A great article in last Saturdays Times from Paddy Woodworth whom I had the pleasure of meeting when he was out paddling with Shearwater SEa Kayaking.....
FOR THE BIRDS: THE JOY OF SEA-KAYAKING
Out on the open seas, getting up close with many species of wildlife . . . it doesn’t get much better
To sit into a sea kayak for the first time is to enter the ocean very differently to wading, swimming, or diving. It’s as though you had suddenly acquired limbs that are entirely new, yet feel oddly familiar; you have extended yourself into an elongated creature whose natural element is the water.
Sure, your first few efforts with the double-headed paddle may be clumsy, and you may wobble scaresomely till you find your balance. But if you have a good instructor – and beginners should not go on the sea without one – you will very quickly learn to relax. Slow, even strokes take you through the water more smoothly than you might think possible. You feel as though you are sitting directly into the sea, and at the same time gliding through it like a seal.
That is a magical feeling in itself, and one you can recapture time and again. The other great pleasure of sea-kayaking lies in gaining remarkably easy access to remote places, often in intimate contact with spectacular wildlife.
First things first, however, and the Irish Sea Kayakers Association (ISKA) requires that aspiring members make a declaration that shows they are fully aware the sport involves “risk of personal injury or death”. That’s where the importance of a qualified instructor comes in, and ISKA provides a list of course-providers on its website (www.iska.ie).
I chose Seán Pierce of Shearwater Sea Kayaking (www.shearwaterseakayaking.ie), whom I’d met through BirdWatch Ireland. I had been lured by his stories of finding beautiful places and elusive creatures on our offshore islands. But he also impressed me as someone of obvious physical capability and sound good sense.
Our first lesson took place under unpromising conditions: Howth harbour on a cold and wet late afternoon in October. There were four instructors for 16 participants. One of our party was exceptionally fearful of the sea, but determined to participate. She was discreetly assigned a one-to-one instructor for the entire lesson.
Sea-kayakers are bonded to their vessels by elasticated “spray skirts”. These seal you into the boat by gripping the waist of your wetsuit, and clasping the cockpit’s rim. This is an industrial-age variation on the original and daring Inuit technique of stitching the paddler tightly into the craft. This enabled buoyant seal-hunting, even in very high seas.
Pierce told us at the outset we could learn techniques for rolling the kayak 360 degrees, so we could right it if we capsized. But up-ended beginners, he explained, are likely to find themselves stuck upside down, hanging helpless under the kayak. This is not a good place to stay for very long. Should this occur, we must pull a cord on the skirt he called the “Jesus chain”, which would release us immediately from the cockpit.
For some reason I still can’t rationalise, I didn’t believe him.
After a very happy first lesson, resting at a standstill in the middle of the harbour, I overconfidently leant back too far. Abruptly, I found myself capsized, and suspended above the harbour bottom. I perversely refused to pull the cord, convinced I could wriggle myself back above the surface.
I couldn’t, and still I wouldn’t tug the cord. A seal swam curiously by my inverted eyes, and then another. I thought I saw bright lights begin to flash. At that point I finally accepted that the cord was my last chance. One jerk, and I was shooting free to the surface like a rocket, very relieved indeed.
A concerned instructor, right beside me, had been about to flip the kayak for me. He seemed awed I had been able to stay under so long. I had to confess my endurance had been due to stupidity, not discipline. Kayaking 101: believe your instructor.
A more recent lesson brought no such drama, but it did bring plenty of pleasure. On a sunny day in early June, Pierce entrusted me with the front position on a tandem kayak, while he steered us out from Howth towards Ireland’s Eye. Before we even left the harbour, black guillemots, dapper northern hemisphere equivalents of penguins, were bobbing around the prow, far closer than I had ever seen them from land.
“Long, slow, smooth strokes,” Pierce reminded me as headed onto open sea. “Let the boat take you.” And it did, remarkably quickly too. Within 15 minutes, we were approaching the western shore of the island. A grey seal lay on an invisible submerged sandbar, tail and head both raised in a tight arc, as if it was doing yoga. I swear it waved a flipper. Again, we could get very close without disturbing it. We swung around to the eastern coves, and as soon as we lost sight of the mainland we were in another world. The upper rocks were carpeted in sea thrift, sea campion and scurvy grass, creating hazes of pink and white, backlit by the westering sun. Cormorants, shags, gulls, guillemots and razorbills were everywhere.
We skirted the massive stack on the north-western tip of the island, cacophonous with the only colony of gannets between southern Scotland and the Saltees. Just around the bend, we saw a very special bird, standing just outside its nest burrow, It was a puffin, in its signature combination of portly tuxedo plumage and rainbow-coloured bill. It is a rare privilege to be able to visit sites, so close to the city where, apart from the kayak and ourselves, there was nothing visible or audible we might not have seen or heard thousands of years ago.
Yet as we made the next turn, a Martello tower from the Napoleonic era swung into view, reminding us sea kayaking also offers exceptional access to historical and cultural treasures.
Finally, we did a faster paddle south, to a buoy towards Howth head. Then we paused, and slowly let the rising tide help us back to the harbour. The whole trip took less than two hours, but can hardly be measured in time.
The trip around Ireland’s Eye, says Seán Pierce, mirrors on a small scale sea-kayaking experiences around our coasts. He was first attracted to sea-kayaking to reach islands where he could find wildlife rarely or never encountered on the mainland, but soon became fascinated by all aspects of the craft. He has made very challenging trips as far as away as the Russian Arctic. Here is his pick of Irish destinations. Appropriate training, including weather knowledge, is essential for them all.
* Saltee Islands, Co
Wexford (special area of conservation): “A truly wonderful experience . . . interesting history and seabird spectacle , tidal conditions and offshore location make this a more advanced route.”
* Lough Hyne and Castlehaven Bay, Co Cork: “Unique . . . both locations allow complete novices very sheltered conditions . . . possibility of bioluminescence on summer nights.”
* Valentia Island and outlying islands, Co Kerry: “Dramatic cliff and coastal scenery, early Christian and Viking remains, transatlantic communications history, wealth of wildlife.”
* Scattery Island, Co Clare: “Rich architectural heritage (early Christian, British naval fortifications), special location in the Shannon Estuary. Tidal flows . . . strong, advanced skills needed.”
* South Connemara Islands, Co Galway
: “A huge variety of inshore and offshore sea kayaking routes at all levels . Backdrop of the Twelve Bens – a premier destination.”
Clew Bay, Co Mayo: “The drumlin island swarms provide a multitude of routes for novice and advanced kayakers. Otters, seals, abundant birdlife.”
* Owey and Gola Islands, Co Donegal
: “Superb. Warm pink granite, rich natural history, beautiful beaches, and full-on Atlantic panoramas. Challenges for both intermediate and advanced sea kayakers.”
See more at www.irishtimes.com
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