Circumnavigation by Mistake

Like most of our passage making this year , the trip to Lowestoft was in winds of F 5 to 6, but unlike further North , the seas were a doddle , and we made a fast and comfortable trip, arriving just before dawn. Already the temperature was in the high teens and a clear sky and warm wind enabled us to strip, air and dry the boat for the first time in a couple of months. However much we like the wild and chilly North , I am almost ashamed to say that it is nice occasionally to bask in the gentle warmth of a Southern summer . I guess we are getting soft in our old age .

I used to think of Norfolk and Suffolk as sleepy places , but the downside to summer is that other folk seek it too , and now the next week spent in the charming East coast rivers was a complete culture shock caused by the sheer number of people and boats. We risked the shallow shingle entrance to the river Alde to seek out a secluded anchorage , only to find 4 boats already there.The picture perfect coastal villages of Orford and Aldeburgh were bursting at the seams ,their streets packed with large and suspiciously shiny Range Rovers and the adjacent  riverside mooring fields overflowing.

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I got talking to a man who lived in the Walton Backwaters on a beautifully maintained old fishing boat . Judging by his wonderful Suffolk accent he was a native of these parts , and told us that the above mentioned villages are now too expensive for any locals to still live there . I suppose that this “gentrification” of these old fishing villages should upset us , but am ashamed to admit that they appeared to be very pleasant places indeed , albeit financially way out of our reach.

Rather sooner than we had planned for , the weather delivered 48 hours of warm dry Easterlies which were just too good to turn down ( beating West down the Channel is no fun!) , so we gratefully accepted the gift and were whisked home with scarcely a sheet touched . If we thought the East coast crowded , the entrance to the river Hamble was complete carnage with more boats in a ten minute period than we had seen for the whole of our summer in Northern waters.

It seemed that the wind , which earlier in the year had blown us West to Ireland , had now blown us right round the British Isles ! We hadn’t planned it that way but it did give us a good insight into the variety on offer in the (still just) United Kingdom. There is no doubt that the wild waters and coastline of the NW and far North are the most beautiful and the little communities that hang in there are the most friendly , but who can fail to be impressed by the beautiful city of Edinburgh or the “Chelsea by the sea” villages of Aldeburgh and Oford . Even the impossibly busy Hamble and its benign Solent waters are nice to come home to.

On reflection , the overwhelming feeling is that we are fantastically lucky to live in this wonderful country and we needn’t bother going off to far flung lands when we have we have such varied and beautiful home waters to play in . And if that statement reads like it came from the mouth of a Brexiteer, let me hasten to add that despite these sentiments ,  I voted to stay in Europe!

Fringe Benefits

Orkney to Edinburgh may just be 210 miles but it feels like 210 light years from the quiet and beautiful ( but currently stormy) islands to the frantic bustle and frenetic energy of my favourite European city at Festival time. Like most of the NE coast , the Firth of Forth has few deep water harbours , so one has to moor at Port Edgar – 10 miles further into the Firth than Edinburgh. This harbour is an old military port and the three huge bridges across the Forth loom rather industrially over the mooring. Despite this the area is enchanting as it is just next to the old ferry village of Queensferry which seems to have stepped straight out of the 18th century.

A 20 minute bus ride takes you into the handsome heart of Edinburgh and the good humoured mayhem that is the Fringe.

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With 300 shows a day to choose from it was a full days work to puzzle out what to see, but luckily the long forecast storm , although markedly less strong than it was further north , gave us a day confined to the boat to work out our itinerary .

Our time at the Festival was enough to exhaust us , yet barely scratch the surface of what was on offer , but luckily for our tired feet the forecast once more intimated that Northern waters would have a prolonged spell of strong wet and cool Westerlies , whilst further South , summer was making a comeback. Delay in leaving would mean beating home , so after our third day of 3 shows a day ( and remarkably only one dud!) we set off at dawn for Lowestoft and a late taste of summer.

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Northern Perambulations

We returned to Coleraine after our week back home with no fixed plans , but the winds were from the South so , of course , North we went. Its only a hop and a skip across the North Channel and there you are in the Hebrides , arguably the finest cruising ground in the world – if you don’t mind the weather! After a couple of quiet days this soon soon resorted to the Westerlies that had powered us round Ireland , and so what if it rains most days, if you can be entertained by the seals that teem around the rocky little anchorage of the Ardmore islands , feel the adrenaline pump as you get squirted through the Sound of Islay by a big spring tide , or laugh at the comic antics of the puffins in the anchorage between the Treshnish isles.

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Possibly best of all was the view from Atlantic coast of Bernaray ( this time with a touch of sun to enhance the magic),

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or was it perhaps the lonely anchorage of the Shiants where the night sky was so full of birds you couldn’t see the stars!

