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Sea Ireland At Last — July 2004

Martin and I dropped off the working women in Galway so they could catch the cross-country busses to Belfast for the Saturday night ferry to Liverpool to return to their jobs on Monday morning. The two of us jobless slackers headed back to Kilkieran Bay in the car with a tent, two canoes, and not much idea.

We drifted down the roads across Lettermore Island, then Gorumna Island, and finally to the Lettermullen Island group and Golum Head at the end of the track. We’d asked some people in the last shop on way, whilst purchasing toilet paper, what we should do about camping, since we could see no official camp-sites. They didn’t understand the question. What’s a campsite? Don’t you just set up your tent on the ground anywhere it’s not going to get in the way?

The wind was blowing like an Antarctic night, but there was a secluded bay between the islands where there were no waves. We got changed and went for a paddle around the inlets. I decided to lead us out through a gap between two of the islands into the open sea where the waves of the Atlantic swell gave us a right old roller-coaster ride. It wasn’t too bad as we paddled out into it far enough to see the outsides of the islands being smashed to foam. I felt we were safe so long as there was a direct down-wind down-wave route between us and the sheltered water.

Then we turned round.


beach1 beachfoot
Some beaches in Kilkieran Bay are white and crunchy like on a tropical island. The sand looks like broken coral, except it’s made of maerl which is a type of encrusing algae that grows a calciferous skeleton. Unfortunately, the maerl plants don’t bond together to form reefs. It would have been cool if they did and you had great thickets of the stuff rising out of the water like a submarine forest.

It was quite a different picture. I don’t know how I failed to notice the huge submerged hedghog of a rock that was exposed by each rising wave right in the middle of the channel. We were not in control. I tried to direct us back the way we came, but the wind pushed us on course for this really bad rock. I shouted to go the other way, and Martin got irritated by the way I kept changing my orders. My god, my heartbeat was thundering when we got away from it. The good thing about adrenaline is you don’t get tired by anything for the next few minutes until you settle down. We explored the rest of the bay in relative safety, and then paddled back against the wind.

There are many wooden boats parked around the place, either beached or anchored in the water. Each one seems to be owned by an old man who comes out every evening to bail water or touch it and prove it’s still there. It’s just one of those sentimental things. They talk Gaelic in these parts and it gives them a kind of Swedish accent to their english. They were interested in our plastic boats.


dogpet
This old dog couldn’t pass a rug without sleeping on it, even if it’s in the front porch of the Old Monestery Hostel (Letterfrack) where people can trip over him like a suitcase in a dark room. This is the best hostel I’ve been to in Europe. It’s like an antique shop, and the breakfast room is worth laying in bed till nine o’clock for it to open.

It rained in the night and we moved ourselves to Lettermore Island in the morning. I planned a day of paddling out and through a channel in Illaineeragh Island where we would be sheltered at all times from the terrible wind. I tried to dive on the way round, but unfortunately I misread the charts and got only four metres of depth at the place I’d anchored. Nothing otherwise went wrong, so there’s nothing to say. The seals were friendly and came close when we weren’t looking.

Without any guidebooks I planned everything from 1:50,000 OS maps, a set of sea charts on a computer, and The Oileain, an online book by Sea Kayakers cataloguing all the islands around the whole of Ireland and how to visit them. It’s a faintly ridiculous way to organize a kayaking guide since it means you leave out many perfectly good and important headlands which are worth knowing about just because there’s no separating channel round the back.

I planned another Kilkieran Bay paddle, but after a night of rain and intermittent tent flooding, followed by a miserably grey morning, I said, “Let’s get out of here.” And so we did. Kilkieran Bay, for its recommendations was too flat when there were other places to see.

Before we came to Ireland, Martin had bought, at vast expense, the Lonely Planet Guide — as all good travellers are programmed to do. I read the few words about the area we were covering very carefully, and once I’d factored out the listings of expensive hotels and posh restaurants, there was very little material left we could use. Well, that’s where all the money goes that’s not spent on researching the stuff we want to know about.

