Entering the Wild West

The west coast of Ireland is particularly rugged and exposed to the atlantic swells. At the south western extremity is the Mizen Head, generally a rather inhospitable place with cliffs, few places to land, strong tides and often rough water. The other side of Mizen Head is a succession of long bays, each of which would add several days to the trip to paddle around. I needed to round the head and cross the bays to Dursey and beyond. I was going to need to time this right and for a good weather forecast. Part of the reason for hurrying to Baltimore against the wind was that I could see the good weather coming and I wanted to be in position to take advantage of it.

Departing Baltimore in the murk

On Tuesday the wind had dropped enough to allow me to get to Galley Cove, the nearest reliable landing before Mizen Head. It was still a headwind, but not too bad. I took a northern route through the islands of Roaring Water Bay using the shelter of the land, where there was some, to speed progress. It was only a 30km paddle, so there was no rush and time to explore a little. The north side of Goat Island was unexpectedly attractive with a nice sea arch and easy conditions to paddle close to the rocks.

Goat Island, Roaring Water Bay
Navigation mark near Schull (Long Island, east end)

Galley Cove is an out-of-the way hamlet with a handful of houses, a lovely sandy beach and only a mile to walk to the mini-metropolis of Crookhaven. I did no such thing. After chicken curry for dinner, I went to bed.

Chicken curry at Galley Cove

I got up at 3.15am, in the dark and got on with the morning ritual. Eventually I left at 5.30am, just after dawn. It was a short paddle to Mizen Head and I wanted to be there right at the start of the ebb tide, when the water should be calmest and the tide taking me to Dursey Sound. That would give me plenty of time to get to Dursey and through the sound there, before the tide turned. Wind was forecast at F2-4 SE, a tailwind. There was none at all to start with!

Rounding Mizen Head in the mist

The crossing to Dursey Sound was about 30km, but all was straightforward in practice. Mizen Head was a bit up and down, but relatively good. It was misty, but headlands were visible from time to time and visibility improved over the day. At Dursey I got out for my first lunch, then continued north to Deenish Island, on the edge of Ballinskelligs Bay. All done for the day and 50km paddled by the time of my second lunch, about 2pm.

A puffin en-route to Dursey Sound

Thursday was a different day entirely, bright and sunny but with a fresh easterly creating choppy conditions. I crossed Balinskelligs Bay, rounded Bolus Head, which was quite lively, and headed up to the Portmagee Channel inside Valencia Island. Glenn Pier, in St Finans Bay, was a welcome break from the wind and chop. It was actually a warm and pleasant spot with a lovely view straight out to the Skelligs, around 15km offshore. Not going there today.

Calm at Glen Pier, Skelligs just visible (centre)

Portmagee was warm and windy, a welcome pit-stop to dry out my now damp-suit, to have an ice-cream and fill the water bag, whilst waiting for the tide to turn. Only another 10km or so of easy paddling up the channel to get to an island, Beginish, opposite Knightstown, for the night.

Drying in warm and windy sunshine at Portmagee

Next morning I was off early again, on another crossing, this time Dingle Bay. I had a tail wind so I made very quick progress for the first couple of hours. On the way I was met by a pod of dolphins, perhaps 15, all swimming alongside, underneath and across the front of my kayak,   within 10m and often closer! Today was the first day for a while that I didn’t have the video camera attached. I fished it out. The battery was flat! So I had a go with the still camera, but the result (below) wasn’t very impressive.

Dolphin fin, Great Blasket behind

By now, I was approaching the Blaskets Sound rather more closely than I’d intended and with the tide against me for most of another hour. I struggled across to get some shelter and eventually the tide turned. A pit-stop was called for on the beach at the Great Blasket, before continuing at top speed, 10km/h, with the tide, to Smerwick Harbour.

Landed! Great Blasket looking north to Beginish Island and Clogher Head

By the time I arrived at The Old Pier in Smerwick, I was worn out and soaked. Evidently my drysuit has a hole somewhere to be fixed.  It took me 15 minutes to haul the boat up the long steep slipway to the road and the Old Pier B&B. I was intending to take today off because the wind direction didn’t suit the following cliffs and I’m tired anyway. When I opened the back of the kayak I found a goldfish pond again. No disaster, but something else to fix. Looks like I’ll be busy.