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All these places pulled us along like iron filings to a magnet , but it was time to decide how to spend our last month. We had never been to Orkney , and the Westerly wind was still blowing , and would get us there fast . So Orkney it was , and a plan was hatched to spend a couple of weeks exploring these islands before returning home down the east coast.

Well , so much for plans! Initially all went well and we gazed in awe at the rugged North west of Scotland , before screaming into Orkney through Eynhallow Sound in the fastest passage we have ever done , averaging close to 8 knots from the little North coast bay of Talmine. And what a welcome the islands put on for us . The sun shone for the first time in weeks, revealing the impressive cliffs of the Brough of Birsay at the entrance to the Sound,

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and once through the race the scenery changed to the calm agricultural beauty of Wide Firth in the middle of the islands.

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We couldn’t wait to explore all the charming little anchorages in the archipelago, but we were going to have to , because the forecasts began to hint at an unseasonably nasty storm at the end of the week, with at least a further week of significantly rowdy weather to follow.

It didn’t look like we were going to be able to do  do much exploring and so after 2 days of preliminary scouting , a 24 hour period of fresh Northerlies offered us an escape route and we opted for plan B, which was a 210 mile dash South to hole up in the Firth of Forth and go to the Edinburgh Fringe festival.

Don’t worry Orkney , we will be back!

Derry/Londonderry

For our second “break” of the summer we left Festina at Coleraine , 5 miles or so up the river Bann. This is the heart of the “Ulster plantation”, started way back in Tudor times , that continues to cause division to this day. Perhaps more famous is the nearby city of Londonderry , a bye word in the 70s and eighties for being a war zone between Catholic and Protestant para military groups. To our surprise , everyone in (Protestant) Coleraine seemed really proud of “Derry”, both for  the fact that it is a unique and attractive walled city and that the Troubles have been put behind them. In fact they were surprised that we hadn’t been there to see for ourselves what a great place it was .
So we went.
It wasn’t without a few misgivings however, not least for the fact that our visit coincided with the public holiday to celebrate protestant King Williams victory over Catholic king James -a day when the various Orange lodges take to the streets all over the province.
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We took a train early in the morning and in Coleraine saw the Orange lodge hanging flags all along the route march . Many of the houses along the route sported Union flags . There were no marches that we could see in Derry itself ( perhaps this would be just too inflammatory)  and  we duly explored the pleasant little city with its historically important intact walls.

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To the west of the town lies the Bogside stat, scene of the  Bloody Sunday massacre and familiar to me from grim television reports from the Troubles. There it lies under the walls , still with the murals depicting the conflicts of yesteryear, the pub roofs daubed with “IRA “ , but more happily, newer murals depicting peaceful scenes with the hashtag “DERRYHAPPY”. I was astonished how small this infamous area was.

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The city was buzzing and friendly, the museums fascinating and determinedly giving a balanced view of the troubles , from Tudor times to the present. The complexity of the issues over the years gives modern day Syria a run for its money with Irish catholics and Scottish presbyterians fighting each other , then joining sides to fight the English who themselves fought against each other (Roundhead and Cavalier) : all swapping side with bewildering rapidity and taking it in turns to behave apallingly. Now everyone we spoke to t00k great pride in the fact that peace enabled the city to become the first city of culture in the UK and attract a considerable flow of international tourists. Reading the local newspaper however, it was clear that under the surface the tensions bubbled on as evidenced by minor acts of provocation from both sections of the community. The locals assured us that less than 2% of either side wish to cause a problem- whilst the vast majority are just mighty relieved the Troubles are behind them , and crossing their fingers that they will remain so. Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EEC and there are fears that a reinstatement of a physical border with the Republic might inflame the situation once more.
We had a great day , learnt a lot and came away hoping fervently that the peace and prosperity that we could so obviously see will continue.

Yacht Racing on Rathlin Island

Travelling North and east from Gola there are two headlands to round before crossing the border to Northern Ireland . Bloody Foreland was a doddle despite its rather troubling name , and Malin Head was equally well behaved , although it has quite a reputation for serving up very rough seas. In between them are three deep bays , all markedly different. Sheep Haven is wide open with wonderful sandy beaches , but we passed on this because of the rowdy forecast and instead headed into the long narrow Mulroy bay. Once over a shallow sandy bar this waterway penetrates deep into Donegal through a series of extreme narrows each of which generate correspondingly strong tides . There is a bridge over the second narrows with half a metre clearance over our mast – too close for sanity so we anchored in a sheltered cove and explored deeper inside with the canoe. The third inlet , Lough Swilly, is a deep fiord that used to be a British naval base . We found a perfect little anchorage to sit out the next blow, in the lee of a tiny peninsula with a Martello tower sitting on top to keep an eye on us.

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Throughout all this time we saw no other yachts , and indeed precious few people.

Once across the border however it was immediately noticeable that we were back in civilisation, ( a debatable advantage) , and even in the tiny harbour of Rathlin island there were 2 or three other yachts .

