The Battle of Bornholm

 

There was no wind next day so we moored in Holtenau harbour to catch up on sleep and see our friend Ingo who keeps his boat there. Its an old fishing harbour in the Kiel Fjord, with just a few yachts, and as friendly a place to stay as you can find anywhere. The wind arrived to order the next day and a fine fresh NW ‘ly blew us all day and through the night to the Island of Bornholm , some 170 miles to the East, where there are several idyllic little harbours in the East coast that we had always wanted to visit.

It was a busy night with all sorts of warships from many nations racing hither and thither , but no one seemed to pay us much attention . Until the morning.

We were trickling along in the fading breeze under spinnaker, eating a late breakfast and enjoying the bright sunshine, when the radio bust into life. A Latvian warship announce he was going to give coordinates of a live firing exercise , so I felt I ought to plot them. They were uncomfortably close and the firing was due to commence at 1200 hrs Bravo , whatever that means. If it was UTC we were fine , but if it meant local time, we were in trouble. I tried to call up to clarify but was met with stony silence.
Shortly afterwards a Belgian warship did the same thing , and his co-ordinates put us halfway between the two! Perhaps they were going to fire on each other! Again the Belgian refused to answer my call on Ch 16 , but he switched on his AIS and I obtained his call sign and persisted.

I needed to know what direction they wanted me to go. The quickest way to clear them was via a gunnery area off the South coast of Bornholm, but they too ignored my call. Eventually the Belgian replied , was spectacularly unhelpful and ended up signing off with a deliberatly childish “BYE BYE . OUT!”

I decided the best way out was to Ronne on the West coast as my original course , around the South coast firing range , was downwind and therefore slow. Our plan of visiting the East coast was thus stymied ( tomorrow is due to blow hard from the East and the harbours will be closed) completely unnecesarily as had they deigned to have a sensible discussion , that course may well have been perfectly acceptable. Its not the first time we have seen the arrogance of naval vessels , tho it is the first time we have been directly affected , but however important the stupid wargame they were playing may be , cretinous behaviour like that gives one no confidence that they will behave sensibly in a real live situation.

We never heard any bangs at all! With any luck they sank each other .

Mmm, I feel better for getting that off my chest!

Brunsbuttel – 24 hours to forget

 

The wind for our passage from Helgoland into the Elbe was strong and we arrived at the entrance before the flood had really got going . The seas were very violent for a while ; no problem for us as we were surfing down them at 8 knots , but I wouldnt like to have been going the other way. Once the tide did turn we covered the distance to Brunsbuttel and the beginning of the Kiel canal in a twinkling , making 11 knots over the land at times. We locked through into the canal, went for a long walk and were just settling down with a glass of wine feeling very satisfied with ourselves when Lynda noticed her feet were wet.

The floorboards were awash! While pumping I quickly tasted it – fresh water – so it must have come from our freshwater system. We dismantled the whole boat and examined every joint and pipe, all of which were fine. By now it was getting dark but I slipped outside and tasted the canal water – FRESH! Not only that but as fast as we bailed , the bilges filled up again. This was far more serious , so I turned my attention to the engine cooling system and seacocks, which again were leak free. Water was seeping from under mouldings in an area localised to just behind the engine , so I surmised that we had a leak in the hull in this area which we sustained after entering the canal ( no salt water so it must have happened in the fresh water of the canal) . Had we damaged the P bracket? There had been no collision or evidence of the prop getting snared.

This was getting serious in a Catch 22 sort of way, because if we had damaged the P bracket we couldnt use the engine. The nearest liftout facility was 30 miles down the river ( you have to motor in the Canal!) , but we couldnt get there because using the engine might further damage the P bracket and turn it into a catastrophic problem! There was nothing to be done in the night so a watch system was set up, bailing one bucket every 10 minutes and taking it in turns to have a troubled sleep.

By dawn the time per bucket was increasing and at 8 it suddenly ceased. This was good news and meant that we had been bailing the residue of water that had got into the extensive bilge matrix but still left us no wiser as to the original cause of the leak. I had contacted my insurance first thing and they sent over a surveyor who went over the boat with me again , but didnt get any further than I had. Whatever it was that had happened in the canal had ceased spontaneously. We decided the most likely cause was a temporary failure of the shaft seal , and ran the engine with no further leak. He cleared us to transit the canal ( if the seal doesnt close I can fix that if Im expecting it) and we set off. 10 minutes later the bige was full again despite the shaft seal working impecably, so it was back to Brunsbuttel and pumping , but crucially it was daylight and I found a newly fitted shaft vent tube merrily siphoning the Canal from the outside ( where it should be) to the inside of the boat – where it definitly should not.

