day – ushered out by a forecast of many days to come of high winds, small craft warnings, and gales – I took the bus to Dublin. On the Friday morning I had a live interview on TV3 about horse holidays around the world; this required all kinds of horrors like getting up at six without coffee and getting into a taxi and trying to remember what my kayak-addled brain actually knew about horses. A quick dash into make-up – I got the colours, the shades and the rest of the details so I’ll know what to buy for the future so I can achieve a flawless, non-shiny complexion for myself – an injudicious amount of coffee and onto the couch. A quick yak about horse hols – I may have looked a bit bemused, as the whole horse thing seems like it’s from another life – and I was back on the street, and with a holiday feel to the coming weekend.

That night – Friday – I rolled down to the Crawdaddy to see Tom Russell, one of America’s best and most literary and interesting (for which, also, read seriously overlooked) songwriters and performers, who rides the edge between Cormac MacCarthy gothic, Kerouac beat and cowboy cool, with much homage paid to the right kind of boots, red wine, things one should have done but didn’t, and the things one got instead, as well as the coming and goings of good and bad with women. A goodish crowd but not packed meaning I could sit on the side of the stage in peace and enjoy Russell and his excellent accompanying guitarist, Michael Martin, with a pint and at leisure. I’ve managed to miss seeing Tom Russell playing by close shaves in several continents and often only by hours, or a few miles over the past decade so was good to finally catch up with him. Especially as he wrote a song called ‘Blood Oranges’ based on a book by Paul Bowles whom I used to see when I passed through Tangier, and thus I’d told Paul about this left-field homage, and wanted to complete the circle by telling Tom that I’d told Paul. Which I did. So that was that.

Note, there’s a fair bit of music involved in this week’s attempts to avoid kayaking. And it grows to a crescendo. Because my old friend David who manages and tours all kinds of rather groovy band from around the world was in town to put Tuareg band Tinawiren on stage. Now I’d go pretty much anywhere to hear the Malian guitar slingers play – and indeed proved it by heading down with Dave a few years back to the festival in the desert which took, and takes, place somewhere to the north of Timbuktu near Essakane. So the chance of seeing the once-kalishnikov, now-Stratocaster toting lads do their thing out at Slane was too good to miss, especially as they’d signed up the Stones as their support band; there was a bit of a scheduling mix-up that saw the Stones taking to the stage after Tinawiren, though I think that was just so that the Tuaregs could get back to their hotel early.

It was a lovely summer’s day. Ie, not actually torrential rain, and the mud no more than ankle deep. Dave and I and friends of his, the delightful Michael and Abegail who’d been at the last gig the Stones played in Ireland, also in Slane and 25 years ago were smart and took the bus from the centre of Dublin to the festival, at Lord Mountcharles’ place. As did some 70,000 other people. Ah, the elitist joy of back stage passes. The transport may have been bus, but once we were in and flashing our passes left right and centre (I’ve tried using mine since but sadly its power seems to have waned a little, like an overdrawn credit card) we were limo class the whole way.

The rain stopped as Tinawiren took the stage (a huge Fritz Lang Metropolis type affair of such dimensions that it made the countryside and trees around it look out of place rather than the other way around) and their familiar camel lope rhythms and languidly commanding guitar riffs drew the crowd and a kicked off the day in truth, though supporting the Stones (as the Hold Steady and the Charlatans also discovered) is always going to be case of being there and killing people’s time before the main act gear up. But of 70,000 people a significant number might know now where Mali is and a few number might go and check out Tinawiren for themselves.

There was a brief flurry of rain – boats patrolled the swollen river to stop swimming gate crashers, the mud liquefied a little more, and dusk approached. But we missed getting wet as we were back stage in the encampent with Tinawiren drinking mint tea brewed on a small stove that seemed to be their significant backstage ‘rider,’ and drinking the fridge full of Guinness that seemed to be a general artist’s perk. Then it was up to the VIP catering area for a bite to eat, and a pre-gig drink.
Injecting the only slightly off note into a marvellous day was a rather – no, really – obnoxious woman who made the already trying attempt to get drinks from the crowded and chaotic bar less pleasing by queue jumping and queue jumping others. My parting shot when she tried to justify all this self serving and irritating behaviour was a rather terse, ‘Look, just go away, you’ve annoyed me enough already, I don’t want to hear whatever your excuses are…I’d just rather not see you again.”

Then down to the Golden Circle right in front of the stage, and a general air and in my case a very surprising and uncool air of expectancy and anticipation and excitement. Though after half an hour’s wait and given that there were 70,000 souls arrayed around the huge area that is the natural amphitheatre it seemed to pass belief that the woman talking loudly and pushing herself and her friends right in front of us was my pal from the bar scrum.

1. Some smoke, some explosion and just as it got dark there was – I won a bet on this – the opening bars of ‘Start Me Up.’ And so it went from there. The full on show. An inspired mixing of split second timing and choreography and the seemingly loose, juke joint pace of the band. And every song a cracker, given that they chose almost exclusively from the early, solid classics. 'Miss You', 'It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It)', 'Satisfaction', 'Honky Tonk Women', 'Sympathy for the Devil', 'Brown Sugar' and 'Jumpin' Jack Flash'. A goodly – sensible choice – of stuff from Exile. A great James Brown cover – upped hugely by Lisa Fisher from the backing singers doing an Uber Tina Turner sex and shrieking act. But enough there are other sites out there that will tell you all you need to know about the concert (set list anyone?

