A sea kayak battles the freezing Irish waters as the morning sun rises out of the countryside. On the western horizon is the pinnacle of Skellig Michael-700 feet of vertical rock rising out of exploding seas. Somewhere on the isolated island are sixth-century monastic ruins where the light of civilization was kept burning during the Dark Ages by early Christian Irish monks. Puffins surface a few yards from the boat, as hundreds of gannets wheel overhead on six foot wing spans. The ocean rises violently and tosses paddler and boat as if they were discarded flotsam. This is just one day of Chris Duff's incredible three month journey.
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About the Author
Chris Duff has traveled over 14,000 miles by sea kayak since 1983 when he paddled 8,000 miles around the eastern third of the United States and Canada. In 1986 he became the first person to solo the entire British Isles and is currently planning a solo circumnavigation of New Zealand's south island. Chris is a contributing author to the book Seekers of the Horizon and has written for Sea Kayaker magazine and the International Sea Kayaking Association. He lectures across the country and lives in Port Angeles, Washington.
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On Celtic Tides
One Man's Journey Around Ireland by Sea Kayak
By Chris Duff
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 Chris Duff
All rights reserved.
Shannon River Reflections
... Yet I cannot tarry longer.
The sea that calls all things unto her calls me,
and I must embark.
For to stay, though the hours burn in the night,
is to freeze and crystallize and be bound in a mold.
— Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
In the gray of dawn I rolled over in the sleeping bag and slowly came out of my dream world. I looked up at the peak of the tent and remembered where I was: camped on a patch of grass above a cobbled beach at Kilbaha, near the mouth of the Shannon River. Memories floated through my mind as the waves broke gently on the cobbles. I recalled waking up on Scattery Island this same time yesterday morning. I had paddled ten miles upriver to explore the tenth-century monastic ruins on the island. The evening ebb tide had carried me back to the north side of the mouth of the river, my present camp. I wanted to be in a good position to get around Loop Head, which was now just a few miles around the cliff shoreline.
I slid out of the bag and unzipped the tent flap. Droplets of condensation from the sagging nylon fell on my back and I shivered, looking out on another overcast morning. The sea had a cold look to it, a greasy smooth blackness that made me want to curl back into the warmth of the bag. There was a breeze on the left side of my face — a northeast breeze. The mornings had been dead calm lately and this breeze made me edgy. My mind kicked into gear. I would be sheltered under the cliffs until I reached Loop Head, then the approaching weather would be on the bow. I would have to hurry if I was to get around the headland before the winds picked up. Thoughts of retreating into the bag were forgotten as I pushed handfuls of its warmth into the stuff sack and started breaking down camp.
Within an hour I had eaten breakfast, reluctantly pulled on my damp paddling clothes from the day before, and carried all the gear and the boat to the water's edge. The tide was dropping, leaving wet rocks where there had been the lapping of wind-driven wavelets. I finished packing the gear in the three compartments of the boat: the heavier items, the stove, tent, and food bag, as close to the cockpit as possible; the lighter bundle of cloths and tent poles jammed in the far ends. There wasn't room for an extra pair of socks by the time everything was carefully packed. I ran back to the tent site as much to get warm as to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything. Only the bent grass where I had slept remained.
I returned to the boat, sat on the rear deck, and slid into the warm confines of the cockpit. As I snapped the spray deck in place I went through my pre-paddle checklist: hatches secure, map folded for the day's route and sealed in the chart case on the foredeck, camera tied off to its tether, and the spare paddles held on the rear deck with the bungie cords. The last thing I did was to fasten a two-inch-wide safety belt around my waist. It was attached to a length of one-inch webbing that ran to the rear toggle. A short length of webbing tied the paddle to my wrist.
I threw my weight forward and the boat slid off the algae-covered rocks. The northeast breeze of an hour earlier was now more of a wind. It was building faster than I thought it would. It caught the boat and drifted it toward a rock ledge extending out from the cobbles. I leaned the boat over on its starboard side and with a sweep stroke pulled it away from the ledge and onto a course leading to the mouth of the river.