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This boomerang shaped island sits off the NE corner of Ireland and sports at its Western end a vast colony of guillemots crowding around a lighthouse there , the associated buildings of which make a marvellous viewing platform from which to watch the many thousands of birds get on with their close packed lives.

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In the lighthouse was an exhibition of island life which included photos of the “model boat race “ from before WW2. It seems it has been a tradition to race model yachts on one of the fresh water lochs on the island , and by coincidence the annual race was to take place the next day. I duly cycled there at the appointed time to find myself completely alone , but gradually various competitors and spectators arrived ( island time is apparently infinitely flexible) and I was treated to a wonderfully eccentric taste of yesteryear.

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The boats themselves could have come out of the same Edwardian photo album ( although one at least was built last year)and had no pretence of steering other than rather crude adjustments of sails. The loch had several promontories and the course took in 3 or 4 of these. The boats were set off and their skippers had to yomp across rough bogland to try and reach the next promontory before their boat.

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Several boats missed completely so that these unfortunate skippers had a half mile run to the the other side to reach their recalcitrant vessels and set them off again to try for the following promontory. Rather sadly , the mainstay of this eccentric sport had died the previous week ( in his nineties) . I do hope it will continue in his absence.

Gola

Bad weather has its advantages. If we are forced to hole up we can catch up on our sleep  and try and make inroads into the vast library of books that accompany us. Better still , if we are able to tie up ashore we have the opportunity to explore on land, and even, shock horror, to meet people; something that  seldom happens in our usual wild anchorages.

Throughout our stay in Ireland we have yet to come across anyone who has been less than friendly , but the folk of Burtonport and the surrounding country have been exceptional. The harbour master and local fishermen welcomed us onto the quay , the folk manning the visitor centre couldn’t have been more helpful, and on one of our bicycle peregrinations one lady offered to follow us into the town and drive our shopping back.  When we thanked her and  explained that we were fine to bring it back ourselves, she offered us the use of her shower. Lynda thinks we may have been a bit whiffy, but I think the offer was made out of genuine kindness. On the island of Gola we met some folk from just North of Dublin, and they confirmed that the people of Donegal are famous for their friendliness and hospitality.

Ah yes , the island of Gola. It is a tiny place just to the north of Aranmore with beautiful sandy bays on the South and East coasts, and spectacular  pink granite cliffs to seaward with great slashing chasms and natural arches.

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It sports the familiar ruins of former island homes , with here and there colourfully renovated cottages , although as yet no one lives there all year round. There are two memorials on the island , one of which was in Gaelic. I recognised the picture of an old sailing vessel as being that of Asgard , the yacht in which Erskine Childers transported rifles from Germany to Howth for the Irish nationalist movement and remembered he was helped by two fishermen from Gola. Childers , an Englishman , was shot by the British Government but not being able to read the Gaelic , I don’t know what happened to the two fishermen.

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The other memorial was for two descendants of Gola families who were killed in the 9/11 Twin Towers horror. It was sobering to be reminded of man’s repeated brutality  in such a remote and beautiful place and  it occurred to me that, for now at least , the nationalist stirrings that underly the Brexit controversy are being handled by the ballot box rather than rifles and bombs.

 

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On a lighter note , not only were we visited by two curraghs rowing out from the mainland  but on our wanderings  I was thrilled by a sighting of  a real  Irish pixie under a cliff. For the unbelievers amongst you , we have photographic evidence!

 

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A history lesson

The area round Aranmore looks fun on the chart and in the pilot books. There are lots of choices of anchorages in picturesque settings ;  purple blue mountains ashore contrast with  the pink granite rocks of the coast, and the whole lot is set off by lots of white sandy beaches. All it needs to be just about perfect  is some sunshine and settled weather. We decided we had to go there.
Hmm! As we rounded the headland at the North end of the island we were surfing down 3 metre swells.The sky was black , the  Westerly wind was gusting to 30 knots and the forecast was for the wind to back into the S or SE in the night. Aranmore roads look nicely sheltered  from the West , but rather exposed from the S or E  so a hasty look at the chart found a little bay called  Cruit Hbr . It was just a few further miles along the coast  and should  provide shelter from all those directions.
Not only did it do so , it was beautiful into the bargain. To the west , Cruit island ( pronounced “Critch!”) blocked the west wind , a gorgeous sandy beach protected us from the South , the mainland ( with a fine deserted  quay) to the East and several small islets and rocky reefs kept the swell from bending round from the North. Three boats swung on moorings and there was room for a whole fleet to anchor, yet we had it to ourselves.
Next day, after a mornings rain, the Southerly wind backed into the West again so we pottered back to Aranmore roads via Owey sound. Owey island , like many hereabouts , was abandoned in the the first half of last century, but the descendants of the original families are gradually rebuilding the ruined cottages as summer homes. First the roofs are repaired , then maybe a lick of paint makes a colourful splash, and finally , some are restored to full splendour, almost certainly better than they ever were before.

