Remembering a day off the coast of southern Ireland …
©Linda Watanabe McFerrin
Gale force winds, rain, twenty-six-foot seas—we’d hit a bit of a rough spot in the weather on the Irish Riviera, the promoters’ somewhat euphemistic appellation for the strip of resort towns—Youghal, Ardmore, Dungarvan, Cobh and Ballycotton—that dot Ireland’s southern coast and draw travelers to their lovely beaches and coastlines. Not that this put a damper on our adventures. My travel companions and I had spent most of our days in landlubberly pursuits, crawling all over the Cork County countryside, grinning from ear to ear, traipsing through museums and gardens and markets, nattering away at the locals with our incessant questions, supping famously and excessively in restaurants, guzzling liters and liters of brown beer in pubs, and hobnobbing with poets and writers and artists and musicians anywhere we could find them. Rain or shine, we were having a super time.
In Cobh we filed, soggy as Seattle’s morning edition, into the Cobh Heritage Center where we “oohed” and “aahed” at the exhibits and stuffed ourselves on cakes and cream before heading out to the foot of the Knockmealdown Mountains in County Waterford and the banks of the River Blackwater. There, in Lismore, we spent a sparkling afternoon at majestic Lismore Castle touring the elegant gardens under the guidance of master gardener, Chris Stull. We’d hugged the druidic stones in West Cork at the Dromberg Stone Circle and jiggled and bounced along on a seemingly endless bus ride down the Mizen Head Peninsula to the Fastnet Lighthouse, clip-clopping under stormy skies across the suspension bridge that connects the small island from which the lighthouse rises to the mainland. Gannets whirled above the rocky cliffs, boats circled in the waters far below. The outlook over the wide Atlantic from Mizen Head was inspiring, moving some to spontaneous poetic discourse and stunning others finally into silence. It was the perfect culmination of a long cross-country excursion through garden and wood, across field and stream, to lands’ end and the very brink of the isle. All well and good, but I had a hankering for a sea voyage of some kind.
After all, there we were, staying in Crosshaven on the Corkish coast, Cork Harbor being the second largest natural harbor in the world and Ireland’s second largest port. To my mind, as a person who’d memorized most of the words to the Littlest Mermaid as a girl, and as a lover of waterlogged tales like Titanic (the great ship set sail on that tragic last journey from Cobh in Cork Harbor), Poseidon Adventure, The Perfect Storm and—weirdly—The Secret of Roan Inish or, as it is known in novel form, The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry, this was a part of the Irish environment that I did not want to miss. Besides I’ve always been drawn to the sea and its mysteries. Not in the cruise-ship-all-you-can-eat kind of way, but in more of a Rhyme-of-the-Ancient-Mariner-Mutiny-on-the-Bounty-tough-time-but-great-story style. Put me on a Ranger 88 heading out to the guano-encrusted, curlew- and puffin-infested Farallon Islands and I’m happy. Send me off on a 128-foot Islander to explore the 24,000 islands and skerries of the Stockholm Archipelago and I’m in heaven. Heck, you can press me into service navigating the locks on the Canal du Midi, deflate my banana boat in the middle of the Pacific, even stick me in a canoe in a swamp and make it capsize, and I’ll be an ecstatic explorer. I live very close to a lake in a coastal city, am crazy about tide pools and aquariums; I even married a fish, for God’s sake. Well, maybe not a fish, but a swimmer.
To top it all off, I’d broken my ankle a few months before and was still nursing my new metal parts. Long hikes were out, no matter how alluring the prospect, so a day on the high seas seemed ideal to me, and we’d actually planned for one on my birthday.
I don’t know if it was Barbara or Connie who contacted Whale of a Time, an adventure boating company operating from Castletownshend just east of Skibbereen, that takes clients out on harbor, river and coastal trips along the southern shores of Ireland. Michael Hallahan and his partner, Kevin Higgins, have been running these trips for three years, though Michael has been on the sea since 1984. On Mischief, his eleven-meter Redbay Enclosed Rib, we could motor out, nine at a time, for a number of hours in search of some of the marvelous marine life that inhabits Irish waters.
In the early 1990’s, in response to a proposal made by the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, the Irish government declared its coastal waters a whale and dolphin sanctuary, the first of its kind in Europe. Well over twenty species of cetaceans have been recorded on the western and southern perimeter of the island, along with the shoals of small fish that support them. Massive fin, humpback, and minke whales of the baleen persuasion are regular visitors to the waters in these parts, upstaged occasionally by smaller, predatory odontoceti such as the killer whale or orca. In addition, several species of delphinidae like to sport in the area including, some say, a resident pod of bottlenose dolphins. Of course there are seals, conger eels, rays, all manner of fish and plenty of peckish sea birds cruising the skies in constant search of a snack. A promising cast of characters for any sea-loving soul—we were bound to encounter these locals.
Sadly the weather was against us. Our first trip was cancelled as the seas were too nasty and the weather decidedly bad, but on July 1, rough seas or not, we set out from Crosshaven, home of the world’s oldest yacht club, for our own little whale of a time.
