Take to the seas this summer... on a kayak
In the first of our summer adventure series, we look at sea kayaking at the Inishkea Islands
Landing on the pristine white beaches of Inishkea South.
Irish sea kayaking is world class, yet only recently has word begun to spread about the quality of the paddling on offer here. This isn’t surprising, because recreational coastal kayaking is very much a growing activity both here and globally. A few pioneers began extolling its merits in Ireland in the 1970s, but it was 1991 before of the Irish Sea Kayaking Association was established. The first real guidebook to kayaking the Irish coast was published in 2004, and the number of people involved in the sport has been increasing ever since.
As a rule of thumb, Ireland’s Atlantic coast – from Antrim in the north to Cork in the south – offers the most dramatic scenery.
The east coast is has a lower, gentler charm
This is where you’ll find the tallest cliffs, most spectacular formations and highest density of islands. Yet this is also where the sea is at its most challenging in terms of storms and wave height. The east coast is has a lower, gentler charm, and it’s not so much swell as wind and currents that cause problems here. Of course, sea kayaks can be taken on inland waters too. You will find loughs and sheltered estuaries all around the country, and these are great places to learn your strokes, or retreat to when the sea is too rough.
The main prerequisite for kayaking is to be a confident swimmer. After that it’s a matter of being shown the basic strokes, then spending as much time as possible on the water until your reactions become automatic. Begin by contacting someone who knows what they’re doing. For a handy list of instructors and trip operators, see www.iska.ie. In terms of clubs, many Irish kayak clubs encompass a range of disciplines, including inland and whitewater paddling as well as sea kayaking. In the beginning it doesn’t matter too much which sort of kayaking you do, as all the strokes are transferable. For a full list of kayak clubs around the country, see www.canoe.ie or www.canoeni.com.
Most sea kayaks are 15-17ft long, with a huge range of designs to choose from. A wide boat will be more stable but slower and harder to manoeuvre, while a narrow one is fast but tippy. As a beginner you might want to start with a wider boat, then reduce the volume as your stability improves. The boat has to suit your body shape too. Manufacturers usually offer their boats in several sizes, ensuring the right amount of stability for your body weight, as well as comfortable cockpit fittings like foot rests and thigh braces. A retractable skeg (a fin deployed from the bottom of the boat) is a requisite, to help your boat track better in windy conditions. There are two main kinds: plastic, or lighter composite material like fibreglass. Plastic boats are heavier and slower, but more durable and significantly cheaper (around €1,700 new). If you like rock hopping or landing on pebble beaches, this is the way to go. Composite boats cost more (around €3,000) and are easily damaged by contact with rock. But they’re light, sleek, fast and responsive, and great for races or open-water excursions. There’s a good second-hand market for most boats, as plastic kayaks in particular last a long time.
While on the water you should wear a buoyancy aid at all times, plus a wetsuit or drysuit to keep yourself warm in case of immersion. Wear wetsuit booties on your feet, and a helmet if you’re rock hopping or going into caves. The minimum recommended group size is three people. At least one person in the group should carry the following: a first-aid kit, water pump, spare split paddles, tow line, compass and map of the route carried on the deck in a waterproof map case). You’ll need a range of dry bags too, for carrying items like non-waterproof cameras, spare clothing and food. For overnight trips you’ll learn the art of minimal packing, with all your camping gear and supplies first placed into dry bags, then squeezed inside the storage hatches. Seeing how well you can live out of such a small space is all part of the fun.
In case of emergencies, the coastguard can be contacted in several ways. Call 999 or 112 on a phone, or use channel 16 on a VHF radio. Note that reception for both these devices may be sporadic in certain circumstances, like under a remote cliff. A personal locator beacon (PLB) relays a distress signal to the coastguard via satellite, and should work so long as you have a view of the sky. Make sure all your communication devices are readily accessible and carried on your person.
Camping wild beside a pristine, white-sand beach
Discovering the atmospheric remains of a poignant past
Conditions: Calm wind and sea
Distance: 19km (12 miles)
Time: 5-6 hours
Map: OSi 1:50,000 sheet 22
Access: The crossing to the Inishkea Islands begins from a slipway beside Portmore beach, at the southern tip of the Belmullet Peninsula in Co Mayo. From Belmullet town, follow the R313 south towards Blacksod (An Fód Dubh). Around 4km before Blacksod, turn right onto the L5231, signed for Bóthar an Chósta. Continue straight ahead for 3.5km to reach the slipway.
Grid Ref: F 613 183
GPS: 54.095545, -10.120385
As well as hand-railing along the coast, the other main theme of sea kayaking is visiting offshore islands. With some 570 islands scattered around the Irish seaboard, the opportunities for exploring this natural wealth by kayak are almost endless.