 

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Aranmore has never been abandoned, and a couple of ferries buzz constantly back and forwards from the mainland. I guess that it originally owed its continued population to the relative ease by which sailing ships and fishing vessels could get into its shelter, and this has been maintained by a ferry route that is safe in all but the most ferocious weather. We were still a bit worried about the wind which was due to back into the South again, but the local lifeboatman assured me that the anchorage was quite secure in a Southerly, and a glance at the chart showed another one further in towards the mainland should the wind back further into the East.

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The weather  was due to get really quite strong for a few days , so rather than be stuck on the boat,  after a day exploring the island we decided to moor up in the little harbour of Burtonport ( from where the ferries ply to the island). To get there you pass through a narrow channel between two smaller islands  ( Rutland and Eighter) before taking a dredged channel into the harbour walls of Burtonport.
The history of this area is fascinating. Back in the 16th century the colonising English built a port facility in the  natural harbour formed by the narrow gut between Rutland and Eighter. I would guess that vessels would lie in Aranmore roads, and  in inclement weather warp  into the tiny but perfectly sheltered sound between the two islands. At the time it was one of the the most important ports in Ireland, with large warehouses, customs house and even a bank. At some time a huge storm caused half of these buildings to be buried in sand, and the colony withered away . I suspect that another reason was that ships got bigger and it was just too difficult to get these vessels into the narrow channel. The ruins of these substantial buildings still line the channel , some renovated and now interspersed with smart new holiday houses .

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Some time later, a channel was dredged to the mainland shore and Burtonport was blasted out of the rock. No doubt this little port was perfectly adequate for the fishing and trading vessels of the time , and large facilities were built on the shore to cope with the vast tonnage of herring that was landed here , complete with a railway to ship them all away. A lady of our age describes how , as a girl , she loved coming down to the quayside to watch the hustle and bustle of what was still in her lifetime a tremendously busy little port.
What a difference now! A few small boats still work out of there for lobster and crab , but the once crowded quayside is all but empty. The locals claim that there are still loads of fish , but that all the quotas have been sold to the French and Spanish. Undoubtedly  fishing boats have moved on as well , and Killybegs , 50 miles down the coast, is rammed full of 200ft multimillion pound “fish hoovers” that are far too big to get into Burtonport , so it has sunk back into obscurity.

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The fisherman’s loss is the yachtsman gain as there is now plenty of room for us, but I cant help feeling that small scale fishery from ports like this would be far more beneficial to both the environment and the coastal community than the present state of affairs of industrial scale fishing. Maybe this could be one good thing that could come out of the Brexit fiasco?

Windy old weather, stormy old weather……

We have been home for a week , leaving Festina in the capable hands of the Blackwells, tucked up in their gorgeous corner of Clew Bay.

 

 

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In our absence the weather Gods have decided that we have been having it too easy and have sent a constant  strong Westerly airflow with frequent little unstable wave depressions that oscillate back and forth from S to NW , with rain accompanying the former and big squalls with the latter. Most of the time the base wind is 20-25 knots , with considerably more in the squalls , but as our course has been N , then NE and latterly East, it has been downwind most of the way , and FAST!

The plan has been to explore the islands of Mayo , then head North and do the same for Donegal. On previous trips we have hightailed it North into Scottish waters , but the more we get to know these N and W coasts of Ireland , the more we wonder why anyone would want to go anywhere else. Mayo has well maintained (and free!) visitors buoys in some of the most desirable places , but there is little in the way of modern alongside facilities so a close watch on the weather and care in choosing  anchorages is necessary – but that’s the way we like it!  I could spend a whole summer pottering around the islands of Inishboffin, Inishkea, Inishturk ( our absolute favourite!) and Clare , with the odd foray into Killary or back into Clew Bay for  provisions or shelter , but by all accounts it was just as nice further North so we eventually tore ourselves away.

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Anchorage at Clare Island with Croagh Patrick and Clew Bay in background

 

On our previous visit I remember Achill point (with the highest cliffs in Britain) as being stunning, but we chose a SW wind to avoid beating , and flashed past in zero visibility .

 

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Erris head is probably equally awesome , but we rounded it  blindfolded and screeched into the shelter of Broadhaven , rather cold and soaked to the skin. At precisely the most critical moment for pilotage there were several loud cetaceous snorts , and we were surrounded by 10 dolphin. These were not the Common dolphin we had encountered on the South coast , but Bottlenose dolphin ; Fungie’s kin.  They are big beefy animals , and the youngsters are fond of spectacular acrobatics , so all thoughts of tiredness , cold or discomfort were instantly dispelled as they cavorted around us . What’s more they followed us into our anchorage and played and presumably fed around us for an hour or two whilst we marvelled at  them- with the heater on and a hot rum in hand!  Who needs sunshine with that sort of show? Sadly next morning as we set off again they were nowhere to be seen.

