Dublin by kayak: See the city from a whole new angle
‘The Liffey is Dublin’s most important street, but most people have never been on it’
Kayaking on the Liffey: Conor Pope tours Dublin. Photograph: Laura Hutton
“Your life jacket’s on the wrong way round,” says Michael Byrne as I spring from the little cabin he has positioned in the shadow of the Jeanie Johnston famine ship on Dublin’s Custom House Quays.
As the owner of Dublin City Kayaking, Byrne runs easy-going paddling tours up and down the Liffey and more than 3,000 people climbed into one of his little boats last year. He looks sadly at me as I wrestle with my buoyancy aid and it quickly becomes clear that my bragging minutes earlier about having once done the Liffey Descent – an annual 30km river race – in a Canadian kayak is being called into question.
But I did do the Liffey Descent once and it nearly killed me. I even have a medal to prove it, although my role in winning that medal was, at best, marginal, and I was, by some distance, the weakest link in a three man team in the kayak that finished second in the race back in 2011.
The Liffey is the perfect place for an adventure, because it doesn’t matter if it is raining or sunny: you can still go out and have some craic on the water
But even so, I did complete the 28km run from the K Club in Straffan, Co Kildare, to Islandbridge in Dublin, and I did so in a raging torrent made all the more raging after the ESB released 30 tonnes of water from the Poulaphouca Reservoir to ensure more fun and/or terror.
I dealt with the torrents and the terrifying weirs and the rapids that would happily have trapped me under the water and killed me in a heartbeat. Today, I can’t even get the life jacket on right.
As I wrestle, Byrne tells me the age profile of those who book his kayak adventures typically ranges from 25 and 45 and “most of the people are fit – as in free independent travellers”. With some pride, he says his is the top ranked Airbnb experience in Dublin.
He assures me that while I’m “guaranteed a wet backside”, the rest of me will stay dry.
“The Liffey is Dublin’s most important street,” he says. “But most Irish people have never been on it and it is almost like we have turned our back on our river. But given the weather we have, it is the perfect place for an adventure, because it doesn’t matter if it is raining or sunny: you can still go out and have some craic on the water.”
There are five others standing by as he talks, all of whom have managed to dress themselves correctly. There is a sickeningly healthy sun-kissed couple from Las Vegas, another couple from Michigan, and a woman from New York called Tessa who is randomly assigned to my canoe with her terrified Irish friend Kelly.
Kelly doesn’t want to get in my boat, or indeed in any boat. She hates the water. “There’s literally nothing that can go wrong,” I tell her, my voice brimming with confidence. “This is the safest thing you will do today.”
Truth be told, I’ve absolutely no idea if it will be the safest thing she will do today, but having once been terrified of water (before I learned to swim) and missed out on too many fun things as a result, I want her to stay on board.
Miraculously my pep talk works and she agrees to come along with me and Tessa. We are seated based on our height, and because my fellow travellers are short, I get to go at the back of the kayak.
It’s the best place to be as when you are seated at the back of the boat, no one can see you slack off. “Left, right, left, right,” I shout to my fellow paddlers as we set off. They think we are all paddling in synch and have no clue that my paddle is actually resting on the boat and I am watching Dublin pass me by at the oddest of angles.
We paddle past some plastic bottles and a giant bin bag full of fresh-looking rubbish. But apart from that the river is remarkably clean and doesn’t smell at all
Eventually, guilt gets the better of me and I start paddling too. Byrne promised me I would stay dry but he wasn’t counting on my unconventional paddling technique, which sees me spray my fellow crew members and myself in a steady shower of river water as we move serenely towards O’Connell Bridge.
That spray scares me more than you might imagine. Back when I did the Liffey Descent – did I mention I did that? – the most frightening thing wasn’t the water or the rocks, but the fear that I’d be poisoned by the rats lurking behind the trees lining the bank waiting to pee in the water so they could give me Weil’s disease.
I had thought about that again as I headed towards the kayaking centre, but comforted myself with thoughts that this gentle Liffey ascent would not be a cause for concern. But then I go and splash water into my open mouth.
“F**k,” I mutter anxiously, convinced I have just swept deadly rat pee into my mouth. Moronically, I then try to wipe away any possible infection with my sleeve, my sleeve which is soaking wet from Liffey water. Having made things immeasurably worse, I content myself with thoughts of death as we make our way up the river in pale sunshine.
Every now and then we paddle past a plastic bottle floating morosely out towards the sea, and one giant bin bag full of fresh looking rubbish. But apart from that, the river is remarkably clean and doesn’t smell at all. This gives me some comfort.
At the Custom House, under O’Connell Bridge, at Capel Street Bridge and in the shadow of the Four Courts we pause as a team to get vignettes from Irish history from Byrne.
He tells us about the Vikings and Strongbow and the Act of Union and the War of Independence. His little tales take in the Civil War and go and right up to the destruction of Wood Quay.
“The Liffey is much cleaner now than it used to be,” he shouts from the motor boat put-putting alongside us. “There are salmon here now, and seals have been here for a couple of years.”
My kayak mate Tessa is a barista from New York and arrived in Ireland only 12 hours earlier to visit Kelly. She is incredibly enthusiastic about what Byrne has to say and endlessly chatty when he falls silent.
She is also full of questions for me about the river and the city. “Where can I buy filter coffee? What is that bridge called? Who are those statues on top of that building there? Where can I get a tattoo? What is the national flower of Ireland? Do you have a national animal? How do we turn left in this thing?”
I can only answer about half her questions. Our tour takes full advantage of the tides. We set off when it’s coming in so the water gently pushes us up towards the city centre. By the time we have reached the Four Courts an hour later and are turning, so is the tide, which pushes us back from whence we came.
It is just as well because we are kayaking into a brisk wind on the return. The three teams inevitably start to race. For most of the descent, Team Pope is in front, but then the super healthy Vegas couple burst past us on the home straight.
Then I nudge them into the quay wall – obviously – to ensure my team finishes in first place, ignoring their scowls as I climb out of my kayak, only delighted with myself.
A two-hour kayak experience with Dublin City Kayaking costs €33
Other watery adventures to try
Surfing Ths is just a brilliant way to spend a day and you don’t have to be any good at it to knock a bit of craic out of it. Bundoran, Strandhill, Lahinch and Rossnowlagh are just four of the best surfing spots along the west coast, but anywhere there are waves, there is fun and because of advances in wet-suit technology you can do it for hours on end in icy Atlantic waves without feeling any cold. Don’t expect to be riding any waves in the first day or two on the water and if you can stand up on the board for more than 10 seconds at a stretch you will be doing well.
Stand-up paddleboarding Standing up on these boards is a whole lot easier. This sport comes from the warm waters which lap the Hawaiian coast, but in recent years it has found a very comfortable home in the considerably colder waters around Ireland. Unlike surfing, paddleboarding is ridiculously easy to learn, and with just an hour’s tuition you can expect to be able to stand on the water on your board. The people at puremagic.ie offer classes and adventure off Dollymount Strand in Dublin.
Bog snorkelling This is cold, wet, dirty and mighty craic. The aim is to swim - completely blind, 60 metres through a channel of bog water with your head immersed in murk and using only flippers to propel yourself forward. Experts can do it in less than 90 seconds. It took this writer more than five minutes to complete a course in Castleblayney in Co Monaghan, where the Irish Bog Snorkelling Championships will take place on August 25th. It’s not too late to sign up if you fancy your chances, but unless you have done it before and have some clue what you are doing, be prepared to zig-zag your way along the course in a most ridiculous fashion. The event is at the heart of Ireland at Alice’s Loft & Cottages in Castleblayney; castleblayney.ie