Round Ireland with a Fridge Magnet - well part way round
by Pete Bridgstock
It all started with a Christmas card. Inside the one which we received from Claire in 2010 was the short note "Do you fancy paddling round Ireland?" It took about two minutes to decide that the answer was a resounding "Yes". Well, that was the hard bit out the way, now it was just down to planning. Just getting our maps sorted with tidal and navigation information was a major task. We were grateful to receive help from the SOC Expedition Fund towards the cost of our maps - 47 in all, and a CD with marine charts. These had all to be turned into A4 sized maps for use on the sea. All the navigation and tidal information was transcribed onto the maps, which were then marked up in A4 segments to be scanned and printed double sided onto waterproof paper. It took about a week for two of us just to achieve that.
Trial pack: Pete's kit
Trial pack: Wendy's kit
The team with its transport to Ireland
So, on 5 May 2012, we pushed our heavy boats into the water in Sandy Cove, just south of Dun Laoghhaire, setting out on the trip. It was sunny.
Packing the boats at Sandy Cove
We had all had fairly stressful times in the run up to the start, but we were relaxed now that all the planning and preparation was out of the way and there was only the paddling to think about. Nevertheless, we were apprehensive about the trip and the scale of our challenge. The tide was with us, and there was no wind. What could possibly go wrong?... Well, little did we know that this was going to be the last time we saw decent weather for quite a while.
The Off ! 14:00 5th May
Waving goodbye to our delivery driver, Neil, we pushed out of the cove, turning south into Dalkey Sound, where the tide runs through fairly strongly, setting up a confused sea. Our boats were full, to say the least, and were a bit sluggish and heavy to manoeuvre, but all in all, things were looking good.
This was going to be a short day, as we weren't on the water until late morning, but we struggled to find a campsite, eventually settling on a patch of grass between the coastal railway line and a footpath - not particularly private. We had frost that night!
Lovely weather !
Day 2, we passed our first headland, Wicklow Head, with the tide behind us, hitting 15kph. Then again struggled to find a campsite as the wind built. We ended up in some dunes just south of the European Golf Club.
Pleasant evening ...
The east coast is mainly beach, backed by dunes, with little break. The prevailing winds come from the west or southwest, and we expected to get some shelter from the land, but generally, there was a cold wind blowing from the east or southeast. This was building quite a swell, raising surf on the beach. We had expected have some days when the weather wasn't fit to paddle, and when we woke on day 3, there was surf about 4ft high hammering in to the beach, and there was no way we could safely get off the beach.
... unpleasant morning.
The tides are also quite strong along the coast, and it seemed that whenever the wind wasn't blowing in our faces, the tides were running against us. I'm sure it wasn't always like that, but it did seem so at the time.
We managed another decent day paddling on day 4, but then were pinned down for another two days on a commercial campsite at Morriscastle. Another decent day took us to the entrance to Wexford Harbour. When I say 'decent', that is a relative term. There was still quite a swell running, and the wind built during the day, forcing an earlier finish than we would have liked. Trying to keep close enough to the shore to spy campsites, yet keeping out of the breaking surf is a fine line to paddle. It was here that I tested the rolling ability of a full sea kayak, having slipped to the wrong side of that fine line. A campsite on the edge (or in?) a woodland nature reserve gave us some privacy and protection from the wind. Surprisingly the next day was fine, sunny and calm. We made the best of the conditions and made a beeline for Rosslare Harbour, excited by the prospect of finally getting to the south east corner and turning onto the south coast.
Crossing Wexford Harbour to Rosslare
This turned out to be a very long day. We headed to Carne, which is just north of Carnsore Point. This is an area which has a reputation for poor sea conditions. There are converging tidal streams, all of which are fairly strong, and offshore shallow banks and reefs. We wanted to hit the corner in the most favourable conditions, which occur in a fairly short time window, so our stop at Carne would leave us ideally placed. Although we were off the water by about 4pm, it took ages to find a campsite. There are two commercial sites, one was too far away from the beach for us to lug all our gear, whilst the other, right at the back of the beach, is a huge sprawl of static holiday homes, in which we couldn't find the section for tents, or anyone to ask!
We finally pitched up in the shelter of the boundary walls of Carne Holiday Centre, a hostel type centre owned by St. Vincent Paul, a catholic missionary organisation. There was a group of Girl Guides in residence, and when we asked about camping in the grounds, not only were we welcomed, we were offered food as well. The girls, from Wexford, all trooped down to look at our boats and kit, and posed some interesting questions - "Have you ever been sucked up in a whale spout?" and I seem to remember being asked if I'd ever died.