Beneath the cliffs, gusts of wind curled from their heights and hit the water in a broad fan. To my left across the ten-mile-wide river, I could see where the ebbing tide collided with the winds in standing waves and white-caps. In front of me, Loop Head was hidden by the curve of the cliffs to the north. At the furthest point where the cliffs met the open ocean, heavy bands of rollers and an occasional breaker advanced from beyond the cliffs. The wind was holding at Force 3 — fifteen mph — not strong but steady enough to build the seas running against the tide. Yesterday, when I pulled into Kilbaha, a fisherman had warned me about the headland. "She can be the devil to get around in a wind." I had also been warned about it three days earlier by a fisherman on the south side of the river. The mouth of the Shannon, and Loop Head in particular, had a reputation for being rough.
As I paddled within a mile of the final cliff approach to Loop Head, four-footers wrapped their way into the rivermouth and smashed against the base of the cliff, sending spray flying up the wall of rock. The rebounding waves turned the seas into a steep chop and the boat began a familiar twisting and pitching.
Against the cliff, washed in breaking waves, was a white lobster boat pitching wildly in the seas. I recognized the shear of the boat and the stout build of the yellow-clad fisherman. It was Gerry O'Shea, the fisherman from Kilbaha. He had said he would be out this morning checking his pots and that he would keep an eye out for me. I paddled toward him as he waved, then swung a pot on board and rested it on the gunwale as I approached. I paddled within a dozen feet of his hull, which was rising and falling like a pile driver, then stopped and struggled to hold my position.
"'Morning, Gerry, it's a bit bumpy out here," I yelled above the sound of the waves and wind.
With a shake of his head and a cheery smile he called back in a strong Irish accent, "Aye, 'tis a northeast wind. She might slack by tomorrow but then there's fog due in. Are ye goin' round the point?"
Before I could answer, a wave surged me almost under his bow. I struggled to back away as another wave washed over the stern, hit me in the back, then swept over the cockpit. Finally I yelled back, "I think I'll have a look, but if it's too rough I'll find a place to sit it out and wait. Have you been out this morning?"
"Around the point? Oh aye. Earlier I was and I tell you she's dirty, very dirty on the outside. Ye might get outta the wind if ye stay in close, but I tell ye she's right dirty today. I won't be goin' out again meself 'til the mornin'."
We were drifting close to the rocks. Gerry eased the engine into gear and slowly moved to more open water. We both needed to get further offshore and put a buffer between the rocks and our boats. I paddled ten yards off his bow and called out a final farewell. His bow split a wave, throwing water to both sides as he lifted a gloved hand and yelled, "I'll be watchin' out for ye and tellin' the other boats to do the same."
With a quick wave I dug the paddle into the next swell and pulled away from a lobster buoy Gerry was headed toward.
The closer I paddled to the mouth of the river, the bigger and steeper the waves became. I felt myself tighten up: elbows in close to save the shoulders, and feet pressing against the forward bulkhead, jamming my hips tighter in the seat. I concentrated on an imaginary circle twenty yards around the boat as I paddled toward the final rock that blocked my view of the headland.
The bow buried into the face of a swell, then climbed the gray-green wall and hung suspended for a second before dropping into the following trough, leaving my stomach somewhere midway in the fall. The boat hit with a jarring crash and immediately started to rise on the next wave. A hundred yards to my right the seas exploded against the cliff in concussions that reverberated in my chest. I was too close, being pushed by the tide and wind toward the rocks. I pulled harder, deeper on the right paddle, and moved further out. Again the boat climbed, fell into the trough, and twisted with the rebounding waves hitting the stern and throwing it sideways into the northerly seas. The wind carried the spray off the bow, flinging it in cold buckets into my face and chest.
Progress was measured slowly, the cliff falling away and revealing for the first time an intimidating view of the coast to the north. A half mile in front of me a wall of rock like that of a towered cathedral rose into the strengthening winds and gloomy weight of sky. It stood craggy, shadowless in the dull light but powerful in its bulk that separated river from ocean, sky from land. This was Loop Head.
Beneath the headland and the lighthouse that seemed to scrape the layered gray of the sky was a thirty-five-foot fishing boat rolling broadside in the heavy swells. As she rolled over each crest I could see ten feet of her planking, the sea streaming off in sheets before she rolled the other way and came within a couple of feet of taking water over the far gunwale. Thirty-five feet and ten tons of boat looked as fragile as a child's toy.