1Start Me Up
2. You Got Me Rocking
3. Rough Justice
4. All Down The Line
5. Dead Flowers
6. You Can't Always Get What You Want
7. Midnight Rambler
8. I'll Go Crazy
9. Tumbling Dice
--- Introductions
10. You Got The Silver (Keith)
11. I Wanna Hold You (Keith)
12. Miss You (to B-stage)
13. It's Only Rock'n Roll (B-stage)
14. Satisfaction (B-stage)
15. Honky Tonk Women (to main stage)
16. Sympathy For The Devil
17. Paint It Black
18. Jumping Jack Flash
19. Brown Sugar (encore)

THOUGHT SO!)
Seemed a pity to end a great evening so early and what with the slow trickle of crowds out of the mud-soaked fields it seemed a sound idea to head back to Tinawiren’s backstage room with its roof, sofa and chairs, oh and that fridge of Guinness. Then we marched back along the road and got the bus back to Dublin (organisation of every aspect of the show was exemplary) and then it still seemed a bit too early to call it day, so it was back to Abegail and Michael’s house in Monkstown and some Jameson and then finally it was five or something like that, and then suddenly it did seem like a very good time to get some sleep.

So, can’t recall much about yesterday. But vaguely recalled that I’d been doing something with boats or similar in a past life. And bit by bit it came back to me; ah, yes, I’m meant to be paddling around Ireland and I’m in Dublin and my kayak is up in Malin and it’s all going horribly awry. But I woke this morning at six, still in Dublin, heard a familiar litany of gales and force 7s and small craft warnings for the coming two days and so just rolled over. Tomorrow I will – probably, well, very likely, surely – head back to Donegal and take to the waves again. Or maybe I’ll just grab my guitar and go back on the road playing blues and hollering. Seeing the Stones still convincingly at it gives us all home. What are the odds, though, that four guys in their sixties have all got their hair (or bloody convincing wigs), haven’t turned to fat, and can still move around a stage at a fair old lick. Of course Mick can sprint up and down the length of the wings and up and down the stairs – that’s what he does, but there was a murmur of ‘Fuck, he can run…’ when Keith made a slight less manic sprint from one of the wing stages. And Charlie was looking bloody spry too, despite a few problems over the past years. And Ronnie may have been staying fit by climbing on and off a wagon a lot at a fair old pace but he arguably was the guy who kicked everything along. ‘The Man from Naas,’ as Jagger introduced him, though he shut him down when the popular applause as Ronnie took an extended saunter down the front of the stage went on and on; ‘Right, right, I think that that’s quite enough…crowd pleasing of the cheapest kind!’
Actually Jagger is the school monitor, on every team, fit and enthusiastic whilst Keith and Ronnie are the two slackers at the back of the class telling jokes and smoking. Often whilst Jagger is doing another run or two the length of the several hundreds of yards of flying stage Ronnie or Keith will stroll over – still playing – to have a word with Charlie (‘where’ll we go after for a drink…up to Henry’s or back to the hotel…’) or to light a cigarette; there is a safety net in one of the backing singers who also hefts an un- or barely-played guitar who I guess is there just in case both the lads decide to light up at the same time and there’s a sudden drop off in guitaring. But in fact it’s the miracle that in the seemingly ramshackle approach to the strumming and picking the two boys are always bang on – it helps that they arrangements are unvarying from when first played, twenty and thirty and forty years ago but still it’s an artfull air of chaos more shamrackle than ramshackle. And Keith is an amazing specimen – effortlessly elegant yet rough looking (at points of passing concentration his mouth falls open and his lower lip, still balancing fag, tends to drop giving him the look of one of the PG Tips chimps).

A brilliant piece of intimacy is provided when the core band tighten around Charlie and his – almost toy sized compared to most skin bashers – drum kit and that bit of stage detaches and starts moving out into the crowd. It’s possibly meant to look space-age but for an Irish audience its little canopy and glass sides around Charlie and the white framework and its stately progress reminds us all of the Popemobile. Which in so many ways is appropriate.
Another miracle is that Jagger seems to get younger as the evening goes on and as he notches up another marathon distance of running and hollering; making him the only man who has a giant, wide screen picture of Dorian Grey above his head to keep him young. It’s apparently pretty nippy up on stage what with the wind and the chill night air. And the oldsters keep shedding layers of clothing and then thinking better of it and pulling on something. This means that Jagger towards the end is striding around the stage dressed in a long white raincoat and a super long scarf wrapped around his neck and trailing in the breeze. He’s either become Tom Stoppard, or the Baker chap who used to play Doctor Who.
And on that note, it being close midnight in a Rathmines internet café and a bit of walk back to the house and an early start to Donegal I’ll stop this digression through the world of music and reinvent myself as fearless, horizon gazing round-nation kayak paddler.

LEADING FROM THE FRONT – SAM CHECKS IN

Sam just called me to say that he’s landed on Dalkey Island, from whence he started out round Ireland a few months back. He was being serenaded by a singing seal as he talked and seemed – justly, totally justly – pleased to have got round.

I’m only half a circumnavigation behind him of course, so I can feel fairly confident, if we have a good winter and I keep paddling away, of getting that same ‘done it’ euthoria in a few months’ time. Anyway check out Sam’s blog at http://www.seakayakspecialists.com/Ireland2007/blog to get the full story.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

THE DIFFERENCE A WORD MAKES….

If only I’d thought to have said I was going to kayak the ‘length’ of – and not ‘around’ – Ireland I’d have finished the trip at this point. So, popping of champagne corks, general huzzahs, some back slapping – oh, and of course the problem of getting the kayak back from the (by definition) furthest point from where I’d started. Because the kayak is indeed up at the most northerly tip of Ireland at Malin Head.

