The journey just as I would have done it myself
TRAVEL: Paddle: A Long Way Around IrelandBy Jasper Winn Sort of Books, 320pp. £8.99
I HAVE a new arch-enemy, and his name is Jasper Winn. Halfway through making plans to write my own around-Ireland-by- sea-kayak odyssey I receive word that Winn has not only paddled his 1,600km solo route but put it all on paper too. I’m gutted, and driven to discover errors in his book. He recounts early on that, before his initial departure from Cork, he had little sea-kayaking experience. He’s sure to fail, I think, with a dastardly pleasure. Then he spoils things by getting seriously ill and losing his female paddling partner – yet still he carries on. Despite my inner voice, I’m impressed. The pull of the sea is too strong.
As I travel in his wake, page by page, I realise he hasn’t just stolen my idea; he’s written my book. I know it’s my book because it’s so darn good and just how I would have done it. Unlike the writers of some of the other books on this subject, Winn knows the soil that shapes Ireland as well as the sea that surrounds it. And the people. In fact, it’s his troubled relationship with this island that seems to underpin the journey he’s on. He recounts how at eight years old he set out to return from boarding school in England to his English home for Christmas and, instead of the route he had expected, was put on a cattle boat and brought to Ireland, where his parents had bought a ruined castle and a new life for him and his sister. And it’s here he remained, finding himself an outsider in a country he clearly loves.
Formal schooling ended early, with Winn choosing instead to train falcons to hunt and to teach himself to ride horses, shoot and skin rabbits while watching and learning from the magnificent bird life that also chooses Ireland as a home. These are skills that stand to him. A paddle around Ireland can be a treacherous adventure, filled with panic, discomfort, danger and endless wind and rain. Winn frequently finds himself stranded on islands short of food and water. He occasionally finds himself stranded in pubs, fighting the urge to stay by the fire, enrobed in his role as the fleeting stranger just in from the sea. But he wins these battles too, launching himself again and again into tidal streams and terrific Atlantic swells that roar their majesty.
Only halfway through his journey does he learn how to measure the tides and work with them, realising that if he paddles with them rather than against, it will be an easier, safer, more enjoyable ride. It’s a refreshing honesty that another paddler might hide. But this honesty fuels his tale, bringing us closer and more clearly in touch with him and perhaps all those who choose to skirt the edges alone.
His only constant companion is the wildlife. From the birds and seals that chart his departure from the spit at Reen in Co Cork to the dolphins, whales, jellyfish, sunfish and, yes, even sharks that accompany him on his clockwise journey until he returns, we know he is in a wild place. A lonely place. To conquer this loneliness he retreats into tales and memories of people who have shaped his life. Winn spent just over three months at sea. It’s probably the slowest circumnavigation on record, but in its telling it’s the most thrilling. Our journey with him is only partly along the coast. It is often lifted clear of the island to the other adventures and adventurous people he has encountered in his 48 years of journeying. Then, with a splash, you are pulled back to the wind-worn Atlantic or cold Irish Sea, the headlands and cliffs that make a landing so difficult and the challenge of simply pushing water under your boat, day after day.
As Winn recounts, sea kayaking is one of the few sports that don’t allow you to give up or take a break. No matter how tired you are, if you’re not home, you have to get there somehow. A pause for a rest could allow the sea to push you backwards and into even more danger. One of Winn’s tactics to keep going is to sing as he paddles, a tactic I employ also. It diverts the mind from fearing the reality of the distance that still needs to be covered.
Just the other day, on the return leg from a terrific trip around the Saltee Islands, off Co Wexford, I started to flag. A long paddle back to port in Kilmore Quay required a sustained ferry glide against the tide. My left arm ached, and I started talking myself home, not really feeling I had a song in me. Then suddenly I remembered that I had a new weapon in my armoury, a question: what would Jasper do? Arch-enemy no more.
Gary Quinn is an Irish Timesjournalist. His series The Sea Road: 15 Classic Irish Sea Kayak Routes begins in Go, the Irish Timestravel supplement, next Saturday