I insisted that the way forward, when guidebooks fail, was a trip to the Tourist Information Office in every city. So we went to Clifden, and the office there was even worse than the Lonely Planet guide. It was a tat shop. It didn’t even have basic things like the weather forcast posted on a bulletin board. Their leaflet supply was limited, and they did not distribute such information as the “Guide to the Independent Hostels of Ireland 2004″, which is freely available in an independent hostel, once you find one. They knew all about the hotels, though. They should call this the Tourist Exploitation Bureau because using the word “Information” is misleading.

We stopped at an internet cafe and googled for information.


ballyd bally
I was lazy and dived from a small island in Ballynakill Harbour rather than brave diving directly from the choppy canoes in the water. It gave a place for Martin to stand and keep and eye on me as I circumnavigated Carringeen Island with a “blob” (surface marker bouy on a string) looking for the interesting bit. The other island is called Carringeenyglassa. Isn’t it nice how every little scrap of land gets its own name.

29 June 2004. Epic in Ballynakill Harbour. We paddled from the quay opposite the factory shop, and out through the twisty shape of the bay. Beached on tiny island of Carrigeen. Dived from the shelter of the north side, then tried to circumnavigate counter-clockwise, through gap of Carrigeenglassa, until I found the deep stuff going SE from the island into the channel. There had been two fat dogfish, but the dustbinlid starfish attracted me to a sloping field of sea pens. I followed. Everything was huge. There was a whelk the size of a conch shell. A low reef with plumoses like elephant’s feet. I was free swimming and made my way mostly back to the island before surfacing and swimming the rest of the way.


killy
Killary Harbour is Ireland’s only fjord, they say. It’s not something the geology students could confirm because that’s a matter for geographers (it’s too recent for them). The water was jam packed with fish farms, as all sheltered tidal areas are these days. The big floating platform was pumping fish pellets into three of the cages.

We headed out to the island Freaghillaun South, and fetched into the channel round the back in the north, rested, then epicked our way into wind to the coast. Martin fell overboard (concentration must have wavered when we got to the safe bit), got to Ross point, and then it became too hard. Crossed the channel to Dawros. I couldn’t turn my boat (with too much cargo on the back, the wind pushed me broadside) and overshot. Fought back round the corner. I dragged myself on slippery rocks through the weed. Lost my will to continue. Martin charged on ahead and got to shore in the final bay. I was caught by more wind and yelled “Heave! Heave!” on every stroke to keep going.

We moved to the YHA at Killary Harbour, ate, and so on. I recovered by the morning, but Martin was knackered in the way that he wasn’t the previous evening. Things catch up eventually. He went for walk while I programmed my computer. We ate lunch late when he got back. The YHA was all locked up except for the common room. This included the bogs. I had to crap in the field across the road. While I was getting the canoes off the car and Martin was drinking his tea, the YHA inspector visited. Martin informed her about the annoyance of the locked bogs, and this was deemed to be a problem. There were two students from Durham University two days into a six week doing Geology mapping project. Anything beats living in a tent for that long.


crough
We had to walk up at least one hill to test the wind. This picture is from the rocky path up Croagh Patrick above Clew Bay which, on the map, is a crazy lattice of islands. We were going to try and canoe among them and find a place for me to dive, but I decided it was only going to be some stirred up silt, so we went surfing instead.

30 June 2004. We paddled from the Killary Harbour YHA. There are mussel farms inland, and fish farms further out. “See Atlantic salmon leap in their cages” said the advertising leaflet for the Killary Harbour Boat Tours. “The ideal rainy day experience.”

We pottered out at high water to Inishbarna, “the island of the gap”, at the mouth of the harbour. The chart said there was a deep bit on the point. Two fishermen drinking tea in their anchored pleasure boat confirmed this. So I anchored in four metres and reeled my dive line into the deep. There was quite a steep slope, and it continued further than I was willing to go. The brittle star zone where these horrible animals clung together like a hairy worm mat started at 22 metres. Big plumose anemones poked through the silt. I pressed onwards and turned immediately back at 30 metres depth, facing straight into the dense cloud of silt that I had brought with me. I got frightened and reeled in the line like the clappers for a few seconds. I get lonely diving on my own. I remembered to go upcurrent to get out of the silt and was able to regain my composure once I returned to the edge of the brittle star zone. I bumbled around there, meeting a thornback ray which was patrolling the mud along the perimeter with its senses.

