Hang On, This Looks Familiar....
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.