The Inishkea Islands, off the Belmullet Peninsula of Co Mayo, exemplify the essence of Irish island trips. Inishkea South is particularly memorable, with a pristine white-sand beach, a deserted village, and a long and interesting history. Paddling out here, then camping wild for a night or two, is such a wonderful experience it’s sure to inspire you to investigate other islands too.
The simplest way to reach Inishkea South is via a straight out-and-back trip from Portmore beach, a return trip of some 15km. Without deviation, the paddle takes less than 1½ hours each way. Even allowing an hour or two to explore the island, this fits comfortably into a day trip. To soak up the atmosphere of the place properly, it’s best to stay for at least one night, preferably two.
An ideal itinerary would be to explore the Duvillaun Islands on the way out, then set up camp on Inishkea South.
On the second day, visit Inishkea North and circumnavigate the south island, then spend another night wild before returning to the mainland on the third day.
In fine, summer conditions, it’s hard to conceive of a more pleasant way to spend a weekend. The islands provide some degree of shelter from most swells, so while care is needed along their exposed western coasts, the area between the mainland and the Inishkeas is often relatively calm. You still need to choose your forecast wisely, though. The biggest hazard is a submerged reef that extends 1.5km from the south-eastern tip of Inishkea North; strong currents and breaking waves form here at low tide. The currents in the channels between the islands behave rather strangely too, flowing strongly and changing direction around two hours before local slack water.
Inishkea South has a good pier, and several of the deserted cottages have been renovated by descendants of the original inhabitants. During summer weekends you are likely to be sharing the island with others, though there’s plenty of room to find your own space. Solitude is likely outside peak season.
There are no regular kayaking trips to the islands, but sea kayak guides operating in the area include Paddle and Pedal (tel: 087 680 8955; paddleandpedal.ie) and Saoirse Na Mara (tel: 086 1733610; irelandwestseakayaking.com). Contact them to discuss guided outings. If you’re not a kayaker, it’s still possible to visit the Inishkeas with the help of a local boatman. Geraghty Charters (tel: 086 673 6711; bruchlannlir.com) and Dive West Ireland (tel: 086 836 5983; divewestireland.com) can both arrange passage in a motorboat.
From Portmore slipway, paddle out past the little headland that protects the western side of the bay. You should now be able to see the Duvillaun Islands to the south-west. Keep south of the outcrop of Leamareha Island, then pass along the northern shore of Duvillaun Beg, a low, grassy island grazed by sheep during the summer.
Just 400m west of Duvillaun Beg you reach Duvillaun More, the largest island of the group, whose history makes it worth investigating further. Land in a rocky cove on the eastern shore, near the end of the track marked on the OS map. You can then walk over rough grassland to explore the island on foot.
Duvillaun More had a population of 19 people in 1821, but was abandoned in 1917. One house near the middle of the island was undergoing renovation at the time of writing. There was a monastic site here between the sixth and 10th centuries, and several ruins and artefacts from the early Christian period lie dotted around the island.
The most striking monument is a carved pillar near the brow of a hill, depicting a pre-Celtic cross on one side and a Greek crucifixion on the other. It is also well worth making a circumnavigation of Duvillaun More by kayak. The cliffs at its western end reach 60m high, and a number of stacks and rocky islets lie scattered off its western tip.
In calm conditions you can weave through the chasms and channels, and will discover two massive arches as well as several caves hidden amid the labyrinth. When you’re ready, head north towards Inishkea South. The main arrival point is the large stone pier tucked behind Rusheen Island in the north-east. If there are any groups on the island who have arrived by motorboat, this is where their vessels will be moored.
As a sea kayaker you have the luxury of choice, so can pull up wherever you like. There are good campsites just south of the pier, on the northeasternmost headland, and 2km south around a low bay just east of point 15m. There’s plenty to explore on the island, including the deserted village beside the pier and the whitesand beach just north of it. If you head west from the pier you can also climb a hillside covered by old lazy beds to reach a white navigational tower marking the island’s 72m high point. Extensive views from here encompass Achill Island and the north Mayo mainland. A circumnavigation of the island by kayak is recommended; the most dramatic scenery lies along its south-western shore. A short hop will also bring you north-east to Inishkea North, which is lower but holds more evocative ruins in its own deserted village, with a prominent burial mound lying just east of the buildings. It is hard to tear yourself away from these charming islands, but when you must, a 5km crossing south-east will bring you back to the mainland. Finish by following the shoreline south to return to the slipway at Portmore.
All photographs: Gareth McCormack / www.garethmccormack.com