There were channels of mud between the sloping rocks. These rocks were almost reefs of paper tube worms. Chunks, like pieces of an exploded church organ nest, were broken off. But the worms had no other home and carried on working. They couldn’t go anywhere else. Perhaps they should. I met a conger eel that lunged straight out of its hole. Someone must have been feeding it. I showed it my reel, and it reversed back into its hole. It could tell it wasn’t food. It yawned and I shone my torch all the way down its white throat. It was hollow, the whole length of it. Beneath the kelp were thick fronds of dogger bank itch.


whalebone
Srawaddecon Bay from the holiday hostel in Pollatomish where it has been open for business for years and has never been visited by the Lonely Planet researchers, to the best of the owner’s knowledge. She said all they do is phone up once a year to check the prices. A youth hostel did once open in the same village a few years ago, but it closed after one season. People didn’t want to stay there because of the vicious 9 to 5 lockout, which is something you can’t handle in a place that’s going to rain horribly on most days. Somehow this factoid got erroneously transfered to the description of her hostel, and it nearly put us off from coming.

I re-emerged into bright sunshine of the air, and hauled back onto the canoe. We set forth towards the next destination: Little Killary Harbour through Smuggler’s gap to where there was a diving operation called Scubadive West. I couldn’t resist the idea of cruising up onto their slipway in the canoes and getting my air tanks filled, before heading off under my own unmotorized steam. Would anyone there think this was cool?

Not really.

They said, Why would we want to do something that when we’ve got a boat?

Indeed.

Why walk up a mountain when you can do it in a land rover?


pigisland
The eyehole of Pig Island. We weren’t sure which part of this island was supposed to look like a pig. I thought it was the section further out to sea than this arch, and Martin agreed that the guy who thought it looked like a pig must have been very hungry.

Kayak diving is more efficient because you get to do two fun sports at the same time, in one complete package. It’s like cycling a sensible distance to work when you need the exercise, as opposed to driving to the office so that you have the car available for the lunchbreak to rush over to the gym for a twenty minute aerobic run on the treadmill.

The divisioning of work, play, transport and exercise into separate compartments means that each activity can be ruthlessly optimized to the max whilst the sum total remains ridiculous.

The guy who filled my tanks (for five Euros each) was friendly and had formerly worked in the hospitality industry (computerization thereof) before “downshifting” to retrain as a diving instructor.

I’ve probably said what I think about the hospitality industry elsewhere…

(that the routine patronage of expensive hotels may have as corrosive and institutionalizing force on the human psyche as incarceration in a mental hospital or public school; and that a large part of the insane ideology believed by our ruling elite, in terms of shredding our economy, comes from personal lessons derived from these hierarchical institutions of artificially servile people. Hotels give our top-level policy-makers such a warm glowing positive feeling when they are inside that they never want to leave. They are in a cocoon of comfort where whatever mess they make magically gets cleaned up, and anyone who is rude or unhelpful to them is disappeared back to the job market where they will learn how to behave, or starve. No wonder they want to smash the economy and rebuild it so that all the outside world becomes a hotel everywhere, open for business to them and anyone who is self-motivated to spend someone else’s money)


sevenstar tangle
The colours don’t look like this when you are actually there; your eyes seem to adjust. Left picture is a seven armed starfish on the prowl, dragged by its tube feet. It must have lost one of its arms recently. I’ve heard these ones are the cheetahs of the starfish family because they move fast and eat other starfish. But it says nothing of this on the Marlin webpage below. Right picture is the tangle of line I created during my dive. The basket thing is a lobster pot. The line from the top left corner is the anchor chain from my canoe, and the line coming to me off the bottom is from my reel which I use so as not to get separated from the anchor chain, and hence from my canoe, due to the lack of people to pick me up should I surface too far out in the wrong place.

… and I’ve just about padded the pictures out with enough text. We met him in Westport for a drink the next evening after a hike up Croagh Patrick. The beds in the hostel that night cost us 12 Euros each. Martin said I snored, and I told him he should have poked me for everyone’s sake.