Again, we were pinned down by weather for a couple of days.
Even when the weather picked up enough for us to paddle, it was not straightforward. Once we had turned the corner, we had a headwind too strong to paddle against, so we sat on the beach in the shelter of large rocks, waiting for the wind to ease as forecast. The problem was, by the time the wind had eased, the tide was running against us. This gave us a slog, but by keeping well into the shore, we could miss the worst of it. Well, that was the theory... actually, we ended up in a tide race within three feet of the beach, right in the centre of a bay, battling to prevent ourselves being pulled backwards into rougher water. Then it was onwards to Kilmore Quay, camping in the dunes at the back of the beach, and a well earned supper of fish and chips from the 'Saltee Chipper' - brilliant.
The end of a long day at Kilmore Quay
It was good to start moving along the south coast. We now felt that we could make some progress at last. This stretch of coast is a series of headlands, all with tide flowing strongly off the points. First came Hook Head, the site of one of the oldest lighthouses in Europe, then in deteriorating weather, past Dunmore East and into a small bay at Portally for the night, before pushing on to Tramore.
It was from this point that the trip changed character. We'd been paddling in the shelter of the cliffs, and turning into Tramore Bay, we hit a strong, gusty headwind, and it was a bit of a slog to get to the beach, which was taking surf - hey ho! Cold and tired, we landed on the beach. There was clearly nowhere to camp, even for our two small tents, but we knew there was a hostel somewhere in the town. We went to ask at a beach café if anyone knew the location of the hostel. In full paddling kit, Claire was first through the door, to be greeted with a head to toe appraisal by a customer, followed by "You're sea kayakers, so am I. I'm Fitch". Fitch then sorted out a place to leave our boats at his pal, Robbie's house, and took Wendy in his car to both Robbie's house and the hostel, so we'd know where they were. Moving the boats to Robbie's involved a long, steep hill, and it took the three of us to get one boat, on our canoe trolley, up and into his garden. On the way back down to the harbour for the next boat, we passed the RNLI Inshore boathouse. It was open, so I poked my head inside for a chat. That ended up with the RNLI tractor and trailer transporting the other two boats up the hill.
Our new kayak trolley
By this time, Robbie was home from work. He plied us with tea and biscuits, before giving us a lift to the hostel, and offering to pick us up in the morning. The chaps from the RNLI arranged to pick up the boats in the morning. Then we had an escort from the RNLI Inshore boat as we left Tramore - all a bit surreal and overwhelming.
The stretch of coast westwards from Tramore is known as the Copper Coast, having been the scene of extensive mining. It is absolutely fabulous. There are caves, stacks and arches.There was a swell which made it a bit lumpy around the bottom of the cliffs, and the heavy boats made manoeuvring hard work, but we could not resist the lure of some of the bigger arches and gullies.
Copper Coast sea cave
The fantastic paddling scenery continued, as we headed further west, for Clonea Strand. We knew there was a commercial site at the back of the beach, so were fairly relaxed as we would not have the hassle of searching out a campsite. The tenting area was well away from the beach, but we were offered a caravan pitch of perfectly flat grass on the boundary of the site as close as possible to the beach - and we were given it free.The RNLI chaps at Tramore had telephoned to tell them we were on our way! Next morning Mr. Casey, the owner of the site and the adjacent hotel, came to see us off as we headed out for Ardmore.
Clonea Strand campsite
We felt as though we were actually making some progress now, and making up some of the time we had lost on the east coast.
At Ardmore, we were met by Dave, a local paddler who had been following our blog, and Ronan O'Connor who runs Ardmore Adventures. The grapevine had told them of our imminent arrival. Ronan took us off for tea, then he and his pal, Dermott, paddled with us to a grand little secluded beach campsite at Goat Island.
Goat Island campsite
Next morning, we were just about to launch, when we heard "Breakfast!", and Dermott ran onto the beach, on his way to work, with bread, jam, fruit and coffee for us. What a lovely gesture. A couple of long hops between headlands followed, and as the weather deteriorated again, we stopped at Ballycroneen, camping at the back of a beach in a car park, overlooked by a few houses. Later in the evening, a lady appeared from one of the houses. "I just looked on Facebook – the lads at Ardmore told us to watch out for the kayakers, I looked up, and there you were! Would you like a shower?"