 

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One of the older animals had a distinctive set of saw tooth notches on the  trailing edge of its dorsal fin, and to our astonishment after a sporting 50 mile dash across Donegal bay , there he was alongside us as we surfed through the entrance to Teelin Hbr.  There were only 4 animals present at this time, and they stayed with us for a few minutes only , but it raises the possibility that this family of Bottlenose Dolphin move around pretty fast , and perhaps specialise in fishing in narrow entrances  to bays .

It was a great excuse to toast them with another hot rum toddy!

Some things change – and some don’t.

 

We first came this way in 1994 in Polly. Jamie Wilkinson and I sailed the boat to and from the Hamble, a racing crew came over for a regatta in Baltimore and then each family had a 2 week cruise between Baltimore and Dingle. Its fun to retrace our steps and see if the huge changes in Ireland over the ensuing years have affected this marvellous coast

Baltimore, Schull and Crosshaven are still more or less unchanged, little North harbour on Clear Island has a fine new pier with lock gates to protect against Northerly swells , but still remains pretty primitive with no pontoons. The little anchorage under the ruined castle just outside Castletown-Bearhaven is as pretty as ever, but the ruins of Dunbar house nearby are spectacularly different. This huge gothic mansion was blown up by the IRA in the 1920’s and on our last visit we wandered through the roofless ruins. To our astonishment the building is now absolutely resplendent , looking better than it could ever have done in the past , except for the chain link fence that now surrounds it , a row of rather less attractive new buildings alongside , and the complete absence of any life .

Dunbar House : the ultimate Celtic Tiger follyIt seems that this was the archetypical Celtic Tiger folly – a project whose grandeur doomed it to failure when the Celtic bubble burst . Perhaps it was just as well as the adjacent little anchorage has been left in peace and is as charming as ever.

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We have visited Dingle four times over the years, and on each occasion we have been met in the narrows by Fungie , the resident Bottle nosed Dolphin.

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On our last visit 2 years ago we noted how he was no longer the exuberant animal of past visits , but he had nevertheless escorted us in and out in statesmanlike manner. To our dismay on arrival we passed through the narrows with no Fungie to be seen; the first time ever. The harbour master showed surprise when we told him , but later told us that he had just been shown a photo where Fungie appeared to have a large propellor wound. He is now upwards of 40 years old ; would this be the end of him? Two days later we left just after dawn on a calm sunny morning , and to our ( and no doubt the whole of Dingle’s) relief , there he was, cruising gently alongside with his wound clearly visible . We raised our morning coffee cups to him in a toast to wish him a rapid recovery and many more years of health in his chosen home.

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One thing that hasn’t changed is the friendliness of all we have met. Fishermen make a point of leaving their wheelhouses to wave and smile , ashore on the islands the residents are welcoming , and on coming in to anchor off Rosmoney point behind the wonderful islands that line the East coast of Clew bay a little rib scooted up. Oh oh , we thought , we are about to be shouted at ! Nothing could have been further from the truth as the young man at the wheel suggested that the holding wasn’t great , why didn’t we pick up a yacht club morning closer in , and was there anything we needed that he could help with.
Last but not least is the welcome offered us yet again by our friends Alex and Daria Blackwell on the other side of these islands. If there are more generous and affable hosts anywhere in the world, we have yet to meet them . It feels good to be here.

An ambition almost achieved

P1000601The anchorage in the Blaskets between Inishvickilane and Inishabro has to be one of our all time favourites. It is the most Westerly anchorage in Europe , stuck out there in the Atlantic off the SW point of Ireland and in truth it is somewhat marginal, exposed as it is to any East in the wind and only protected from the Atlantic swell by the adjacent points of the two islands, with a big gap between the two .

DSC_0135On the other hand it is a magnificent setting , surrounded at this time of year by puffins and other auks . Whatever shelter it does supply has been eagerly adopted by our friends the seals to bring up their pups and on at least one occasion in the past dolphins have come right into the Sound and played near our anchored boat. In short it is a magical place.

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DSC_0177Landing on Inishvickilane is straightforward – there is even a pier of sorts which you can reach at high tide , but mostly you have to land on a rocky beach and hope you don’t get swamped too badly before pulling the dinghy up the rocks . Inishabro across the sound however can allegedly only be entered through a cave , which sounds so impossibly romantic that I have wanted to try it ever since we first came here in 1994 in Polly.

Well , if ever we were to do it , now was the time as even though the gradient breeze was in the NE, the wind was so gentle and the sea so flat it is unlikely we will ever get a better opportunity.

The cave entrance was fairly difficult to find as it faced along the cliff, but once identified it appeared as a tall thin keyhole which we squeezed through with inches to spare either side of the dinghy.