We had high hopes for the day. Gaby, the kind and solicitous lady of the manor at the bed and breakfast where most were staying, had wisely provided handfuls of cloves to be tucked into mouths to ward off sea-sickness—an old, natural preventative—though I suspect their best use is to sweeten the breath once the terrible moment has passed. Our skipper and his first mate, a sunburned Andy Richter look-alike, buckled us up into car seat-like contraptions: life jackets with crotch straps to ensure that our water wings wouldn’t be going anywhere without us once we were in the drink. Ann, Chrysa, Mary Jean, Connie G., Annelise, and Joanna all decided to hang out with Andy-boy on the stern, while I took a seat next to our captain, inside, in the front of the boat.
Mike said we’d try to head south around twenty miles in search of minke whales. There was also the pod of resident bottlenose dolphins at the harbor mouth that he hoped we’d see, but as the boat pitched and rolled, he explained that conditions might make it difficult to locate them.
“How high are these waves?” I asked, as what looked like a green wall of glass rose before us.
“Around twelve to fourteen feet,” said Mike, angling the boat to catch the wave’s crest and ride it for a time before dipping back into the deep trough alongside it. A fine spray washed in through the window.
“Wow, that was cool.”
He smiled, expertly maneuvering the craft to skim one vitreous wall after another, his pale green eyes moving quickly to mine before turning back to the far more absorbing sight of the wide gray horizon. I settled in to pepper him with my innumerable questions.
Meanwhile, on deck with first mate Andy (his real name is John), Chrysa leaned romantically over the rail, her mermaid-like curls tangling in the salty breeze, her fairy-sweet features turning the palest chartreuse as the waters reached up to embrace her. Connie G., on the other hand, had managed to wrap herself up like an Eskimo, avoiding any and all wave contact, Joanna had found a position of comfort, leaning up against the cabin, and Annelise, being Dutch, stood straight as a totem pole—calm, reserved, and unruffled.
“We were rockin’ and rollin’ up in the back,” says Ann. Ann, though most people wouldn’t guess it, is a bit of a cowgirl. She’s an expert on guns and has a heavy foot on the SUV accelerator; I learned this on a rainforest assignment. “The captain’s buddy was watching us to make sure we didn’t fall in,” she continued. “God, it was invigorating.”
I imagine Ann bracing herself for the wild ups and downs and loving it: the bronco-busting American, the gal on the mechanical bull. According to Ann, Mary Jean, our incipient tri-athlete, was using the experience to practice pilates. When we’d rocket through a tough patch, she’d hiss in warning, “Try to protect your core.”
In thirteen-foot seas with a southeasterly wind force of five to six knots, we ran to Roches Point at the mouth of the harbor and then to Power Head scanning the gray-green seas for a spyhop, a breach, a loptail—any sign at all of cetaceans, any momentary flash of a whale. The high seas were relentless, the horizon unbroken. It wasn’t long before our group began to hallucinate sea life.
“Look over there, a pod of dolphins!”
“Yes! Yes! I see them.”
“So do I.”
Not really. There were no dolphins, but I didn’t care. Like Ann, I was having the time of my life, loving it as we punched through a wave or crested it, hanging for a moment before crashing down into the trough. It was awesome, a bone-and-organ-jarring hurtle over the bounding main. No wonder our tour operators posted a warning to pregnant women and people with back problems on their website.
Mike, I came to learn, is a member of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which is similar to our United States Coast Guard. In a power boat training course, he had learned to navigate without sight; they had to “feel” the seas.
“They trained us by blindfolding us,” he said.
I closed my eyes for a moment as the craft pitched and rolled, imagined piloting it in a blindfold, pictured myself smashing the boat into a cruise ship.
“Cool,” I said, in a new kind of awe, sitting next to the curl-surfing ninja.
The swells rose in height and the winds pummeled the cabin. Those on deck popped inside, some wet as water spaniels, hair lank and drippy, mugs glistening with salt spume. Mike judged it wise to head back to the harbor, and did so with amazing velocity. On the seven-ton Mischief we skated the high seas, running past the fortresses of Camden, Carlisle and Fort Mitchell and on toward Cobh, situated on the largest island in the lower harbor, where the big cruise ships berth. He then ran off past Monkstown and Passage West on the western shore and into Lake Mahon and Blackrock where we moored ever so briefly, stopping in at a pub for a heart- and hand-warming Irish whisky and a pint. From Blackrock we headed to Cork City in the upper harbor. On the return we ran behind Haulbowline Island, which the Irish Navy—only eight ships on this day (and any day)—calls home. By the time we ran past Spike Island our spirits were serene, the water and wind and exhilaration having worked their inevitable magic. Much too soon we were back at Crosshaven, gathering our soggy affairs and bidding reluctant farewells.
We did not see a single fish that day. Not a seal or a dolphin, much less a whale. I can’t remember if we saw many birds either, be they petrel or shearwater or fulmar or gull … well, maybe some gulls; yet I think we all had a fabulous time.
We ended the day anchored in chairs in the perhaps the finest restaurant of the trip: elegant Finders Inn Restaurant in Nohoval, where the candlelight danced on the brick and old wood as we supped on delicious course after course of fresh fish, roast duck, perfectly grilled meats and an amazing assortment of potatoes. We toasted our travels, waxed nostalgic under the influence of excellent wines, and grew sleepy after all the excitement. The world, as I recall, was rocking for me when we left the restaurant, but certainly not from rough seas.
—Linda Watanabe McFerrin
You can find more tales of this group’s adventures in Ireland in Venturing in Ireland (Travelers’ Tales).