Boat maintenance at Ballycroneen
We were stuck here the next day, not by wind, but by thick fog. Our next leg involved crossing the shipping lanes into Cork Harbour, and the prospect of a close encounter with an oil tanker or ocean liner was not particularly attractive. There is also a 3 knot tide running in the entrance, giving rough water. We crossed the next day in clearer weather, but things deteriorated later in the day, and we headed for Robert's Cove, another car park campsite and a meal in the pub.
Our next objective was the Old Head of Kinsale. Interestingly, this headland has three caves which cut through the narrow neck just north of the head. This allow avoidance of the tide race off the point. We set out from our campsite in a reasonable sized swell. Nick and Kath had joined us for a few days, intending to paddle if the conditions were suitable. They did not join us today! The nearer we got to the head, the larger the swell became. The waves were getting up to 1.5m to 2m high, and we were regularly losing sight of each other in the troughs, despite trying to keep close together. It was inevitable in those conditions that we decided to turn back, which was much easier said than done. We were all looking out for each other ready to assist in the event of a capsize, though dealing with that in the conditions would not have been at all easy.
Calmer water (!) on the retreat from Old Head of Kinsale
So it was back to our previous campsite and rethink plans. A few days of strong winds were forecast, so we moved to a commercial site inland, to allow us to catch up with laundry and shopping. But, a few days later, we set off for another attempt on the Head. Much better conditions allowed us to get right up to the caves through the headland, but we could not decide which was the one to use. We could see broken water in one, a restriction in another and not much at all in the third. We finally decided just to paddle round the Head as the tide was running with us. It was superb, with a big surging swell, and wonderful scenery.
Old Head of Kinsale, take two
We met a couple of local paddlers, both paddling North Shore Atlantics, just like Wendy's boat. Another car park campsite at Coolmain, near Courtmacsherry, was our home for the next few days, as a stomach bug laid me low. This enforced stay gave Claire and Wendy a chance to sample the wonderful hospitality and friendliness of the locals. Whilst searching out some tablets to quell my digestive system, Wendy was taken to the chemist's in the next town, and back by a local lady. It all really made us start thinking about how we interact with, and help people who visit England. I think we are not anywhere near as hospitable.
Once recovered, we headed across to Courtmacsherry
Here we had a guided tour of their lifeboat, then, along with Nick and Kath, headed out around Seven Heads. This eventually took us to Ring, where once again we had a beach campsite.
The cliffs and caves of Seven Heads
In the first few days of the trip, Claire had been hit awkwardly by a wave whilst launching. This aggravated an old back injury. Moving the boats on land each day, and camping in less than ideal conditions, had further aggravated it, so it became clear that she would be unable to continue. Nick and Kath were due to leave us the next day, and Claire was going to travel back with them.
Wendy and I were ready to get on the water at 7 the next morning, to catch the tide right to get round Galley Head. It was really very emotional saying goodbye to Claire and paddling off whilst the three of them waved from the beach.
We paddled in silence for a while, lost in our own thoughts. As we neared the headland, the swell built and became uncomfortably large. We took shelter in a small cove, and reassessed our options. It didn't take much discussion for us to realise that both of us were of the same mind - the weather conditions were so poor that it was cutting safety margins unacceptably for the two of us to continue. So after a cup of tea and a few tears, we headed back to Ring, and eventually caught up with the others, who fully understood our decision.
So what was it all like?
Hard? Certainly - all of us have paddled in some awesome and serious situations, but the constant battle with the conditions and weather, handing the boats on land every day, and camping for a month made it more physically demanding than anything we had ever done before.
Serious? Definitely - We had many days of paddling committing sections of coast with marginal weather and strong tides. On trips at home we would probably have sat out many more days than we did on this trip.
Stressful? You bet! The exploratory nature of the trip, not being able to find campsites at the end of hard days, looking out for each other for hours on end, day after day with only a few days of relaxed paddling all combined to pile on the pressure.
Rewarding? Definitely - incredible coastlines, problems overcome, bad conditions handled, wonderful people met. Whilst we were having our fun and epics, we also raised over £400 for each of our charities, Roadpeace and RNLI.
Fun? Only in retrospect!!
Would I do it again? Yes, the questions are only 'Who with?' and 'When?'
Come to one of our slide shows and hear the full story.
Article copyright © Pete Bridgstock 2012; photographs copyright © Pete Bridgstock, Wendy Bridgstock, Neil Bridgstock, Nick Bulmer, as credited, 2015