IMGP0035 Once inside we were dumped unceremoniously on the rocks by a surge out of all proportion to the sea outside to reveal one sleeping seal and an easy scramble to the cliffs above.

 

P1000606The trouble was that the climb was through a crowded kittiwake and fulmar nesting site , and the rim of the collapsed roof housed a cormorant colony The gulls started to mob and spray us cheered on by the cormorants braying like a cross between football hooligans and agitated donkeys .

 

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We can take a hint so abandoned our climb and left Inishabro in peace again .

Perhaps we will return after the breeding season!

Wildlife Galore

Sometimes I cannot  believe our luck . Take this week for instance. The weather has been warm and sunny and the seas have been flat: ideal for looking at sea life. Then the icing on the cake, which is that most of the sea life of the NE Atlantic has converged on the Southern coasts of Ireland so that our wonderful experience off Baltimore has just continued to get better and better. Presumably the conditions are just right for plankton who have little fishes “apon their backs to bite ‘em” and the little fishes have bigger fishes “and so ad infinitum” – or more importantly for us ad dolphins and whales galoreDSC_0038

In Dingle the harbour master reported that the evening we arrived he looked out of his living room window just up the coast to see a Humpback whale repeatedly breaching, and a passing whale watching boat advised us to go 5 miles West of the Blaskets if we wanted to see more . Off we went , but nary a Humpback did we see , only loads of dolphins and 6 Mincke whales. ONLY LOADSA DOLPHIN AND 6 MINCKE WHALES? How blasé can you get!

South of Dingle the dolphin share the prey with hundreds of gannets that plummet into the sea like guided missiles , but North of there the birdlife is predominantly shearwaters. Perhaps the prey species are smaller here. North of Galway there has been a fall off in activity , but we are hoping the action will move North to rejoin us as the water temperature rises.

Here is a taste of what we have been enjoying.

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Caribbean Ireland

 

France has had almost constant rain and floods , the North sea has shivered under cold damp Northerly gales , but over here in Ireland it has been “shorts and tee shirt” temperatures and gentle winds , and as if that wasn’t enough the wildlife has been spectacular. From Fastnet round to Galway the sea has been a-splash with dolphins racing hither and thither as they gorge themselves on some sort of prey species or other. East of the Dingle peninsular they are accompanied in their feeding by large groups of Gannets plummeting into the sea all around , whilst North of there the birds tend to be Shearwaters, skittering along the surface and suggesting perhaps a smaller kind of prey providing the feast.
A humpback whale was sighted breaching repeatedly off Ventry , deep inside Dingle bay , and we were advised that we would be sure to see some if we ventured 5 miles West of the Blasket islands . Off we went in high excitement , but to no avail , at least as far as humpbacks were concerned. Nonetheless there was more or less constant dolphin activity and to our delight we passed no less than 6 Mincke whales loloping sedately south .
The gentle weather makes it much easier to see all these animals , but there is little doubt that the complex ocean ecosystem has shifted somehow to bring animals to this coast in numbers unprecedented in recent years. Let us hope it is a sign of a return of health to our seas.
This time last year we were dressed in 5 fleeces and the heater had been going flat out for days on end , but this year we have been seeking out shade and have turned the colour of deep mahogany. Nobody can believe their luck , least of all a young French cycle tourist whom we met in our favourite music pub in Dingle. He had been told it was going to rain tomorrow and was seeking a second opinion , thinking that as sailors we might be better informed . I was able to reassure him he had at least another week of stonking weather , and explained that in Ireland you could normally say “it would rain tomorrow “ and be right 95% of the time – but not this year!
In the real Caribbean , the sunshine is accompanied by good fresh winds – but hereabouts we get excited if it gets up to ten knots. Passage making has thus been relaxed and fairly slow , with most progress being made between 11 and 1800 under gentle sea breezes. We sail if it is 4 knots or over and can usually get up to hull speed when the breeze reaches 8 knots . Festina’s ability to make progress in these light airs has been a delight and we are probably using less diesel than last year despite using the engine more often , simply because the heater has remained resolutely inactive.
Our destination is the wonderful Clew bay and our friends the Blackwell’s on the NW coast but we are taking our cue from the weather and gently pottering along, marvelling at the wildlife and revisiting favourite haunts discovered on previous cruises.

A Grand Welcome to Ireland

Ireland did I hear you say ? I thought you were going up the North Sea to Shetland?

Ah , so did we until the forecast changed . What had looked like a week of westerly winds suddenly metamorphosed into Northerlies in the North seas and Easterlies in the Channel. That sounds like the perfect excuse to go to Ireland.

But what about Shetland ?

Well that depends !

On what ?

The weather of course. For now our course is to the west and first stop the Scillies.

