To the waters and the wild with a paddle
Go Kayaking:The Sea Road: In the first of a series of classic Irish sea kayak routes, GARY QUINNpaddles to the Saltee Islands from Kilmore Quay in Co Wexford
I DON’T sleep well before my Wexford trip. Even though it’s less than a three-hour drive down the coast, my 6am start prompts expedition fever. I haven’t paddled outside Dublin since December so the journey down to Kilmore Quay is a buzz. The weather forecast, on the other hand, isn’t. Wind is threatening force four, gusting five and with rain, fog and electrical storms all looming, we’re getting a serious message to back off. But this is a Shearwater Sea Kayaking trip so knowing that Eileen Murphy and Seán Pierce are leading us out means I can push myself that bit further than usual. This is also the first of 15 classic sea kayak routes that will bring me all around Ireland this summer, so it’s great to get started.
Seven of us meet on the beach on Kilmore Quay, with nothing but thick fog between us and our destination. My boat, a black-and-white Tahe Marine Greenland T, is getting lots of attention. Its sharp contours, smaller width and light weight letting it easily hold its own among the Explorers and Point 65s lined up alongside it. The wind over wave that’s ahead will be a great test of how it handles bigger conditions.
We pull away from the shore, heading for Little Saltee, the first of the two islands. These waters are confusing. Nothing seems to be doing what it should and all our normal rules are thrown out by local tidal anomalies. I have a video camera strapped to my head and my best camera packed in a dry-bag inside the kayak, but it looks like the fog isn’t going to let me capture much of anything. Until we reach the island that is.
The magic of the islands suddenly unfolds as we land, 40 minutes later. The fog lifts, the sun breaks through and, stepping up off the beach, a carpet of bluebells appears to bloom, almost before our eyes. Seeing the world transform from dark grey to Technicolor is great and Murphy starts snapping pictures of us all – a group of men dressed in rubber among a field of bluebells under an early summer sky. Someone tell me why more women don’t get involved in this sport?
Walking further from the beach a shout goes up. Two young deer resting in the foliage make a startled escape, hopping over the dry-stone walls and, in their haste, prompting another visitor to make itself known – a turtle dove casts itself into the air. A clutch of gull eggs in the bracken at my feet and the screaming gulls overhead remind me that we’re walking among nests and a careful stroll back to the boats reveals more. This is only a taster, I’m told. The real action happens on the Great Saltee.
Hopping back in our boats we paddle east around the island, crossing the St Patrick’s Bridge and watch as the water builds again. The wind and current is less predictable now and as we cross the channel between the two islands I get to really test out my boat. It tracks well in the wind and handles the swell easily. It feels confident and as I measure its pace alongside the other boats I start to feel confident about it too.
The pace picks up as we close in on the Great Saltee, and we run along its northeastern point to see how big the swell is. Could we get around? It’s looking doubtful. The weather turns up a notch. This feels like level-four kayaking territory now (there are five levels of compotency for kayakers certified by the Irish Canoe Union with five the highest). I recognise it because somehow in the push and pull rhythm of the paddle I start to feel as though the island has come alive. The sea has begun to churn upon itself, crashing and raging against the island’s cliffs and stacks, calling the birds to cast themselves into the depths of the sea, hunting fish and tasting depths far below us. You can get lost in a rhythm like this, but eventually a shout goes up from Murphy and Pierce. Our limits have been reached – at least for now. We won’t make it round the island today, the conditions on the seaward side are just too big they say, and I’m more than happy with that decision.
We turn our boats and start to surf back the way we came, letting the tide lift us from behind, the wind beginning to howl now around our ears. A group of seals dip and curl alongside, eyeing us suspiciously from the water. We’re outsiders here, but not out of our depth. And then, as we pull behind a protective headland, the wind falls away, the water calms and the heat of the sun returns. Pulling on to the main landing spot of the island we regroup for lunch.
The Saltees are privately owned and we sit beneath a sign reminding us that, if the owners are in residence, we should leave again by 4.30pm. The Saltees were bought in the 1940s by the Neale family and the patriarch, Michael Neale, promptly declared himself Prince Michael the First of the Saltees and set about protecting the island, as well as building himself a modest house with a so-called Royal Mile – a palm-tree lined path that brings us to an ornamental throne that overlooks the land.
It’s a great vantage point. The Great Saltee is simply terrific. The story that has wrapped itself around the island is fun but the landscape, the wildlife, the sheer beauty of the plunging cliffs and screaming birds is disarming. I’m already primed for the fact that this island matters to seabirds, but quickly startled by just how wild it is and how uncaring the birds seem of our presence. I can get so close to birdlife that I’m almost afraid to report it, that to let more people know of this wild island will somehow damage what must be a fragile ecosystem. But it doesn’t seem fragile right now. Watching guillemots, puffins, razorbills and gulls soar and plunge among the rocks simply reminds me that I’m a visitor. Sitting on a ledge watching a colony that is home to literally thousands of gannets is a privilege. The open ocean lies beyond, appearing deceptively calm at this high altitude, prompting tales of crossings and circumnavigations, some misguided and others successful.