Beyond the boat and the headland the ocean appeared possessed, angry and blackened, throwing itself in fury against the cliffs that extended as far as I could see. Rebounding waves, spray, the noise of the wind, and the ocean crashing against the land were more than I wanted to deal with. A wave washed over the bow and hit me in the chest, sending cold seawater into my nose and eyes. I shook my head clear, refocused, and waited for the right moment to turn around. I had paddled over four hundred miles to reach this point. With another eight hundred to go, the risks of rounding the headland weren't worth jeopardizing the rest of the journey. It would have to wait for another day.
Turning the boat around in the confused seas was like balancing a bicycle in a slow, tight turn. All forward momentum was lost and for a few agonizingly slow moments the boat wallowed broadside to the waves. A wave hit solidly from the port side and buried the boat in rumbling broken water. I reached into it with a left brace, leaning on the paddle for stability until the wave flooded over the cockpit, then quickly finished the turn as the wave swept past the bow.
With my back to the oncoming waves, I was now blind to whatever was breaking and rolling in from behind. Around me the sea was a heaving, chaotic world of noise and spine-twisting breakers. The boat pitched, dove, and climbed in a different direction every few seconds. I needed something to focus on, something solid to give my eye and inner ear a reference point. I locked onto the tip of the bow and blocked out the sights and sounds that overloaded my senses. I was working on instinct, my mind focused and calm while my body somehow responded to the boat being thrown around by the sea.
From the corner of my eye, I saw a wave over my right shoulder. It was huge, steep, and beginning to peak. A second later, I felt the stern rise sharply and my eye was immediately back on the bow, searching for that point that told me the boat was being pitch-poled, the bow corkscrewing into a rebounding wave while the stern lifted and started to throw the craft end over end.
I sucked in a lungful of air, waited for the shock of seawater to flood my sinuses and ears and to bury the noise of the sea and winds in a capsize. My mind shifted from paddling to setting up for an Eskimo roll. I knew what I would do, how my body would feel as I went over, then rapidly tucked into a curl and began to unwind in a smooth arc of the paddle back to the surface. I didn't question my ability to roll. I knew if I went over I was going to come back around.
The boat was almost on its nose and twisted sharply to the right, a second away from finishing the swing of the pendulum. A wave suddenly peaked to the right of the cockpit, even with the paddle blade. I jammed the blade into the wave and snapped my hips, instinctively bringing the boat back under me and breaking the momentum of the stern wave. The boat came down with a crash, teetered on its edge, then miraculously stayed upright. A surge of adrenaline rushed through me, quickening my heart rate and filling my arms, chest, and legs with enough power to pull the boat through the wave pouring over the foredeck. The mechanics of the roll were forgotten. My mind was back on the surface, dealing with the waves again and matching the energy of the seas crashing around me.
I slowed my paddling pace, giving my body and mind time to come off the adrenaline high that was using too much precious energy. The adrenaline was what saved me from going over, but it couldn't sustain me for the two-mile paddle back to calm water. I breathed deeper and slower, trying to calm myself. The boat continued to get shoved around, to surf off the face of a wave one minute and the next second to bury its nose deep into a rebounding wave. Twice more, waves peaked at just the wrong time and sent me to within a couple of inches of going over. Each time it was a combination of timing and reflexes that kept the boat upright. Slowly the seas relinquished their hold and let me retreat into the protection of the river.
I passed Gerry on the way in and waved. There was comfort in someone knowing where I was. The size and power of the sea, plus the overwhelming scale of everything around me, was a reminder of how fragile my grasp on the trip was at times. The danger and exposure of the last hour made that very clear.
In another half hour the calm of the river soothed my nerves and welcomed me into a sheltered cove. The keel of my boat slid onto a patch of sand between two rocks. It felt strangely solid. I jackknifed out of the cockpit, straddling the rear deck as the sea gently washed over my calves. I looked back toward the headland. Once again the curve of the cliffs blocked my view and it was hard to believe that beyond those rocks was a world of breaking seas, wind, and miles of wave-battered cliffs. From a distance it looked so benign.