Phew ! This I could cope with and put the system back to how it had been for 5 years. By now we were both exhausted , what with bailing all night and ripping the boat apart umpteen times so collapsed into our bunks vowing to set out in the morning.

Dawn next day was sunny and cold with a few whisps of mist. After 10 minutes the radio burst into life. “ Canal 1 calling the sailing yacht Festina Lente – there is fog on the canal, please moor immediately” So we did and sure enough within 20 minutes were enveloped in a real pea souper such that you coudn’t see the bow. We were eating breakfast below when I heard the sound of a large vessel manoevering nearby and the high pitched voice of a Philipino seaman crying “Sir , Sir , you must move , you must move , – QUICKLY”
I raced outside to see the bows of a significant sized tanker looming out of the fog, and the worried face of the sailor looking anxiously down.

We moved .

QUICKLY!

Later on the fog lifted and we motored the 50 miles to Kiel with no issues.

Sometime I would like to be bored for a while – just for once – just to see what it is like!

Fun on the Friesian Coast

 

Spring tides and Westerly winds are a dangerous mix on the North Friesian coast as you need to avoid any of the river entrances on the ebb. After Vlieland we couldnt seem to time the entrance to the Elbe to coincide with the flood so decided on yet another stop , this time at Borkum .

40 years ago we came this way in Undine, our 100 year old gaff cutter , beating home from our first trip to the Baltic. The wind got up , the fog came down and we were immensely relieved to find the safewater mark marking the entrance to the Ems estuary (with no navigation aids other than traditional dead reckoning.) I recall surfing in on huge seas and negotiating the hairpin turn into the Borkum channel under sail , at night and with a dead engine ( the pilot said you should never attempt it unless you had daylight , a reliable engine and local knowledge!) and then sailing in to a tight little harbour and berthing alongside with barely a scratch.

It was going to be interesting to visit the scene of this adventure , and we weren’t disappointed by the Borkum Channel. By the time we reached there the Spring ebb was running hard against 20 knots of NW causing impressive seas down which we surfed in a manner that brought back memories of our previous experience. The entrance is marked by the Fischerbalje beacon whose shape is still indelibly etched on my memory from the drama all those years ago. In complete contrast , the harbour itself is much bigger than I remembered , and far from a superb feat of seamanship required to enter and berth alongside it is big enough to berth a battleship , as indeed it probably once did !

This first of the German islands was anything but crowded ( you could count the number of visiting yachts on the fingers of one hand ) and all the better for it. The people were very friendly and we took a day off to explore the little holiday town with its gaily coloured deck chairs so well remembered from our last visit.

It was still going to be difficult to time a passage into the Elbe on the flood so the decision was made to visit Helgoland and time our passage from there. To get there you have to stay to the South of the shipping channel, cross the entrance to the Jade and Weser estuaries , then cross the shipping lanes into the Elbe, all of which are crowded with ships. Halfway there the visibility closed in to less than 100 metres and the fun began. Our first “target “ turned out to be a Dutch yacht , and when I called them up to warn them of our presence they asked if they could follow us as they had neither AIS or radar, so we proceeded in convoy . With Lynda on deck and me glued to the radar screen and radio we sheperded them across and both arrived in Helgoland in good order.

This was the first time we had viisited this little rock , a duty free holiday island that reputedly is jam packed and a bit grotty in the season but was today putting on its best face with its brightly painted houses and just few enough people to be fun. One of the things we noticed both here and at Borkum was the number of signs saying this or that was Verboten. Indeed whilst cycling round Borkum we had been told spontaneously by a walker that the path we were looking at ( we were lost!) was also “Verboten”. Perhaps in translation it sounds more severe than meant but seems ( to this slightly anarchic Englishman) indicative of a very ordered law abiding society. In Helgoland bicycles are verboten , but perhaps the island is far enough off the mainland for a little bit of rebellion to creep in because the crafty islanders have chopped the front half of bicycles off and welded it to the back half of a scooter. It might look like a bike from the front – but its a scooter- so its OK!

One strange aspect of the trip so far was that the whole of the North sea was covered with a kind of white algal overgrowth which blew downwind across the water looking for all the world like the spray blown downwind in a 30 knot breeze. Thus , although the winds were mostly moderate , part of my subconcious associated the sight with much more wind and I found that I was as nervous as a cat , repeatedly glancing at the instruments to make sure it really wasnt a gale! I wonder if this is yet another side effect of overfishing ( trawlers hoover up the big fish , and the lack of big predators causes an oversuppy of tiny fish , who eat the zooplankton , which are not present in sufficient numbers to control the algae.) I must ask Bryony.