Paddlers always want to be elsewhere, it seems: on land when they’re wet, pining for sea when dry, but always with a tale to tell. From here we can also see the countless caves and holes that pockmark the coastline, places which, if the tide had allowed, would coax our boats in, tempting us to see what we could find – at our peril. Instead, we get extra time to see what we can find on the island: a skinned rabbit, assailant unknown; an emergency bothy set up by the Neale family for anyone who gets stranded overnight; the insects that none of us recognise; another chance to simply marvel at the clamour of birds overhead. Then, back to the shoreline, time for home.
Ahead of us is a lengthy paddle back to shore. Pierce and Murphy have coached us well on what to expect but it’s still a hard slog. The distance isn’t great, just a little over 5km to Kilmore Quay but we’re heading into a tidal race that is flowing fast from east to west, calling for a sustained ferry glide for the crossing. We break it into stages, heading for the Little Saltee first before breaking for home. I spot a cardinal marker buoy and tell myself that getting that far will be the hard part. I make it more quickly than I thought but have tired myself and the final leg suddenly looms larger than expected.
This is the difficult part of kayaking, when taking a break will allow the sea carry you somewhere you don’t want to go, so no matter how tired you become you have to push on. It’s when you ask yourself why you bother and when talking yourself home becomes the hardest part of the day. It’s what you train for but in the moment it really isn’t any fun. Until you land. Then, looking back at where you’ve been, with adrenaline flowing and standing sheltered on the beach, you get to say the same thing every time: that was a really great paddle.
All about the Sea Road
The Sea Road series will chart 15 classic Irish sea kayak routes, highlighting Ireland’s position as a world-class sea kayak destination. The routes are suitable for paddlers of ocean-going sea kayaks, such as those pictured above, who have undertaken sea kayak training to Irish Canoe Union level three/four.
Name: Tahe Marine Greenland T. Length: 545 cm (17’10”). Width: 53 cm (21”). Approx. capacity: 135 kg (298 lbs). Cockpit: 82x45 cm (32” x 17”).
Retractable skeg. Weight: Fiberglass – 23-25 kg (51-55 lbs). Why I chose this boat: I’ve been watching the Tahe Marine Greenland T for over a year now. A new provider, Dublin Bay Sea Kayaks, recently started selling them in Ireland. I wanted something lighter than my current plastic boat and one that would track well in high winds.
Half my trips will be on the Atlantic so it also had to cut through waves and handle big conditions. I also like that it is based on a traditional Inuit Greenland design, rather than the larger European style.
The Greenland T is slightly larger than a traditional Greenland (the T stands for touring) but don’t expect to pack for a multi-day trip. The three hatches are small, so careful packing matters.
The boat’s length helps make it very stable in rough seas. So far it has cut through wind and wave beautifully. I’ve been testing it in strong gusting headwinds and wind over tide and so far it handles really well.
It’s certainly a wet ride, as the low volume puts you right on the water line, but the tracking and speed it offers in return more than compensate. Bigger paddlers (I’m 13 stone, 5’ 11”, size nine shoes) will find it tight.
Put them on my blog at irishtimes.com/blogs/ thesearoad
dublinbayseakayaks.ie or tahemarine.com
There is a growing number of sea kayak training providers around Ireland offering courses and guided trips, including: Cork: atlanticseakayaking.com. Dublin: deepblueseakayaking. com; and shearwaterseakayak ing.ie. Galway: kayakmor.com. Mayo: irelandwestseakayak ing.com. Waterford: seapaddling.com.
All about The Saltees
The Saltees are one of Ireland’s most important seabird colonies and yet marvellously accessible. It’s a fantastic place.
Once you land you walk the Royal Mile to Prince Michael’s throne and then follow the cliffs and enjoy the puffin, guillemot, razorbill and gannet colonies, along the southern side.
Getting there by sea kayak is especially memorable. Not a trip for beginners, it’s certainly quite achievable in good weather with previous training to level three standard.
The island group lies 5km off the coast of Kilmore Quay in Co Wexford. It’s made up of the Great Saltee and the Little Saltee.
The primary challenge is in navigating the tidal races that develop between the islands and the mainland. The tidal flows between Kilmore Quay and the Saltees deserve respect, especially if winds are contrary to the direction of the flow.
Saltees’ tides require some research before you go as normal rules do not apply. There are two nice challenges on both the inward and outward journeys. One is called the Sebber Bridge and the other the St Patrick’s Bridge. They are long landward projecting spits – shingle bars of sand, gravel and rock that can cause overfall conditions. Overfalls are not unlike river rapids and for well-trained kayakers they add a degree of spice to the day.
If the weather and wind conditions allow, a full circumnavigation of the Saltees is a must. Once you go to the seaward side, or the Celtic Sea side of the Saltees, the conditions are not unlike those of the Atlantic, the cliff scenery is beautiful and the seabird experience one of the best in Ireland. Treat both the southwest and northwest corners with respect, as in both areas tides run strongly and surf waves occur that can lead to challenging conditions.
You’ll make it direct to the Great Saltee in good conditions in under an hour and the full circumnavigation will easily fill your day. If there’s any wind over tide you’re guaranteed some excitement. This is a level three/four trip so good planning and knowledge of local tides is essential.
- SEÁN PIERCE
Seán Pierce is a level-five sea kayaker and co-runs Shearwater Sea Kayaking. He has selected the routes in this series