But i'm still going for the full 'around' trip. And thus ready for another month or more of plying the paddles at a fair old rate. It helps, obviously, that from Malin Head it's all down hill back to Cork. I'll probably barely have to paddle at all, in fact. Just sit there and drift southwards. Or something like that.

Malin Head is lovely.

Er, I though am actually down in Dublin, as i write this. For reasons I’ll come to later.

But anyway, a quick gallop through the past weeks’ fun and games. I was last heard from at Easky – surfers paradise and kayakers nemesis if one wasn’t careful. Some truly spectacular surf and made all the bigger, taller and bulkier by some truly Novemberish weather and high winds. I ended up in Easky for three days and three nights. My tent was a bracing half an hour walk along the coast on a small headland above a beach of amazing fossils (basically a whole herbaceous border and a bit of jungle turned to black and white stone). Every morning I got up and walked in to the village and every morning I arrived soaked from head to foot by torrential rain. I got used to it. But once there I could dry out and warm up over a full Irish breakfast and newspaper – my knowledge of Irish news is unparalleled given that on the rare occasion I find a paper I read it from cover to cover and then re- and re-re-read it over the following days.

I have – as most of you know – no interest in any kind of sport that requires grown men fiddling around with balls and writhing around in sports gear either being hurt or pretending to be hurt. But several days of finding entertainment where I could find it have turned me into a bit of a GAA fan; there were a slew of matches over that weekend and I had the joy of being the lone Corkonian in a Sligo pub, with a local man on the Sligo team to boot, as Cork ran the Sliggers ragged.

I finally set off in something that passed as sun and in a decreasing wind. I could probably have got off earlier if I hadn’t been looking at a long open sea passage to get to Inishmurray – a far and distant dot roughly in the middle of Donegal Bay – with no chance of shelter if the wind got stronger than I enjoyed. And my barometer – as it were – lay in the seemingly very expert surfers skiing in on the tops and faces of huge, tubing rollers. Even on the relatively calm days there were far more people with surfboards standing along the coast deciding not to go out than actually out.

Each night I lay in my little tent as the canvas flapped and crashed and the poles bent, and the rain pattered and drummed and thudded and the wet little wedge shape of dry space bent and flexed and distorted and contracted and expanded again; it was like trying to sleep inside some kind of asthmatic snake.

So, something of a relief to actually get back on to the water again. I nearly ended up under the water. Picking my way through the big breaking waves that were crashing into the bay and up onto the beach I just thought I’d cleared the danger area when one boomer rose up just in front of me – quite a surprise as I was suddenly paddling into a wall of water that rose high above my head. Luckily it hadn’t started breaking as the canoe rose up into it heights; when it did break I was almost at the top and so though the foam and spray and a goodly weight of water swept over me, well over me, over my head and higher I managed to stay upright. The waves were still behaving unpredictably a half mile off the shore. And the 20 mile or so paddle was made tedious by having to quarter my way across a big swell.

Inishmurray is unique amongst the once inhabited islands – the Skelligs apart – in not having any obvious landing place. There’s a sort of breakwater jutting out into the sea and a couple of deep clefts in the rock but none provide real shelter. So though it was bright sun and the island looked green and welcoming I was unsure whether I’d be able to land safely in the big swell that was crashing onto the rocks. Eventually I found a patch of water behind a big jut of rock that was breaking the waves before they hit another smoothish patch of rock running up to the dry. I waited for a lull in the waves, paddled like hell and skidded the nose of the kayak up onto the stone, jumped out and pulled it clear off the next wave coming in. Text book stuff, good luck and a resounding advert for plastic kayaks. I dumped my gear up on a patch of grass in the sun; put things – everything – out to dry and went to walk my new fiefdom. As the Simon Cowell of islands I can safely say that Inishmurray has a future. It’s lovely. Maybe the winner. Oh, and it also has a past – lots of it. So there are neat rows of abandoned cottages along the inland facing east coast; rabbits hopped out of the way, though not very convincingly, as I passed, accounting for the neatly shorn grass footpaths.

The last islanders left in the 1940s. But though roofless the houses still feel like a village and a community. I walked up to the far SW point of the island where huge rollers were shooting in great clouds of spray across the reefs and up the cliff faces. Yet in the midst of all this watery chaos a seal was happily swimming in and out of the foam, picking his moments to duck under the most immense of the breakers and popping up the far side. The island is a paradise of birds; black-backed, shags, and all the obvious seabirds crowded the rocks, the beaches, the cliff faces and the beaches. But more welcoming were the numbers of garden birds; wrens (how did they get there – its four miles or more to the nearest mainland?), blackbirds, and starlings. And a bit of a rarity; an eider duck with her single chick bobbing around off the beach.

I came back via the island’s treasure the bronze age ring fort with its round wall still higher than my head all around and still with its wide top that one could march round and ramps up to the top, and little cells and rebates and crannies. And in the middle of it a perfect little and even more perfect big bee-hive hut from early Christian monastery when this island was a hugely important centre of learning – there’s a whole lot of stuff about early saints and book copying and arguments and people leaving in a huff to set up rival monasteries which I’ll need to look up. There are slightly more modern, or less ancient, churches in their and a fine collection of cursing stones – orbs with crosses on them lined up like Andy Goldsworthy sculptures. So, I sat in the strange stillness and gloom of the bigger of the two bee-hive cells and thought worthy and spiritual thoughts like what to have for supper and why I’d forgotten to buy a bottle of wine for the trip in Easky. Then I finished the circuit of the island – it being a few miles around, with a couple of lakes in the middle – and having surveyed my estate I put up my tent and then found a barrel of water from the roof of the recently reroofed old schoolhouse and so had a full shower. The wind was still strong and chilly, but behind the wall of the schoolyard in the evening sun I was able to lounge around like a lizard.