The weather became even windier, so I gave up any pretence of diving and we went surfing off Keel beach in Achill Island instead. It took a couple of hours to get the courage to go in, and shortly after we did, a whole surf-school moved in and created chaos in the waves, showing just how ludicrously over-cautious I can be. Surfing was what these canoe shapes were originally designed for, before they were adapted for carrying stuff. The canoes give you the advantage that you can get beyond the waves, once you learn how to not hang around too long arranging the paddle after you’ve hopped aboard. You can be turned over quite comprehensively. Martin eventually throttled his little finger with a twist in the paddle tether, and we used that as an excuse to come in, pack up, and get back on the road.


jewel
This is what happens when you use the flash: a wall of bright jewel anemones. Why are the colours so vivid when the natural light filtered through 20 metres of sea does not physically have the capability to show it?

Final stop: Broad Haven. Boy, this place is bleak. There was a hostel in Pollathomas in the Northwest corner of County Mayo run by a German lady. After reccy-ing the coastline the next day, and seeing the Stags of Broadhaven from the headland at Portacloy, we prepared to paddle out to Pig Island from the next cove at Porturlin.

The Oileain guide raves about this area, saying it’s full of spectacular cliffs and sea caves that make it as good for sea kayaking as anywhere in the world, and I can believe this is true. The cliffs rise out of nowhere — there’s no high ground inland; once these cliffs collapse the coast will be about as exciting as Southport.

After sitting in the car waiting for the rain to stop for two hours, we drove back to the hostel and programmed our computers all afternoon, just to prove it was possible to do a day’s work for once while on holiday. That was the idea: work when it rained to save up days when it doesn’t. The problem with this theory is you can’t usually tell it’s going to be a rainy day in advance until you’re most of the way through it. And by then you are already committed to being some place far away from the hostel.

We got up early and tried again. It was a good sheltered area between the cove and the island which was supposed to be shaped like a pig. I thought I could see it, facing out to sea if you ignored the part on the other side of the eyehole.


scave
You get sea caves good enough for the movies throughout this area. The entrance to this one is sheltered by a narrow breezy canyon in which I parked my boat until it blew back into the alcove. It was impossible to photograph the scale, but it was as impressive as Zion Canyon.

As we paddled out, some dolphins came by, and sliced the water between the canoes with their fins before going someplace more interesting.

I dived near the eyehole and, although the water was deep, didn’t find much to see beyond a slope of rocks going down to sandy flats at thirty metres. The place to go is further towards the point where there are terraces of huge boulders. The water was so clear that I felt I was floating in air and had to pinch myself to stop me pulling my mouthpiece out to take a nice deep breath.

It was a long dive and when I came up Martin, who had been sitting alone in the other canoe, had had a little accident. So we dragged up onto the rocks in the eyehole, stripped off, had lunch, and dried everything out. There’s a nice cave in the wall of the eyehole where you can look back down at the water through a slit from the darkness and the colour of the sea makes it look like you are staring at the earth from outer space while sitting in the cargo bay of the space shuttle.

We pulled the canoes through the eyehole and seal-launched to the outside of the island where the waves were big and you had to consciously hold your nerves steady to stop from being overwhelmed. I thought we’d found another dolphin for a moment, until I saw the big white patch in front that meant it was the mouth of a basking shark. What a trip it’d been.

We paddled back past the cove to check out the area on the other side. There wouldn’t be enough time for a second dive. We got deep into a wrinkle in the coastline, and were surrounded by tall walls like an auditorium. The water rolled in to all sides and crashed over rocks. I liked it there. I could see a manouver that would take us back through a chasm between an island and the mainland without getting smashed. Halfway through the canyon I found another narrow opening into the mainland which brought us into a circular cove with 80 metre overhanging cliffs. We’d gone round too many corners for the waves to roll in, but see rose and fell in synch with the motion outside. The cave in the cove went in a long way into the darkness before we could climb out onto a beach and walk to the end. Lucky we had torches.

At three o’clock we began packed up the car, and drove and drove and drove (with a slight diversion to visit a the tourist exhibit of the city buried under the bog) and drove and drove straight to Belfast and caught the boat home to Liverpool at ten pm. Such a long way to go. Ireland is not a small place, and I expect to be back soon. Hopefully, with more people to kayak dive with, if that’s at all possible.


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Julian Todd 2004-07-20