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Sailing Today

EIRE OF MYSTERY

Panoramic views over Kenmare River, Abbey Island, Deenish Island and Scariff Island from Com an Chiste Pass, Ring of Kerry, Iveragh Peninsular

I can’t remember you how many times I’ve sailed from England to Ireland; how often I’ve rounded Lands End bound for Ireland’s vivid landscape, the heart leaping at the thought of being close enough to the Emerald Isle to actually smell its cows grazing those rich, green fields. But I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t also admit there have been many times when I’ve suffered a testing thrash to windward every inch of the way, those sneaky Atlantic rollers slopping into the cockpit, while peering through the clammy fog that clings to the shore, and to you. Learning to take the rough with the smooth is the secret of Irish cruising.

It’s only 150 miles to Cork from Cornwall but it has all the joys and perils of an ocean passage packed into a mere couple of days, and so nervous was I the first time I sailed that it felt as if I was voyaging to the ends of the earth. Back then, I had for the first time a proper little boat, a sturdy Contessa 26 which I owned jointly with my girlfriend. We had set our youthful hearts on sailing from Devon to Ireland, to a village we knew of tucked away behind the Fastnet Rock. The boat was well fitted out, of a proven design, and we trusted her. It had Hasler self-steering gear, which was good, but also an unreliable petrol engine which was less reassuring. But what was most lacking was experience.

The Old Head of Kinsale

(ALAMY)

I thought it would be a doddle once we’d got to Land’s End, and be careful you don’t make the same mistake. Doesn’t the wind always blow from the south west in the summer? And if it did, wouldn’t it be a reach all the way? And wasn’t a reach the most comfortable and fastest point of sailing? In my youthful innocence I actually believed all this. But if I had read the books a little further, I would have discovered the wise saying that ‘prevailing winds never prevail’. And so it proved to be as that fair wind which promisingly took us past the Sevenstones Lightship, swung slowly into the north west and freshened. I had been sailing long enough to know that a stiff beat on a small boat, in a big sea on top of an Atlantic swell, can be a kind of misery like no other. I was soon horizontal in my bunk, sick and fed up. The girlfriend took charge, fed me the few morsels of food I could keep down, and kept us pointing in roughly the direction of Ireland; she was coping in the wet and windy cockpit, I was cowering below in dry comfort. I decided there and then that I must marry this woman.

As we reached the halfway mark the course fell further to leeward, as it always seems to. We had been aiming for Fastnet, but slowly and surely we found ourselves heading for Kinsale, then further eastwards to the wrong side of Cork, and finally pointing at the Isle of Man. It was in the days before GPS, or even Decca, and we sailed with only a radio direction finder for support. It’s doubtful there’s ever been a less reliable method of navigating than by swinging something akin to a puny transistor radio wildly in the air, listening for bleeps. We were pretty much lost, only guessing our position on the basis of assumed compass courses and a glance at the distance shown on the spinning Walker log.

Then, when we were beginning to feel our position was hopeless and we were either going to run slap bang onto a rocky shore, or miss Ireland altogether and next stop the Arctic Circle, we spotted a fearsome headland coming at us out of the murk. We identified it as the Old Head of Kinsale. Welcome to Ireland.

Welcome to Ireland

Nearly forty years later I still can’t resist a passage to Ireland, good or bad. When I cruised there last year it was without doubt the best Irish season I’ve ever had. And that’s the point; you never know whether you’re going to get an easy ride or a challenge.

I don’t recommend Kinsale as a first stop, although it’s a popular one. Save it till you’ve had your cruise and take your homeward departure from there. It’s a bustling little town, a bit arty, and there’s some good food to be had, and the Kinsale Yacht Club now exists in a state of high refurbishment. But for me, Irish cruising doesn’t really get going till you’ve made a good forty miles to the west. If you’re lucky, and don’t get beset by those cursed north westerlies, aim straight for Baltimore. Sure, there are plenty of places between Kinsale and the Fastnet, such as Glandore, which I like, and Castletownsend which has never been to my taste. But the far south west of Ireland has a magic which doesn’t kick in till you’re almost upon the famous rock itself.

By now, you will have discovered the Irish Cruising Club’s pilot books, essential companions to any Irish cruise. They are the most amiable pilot books, packed with authority, and with due warnings where necessary but always with a positive undertone. On that first trip, we had only an early edition and were charmed to see that the directions for entering one harbour were, ‘keep the gap in the hedge open to the eastern side of the white farmhouse’. What gap? Which farmhouse? The joys of pre-GPS cruising.

The Beacon at Baltimore Harbour

Needless to say, last year I ignored my own advice and called first at Kinsale as it’s conveniently near Cork airport for a crew change. But getting there was no problem in calm, hot, settled conditions when the open sea was a bit less Irish and a bit more Ionian. Even so, I still made that sprint westwards into the welcoming arms of Baltimore harbour as soon as I could.

From a practical point of view, Baltimore offers you diesel and water alongside which no other harbour hereabouts does, but you have to ask at the grocery first and then the coxswain of the lifeboat (who is also the grocer) will drive his small diesel tanker down to the harbour and fill you up. This is how things work in Ireland.