Gosh, I thought to myself, this island is so lovely I could stay here for ever. That’s the kind of stuff the gods listen out for, isn’t it, so they can punish you by giving you what you wish for.

I woke the next morning to a stonking wind, big seas and all coming straight out of the 20 miles of big sea that I needed to get through to get across Donegal Bay and round the next headland. So had a day on my island. By staying on the east side, away from the wind I was able to cook, and even read happily in the sunshine. And I revisited the fort. And walked up and down the little street of houses. And said hello to the birds. And checked the rabbits for plumpness, and tendency to stay within a stone’s throw of a passing stone carrying fellow. And had a late lunch. And – what with food getting a little low – an interesting mix of things for supper; peanut butter, some rice, tuna, curry powder and sweetcorn boiled up and eaten with relish.

The next day the wind was if anything higher, and the seas bigger. I could have quite easily and safely slipped of the east side of the island between the waves hitting the shore and got blown across the mainland a few miles away – but that would have taken me off in the wrong direction and I prepared to tough out another night and eat rabbit. But then towards later afternoon the wind eased a bit to a 4 or so and I decided to head off and battle through. It was a long half day – close to seven hours as the headland never seemed to get closer and every stroke was a huge effort. The last miles when I was close to and running parallel to land offered no help as it was all soaring black cliffs. Then it began to get dark – bloody hell the summer really is over; ten o’clock and it was gloomy as an October midnight and I could barely see the small cove that I was aiming for. I hoped I was aiming for. Or hoped would be a small cove when I got to it, rather than more cliffs.

Well it was very close to a cliff – but there was a tiered rake of jettys and quays scrambling up seventy foot or so the steep hillside that plummeted into the water. And there was the steepest slip I could imagine actually being functional. The local fishing boats were hauled up the slip almost vertically by a winch. No such luxury for me. It was dark and I had to land everything ashore in a sucking and rising swell that banged the kayak against my shins and pulled things into the water and at one point nearly pulled the whole kayak out of my grasp and out to sea. So, understandably, and conscience free given the remoteness of the harbour and the distance of the houses high on the hillsides above their lights twinkling in the dusk, I kept up a steady stream of cursing. So it was a trifle embarrassing when I finally put my head up over the lip of the first ledge of jetty to find a small boy, and his mother, happily, or less happily since my arrival, perhaps, fishing away. She seemed very understanding and directed me to a house for water. I put up my tent had a midnight supper and fell asleep, arms aching, shoulders throbbing and generally somewhat weary.

But at six the next morning I could hear a strange sound – the sound of windlessness. Arms like damp rags or not it was time be off. I loaded up the kayak high up on the slip and then bobsleighed it down the piste and into the water. I rounded the head into the current and then it was behind me, whilst a gentle breeze freshened and that from behind me too. On that basis I made a bargain with myself; if I could keep going all day and reach Aranmore Island I would reward myself with a steak dinner, a bottle of wine, plus my post picked up from the post office the next morning, and a haircut and a massage. Suitably bribed I set off being pushed along by wind and sea over what turned into close on 30 miles of paddling – and though assisted by all this stuff happening behind me there was still a big swell and I had to stay fairly alert. And then the navigation got a bit confusing – as an economy measure I’ve stopped buying large scale maps of the coast because as I’ve mentioned before on a fairly energetic day I can cross a couple of maps, and if going around headlands or zigzagging around to follow the coastline might go through even more in a day’s journey, and at €8 a pop that’s a bit of a tax on knowledge. But still when a horizon full of tiny islands and reefs all sort of meld into each other and one can’t work out exactly where one is a better map would have been useful. But on the other hand it was fun playing hide and seek with myself.

And very finally after close on nine hours in the kayak (facilitated by a small but vital adjustment to my all in one long-john wet suit; several hours out I attacked the crotch with my knife and gave myself a rough semblance of Y-front wet suit) I arrived at the island’s town. Steak, wine, massage, shower, papers, post.

Er, no. First problem was that the place that it’s the norm to camp at according to my sources had big signs forbidding this. And I’d already wondered if putting up the tent near the town/village was such a good idea – there seemed to be gangs of boys wandering around in a Lord of the Flies sort of way. The small block-house shop at the top of the pier – selling sweets and a few other small things – had massive bars on the windows and door. The telephone kiosk had had its panels removed; it might be jumping to conclusions if I said that they’d been kicked out. I landed my kayak beneath a Garda car, and hoped that would buy me a little time. No restaurant; the two possibilities were one in the village closed because of a funeral or several miles walking to the other side of the island to the hotel. Dripping water from my wet suit I stood in the bar, that was called, according to the sigh painted on the seaward wall ‘BAR’ I tried to think of some pleasant rewards; a pint of Guinness and two packs of crisps. I didn’t bother asking if there was a masseur on the island; like the telephone kiosk I may have been jumping to conclusions but it seemed likely that there wasn’t a lot of new agey stuff going down in Aranmore. On the pier I ordered a selection of deepfried stuff from a van, that was going to be my restaurant for the evening. I ate propped up, chilly and damp, on a rock above the slip keeping an eye on the kayak as the night fell.