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Reader we ran all the way , first with the spinnaker , and as befits our elderly status , this was handed when the wind reached 20 knots. We went just as fast with 2 reefs and a poled out genny but with the not so subtle difference that Festina sailed herself whilst we took turns in snoozing below.The forecast was for 30 knots to the West of the Lizard , so , as befits our elderly etc we anchored for a tide in the entrance to Falmouth . After this the wind was far more gentle , and in fact died away just after we moored in St Marys harbour.

You don’t need an excuse to potter about the Scillies, but 2 calm sunny days provided one anyway. Out came the canoe and we headed off to the Western rocks to look for seals and puffins . Puffins were strangely absent but the seals were everywhere, wailing and arguing with each other and amiably following us around in large numbers.

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On the way back we explored the little island of Samson at its dazzling low water best and it was 2 very tired and sore canoeists who clambered back aboard that night ( we are both carrying shoulder injuries) , but nonetheless we were elated by our day communing with nature at its very best.

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The forecast was changing once more and we needed to get across the Irish sea before the winds turned into the NW . Luckily a weak NE airflow gave us a beam reach at hull speed in the flattest seas I can remember , and as we reached the Irish coast we were welcomed by the largest school of Common Dolphin I have ever seen in these waters . At any one time we would have 15 playing around the boat and yet wherever we looked there would be more jumping and splashing , so that I estimate the total number to be in the region of 50 animals.

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Eventually they left us , to be immediately replaced by 2 minke whales sedately rolling along , and soon after that the floppy fins of 1, 2, 3, no, 4 Basking sharks, the biggest of which was at least 15 feet long. Finally as the sun sank in the west, a small group of dolphins returned to escort us into Baltimore harbour.

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Now I call that a grand welcome to Ireland!

The Time Capsule brings us Home

We said goodbye to Mike and Louise in the charming southern Danish town of Svendborg, leaving them with their Danish friends whilst we threaded our way through the shallow waters and islands south of Fyn, prior to a dawn dash in rapidly increasing winds across to Kiel. It looked as if we needed to get South through the Kiel canal to be ready for a period of anticyclonic weather that was predicted to deliver a week of gentle easterlies which could help us home. It all seemed too good to be true , and in a sense it was . We got the Easterlies , but they were for 3 days only and certainly not gentle , making for fast but far from relaxing passage making. The longer term forecast was for the easterlies to be followed by a succession of westerly gales, so we made the decision to do the home run in one hit.
Passage making in the North Atlantic is a doddle compared with the North Sea, which has become phenomenally crowded. For once, leaving the Elbe and traversing the North German coast was easy, but once we had turned the corner out of German Bight into sea area Thames, the fun started. Every time we come this way there seems to be another couple of wind farms to avoid , a 50% increase in shipping , and just when you get to a (relatively ) uncrowded area , dozens of fishing boats materialise out of the ether and procede to play dodgems with each other right where you want to go. In previous passages this year I had been able to imagine ourselves following in the Vikings wake , but not here . Here we were definitely in the 21st century and life was BUSY!
Probably the busiest area of all is the Maas approach to Rotterdam where ships appear from all directions and flood in and out of Europort. We crossed this at midnight with both of us up to cope with the traffic, and all went well. Once safely to the South I handed over to Lynda, observing that there were a few fishing boats inshore of us, but we looked to be well clear and I wished her a peaceful watch. 20 minutes later I was awakened by a squawk of alarm. Presumably the fishermen were hoovering up a big shoal with the aid of their fish finders , but one of the fish thought this was far from fair ( I think I agree!) , and decided to lead his brethren on an escape attempt over to where “that British yacht” was trundling South. The result was that all ten of the fishing boats had done a hand break turn and had charged after the fish – straight for us. When I got on deck we were surrounded, and it would appear that the fishermen only had eyes for their fish finders as they were altering course in random kamikaze fashion , meaning we had to duck and weave to avoid being rammed . The whole situation was made even more hazardous by their numerous bright deck illuminations making it very hard to make out the navigation lights and thus their courses. Somehow we stayed clear, but soon were into the complex buoyage and shallows of the Belgian coast and another stream of traffic in and out of the Scheldt, so rest was scarcely an option. The Dover straits crossing by contrast seemed straightforward , and once in British coastal waters we heaved a sigh of relief , dropped the main and ran downwind sedately all night under a poled out genny, ticking off the headlands and catching up on sleep.
After 3 days at sea we were at Selsey Bill, once more under full sail and now within a few miles of home. The forecast suggested we still had just a few hours of our precious Easterly in hand , but we felt a general disinclination to finish the trip. Accordingly we shot through the entrance to Chichester harbour and dropped anchor at East Head, 75 hours out of Cuxhaven , and with the curiously symmetrical reading of 456.78 miles on the log! By coming straight home we had pushed ourselves at times and missed out on seeing friends in Holland and Kent , but there is no doubt that a week later, 456 miles upwind would have been much more of a slog .
48 hours at anchor in Chichester harbour allowed us to relax and begin to look back on what perhaps has been our easiest cruise ever. We didn’t have any definite plans or time constraints, and were thus to a large extent able to go where the winds blew us. Luckily for us they took us to some exciting, if rather cold, places and then came up trumps with a wonderful period of Indian summer weather for our meanderings around the Kattegat. I have a feeling that if you are prepared to wait, summer weather in the northern latitudes will eventually take you where you want to get to.
I suppose that’s how the Vikings planned their summer voyages too, as like us, they waited for favourable winds and made sure they were tucked up at home long before the winter storms. This year I have really enjoyed the sense of the boat being a kind of time capsule, offering us glimpses into the past of those incredible Northern voyagers.
The question is, where will it take us next year?