Looking southeast from Mount Gabriel Skull to Roaring Water Bay

From Baltimore, you are spoilt for choice. There is a month’s good cruising all within a day’s sailing of there. But remember that Irish cruising requires you to keep a sharp lookout over your shoulder to see what kind of weather is sneaking up on you, for this bit of Ireland sticks out well into the north Atlantic and that can make for volatility. But if it’s any comfort, the weather is mobile and fronts blow through, the rain clears, and the sun comes out until the next depression trundles by. And there’s always a good pub to fall into. Take plenty to amuse you as there will be inevitable days when the last thing you’ll want is to go sailing.

a stunning anchorage at Glengarriff

(ALAMY)

Magical mountains

To the westwards of Baltimore lies a magical mix of islands and mountains; Roaring Water Bay is as good as anything to be found in western Europe. It is sheltered from the east by Cape Clear and Sherkin Island and both have immense charm, much history, and characters all of their own. Cape Clear has two harbours, the one on the north side even has a small marina these days - who’d have thought it. It’s a snug place to moor on a blowy old night and smell the sweet scent of peat smoke rising from nearby chimneys.

The tides round here are mostly feeble affairs for those used to the torrents that flow round UK headlands and they will not hinder you much as you zig-zag between islands, making sure you pause at the nicest town of them all, Schull, which is where we were aiming for all those years ago. And if you can drag yourself away from Roaring Water Bay and head bravely northwards past the Mizen Head, before you depart you must call at O’Sullivan’s Bar in Crookhaven for a crab sandwich and a bowl of chowder in a more perfectly sheltered anchorage than you would ever think possible. There’s history here too; a signal station used by square-rigged ships as they made landfall after Atlantic crossings, and where Marconi did his early experiments in transatlantic radio.

Once round the Mizen, it gets a bit more serious. Last year we drifted round in light airs and under blue skies, but we have struggled here in years gone by in a place where a lively sea can meet a long ocean swell. The finger-like bays of Dunmanus and Bantry beckon, but be warned that these are open to the southwest, the direction of the prevailing wind, and many a boat has sailed up them only to find it a biblical struggle to get out again. But there’s always shelter somewhere, and in Bantry Bay there’s the famous Glengarriff anchorage and its tropical garden, or in the sound behind Bere Island where World War One battle fleets came for shelter. These days, the marina at Lawrence Cove on the north side of the island, must rank as one of the most friendly I have ever visited. “We keep the key to the laundry in a secret place,” says the helpful woman who greets you. “But I’ll show you where it is.”

If you have ventured this far, you will now realise that this coast presents two distinct faces. It can be austere and forbidding when the wind blows, the rain thunders down, and the mist clings. ‘Soaked to the skin’ does not do justice to how deeply the rain can penetrate. But on sunny days you could be, well, in any of the cruising hot spots of the Mediterranean. Just don’t bank on it. It was hereabouts, last year, that I was stopped by the Irish border force. With great charm, and full of apology, they came on board and checked my paperwork before the conversation turned quickly to which was the best pub in Bantry. Keen to do his official duty, though, one officer asked me if I’d seen anything unusual as I’d been sailing around. “Yes,” I replied. “I’ve seen the sun!” They were still chortling as their RIB sped off, probably bound for that pub they thought so highly of.

Serious sailing

The church at Crookhaven

Next north comes the Kenmare River, which is really another long, thin bay. And it’s different again to the others, looking as though, somehow, the landscape’s had a bit more money spent on it. There are more trees, more variety in the hills where fields give way to rocky hillsides. A couple of hours sailing up this bay will bring you to the anchorage for Sneem, another sheltered delight to ride out any miserable weather which might overtake you.

After Kenmare it gets really serious, and you would be right to feel apprehensive for you are now upon Valentia Island with its iron-bound cliffs and exposure to the Atlantic swells. On your port side will be the lonely Skelligs, once home to monks of unbelievable endurance. Ahead, the mysterious Blasket Islands, usually shrouded in ghostly mist and you will want a fair forecast before rounding these. But on Valentia, as so often on this coast, there’s good shelter at Knightstown on the leeward side of the island - winner of the Tidiest Town Award and so well kept that you feel you ought to take your shoes off before you go ashore. It may be unique as a harbour in having a marina with no pontoons. Did somebody nick them? No, only the breakwaters were built and then the council ran out of money. It’s all a bit Irish.

A bucolic idyll at Knightstown, County Kerry

‘I can think of a hundred other places I haven’t mentioned. They are all special’

Wild Song off the Irish coast

(ALAMY/PAUL HEINEY/WILKIE)

This coastal stretch seems to be simply getting better and better, and you will feel an irresistible pull to the north. Don’t fight it. We have tried and always failed. You simply have to go to Dingle. It sits on the south side of the Dingle Peninsula in a fine, sheltered bit of water, with a marina that has all you could wish for, except a diesel pump and so fuel has to be carted in jerry cans. Not so bad if you want fifty litres, a bit troublesome if you want a few hundred. Dingle is a bustling town with shops overflowing with tourist paraphernalia, and Americans. But it’s a perfect place to take a pause, refresh the galley, fix anything that’s broken, and enjoy a night or two in one of the many pubs. Oh, and swim with the harbour dolphin who seems to be amazingly patient with the thousands who do it every year.

And this is where you will probably give up, turn around, and head back home. Most people do. We have turned around here many times despite a vow that this would be the year we made it to the Aran Islands or the River Shannon. But don’t be disappointed if this is as far as you get. If you are lucky, on your way south you might get a chance to sail on sparkling blue seas between those Skelligs and once again shake your head in disbelief that any kind of community was able to live there. And as I write this I can think of a hundred other places I haven’t mentioned. They are all special, not just because of the shelter they give or the view they provide, but because they are part of this intriguing island called Ireland where we have never found anything but the warmest welcome, even on the very worst of sailing days.

The only real danger is its magnetism, for once you’ve been you will be drawn back to again. As I said, I can’t count the times I’ve been there, but I consider myself lucky to have had it as my favourite cruising ground for many decades now, and I’ll be back for more.

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