Another Life: Westlife – the secret anti-whale weapon every sailor needs
Miles and Eithne Henaghan kept their wits about them on their 10-month voyage back to Ireland from New Zealand
Half a world away: Michael Viney’s painting of Old Head Bay for the Henaghans
Even so far off, the tall, white wisp of sail that appeared on our horizon the other evening was clearly a serious, ocean-going yacht – a grown-up version, as it were, of the little dinghy in my painting. This had gone with my young friends Miles and Eithne Henaghan, departing newly wed to New Zealand four years ago, as a playful memento of the groom’s boyhood, much of it spent messing about in boats below his family home on Old Head. The painting hung on the wall in Auckland as he shaped the big adventure for Eithne and himself – sailing back to Mayo, half the world away, via the Panama Canal.
The arrival of Ashling beneath Croagh Patrick was a touching blend of the epic and the local. A long and improbable calm slowed her progress past the islands, so that the bonfires of greeting had almost burned to embers. But her final rounding of the headland brought a roar of applause from the bay’s little pier, crowded with what one can only call, warmly, the local populace. Young couples sailing the oceans may grow in number every year, but few skippers cast anchor at the family front door after a 10-month journey home.
A few facts now. Ashling is a French-built 35-foot cruising yacht, slow but strong and fitted with ingenious whirly bits, above and astern, generating power for extensive electronics and a fridge. Miles is a software engineer who took four months off work to gain a yachtmasters’ certificate.
Working in China, he met Eithne, also from Mayo and working in communications. When, in New Zealand, the Ashling appeared in their lives, she prepared as first mate, taking a coastguard day-skipper course, a VHF radio licence and another course in advanced sea survival, as well as perfecting fancy knitting for the long days in the doldrums.
The huge, deep distances of the Pacific demanded all of that, from the stressful passage to Tahiti into gales and heaping swells to the 54 days it took from the Marquesas to Panama – days of leaden skies and painfully long, slow tacking into headwinds to advance a few sea miles (80km to gain 18km) or evade the menacing approach of lightning. Monotony and inactivity bred nights of hectic dreams.
Off the main shipping routes and away from the verdant islands, the Pacific can also seem an oddly empty ocean: visits from albatrosses and flying fish spoke for most life on the surface. At night, the rise from the depths of luminous life – siphonophores and their jellied kind, or “the blobs” as Miles and Eithne called them – was echoed in the swirl of green luminescence in the loo. Chunks bitten from the blades of the yacht’s trailing generator suggested more substantial inhabitants, glimpsed in occasional fins, and the need for Miles to go overboard to scrape goose barnacles off the hull was voted the voyage’s scariest event.
Once in the Atlantic, however, and ushered along by the Gulf Stream, both weather and wildlife were joined in exceptional benevolence. The Bermuda Triangle surrounded Ashling with “jelly boats”, the little blue Velella with diagonal sail that often ends up in thousands at the tidelines of Ireland. And once in the Azores High, as Eithne wrote in Ashling’s blog, “the ocean erupted with life”. (Recommended reading at sweenaghansatsea.blogspot.com.)
Miles had once found a yellowfin tuna washed up at Old Head, and now, as Eithne describes, skipjack, small tuna, skipped ahead of the boat for six hours, “their purple and yellow backs sparkling in the sunlight and teasing the skipper whose two fishing lines trailed limply out the back”. Striped dolphins surfed the bow every day, “squealing and clicking as they jumped and dived around us”. Loggerhead turtles “raised their heads just an inch to watch us pass by”.
The Atlantic brought Ashling into the first company of whales, an honour fraught with some anxiety in most yachting narratives. Ten-metre minke whales, almost as long as the boat, surfacing within metres, required, the crew decided, an urgent declaration of identity. Track six of the skipper’s Westlife album, played at full blast, kept the minkes at a wincing distance.
Somewhere off Kerry, a pod of some 30 pilot whales surrounded Ashling as the crew changed watches at 4am. The mammals’ bulbous heads surfaced every few minutes for air, but even the largest, at some three metres, prompted no worry.
Pilot whales have been known, it seems, to attack red-painted keels, but the crimson trim on Ashling seemed to pass muster, and the whale families kept the yacht company for two hours or more, their pulsing calls and whistle reverberating through the hull.
The voyage of Miles and Eithne satisfied a boyhood dream for the skipper and a typically determined and lively response from his mate. It was a one-off thing, the adventure of a lifetime: the Ashling will be sold and onshore life resumed. Wow!