The north-west corner

I was on the North Mayo coast at Ballycastle, watching the waves, viewing the archaeology and eating more than once at the friendly local cafe, Mary’s Cottage Kitchen. Waiting for a break in the weather is hard work. I’m not very good at waiting. Eventually, after 3 days off the water, a small gap appeared in what looked liked it was to be a week of awful weather.

It was another start just after dawn, this time to get the paddling done by early afternoon when the wind was due to pick up again. I had a couple of hours of light wind around the cliffs of Downpatrick Head and along to Killala Bay, my first stop. The cliffs are spectacular here with very flat layers visible and near vertical edges. There are a number of caves and stacks, not that I was going in any of them with the swell.

Killala is a wide bay with an open crossing at its mouth of around 10km. With the mist and low shoreline, the far side was rather indistinct. It should be due east according to the chart, but it felt a bit odd when I set off on an easterly bearing. Poor visibility is often confusing, so it’s best just to follow the compass. But hang on a minute, there’s a water tower over there which I really ought to be going a bit closer to. Funny. I fished out my hand compass to be sure to be sure. That read 14 degrees closer to where I was expecting! I found out later, when I unpacked, that the metal hanging loop on my wash bag had been right underneath the deck compass. Don’t do that.

The shoreline was now low and broken with rock reefs extending on all the points. Easky, famous for reef-break surfing, was working nicely. I had thought to get out there at the slipway, but it’s not particularly well sheltered and with the surge up and across the slip I thought better of it. By now the wind had picked up considerably and was blowing hard, offshore. I had to paddle out for a kilometre at most of the points to avoid the numerous heavy breaks, easy enough to get out but hard work to get back in. My plans changed and I decided to stay close to the shore instead of crossing Sligo Bay north to begin a slow circuit around Donegal Bay.

By the time I’d been blown out to Aughris Point I’d had enough for the day. I got in touch with friends Des and Sonja, formerly of Dublin. They weren’t quite as close as I’d guessed, but Sonja drove for over an hour to pick me up, whilst I had a bowl of soup and a pint in the pub!

With Des and Sonja at Aughris Head

Donegal Bay is the widest of all around the Irish coastline, the shortest crossing a little over 40km at it’s mouth, stretching from the cliffs of North Mayo in the south to the cliffs of Slieve League, Donegal, on the north side. It’s completely exposed to atlantic swells from anywhere vaguely west. It’s also possible to paddle around the bay, but it’s twice the distance and not necessarily much easier because of the cliffs of Slieve League, avoided by direct crossing. I’d be needing some decent weather to get across directly, but unfortunately normal service had resumed.

I had four days with Des and Sonja looking after me, whilst I enjoyed myself plumbing in some outside taps, cutting some of the grass and sinking paving slabs. Meanwhile Des fixed my boat, my trolley and found me a new cag. Thanks very much!

Boat repairs in Des’ workshop

When I finally got back on the water, I had a near perfect forecast, F3-4 southerly wind all day and little swell. Visibility could have been better, but I could see land somewhere all the way across and Slieve League appeared after a few hours. The crossing itself, from Aughris Point near Sligo to Malin Beg was straightforward, 43km in about 6 hours. The slip at Malin Beg is unbelieveably steep and a challenge with an empty boat, so I went on a but further to Malin More where the prospects were better. There I found waves breaking across the bottom of the slip and bits of metalwork sticking out of one edge, a product of the refurbishment works, but I was getting out anyway!

Lunch half-way across Donegal Bay, Slieve League in the distance
Approaching the north side of Donegal Bay, Malin Beg
Malin More slip

Despite having already paddled nearly 50km I didn’t feel too bad, no doubt a result of the extended rest of the preceding days and Sonja’s attempts to put some weight on me. I’m eating teenager quantities but am convinced I’ve lost quite a lot of weight nonetheless. With northerly wind forecast the following day and a particularly exposed section of cliffs to follow, I decided to crack on, eventually hauling in to a remote slip at Loughros Head after 72km, my longest day yet. It was a lovely spot.

Camping at Loughros Head slip (Looking south-west)

The following days were a mixed bag, mostly warm and sunny, but unfortunately with a stiff headwind. Burtonport was the first stop and the collection point for my last package of maps, in The Lobster Pot. It was an excuse for a change from cheese and pickle sandwiches and an opportunity to post maps, charts and a leaky cag back to Robin in Dublin.

The Lobster Pot, Burtonport
Chowder and smoked-salmon at The Lobster Pot

That night I made it to Gola Island around 20km north of Burtonport and close to Bloody Foreland, where the coast turns north-east.

Camping on Gola
Easy landing turned difficult launch the next morning at Gola.