The old pier, Smerwick Harbour, with the Three Sisters in the background
Home for a couple of nights, at the The Old Pier B&B, Smerwick Harbour
Excellent, fresh haddock and chips at The Old Pier B&B

Heading for Baltimore, into the wind

The prevailing wind direction is from the south-west, so it was no surprise that the sunshine and easterly tailwinds of the first week or so came to an end. It has been a trying week paddling into south-west or westerly headwinds every day.

The weekend gale which saw me stuck at Helvick Head for several days finally moderated with only a F4-5 forecast for Tuesday. I said goodbye to John, who’d been looking after my kayak in the lifeboat station and headed west. It was tough going into the wind immediately the head was rounded, but I was aiming only to do 20km or so to Ardmore, which seemed manageable. It got rougher at Mine Head, as John and the fisherman in who’s B&B I’d been staying said it would, with steep, cresting waves. The wind hadn’t dropped as forecast. I battled on for the best part of 4 hours and eventually made it to Ballyquin Beach, a few kilometres short if Ardmore. I was exhausted and had enough for the day.

John Condon (RNLI), Helvick Head lifeboat station

The camping, on the other hand, turned out to be very pleasang at the back of the beach, a tad windy, but warm, sunny and perfect for drying gear. Just as well, because there seemed to be water in every hatch on the boat. Not good. Used to be dry.

Ballyquin Beach. Ardmore is close, but out of reach today!
The Clangers gave us music trees. These are sock trees!

Learning from the previous days experience and noticing that the wind seemed to be lighter early in the morning, I got up really early (5am) and just about left by 7.30am in near calm conditions. By mid-morning the wind was picking up again and the final crossing to The Cow slip at Ballycotton, short as it was, was rather hard work. Although the forecast was better than previously, I wasn’t about to go any further today. I hung around for a while eating lunch and wondering where to camp when by chance a friendly woman came past, asked a few questions and then offered me camping in her back garden. It was probably the best spot in Ballycotton, less than 100m from a choice of three pubs and with a view over the bay! How could I refuse?

Back garden camping in Ballycotton, overlooking the bay!
Ballycotton resident Melissa let me camp in her garden!

Ballycotton is a lovely place for a walk about. The view of the lighthouse island at the top of this missive is from the head, just above the harbour. Around the corner is  the 1931 vintage Mary Standford lifeboat, restored and on free display. Look up the impressive story of the rescue of the crew from the Daunt Lightship in 1936, during the storm of the century!

The Mary Stanford lifeboat, rescued the crew of the Daunt Rock lightship in hurricane force winds, 11th February 1936

The pattern of early calm followed by increasing wind from mid-morning continued all week. Slowly but surely I made it along the south coast, clocking up over 50km on two successive days. The first was prompted by board and lodgings very generously offered chez Jon Hynes (H20 Sea Kayaking), who also circumnavigated Ireland in 2015 with Sean Cahill. I was well looked after by Jon and Elaine and it was great to meet them and their kids.

With Jon Hynes at the Old Head of Kinsale, almost ready to leave.

By Thursday it was clear that Sunday and perhaps Monday would too windy to paddle, with winds moderating and going southerly by mid-week.

Roches Point lighthouse, at the entrance to Cork Harbour

I needed to get to Baltimore by Saturday, before the wind picked up. That left about 70km or so of paddling to do in less than 2 days. Leaving Jon Hynes at the Old Head of Kinsale it was calm, but it didn’t last long. The headwind was up and down all day with waves and F5 for the crossing to Galley Head. Not very pleasant, but I persisted, eventually arriving at Rabbit Island a little before 9pm. It had been another long 54km day, but the camping was perfect in a lovely spot near Unionhall on the Cork coast.

Calm and sunny, early morning at Rabbit Island, near Unionhall.

Next day the wind was forecast to pick up to F5 in the afternoon, a prospect which didn’t fill me with enthusiasm. I got up really early again and paddled the last 20km or so to Baltimore before lunch, arriving in time to see off the Phoenix Kayak Club (Cork) on their outing to Cape Clear. They offered that I should join them. Needing a rest, amongst other things, I politely declined.

So, the past couple of days I’ve been resting, drying kit, buying food and such like and fixing my kayak.

A few nasty blisters after 400km or so

When I eventually turned the boat over for a look, the one rock that I hit had done some damage around the skeg and elsewhere. As ever the locals sprang into action finding me a few tools and a gel-coat repair kit, to go with the sealant Jon arrange for me from CH Marine! The boat is  now fixed and good to go!

Hit one rock in 400km. Not bad, but it did some damage!
Bushe’s Bar, overlooking Baltimore Harbour