I opted to paddle out to a small island in the harbour that I thought I could land on and put a tent up atop. But as I passed a large and attractive yacht riding at anchor I was hailed. “Do you want a drink?” I gave this idea as much thought as I think it required; in a period of time that could only be measured by the latest in vibrating quartz watch technology I’d tied off the kayak at the stern, and vaulted over the taff rail and was settling in nicely. The yacht was the Kaparda out of Scotland. They’d passed me in the big seas the previous evening – I’d noted with envy their big red genoa and the wind behind them as I plugged through rising swell into the dusk. “Yeah, we saw you and wondered if you were okay – we nearly came over to check but then thought…no, you look happy enough.” Rups, Alastair, Kate, Nick, Alex and Olly were powering around the coast to get back to Scotland. Check those names again, assigning gender appropriately. Yes, Kate was basically the beneficiary of whatever the male equivalent of a harem is. The five lads, one her husband, were up and down the companionway to the galley, and kept busy cooking, pouring drinks, washing up and generally being useful. And I was the beneficiary of all this galley action with the drink turning into a invitation to stay on for supper (or perhaps I just imagined the invitation – whatever it would have taken a crowbar and couple of pulley blocks to have winched me off that boat). I almost asked if any of them gave massages.

The crowbar and pulley effect came in the form of Jaegermeister. I realised after a few of them that I’d either have to get back into the kayak and paddle over to the island which was now lost in the pitch dark or have a few more of them – served in urine sample test tubes, interestingly – and sleep on the deck. I skittered back into my jolly little craft and paddled off cackling happily at my reversal of fortune. The island with its low tide, long assault course of rocks sized from football to sofa and all covered in seaweed was a bit of a challenge but I got the tent up and everything – I think – onto dry land and finally leapt into my sleeping bag and fell asleep. It began raining steadily and heavily at some point in the small hours. I woke to hear a dismal forecast at six, and more rain. And then woke again to even heavier rain at nine. I needed breakfast and there was no chance of cooking it, so in a break in the rain and into the face of a force 6 (another small craft warning day) crossed back to the slip by the village. I set off to walk to the hotel – a few miles away, getting a lift from a charming farmer in a venerable and dignified Volvo. I arrived just in time to have breakfast and a read of the paper as more rain came in. Then it was sunny – genuinely sunny and what with brekkers and the rest my heart soared and all was well with the world. So I walked back to the kayak, noting that the blackberries were coming on well and that autumn was in the air.

At the slip I got into the kayak watched by a gang of underemployed children who were busy trying to dismantle a trawler against the quay side with their bare hands. They stopped to watch me getting sorted. “Will that thing fall over?” one yelled. I’d gone through something similar as a conversation with one of the children the evening before and it hadn’t been rewarding as the tyke only seemed interested in knowing whether the kayak might sink or capsize or otherwise prove dangerous to me. So I ignored the morning’s attempt at conversation. “I hope it goes over on you,” another yelled. This seemed to meet group appreciation, so they built on this slim gambit. “I hope it goes over on you and you feckin drown,” offered another. “I hope it sinks and you go under and that you die.” “You’ve got a big banana,” called out one small girl; given the kayak-s shape and colour this almost counted as Dorothy Parker-esque sparkling wit. But the original one was drowned out by a rising chorus of children who hoped I’d drown. This all depressed me.

But the wind had moderated quite a bit, though only to be replaced by a thick fog. I couldn’t see even nearby rocks or the shoreline but nothing would have kept me around Aranmore at that point so I retook my island and began packing everything up; at the critical moment when the tent was down but not everything was in dry bags the foggy sky suddenly released a great swinging deluge of rain that soused pretty much half of my stuff, and all the clothes I was wearing and all of the kayaking kit I was about to put on. It seemed the kids’ wishes had come close to true.

I navigated north by compass. The wind had dropped, and when the fog cleared after an hour or so the wind stayed dropped so I was able to trundle along with good humour restored. Being, though, a little weary from the past few days I got to the pleasing little island just south of Bloody Foreland and decided to camp up. I had water – in abundance – and food that I’d sourced in the village but lacked all but a drop of petrol. So, reader, I made camp and then I made a fine stove from rocks that allowed me to burn the scant handfuls of salty, damp driftwood that half an hour of rock-combing had offered up down into a pile of embers and then cook up soup, pasta and tea. I felt satisfied as I went to sleep.


The next day was a top day. I woke early – ignored the doom-mongering of the various forecasts, stuck a wetted-finger up in the air and deduced that the breeze was coming from the south and swinging to the west. I made a sad decision to not visit Tory Island which I could see on the horizon, its light house blazing away in the bright sun and instead set about making some distance. I rounded Bloody Foreland and had both the tide and the wind with me. I paddled mightily, knees tucked up into the cockpit in a racing position and shoulders and arms swinging nicely back and forth (the art of kayaking long distance and efficiently is to barely bend the arms at any given time but rather to swing and twist from the torso; think along the lines of doing seven hours of twist-sit-ups to get the idea).

It was lovely piling along the coast of Donegal in the sun with the wind at my back and the current rolling for six hours under me in the right direction. I stopped off in the swell to eat a tin of herrings, eat an apple and look around – though my quiet alfresco lunch was rather spoilt by the distant rumble and thump of two RIBs that appeared from behind the swell and felt it perfectly in order to come and circle me like sharks whilst shouting questions at me. I may just have been feeling curmudgeonly. But I was more charmed by three fulmars that apropos of nothing except that cheery friendliness they trade on, made a few passes and then plumped down into the sea right next to the kayak, less than a paddle’s length away and bobbed away for a while looking at me part quizzically and part with great tenderness. So that cheered me up. (I’ve written earlier of the reasons why fulmars are a fitting symbol for this trip and why I feel so warmly towards them).