Holland is Full

Our day off in Oostende had avoided the worst of the NE wind , and by dawn it had veered enough for us to just lay our course in a light to moderate breeze and a bright sun trying its best to penetrate the mist. By midday a sea breeze added its twopennyworth, from time to time managing to pull the wind round to the North, but there were sufficient shifts back and forwards that the beat was not too onerous. The forecast for the following day was for a veer to SE so it was an easy decision to slip into Scheveninge after 14 hours on the wind.
Blimey if we thought Oostende was crowded , we soon found out that Scheveninge was FULL! We eventually found a pontoon in the outer harbour which would have been untenable in any sort of onshore breeze , but passed the night quite comfortably whilst the wind swung round to the SE. It seemed that Holland was on holiday , most of the population had taken to the water and on top of that at least 60 extra boats were gathering for a race to Harwich the next day.
Another dawn start and a fresh and fast reach round the top of Holland took us to the Terschelling Zeegat and a decision.The forecast was for a thundery front to pass through and send the wind round to the SW , perfect for a passage along the Frisian island chain. However we have previous experience with thunderstorms along this coast – not to put too fine a point to it , they are frightening. A pit stop in Vlieland seemed in order and anchoring a bit dodgy given the unpredictable nature and direction of storm cell winds .
Holland was on holiday up here too, and the harbour at the E end of the island was full to bursting point. Somehow we squeezed in and instantly regretted it . It was far too hot inside the harbour walls and we had a sudden feeling of compassion for how sardines must feel when they are packed in a tin . Then the front came through, not with a bang, but a whimper and the hot sultry SE wind was instantly replaced by a splendid cool SW and altogether better visibility – perfect passage weather. Sadly the tide was completely wrong for getting out to sea and we would just have to wait til dawn.

Over the past 3 days we had begun to long for the peace and solitude of our usual Northern stamping grounds. Also the Dutch seem to go in for increasingly large and immaculately shiny boats , and Festina has for the first time seemed a bit dowdy and perhaps more suited to less civilised waters . In the section in Vlieland harbour reserved for traditional boat lay a significantly larger than usual botter. What really marked her out was her finish . Imaculately machined strips of stainless steel surrounded her gleaming oak leeboards and the black paint on her steel hull was so impossibly shiny that I could easily have shaved using her as a mirror ( if I hadnt given up such barbarous practices 40 years ago!) . She was the botter equivalent of a superyacht – and despite the fine workmanship that was so obviously on show – she was too bling.

Maybe I am just jealous , but for the first time am beginning to doubt the wisdom of coming this way. Hopefully the crowds will disperse as we get further North.

A New Approach and a Foggy Start

 

One thing we have learned over the years is that having to be somewhere specific by a certain time can generate an enormous amount of pressure on us as the weather gods may have completely different ideas. Why then did we plan to meet Bryony , Simon and Jo and their partners in Stockholm on very specific dates so that they could book flights.
Well partly it is because we are not getting any younger and its time to grab time ( and adventures ) with our friends whilst we can, and partly a gamble that if we give ourselves a month to get there it should be achievable without too much stress. Time will tell if that assessment is ambitious or not. Its certainly a very different approach to last year when we set off with absolutely no plan at all!

When the time came for departure we had a 36 hour window before the winds turned north easterly so the spinnaker went up outside the Hamble river and off we pootled. By Selsey the wind was up to 20 knots and we were roaring along in the right direction. A good start, but would it last?

The wind disappeared with the sun leaving only a gentle breeze from dead astern. Trickling along at 3 knots in the starlight was delightful but it wasn’t going to get us far before that dreaded easterly arrived, so the engine went on and would run for 18 hours .

Warm winds in May tend to be full of moisture , and with clear skies, cold seas and cooler nights, fog is a near certainty. It came in with a vengeance in the Dover straits but with AIS and radar the crossing was straightforward. We had decided to get as much easting as possible before the wind came ahead, then theoretically we could make our way north off a weather shore ( likely to be less foggy than a direct crossing of the North sea) so we headed along the Belgian coast. Daylight and bright sun not only improved the visibility , it delivered us a gentle sea breeze so that we carried the spinnaker all the way to Oostende. The tide was now foul , the wind due to go ahead and freshen and it was likely to be foggy again at night so we headed gratefully though the Harbour entrance and tumbled into bed.

Blimey Oostende was crowded! It appeared our visit coincided with a major maritime festival and a day spent amongst some seriously interesting ships and a very fine Yorkshire shanty quartet was no hardship at all. It fellt as if we had made a very good start.

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!