It’s been a month since Gethin and I finished our circumnavigation of Ulster to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support. The journey took us from Belfast Lough down the east coast to Blackrock, across Ireland to Ballyshannon on the west coast and then around the coasts of Donegal and Northern Ireland.
Over a few beers and whilst I should have been marking children’s books, I’ve had time to reflect on a trip that had a relentless pace as we raced to stay with the weather. We took just 16 days to cover the 560 km route. Things that I have learnt:
Sails are the way ahead; we woke up in just north of Burtonport in one of the most ideal campsites of the trip. The promised north westerly winds had not turned up during the night and we had slept peacefully on our granite atoll. Paddling out along the west side of Cruit Island the wind arrived from the south. We popped the sails up and headed towards Gola, a quick check of the GPS showed that we were getting a lift of 4km/h from the sails. Happy that we were going make Inishboffin for the end of the day we surfed our way north on the small wind chop, the sails giving us that extra push to stay on the waves.
Bloody Foreland came all too easily and we turned east as the wind kindly turned west and increased to a steady force 4+. We were soon zipping long, surfing the small waves, making a steady 9km/h against the tide. Pulling into Inishboffin for a late lunch, we knew that we could not stop long and had to make the most of the conditions. Horn head and then across Sheephaven to Doagh became the new target. With the wind increasing and the seas building, the sailing and surfing was moving towards a little too exciting with both Gethin and I stalling the boats and backing off the big waves by the end of the crossing. With the sails up we only needed to keep the boats pointing in a straight line to keep the speed up, so this did not slow us down that much. We pulled into Doagh 9 hours after starting, having had the wind behind us all day. Sails are not a common sight on sea boats in Ireland but in NZ (a windy place) they are*. Are sails cheating? I remember Scott saying something like that about Amundsen and his dogs.
Don’t take advice from TV characters; it did not take long to get used to putting on wet clothes in the morning and by the 3rd day, as we left in the early morning mizzle to cross Cralingford Lough and Dundalk Bay, the force 5 winds were of far more concern. We needed to get to Blackrock and the Fane River within 2 hours of high tide before the bay dried out or risk losing a day waiting for the evening tide. The crosswinds became headwinds as we tuned west into Dundalk bay and remembering that Del boy declared “fortune favours the brave!” We gambled on getting across to the Fane in time. Fast forward an hour and a half and taking advice from an imaginary East End market trader seamed slightly foolish. We were out of the boats, running through shin deep water to get to the deep channel, as the water disappeared around us. With legs screaming and breakfast threatening to make a comeback, we made it into the Fane River with barely a centimetre of water to spare. Del boy was not quoted in the decision making process again.
People are generous and kind; to our knowledge the round Ulster route had only been completed once before by “Shooter”. It was starting to become apparent why, after 5km the Fane became shallow and littered with small stone weirs. By 6 o’clock towing the boats up stream, through calf deep water, was losing its novelty and hey 6 is the magic number so the next cow field was declared camp.
I would like to say that the tents were up and the kettle on in minutes but we just stood there staring and gently rocking backwards and forwards wondering what we had got ourselves in to. The next day we managed to paddle 100m before we were out of the boats, this time we were lifting them over fallen trees, setting the theme for the rest of the morning. After only making 3km in two hours we decided to quit the river and break out the trolleys. Unfortunately just as sea kayaks were not designed to be tracked upstream, the trolleys were not designed to carry 50kg and within 5km they were starting to creak and at 10km the wheels quite literally fell off. Standing 20km from the sea by the side of the road, with two fully loaded boats and no trolley was a potential stumbling block for the trip. So we grabbed the bat phone and called Shooter, who called Andrew McCol, who called his mate Paddy and a rescue was on. We even had a reserve in the wings with Gregg Miller who decided that he did not need to sleep that night and could head down from Belfast once he had finished work at 9pm. After Paddy had helped us off the road (whilst laughing heartily at the ridiculousness of the situation) Andrew arrived and took us home for the night, fed us and then dropped us off at Butlers Bridge the next day. John O’Neil helped us out in a similar way by giving us a lift round the barrage at Ballyshannon and numerous other people helped with words of encouragement and support along the way. The circumnavigation has raised over £5000 pounds for Macmillan Cancer Support with the vast majority of donations coming from people who I have never met or heared of and who never met my wife Alex. Thank you for helping Macmillan continue to support those affected by cancer.
And finally Ulster is not an island!
The circumnavigation was kindly supported by P and H custom sea kayaks, Reed Chillcheater, Cotswold Outdoors and Johnson Campbell ltd.
* Search for “kayak sail” on the Belfast Kayak Club web site for how to make a sail.
Rich Lineham & Gethin Thomas