Paddling around the next day was very hard work into F4-5 wind with waves and spray in the face all day. Tory Island looked close, but there was no chance of doing that today. I’d hoped to get to Fanad Head, but with the wind and waves that wasn’t going to happen either. I eventually crawled around a rather rough Horn Head and then surfed in against the tide to Portnablahy (Dunfanaghy), well short of my target. With no obvious spot to camp, a no trespassing sign and no evidence of hostels or B&B I knocked on a door near the slip. A local skipper and estate agent called Charlie and his wife Mary kindly let me camp in their garden and fed me tea and toast in the morning!

Garden camping at Portnablahy
Charlie and Mary allowed me to camp in their garden at Portnablahy

The next day (Weds 21st) was near calm and sunny. It wouldn’t last but it was perfect for passing the headlands, Melrose, Fanad,  Dunaff and crossing the numerous sandy bays and lough entrances en-route to Malin Head. It was such a good day that I arrived at the start of the final 10km crossing to Malin Head about 2 hours earlier than would allow me to get around the head. By now it was a grey day, the wind had picked up a little from the north-west and small waves had replaced calm sea. I decided to cross to the pier on the south side of Malin Head whilst I still had the weather.

Planning the next day in the tent at Portnablahy. (No, I don’t carry crockery!)
Fanad Head lighthouse

Malin Head is a notorious spot with a relatively sharp, narrow head sticking out west from a long peninsular. There are rock reefs sticking out from all of the points, fast flowing tidal streams and all prone to swell. All of this creates very turbulent water in adverse conditions, the more so whilst the tide is flowing. I had to time my passage for “slack water”, the time around which the flow slows to a stop and then reverses direction. Then, not only is it possible to paddle, but the conditions should be calmest.

After hanging around for a couple of hours at the pier, the allotted time arrived to paddle the few remaining kilometres to the point, to get there at slack. By now the wind had strengthened to F4 north westerly and there were white caps on the sea. It didn’t look good, but I decided to go for a look at the point anyway, just in case. It wasn’t good. There were breaking waves and white water all over the place with no easy route through. I went back to the pier and stayed at the hostel there.

Sandrock Holiday Hostel, Malin Head
Sea view from the hostel (Malin Head)

The forecast said the wind would drop overnight, so early morning, roughly 12 hours later, would be the next opportunity. I got up very early and started paddling at 6.40am. Sure enough there was only a light wind and the white caps were gone.  It looked much better. When I got to the point it was still rather white there with waves crashing through the inside channels and breaking heavily over the reefs. Ordinarily I’d just paddle offshore to get around, but this extended for as far as I could see in the wrong direction. I hung around for a bit in case I was early for the tide and poked about a bit looking for an easy way. Eventually I saw what looked like a manageable route outside the worst of it. I went for it. It was a mess with steep cresting waves across my path for a kilometre and rough water caused by waves reflecting off the cliffs for a few more kilometres. After about half an hour in the washing machine I finally arrived at the calm of the pier on the north side of Malin Head. I was around and would now be increasingly protected from the atlantic swell as I travelled further east.

The rest of the day seemed straightforward, a long paddle back down the north of the peninsular with a sleep on a beach for a few hours, waiting for the tide, and then a long crossing almost due east from Inishowen Head to Portrush. It was grey and drizzly again, but I had wind, wave and a lot of tide behind me so it was pretty much surfing for a couple of hours to complete the 17km crossing.

It was late by the time I arrived at Portrush. I went into the yacht club bar dripping. They offered to put my boat in their store on the quayside and let me use their showers. I went up to the bar where Martin from Portrush surf school kindly  bought me a pint and organised a bed in the Portrush Townhouse hostel. Very nice it was too! After fish and chips and attempting to plan, I fell into bed at midnight, 64km closer to home.

Giant’s Causeway, Co. Antrim

Having been on the go for 5 days and travelling from near Sligo to Portrush, I didn’t feel like paddling on Friday. But I could see the wind coming and I wanted to be close to Fair Head, the start of the east coast, ready to get around at the first opportunity. It was a nice day with a good westerly, so I took the opportunity to paddle past the Giant’s Causeway and further east. There was too much swell to get close to anything, indeed too much swell to land anywhere on the way.

Fair Head from Ballycastle with Scotland in the distance

And so now I’m in Ballycastle, this time on the Antrim coast, watching the waves and waiting for the wind to drop. Yesterday I walked the Giant’s Causeway and dropped into Ballintoy Harbour, where I chanced upon Robin Ruddock and a group of Causeway Coast Kayak Club paddlers. They welcomed me to their barbeque in the boathouse and Robin delivered me back to Ballycastle later. A splendid evening.

Balintoy Harbour
The boathouse, Balintoy
Causeway Coast Kayak Club barbeque, Ballintoy
Toasting marshmallows, Ballintoy
Causeway Coast Kayak Club barbeque, Ballintoy

So, now I’ve paddled 1330km from Dublin and have about 270km to complete the journey. Next up, the east coast.

Ballycastle, Co. Antrim

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