I was going to stop at the head of Sheep Haven having done a very respectable distance by that point, but I was on a roll and kept paddling right to the head of Lough Swilly. So had got close to forty miles in one day, and nearly half way across the most northerly stretch of coast. There was a big sea breaking on the rocks and few attractive places to land until I saw a small storm beach under the lighthouse with a patch of green above the rocks. I staggered out of the kayak and dragged everything up onto the patch of grass and then thought that – being a polite sort of fellow – I’d just wander up to a distant farm and ask if it was okay to camp overnight. Still in wet suit and lifejacket I walked the half mile or so and found a guy mending a truck. It wasn’t his land. He didn’t know who owned it. Or perhaps he did but it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to go and ask him. But if I insisted then it was the house further up the road, next to the pub. That all sounded good.

I found the house and knocked on the door. No answer. I put my head into the pub and explained that I was down at the cove and wanted to camp and was just being polite and asking for the sake of form. There was silence and then some sucking of teeth. And then somebody told me come up and camp in a field they owned. I explained why I was bit tied by the kayak and so forth. “Really, I need to camp down there.” There was some murmuring. And then a woman got up and offered to try the man next door. It was all sounding a bit serious. She went and tapped on the door. The owner – apparently – was off on his honeymoon but she hoped his mother might be there. “She probably would let you camp, maybe, well there’s a chance she might as he’s away.” It seemed that the majority view was that the owner of the land wouldn’t want me there. It seemed to me that as it was getting on for dark and I was still wet and cold and he was off on his honeymoon that I could risk camping. So I did.

I woke up at five, tired and aching but keen to hear the forecast – there was a relatively light fingering of rain on the tent. The Radio 4 shipping forecast painted a gloomy picture of strong to rising winds and coming gales. But then it got to the coastal reports and what the Met station at Malin Head was reporting was a perfect calm. I made a hasty decision; I didn’t want to get stuck by high winds for days (and I would have been as things turned out) on a beach where a man who may or may not have had a satisfying honeymoon but who seemed unkeen on people camping on his land whatever his mood might turn up at any moment. And Sam had reported a wonderful hostel right at the head, only a few miles from Ireland’s most northerly point. The sea was lost in thick fog but nonetheless I packed quickly – breakfast was two spoons of peanut butter – and was on the water by six-thirty and paddling off into a preternatural silence. Despite map and compass the tide and the currents seemed to be running fairly strongly and only catching glimpses of distant darker ‘clouds’ that were in fact far off land left me disorientated. But keen to pull onwards. I told myself that the hostel might me another Aranmore and its imagined delights might amount to nothing, but for several hours I paddled through the early mist and tried to find the small dip that would give me the pier at Port Ronan and suddenly I had it and I was gliding into land.

I walked a little bit up the road and found the hostel. It was full! A sigh announced ‘No Vacancies.’ But I hoped that was a summing up of the previous night’s occupancy and not a prediction of the coming night. People, feel my joy when I met Rodney – with Margaret, the owner of Sandrock Hostel www.sandrockhostel.com - and he was sure that they could find me a bunk, and told me that I could put my kayak into the back and there was a shed to open my kit up in and leave it to air and dry. Not much later I was in a piping hot shower, and then shaved and clean and dressed and dry for the first time in days. Margaret bought me cup of coffee and a tin of biscuits as I sat in the picture window and looked out on the weather from the inside. This alone made the whole trip worthwhile.

And gosh, I did well to get to the hostel. Because I arrived early on Saturday the 11 August. On Wednesday I was still there – virtually a resident of Malin Head. The few brief hours each day when the current around the notorious head is suitable never coincided with the occasional hours when the wind fell below a five or six. Or a gale. There was a house guitar, which I strummed. Tens of books, which I browsed. And a constant party of people come to stay. Just up the road – a brisk twenty minute walk or so – were three pubs, all of differing atmospheres and which I tried in rotation. There was restaurant that did breakfast and a good steak. There was a selection of papers in the shop. And pleasant people to talk to. And anytime I felt a little peeved that another great tranche of poor weather was slowing my trip to standstill I just had to think that I might have spent four days huddling in my tent, running out of food and waiting for an angry landowner to come and shoot me. Truly I have many blessings to count.

Much else is there to tell about my sojurn in Malin – but it’s not over yet so will bundle it altogether. But right now I’m in Dublin, I’ve done a long day here in the office and it’s time to go and party or whatever it is people do in cities.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Head North, Young Man

A very quick update from Easkey on south of Sligo Bay. An unscheduled stop – but then the gale currently building outside was unscheduled until yesterday. And my walk in from the distant headland where my tent is (or was when I left a few hours ago – with the wind still not at full strength, so may be ahead of me on Donegal coast by now) has rewarded me with in order of importance and order in which I’ve enjoyed them; a) a lovely blue hand thrown ceramic bowl to replace the one I lost in the surf when washing up yesterday, b) two newpapers (and thus two ‘wind day’ crosswords), c) a huge all day breakfast, d) somewhere to charge my phone, e) this computer to write on and check emails, and f) shops including one that instinct tells me might well sell wine. Does life get any sweeter?

So six days since I left Clifden and even a cursory glance at a full map of Ireland will show you that the lad has been applying the paddle with a fair bit of dedication. Was so glad to get back on water, even late in afternoon, last Saturday when I left – and even tired and tender after staying up hoping that a very mediocre French band might become interesting especially if I drank more (they didn’t so got to bed about 2ish – that I blasted out of Clifden bay and through necklace of islands, laughing in the face of boomers, and then to Innishboffin which looked tempting but not enough so I kept going and finally ended up on Innishturk. Wasted time and energy and luck looking for landing place amidst high cliffs and muddled sea on western edge before heading back east along coast of islands and spotting a fish save box moored in the water and then a Narnia like lantern on pole above the rocks. Discovered a corridor narrow crack that turned at almost right angles and then opened into the nicest, sweetest little cove I could imagine. A bunch of people above the currachs on the quay. “You’ve come for the dance, I suppose,” said one, Noel Kidney. It was about ten then and – reader – I’d love to say that I landed, made camp in lightening speed, spruced up, slicked down my hair and headed off on the couple of miles of twilight walking that would have taken me to the village hall and the tiny community at play. I failed you. Not least because it always takes an hour or so to make camp, and because one of the fisherman gave me a huge double hand full of crabs toes to boil. Then it was midnight and the dance went on without me.