A British fleet in Copenhagen

From Festina and Vela go to Denmark

With Mike and Louise waiting for us in the Sound ( the narrows between Denmark and Sweden) , it was time to travel the 100 miles SE to meet them. The only problem was the wind which was firmly in the SE, 120 miles directly upwind! The solution was to stop for the night at the little sand island of Anholt, out in the middle of the Kattegat and therefore a fetch on port tack, wait overnight for the wind to swing into the SSW and so fetch into the Sound on starboard . All went to plan until 20 miles off, when the wind increased to a steady 30 knots some hours ahead of schedule. Despite tiny sails, Festina thrashed along like a scalded cat and once we had a lee from the N Sjaelland coast, the wind and waves fell away and we spent the night in the charming fishing village of Gillelele, some 10 miles from the entrance to the Sound.
Next day whilst poking around in a little fishing museum, there amongst the typical round bodied Danish fishing boats was a long slim Viking shaped faering from Norway, just like those we had been admiring from Faroe and Shetland to the Norwegian coast. I asked the curator how it came to be here and she told me that after Nelson destroyed the Danish fleet at Copenhagen ( er …. sorry for that guys!) the Danish king gave carte blanche for any small Danish craft to prey on British merchant shipping trying to pass through the Sound. This was a pretty high risk procedure, and although large fortunes were made by well equiped privateers (the curator at the wonderful Orlogsmuseum in Copenhagen told me prizes worth 200 million kroner were taken) the fishermen didn’t fare so well, and at the end of the war had very few boats left. With timber also scarce, they bought cheap second hand boats from Norway. Whilst these were fast , they were too unstable to do well at the net fishing that was used for the herring here in Denmark , as opposed to line fishing for cod in Norway for which they were better suited.
In Copenhagen I discovered an amusing sequel of this privateers war, which was that the successful “letter of marque” men were by and large fisherfolk and seamen , and thus from the lower classes. Nevertheless they flooded Copenhagen with their new riches and thoroughly put the noses of the establishment out of joint, who couldn’t stand these nouveau riche upstarts flaunting their wealth. Thus the king put an end to this guerrilla war, not because it was unsuccessful, but because its very success threatened to upset the old order!

From Festina and Vela go to Denmark

Next day we sailed to Helsingfors ( Anglicised to Elsinore and home to “Hamlets” castle) , and there were Mike and Louise at the end of their long Eastern Baltic trip.

From Festina and Vela go to Denmark
From Festina and Vela go to Denmark

We decided to join up for a few days, and our first move was to Copenhagen from where we took a train to Roskilde to see the amazing Viking ship museum. For me this was the culmination of what has gradually become a journey of Viking discovery, starting at the Viking city of Dublin , then sailing the Viking derived lugger at Stornaway, pouring over the Viking ships and rowing boats of Faeroe , visiting the Viking age stopover points of Shetland and Norway (and the ships and museums of Tonsberg and Oslo ), and finally this extraordinary place where the past is meticulously researched by building and voyaging in detailed replica Viking boats. I was in seventh heaven!

From Vikings at Roskilde

Festina and Vela were moored in Christianshavn , a canal in the middle of the city and just opposite the Orlogsmuseum – which houses ship builders models of the Danish navy from the 16th century to the present , and whose curator was happy to look up the action at Lyngor in 1812 when a British 64 gun ship Dictator entered the Norwegian skerries to sink a Danish frigate the Naiad. She was hiding amongst the islands , sure that no large ship could follow her and Dictator must have followed the course we took to get in there. If the captains description of his stunsail yards brushing the rock either side was probably a bit of hyperbole , it had been tight enough for Festina with an engine and GPS , so was undoubtedly an amazing piece of seamanship . The Danes / Norwegians were convinced a local pilot helped the Brits, and offered a huge reward for his capture, but nothing ever came of it.

From Festina and Vela go to Denmark

Well, after 3 days in the city of Copenhagen and a wonderful history fest, it’s time work our way South again and take the first fair weather for Holland and home. The swallows are gathering and presumably, like us, their eyes are glued to the weather forecast and that all important weather window. Until it comes, Festina and Vela are going to slowly island hop their way towards Kiel.

From Festina and Vela go to Denmark