I pulled the boat above the reach of the tide. It was time to set up camp again and wait for the ocean to allow me to pass. I was cold and needed to get out of the wind and the drizzle that was just starting.
This waiting game wasn't anything new. It was part of the routine of ocean paddling. The tides, wind, fog, and sea conditions dictated whether I paddled or sat. As I unpacked the boat, reversing the steps of a few hours earlier, I thought how many hundreds of times I had packed and unpacked my boat in over twelve thousand miles of sea kayaking. I knew this transition of ocean to land as well as I did the actual paddling. There were three or four trips up and down the rocky beach before the boat was light enough to shoulder and carefully thread my way with its weight through the slippery rocks. I set it gently down beside the pile of nylon bags and stood looking out at the sea, partially veiled in the soft drizzle. When the seas calmed, I would continue. Until then there was nothing to do but wait.CHAPTER 2
Blisters and Dreams
A man who is not afraid of the sea will soon be drowned
for he will be going out on a day he shouldn't.
But we do be afraid of the sea
and we do only be drowned now and again.
I found that quote while planning my solo kayak circumnavigation of Ireland. It was spoken by a fisherman, someone who knew the sea as only an islander could. And though the words were from another generation, the advice is as sound today as it was for those who took to the sea in their tarred, canvas-covered currachs. The unashamed fear, and the admission that the sea is the ultimate master, shows the humble wisdom of the author. I pinned the quote beside a wall map of Ireland, and during the planning phase of the trip, read those words often.
Ireland was not the first big trip I had planned. It was the third and shortest; but because of the exposure of the west coast, the seas to which the Aran Island fisherman referred, it was going to be the toughest. It seemed that the first two trips, and, in fact, my life before I started paddling on the sea, had been focused toward this journey. My adventure was to be the culmination of twenty-one years of working and paddling on the sea.
In the fall of 1982, I was part of a U.S. Navy dive team working on ballistic missile submarines in Holy Loch, Scotland. My job was to supervise the underwater repair and maintenance of the nuclear-powered submarines that patrolled the Atlantic and countered the nuclear threat of the Soviet Navy. Military life was filled with protocol, security clearances, and the exposure to the realities of the Cold War. We worked in bitter cold water, bolting on steel flanges, inspecting the subs for damage sustained during their seventy-day silent patrols, and doing security swims, our eyes sweeping the rounded black hulls for magnetic mines that an enemy swimmer could easily place against the floating missile platforms. The subs were moored sometimes three abreast on each side of the mother ship: as one sub prepared for deployment, another would appear on the horizon, and the work routine would continue. Missiles and torpedoes were loaded into launch tubes; pallets of food were lowered by crane from the mother ship; last-minute jobs, including those of the divers, were hastily completed, and another sub would slip out of the loch for its patrol.
For the last seven years I had worked as a navy diver beneath everything from tugboats to aircraft carriers, and now submarines. The work was exciting and challenging, but I was beginning to feel the constraints of higher rank. My second enlistment was almost up and another would put me over the halfway mark to retirement. If I reenlisted, I was headed for a desk job, pushing papers instead of doing the actual diving. Most of the guys were happy to take the ease of that job rather than jumping into the frigid waters, but I wasn't. The physical work, the freedom of weightlessness, the sound of my exhaled breath bubbling to the surface in silver globes of air was the world I loved. If I was going to be pulled out of the water and set behind a desk, then perhaps it was time for a change in careers. I didn't want to leave the navy, but it looked like I wasn't going to have a choice.
Excerpted from On Celtic Tides by Chris Duff. Copyright © 1999 Chris Duff. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Shannon River Reflections,
2. Blisters and Dreams,
3. Awakening Rhythms,
4. West Coast Beginnings,
5. Abbey Refuge,
6. Skellig Spirits,
7. The Pipes and the Bodhran,
8. Peat Fires and New Friends,
9. Expedition Lows,
10. Island Tapestries,
11. Tales from an Irish Lad,
12. Monks: Yesterday and Today,
13. Donegal Cliffs and Island Stories,
14. Northern Ireland — Tidal Terrors,
15. Farewells and Transitions,
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