The next day was murky with big swell, waves and a contrary wind. I pushed off confidently for Clare Island to the north and wondered if I hadn’t been over confident but then made the western tip of Clare okay, if wet and tired and there passed my first ‘other’ kayaker not counting Sam. An English chap doing a mainland to mainland circuit of Clare, with the wind and the current with him, lucky sod. I could have pulled out onto N facing beach on Clare for the night, but felt the sea and the wind was abating and kept going to make the entrance to Achill sound in the evening. A bit of a debate about whether going ‘around’ Ireland required going around Achill Head rather than through sound, but as my mission statement is to enjoy the trip AND to get round this shortcut is a way of making up for all the bad wind and non-paddling days. As a reward where I camped in the dunes I had two hours of dolphins playing in the waters – not bottlenose, but the yellow bellied ones, and in a group. Well, here’s where I compare and contrast with Fungi the sad, sole, leadenly performing auld fella and this group springing and dancing and slapping and splashing all through the evening and into the dusk and into the moonlight. They seemed ecstatic and I was ecstatic.

I woke at dawn in a cold dew, packed everything up and caught the fast n tide flooding up the sound to where it changes at Achill village. I was followed by a young seal.

At the point where the tide meets I pulled a masterstroke; I had to wait a few hours for the tide to ebb northwards up the northern part of the channel. I put kayak onto the slip, spruced up a bit and walked into nearby hotel. Lads, here’s the secret to holidaying in Ireland and good value; breakfast. Nappery, silverware, as much meat and orange juice and goodies and refills of coffee as I could want and…AND change from a ten euro note. From now on I eat out in the morning. That old adage about breakfasting like a king, lunching like a prince and supping like a pauper for health; well, from now on that’s me, and for fiscal reasons as much as anything.
And look at the result. I came out to find the waters galloping northwards; I sat atop their swirling current and poked my paddle into the water the odd time but mosty took a post brekkers siesta and soon was in Black Sod Bay. Another moral debate here; could go outside the Mullet Peninsula to find some good islands and pass round Erris Head, but the forecast was poor and every chance that I’d get stuck out there in wind days for a while. Or I could keep going up Black Sod Bay to Belmullet where there was rumour of a channel that cut through to Broadhaven Bay. Of course I would be stuffed to the tune of twenty or more wasted miles if the rumour proved unfounded. Hot sun. Hundreds of black plumed and yellow beaked scoter duck in the middle of the bay. A fair bit of effort to keep going as the wind changed and veered. Then Belmullet and no obvious channel and some cursing until a small slot in the quay wall revealed something more like a storm drain but with the rising tide definitely swirling up and through it. I paddled into the ditch and was carried nicely for a few hundred yards or more to arrive in a muddy, stinky estuary but definitely on the right side of things. Tide was still coming in, so paddled down as far as mud and stink abated slightly and landed to spend a few hours sunbathing (almost a first time this summer).

Recharged by solar power I caught the tide as it changed again (are you all agog at my superior tidal catching skills; truly the joys of the free ride and the conveyor belt school of sea kayaking) and floated down into Broadhaven Bay proper. At this point I realized that I’d forgotten to buy necessary provisions for the coming days along an essentially village free coastline with a poor forecast. I didn’t panic though as I had two secret weapons; a new high tech fishing line with day-glo super sparkly hook lures which on first and only drop back near Innishboffin had pulled up three mackerel at the same time in this summer of no mackerel, and Melanie’s incomparable fruit cake. Sent all the way from London to post restante in Clifden it had perfumed the paper and stamp glue atmosphere of the post office, so I knew it had arrived even before it was handed over to me, (the first time I’ve used post restante in years and also letters from Erika and suddenly I remembered all the sweet joy and anticipation of picking up real letters around the world – or not in those cases when they were filed under ‘M’ for Mr and similar challenges – and hurrying off to cafés to read them). Anyway, Melanie’s cake has the specific gravity of some kind of benign plutonium, and about the same energy giving properties. I reckoned I could survive about a week on the cake alone, and paddle through hurricanes, across maelstroms and over mountains with a slice or two.

I camped under the lighthouse in Broadhaven Bay. Woke to a dirty windy day with white caps and streaming seas – roughly in the right direction. Just getting the kayak loaded and into the water down a steep wall of rock into a swelling and fetching sea was hard work but decided to go for a look sea, ready to turn off into a bay and land if things seemed to hairy. Got to Kid Island and indeed the seas had been challenging but I got used to being thrown around and the waves slapping over me and seemed secure enough, so I jostled and bucked and splashed my way through the narrow sound between the island and high cliffs with the wind squeezed and speeded up to a 6 or so. I could have pulled off into a cove a few kms on but felt good and secure enough to keep going. It was impressive; dark, black cliffs, yawning caves, great geysers of foam and spray being shot up and exploded from the cliff face. And sudden katabatic winds blasting down from the heights. And jagged rocks and reefs and stacks diverting and stirring the seas.

