Island hopping

 

In the first of two Sea Road trips in Co Mayo, GARY QUINNtakes a solo trip out of Westport, through Clew Bay – and comes back with a lobster

I SPENT LAST Sunday night walking around Westport with a live lobster in a string bag. And when I entered the Helm bar on Westport Quay, where I was staying, I put this dark blue crustacean, with its clicking mouth, up onto the crowded bar and order a pint.

The Dutch woman beside me doesn’t wait for an introduction, thinking a man with a lobster hilarious. A younger woman who was closer to home walked up and said: “Okay – so a man walks into a bar with a lobster . . .” and waits, smiling, as I struggled in vain to provide a punchline.

Vinny and Shane Keogh, the father and son team who own the Helm and its apartments save my stammering by taking it from me and returning 20 minutes later with it (or possibly a close relative) split, roasted and coated in sauce. It was delicious and helped round off an incredible day.

Eight hours earlier I had launched onto Clew Bay from this very same quayside and had pushed into one of the most beautiful paddles I have had this summer. For the first time in 12 weeks I had blue skies, absolutely no wind and a glass-like sea. Children waved as I paddled through the port and parents called hello in my wake. Westport is that kind of place. Relaxed and friendly, in such perfect conditions there was nowhere else I wanted to be.

Croagh Patrick dominates everything in this terrific part of Ireland, but even it struggles to hold your attention when tempted by the stunning islands of the bay.

Although this was a solo paddle, I was not ill-equipped, as Ali Donald who runs Saoirse na Mara (irelandwestseakayaking.com) had plotted my course, his written directions steering me through and around some of his favourite spots.

Twenty-five kilometres lay between Westport and my final destination at Roonagh Pier where Ali’s father Ian would be waiting for me. This isn’t just a friendly gesture. Going to sea alone is a big undertaking.

Quite apart from the safety measures you plan for yourself (such as a means of communication; flares; paddle floats to help you back into your boat after a capsize; practised rescue techniques; navigation tools) someone on land needs to know your beginning and end points and have knowledge of when you’re due back on land.

So while I was delighted to know I would be meeting Ian Donald at the end, I was even happier knowing that he was expecting me.

It was fascinating following Ali’s directions. We weren’t due to meet face-to-face until the following day but here I was navigating through his patch as though he were alongside me. I’ve heard a lot about Ali this summer – he has travelled the world coaching and exploring through kayaking, both rivers and sea, and he is fast becoming a bit of a legend in his own lifetime - although having since met him I now know that that statement would make him blush.

Kayakers all around Ireland talk about him with huge admiration and everyone finishes the same way: by stating their amazement at how much he has done at such a young age. But then he did start young, at eight years old.

He sent me out just after high water at 1pm, giving me six hours of ebbing tide to help bring me along my route west and south. I head first for Pigeon Point, passing Green island along the way. Ali has alerted me to the fact that the seals on Green Island have pupped recently so I’m looking forward to seeing them up close – without disturbing them too much.

I have a thing about seals: I’ve convinced myself that they understand Irish (and not English) so always have a good chat when I’m on the water. Odd but strangely satisfying.

From here the islands are in full view, their curling peaks beckoning me to travel further. I pass Inishraher now, tempted left and right by multiple destinations, each with gleaming beaches and wind tossed headlands. But Dorinish Beg is in my sights. This was the island John Lennon bought in 1967 but never got to use as intended. It’s a beautiful spot, some 8km paddle from Westport. Isolated, cowering in the shadow of Croagh Patrick but majestic to the sea.

I have lunch here and sing a song – I’m alone after all and it seems the right thing to do. Then I pushed out into the open sea, heading back towards the coast. I’m dawdling now, the tide is pushing me, the sun burning my skin and work is far from my thoughts. Families play on the long golden beaches as I pass. Huge compass jellyfish pass beneath my boat and Old Head begins to loom before me.

Old Head is a fabulous rocky place, with deep caves and high arches to explore. A family is diving off the rocks, the boys screaming of jellyfish while the girls dangle their legs from a rock.

Another paddler and his companion pass by. We stop to talk and confirm my location on the map. He recognises my boat from the paper so naturally I’m delighted. (I often fear no one is reading.) He’ll be a good critic of this piece since it’s his day at sea too. I’m only sorry I don’t have his name.

I start to push hard now for Roonagh. The tide is turning and I either work hard now or later against the flow. Besides, I’m eager to meet Ian. I’ve had enough of my own company.

He said he would come out in his boat to meet me. As I approach I see not one but two boats launch from the shore. Ian is joined by his wife Patricia and I’m so very impressed. They’re out to check their single lobster pot, working together as one, laughing and talking about their home in this stunning part of Mayo. They are immediately a part of where they live. Patricia suggests I help Ian pull up the lobster pot, by coming alongside and helping balance his boat. The pot is heavy, three lobsters and a spider crab. The spider crab gets to return to the depths but the lobsters are quickly bagged.

Patricia ties one to my boat and tells me to bring it back to the Helm and have it cooked. It’s that kind of place, she tells me and laughs. She’s right. And not just the Helm, but Mayo too. It really is.

EAT/SLEEP

The Helm,Westport Quay, is the perfect kayaker’s home – on the water, with safe underground parking for your boats and with apartments as well as single rooms. See thehelm.ie for more

All about Clew Bay, Co Mayo

Mayo is a “mighty county” for sea kayaking routes. You could spend a few weeks in the county and still be spoilt for choice. If you have time to enjoy Mayo at your leisure then a great introduction to the county is to kayak west from Westport.

Clew Bays myriad of islands give great inshore shelter during Atlantic blows and merit a weeks camping expedition. However, on a good day and with the tides running strongly through the islands a fit kayaker can have a great day “going west”. The drumlin belt of Ireland ends in Clew Bay but the sea has reshaped their forms to leave an interesting variety of eroded landforms, especially on their seaward flanks. Visually the trip westwards is dominated by Croagh Patrick to the south and the Nephin range to the north. Both provide a stunning backdrop to the islands and the kayaker navigating the narrow channels. Collan More, Crovinish, Dorninish Mór, Inishlyre or Inishgort offer opportunities for a coffee break or lunch stop and time to take in the views.

The Clew Bay islands are a magnet for wildlife year round and the kayaker can get close to Grey and Common Seals, Black Guillemots, Terns and Otters in summer while Barnacle Geese, ducks and waders abound during the winter months. All the islands are different, some with more history than others and all will tempt you to linger. However, as you begin to clear the outermost islands then the bulk of Achill to the northwest and Clare Island to the west will tease the kayaker ever seaward.

Our route follows the southern shore heading for the attractive headland at Old Head. The nature of the landscape changes again, as here the marine erosion processes now dominate and have shaped the attractive caves, arches and cliff faces. The last few miles to Roonagh Quay allow time to fish and savour a good days kayaking.

SEÁN PIERCE

Seán Pierce is a level-five sea kayaker and selected the routes for this series. Sean@shearwaterseakayaking.ie