When Irish Eyes Are Sailing
A premonition of things to come on the coast of Country Cork.
As my wife, Clare, is from County Kerry, I have spent some time over the past several years exploring the southwest corner of the Emerald Isle by land and have enjoyed it immensely. Still, my eyes have always been drawn to the shore and the sea beyond. Even when viewed from land, the southwest Irish coast presents itself as a nearly ideal cruising ground. With its luscious backdrop of rolling green pastures, the dramatic shoreline, crenellated, like the many castles and forts that litter the landscape, with steep cliffs and headlands, offers a seemingly endless variety of nooks and crannies to explore by boat.
Even better, it is practically devoid of recreational vessels—at least by U.S. standards—and thus, at least to me, seemed all the more attractive. I was pleased to find that bareboats are available in this nearly virginal cruising venue and so arranged during our last visit to spend a few days with Clare, my 14-month-old daughter, Lucy, and my 7-year-old stepdaughter, Una, aboard a brand-new Dufour 365 from Sail Ireland.
We picked up the boat in Kinsale, a small town nestled in a scenic bend of the River Bandon, a short distance from the sea. It’s just west of Cork, one of the two epicenters of Irish sailing—the other being Dun Laoghaire (pronounced Dun Leary), outside of Dublin on the east coast—and makes an excellent starting point for an investigation of this coastline. Though our Welsh neighbors down the dock, who had just campaigned their boat in the Cork Week regatta, seemed to think we were a little crazy trying to cruise with a 14-month-old, Mick Loughnane of Sail Ireland was nothing but supportive when he gave us our chart briefing after we finished provisioning the boat.
With loins well girded, I managed to get the boat off the dock singlehanded in spite of a strong cross-breeze while Clare wrangled the girls, and then we were off, heading downriver. Such bliss! There is nothing like the champagne sensation of transiting a river under sail, and there is nothing like an Irish river for scenery. With the gay clutter of the town behind us, an ancient fortress looming to one side, and pastures studded with livestock looming on either side, we slipped effortlessly down the Bandon and out to open water.
We had hoped to pull into Courtmacsherry Bay, just west of the Old Head of Kinsale, a very prominent headland, but unfortunately one thing we learned during our briefing was that it was temporarily off limits to Sail Ireland craft due to treacherous shifting shoals and misplaced buoys. So instead we aimed for Glandore, about 51/2 hours down the coast. The sea was heaped up and weird, and we had only a light southerly breeze to lean against, but we made good progress nonetheless and had no trouble spotting the fantastic white lighthouse—really more like a light castle—atop the towering cliffs of Galley Head. From there it was a straight shot past the desolate form of Adam Island and into the calm of Glandore Harbour.
Lucy was anxious to go ashore, as she was just learning to walk and wanted to practice on a solid surface. She already knew what was what, and she stood whimpering at the stern pulpit, pointing at the tender behind us. We had a fine dinner ashore in a splendid pub with a panoramic view of the harbor and in the morning went ashore again for a proper expedition. Glandore, we found, is all about the recreational use of boats. The waterfront was alive with children launching small skiffs and sailing dinghies, and the folks strolling down the road in the village were all wearing PFDs, on their way to or from the water.
With Lucy in her folding stroller, we decided to hike the two miles around the bay to Union Hall, a decidedly more sober community with a quiet quay studded with fishing boats. The pub, as ever, turned out to be the center of things, where food and good company are always easy to come by. Ireland may be one of the last places on earth where an American accent instantly evokes warmth and generosity, and it proved especially effective here. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Lucy and Una both speak the more universal Esperanto de Child. The pub’s proprietor proved a mountain of good cheer, and Una had little problem befriending the family having lunch just one table over.
The next day, as we hoisted anchor and struck out again to the west, Una brought all her Barbies out on deck to help navigate. We bypassed the highly recommended harbor at Castle Haven, which we planned to visit on our way back east, and sailed close-hauled up the increasingly dramatic shore. The cliffs grew steeper, the pastures atop them broader and more windswept, the rocky islets below more jagged and ominous. Turning the corner north at Loo Rock into the entrance of Baltimore Harbour, a tall white tower known apocryphally as Lot’s Wife (aka Baltimore Beacon) was soon looming to starboard. Inside we found a broad, well-protected expanse of water on which a small fleet of local boats gamely raced around some buoys. Just opposite was the eerily arboreal Sherkin Island, replete with a ruined Franciscan abbey and a great fort, Dun na Long, the Fort of Ships, built by the once powerful O’Driscoll clan many centuries ago.
As soon as the anchor was down, Lucy was astern pointing at the tender, and so we were off ashore again. Already, however, there were clouds forming to the west. After touring the town in detail, we again put into the pub for a feed, made many new friends, but were drawn back to the tender as the clouds started spitting rain.
Rainbound in the saloon that evening, I monitored radio reports of an imminent gale and reluctantly decided to cut the cruise short so as to get the girls safely back to Kinsale the following day. Lucy, however, wanted nothing but to be on deck, and when the rain at last subsided a bit, I had a chance to propitiate her. As we sat on the bow together in the drizzle, it was like a switch had been thrown in her head, and she suddenly became calm and watchful. She gazed intently into the gray void of water, air, and weather, then up at the mast above, and then whimpered—the undifferentiated sound of need. “Don’t worry,” I told her, “this is just the beginning. I promise you we’ll come back one day.”
DESTINATION: Southern Ireland
WHEN TO GO: The Irish climate is largely affected by the eastern tendrils of the Gulf Stream, which keeps the weather temperate and humid. Southwest Ireland is not properly subtropical, but seems so at times, especially when you note the few palm trees poking their heads out of the foliage.
SAILING CONDITIONS: Ireland is on the leeward side of the North Atlantic, and the weather during the summer, which is certainly the best time to charter a boat, is more volatile than on the U.S. East Coast. Summer gales are not unheard of and can make all this coast a potentially treacherous lee shore. You need to pay close attention to forecasts and be prepared to change plans accordingly.
CHARTERING: Sail Ireland is the only full-on bareboat chartering outfit in all of Ireland. They run a small fleet of new Dufours and slightly older Beneteaus and have bases both in Kinsale in County Cork and in Dingle in County Kerry. They charter their boats on either a weekly or “short-break” basis. A short break can be either a long weekend (from Friday afternoon to the following Monday afternoon) or a short week (Monday to Friday). We opted for the latter, but given the volatility of the weather, anything less than a week is a bit risky, as we learned. You can also arrange one-way charters between Kinsale and Dingle, which is what I’d recommend for a more ideal exploration, as the very best part of the coast is west of Baltimore.
MORE INFO: Check out www.sailireland.com to learn about this company. Graham Swanson’s Cruising Cork and Kerry (Imray Laurie Norie & Wilson, 2005; available from online booksellers) is a good read and an excellent planning tool.