I had another escape bay a few more kms later but bloody minded and strangely calmed by the initial over expenditure of adrenalin I decided to keep going even though the wind was strengthening. Rain storms blasted in but everything was behind me and I was being helped eastwards into Sligo Bay. Then in the lee of a huge cliff the winds were blocked and I was in a relative calm and silence – the eye of a storm. I had my anorak hood up. A sudden feeling made me turn around. Right behind the kayak was a large dorsal fin gliding along in my wake. A dolphin I thought. It looked similar in shape and almost in size to Fungi, who I’d had some experience of. I had to look forward again to keep balanced. Looking back the fin was still there, only a few yards behind the kayak still exactly in my track. Then I saw the vertical tail fin. This was a fish, not a dolphin. A shark. This was an interesting revelation. Especially as it didn’t seem to square with being a basking shark, which I’ve also had some experience of. The recent talk of great white shark on the radio and in the papers came to mind. This didn’t seem likely. But neither did it seem impossible that I was some large and non-basking shark, great white or otherwise. Strangely I didn’t feel any apprehension at all. Genuinely. Except I felt a very, very strong disinclination to capsize at that point. The waters were still turbulent and the waves unpredictable and big.

So what did I see? A large fish, some kind of shark, probably about twelve foot long. A fish that was calmly following me, with its nose right on my rudder (and how long had it been behind me before I noticed?), swimming calmly and swiftly with little effort to keep up with my wind assisted five knots or so. The fish gave the appearance of bulk – in the thickness of the fin where it joined its back.

What did I think I saw? The water was clear but troubled – I think I caught a glimpse of a rounded head rather than the pointed nose of a basking shark. I sensed a casual curiosity.

What else. Suddenly the shark was gone. Ten or twenty seconds later the fin popped up in the waves circling swiftly perhaps thirty yards away. This seemed far too active for a basking shark, even a flight juvenile. Also the weather, the state of the sea was not what you’d expect to see basking shark on the surface in. But by far the most likely was a basking shark behaving atypically, rather than a big, non-native shark acting typically.

I kept paddling for another hour – necessarily as there was no way to pull out. Nor indeed any point, on reflection. Though unsure whether I’d seen a basking shark or had been followed – stalked – by a predatory carnivorous shark I felt – strangely – elation. Whatever the fish was it felt like a totem species symbolizing a point in the trip where to be out on the waters in all weathers feels normal. I half hoped that the shark whatever it was would keep swimming with me. And being unsure whether it was a benign basking shark or some other species seemed a happy mystery to be accepted at whatever level I chose. Because even half believing that it was not a basking shark but a big ‘other’ shark I was still happy to be on the water and to keep going.

I landed in Belderg Bay on a big bouldered storm beach – this really is a remote and harsh and bleak coast, more so than any other I’ve seen so far on the trip, and with far, far less boat traffic out there on the waters. I’ve seen two or three sailing boats since leaving Achill and very few more crab and fishing boats. I camped on a tiny patch of grass out of the wind next to an old lifeboat house. Asking permission of the nearest house I met Seamas and Ann Caulfield, an exhilarating meeting. Initially it was their kindness that marked them out – driving me to a shop in the nearby village to provision up and granting me permission to camp. But the next morning Seamas arrived to invite me for a full Irish breakfast and a shower; two words that are of huge import to the round Ireland kayaker. Over breakfast I discovered what a remarkable and inspiring couple they are. As a professor of archaeology Seamas made sense of the geology, the landscape and the hidden pasts of the coastline that I had blindly drifted past; we talked for the whole morning – and I will elaborate on this at greater length later, but needs more than the bones alone account that I’m writing here, especially with the rightful owner of this borrowed computer wondering when my ‘twenty’ minutes will actually become an hour. Or has that already gone. Er, yes!.

I pushed off in early afternoon, wondering if I might be shark-scarred/scared. But no, in fact the sea seemed a richer more exciting place. Though I looked over my shoulder a bit more than of yore. The wind and the tide was with me – luckily as the preivous four long days meant I was tired and slow witted and heavy limbed. Got as far as Lacken Pier, and camped on a narrow path above a steep drop. The next day still with a following wind and still with large waves and also a big swell, but also sun I laboured across Kilala Bay to Sligo Bay. There was big surf breaking off the shore – this is Ireland’s premier surfing spot and so poor for kayaking, really. I finally camped in the dusk having passed the seal like surfers waiting on the great tumbling walls of water (I got caught a number of times by unexpected sets, twice having waves break over my head and sweep everything of the front deck and my cap off my head, - though all recovered in the calm on the far side as all tied on but strings going all directions).

Today there’s a gale coming in. I walked into Easkey and – as you’ll recall from the opening para found a paradise of small things.

Back to my tent and a crossword and a beer before seeing what the coming weather holds.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Away Wid Yer.

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by; ...

Well, that's the opening bit that everyone knows but old Masefield's poem gets beter and much more apposite to me...

I must go down to the seas again to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,

And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sails shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea's face and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide

Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;

And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,

And the flung spray and the blown spume and the seagull crying.

I must go down to the sea again, to the vagrant gypsy life,

To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife:

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow rover,

And a quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.


And the 'whale's way.' I like that. Though one of the Irish red top paper has front page news today: Great White Sharks off Irish Coast. Well apart from the fact that they seem to think that Dorset is a part of Munster it does seem that a great white was seen off a beach terrorising a dolphin (watch out Fungie!) in England. But this is hardly news - they've been around off and on for quite a while. But nonetheless i might dangle my fingers a little less in the waters during my opensea lunch breaks.

Must buy petrol, bananas, water and er. that's about it. So better go. Innishboffin this evening with luck and then some head down paddling over the coming days to make up lost time.