The Irish Cruising Club’s Cruising Ireland says West Cork has “a benign and comely coastline,” and so it has. We were thrilled—my wife, Judy, and I, and our friends Bruce and Nancy Beale—to have a chance to sail there for a week in the spring. Should I mention that this was a “senior cruise?” Our younger friends are in their 60s, and Judy and I are in our 70s. Not that we’re special; it’s just a reminder that sailing is a lifelong sport, and anyone who stays reasonably fit can keep enjoying it.
The local saying is “West Cork is bigger than Ireland,” a piece of Irish logic that seems to make sense the longer one spends there. And it’s a treat to sail into one snug harbor after another and find things much as Anne Bonny, the Irish pirate from Kinsale, might have seen them. It’s not only the villages that seem unchanged, but the seaway itself, with lighthouses 150 to 300 years old and channel markers that would have been familiar to 19th-century mariners.
We chartered a Hanse 35 called Jammy Bee from the helpful folks at Sovereign Sailing in Kinsale. As the week’s cruise began, we sailed out of Kinsale harbor, where 12ft tides and a narrowing estuary have brought craft of all sizes in and out for motorless centuries. Preparing to round the craggy Old Head of Kinsale, we quickly realized that the “stern and rockbound coast of Maine” has nothing on Ireland’s southwestern coast. Towering cliffs line the shore, with slabs of limestone, sandstone and slate from Kinsale west to Crookhaven, the westernmost point on our cruise.
We also soon learned that the rocks were not confined to the shoreline itself. Our week’s sail offered an intriguing array of formations to avoid, from the well-known Adam and Eve islands in Glandore Harbor (“Avoid Adam and hug Eve”) to offshore hazards like Doolic Rock, awash a half mile off Galley Head. It’s a wonderful cruising ground and mostly quite open, but study the charts carefully.
From Kinsale to Crookhaven, we sailed about 65 miles by the rhumb line, though needless to say the wind didn’t allow straight point-to-point sailing. Progress was measured by bays crossed (Courtmacsherry, Clonakilty, Rosscarberry) and heads rounded (Kinsale Old Head, Seven Heads, Galley Head, Toe Head). The harbors where we spent the nights are familiar names to old Ireland hands: Courtmacsherry, Castletownshend, Baltimore, Crookhaven and Glandore. All along our route, the hills were dotted with the picturesque remains of castles, tower houses, and round and square towers—remnants of the O’Driscolls, who ruled West Cork until the English victory at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601.
Judy and I had wondered for some time what cruising Ireland would be like, as we had lived there for several months 25 years earlier. And only a few days into the cruise, after seeing several towns and villages, it appeared that this part of coastal Ireland has remained virtually unchanged over the past quarter-century. I realized that I hadn’t seen a single McDonald’s or Starbucks. No knock on these popular companies; it’s just that they don’t say “traditional Ireland” to me. In fact, except for the familiar Spar convenience stores, I’d seen no franchises at all. The only evidence of change was some fresh pastel paint on the stuccoed store fronts here and there, but every town showed the same parade of small shops with the local proprietors’ names proudly displayed.
We never once had to motor underway. We sailed in gentle breezes and strong breezes, but we sailed all week. Thanks to timely offshore winds on the gustiest days, seas were manageable, with waves mostly running 4ft to 8ft. Though there were showers, it never settled into heavy rain. Most nights there was no need to resort to anchoring, as there were plenty of open moorings or pontoons (in the Midwest we call them floating docks), and we enjoyed plenty of light, as West Cork’s northern latitude provided us with 16 hours of daylight. Those of us from more southerly latitudes are used to seeing the sun plunge down the evening sky at a steep angle. In Ireland, it’s a lazy lateral slant that goes on till 2130 in the last week of May, with daylight lingering till around 2230.
The diversity of experiences on the cruise charmed us. In the course of our week, we saw such local features as the Barloge Creek inlet, which leads via a tidal reversing rapids to Lough Hyne, a seawater lake. The rapids, nearly 100ft long, flow at a maximum rate of 9 knots. They were flowing out when we arrived, so we didn’t try to dinghy upstream, choosing instead to hike along the shore for a view of the lake. On a tiny island in the middle of the lake are the ruins of a 17th-century castle built by the O’Driscolls.
Then there were the dolphins and the whales. Whales! Entering Baltimore Harbor on Ireland’s southwestern shore, we were visited not only by a pod of dolphins, but also by several minke whales. “The most I’ve seen here,” according a local we spoke with onshore. Though this was a surprise to me, dedicated whale-watchers are probably aware that Ireland’s southwest coast is a prime location for whale sightings. In addition to the minkes, humpbacks and even blue whales can also be seen in these water. The dolphins and minkes surfacing and blowing near the Jammy Bee were a real treat.
While the sailing was fun, our time ashore was a pleasure as well. In Baltimore harbor, we had to lay over a day to wait for more favorable weather as fog developed offshore. However, the layover was anything but wasted, as we took a small local bus to nearby Skibbereen for the afternoon. “Skib,” as the locals call it, is a busy and colorful commercial center with a population of nearly 3,000, one of the few coastal towns of its size in West Cork. It’s always been one of my favorites, charming and completely unselfconscious, like a girl who doesn’t how pretty she is. We took the opportunity to watch the street scene, to reprovision and to laze in the cafes. We were grateful not to have tried to travel there by dinghy, up the winding River Ilen, a journey of some 10 miles.
Baltimore Harbor brought us a choice of pubs, including the popular Bushes Bar (“Showers available for fishermen and sailors”) and Jacob’s Bar, styled as a French café. The pubs everywhere we went, legendary for their pints and their hospitality, were remarkable for their food as well. Though they half-apologized for “only pub food,” one could easily do worse than their ever-present smoked salmon, fresh crab and fish, their salads and desserts (such as sticky toffee pudding and Warm chocolate cake with heavy cream). An unexpected encounter in Baltimore even led to us buying a pint for sailing legend Don Street!
A high point of the week was rounding Fastnet Rock, an icon instantly recognizable by sailors everywhere. We were blessed with fair weather, since sailing to the rock and its lighthouse, four miles southwest of Cape Clear, can be a challenge (waves taller than the 150-foot lighthouse have been recorded). But as fate would have it, we reached Fastnet with a light breeze on our sunniest day.
The Irish reputation for friendliness is well deserved. Not only were we greeted warmly everywhere we went, but one evening, while moored in tiny Crookhaven (a town with only 30 permanent residents), a local couple came swimming by in wetsuits. They were taking their evening constitutional, and paused to wish us a “good evening” and converse for a while. I told them we’d rounded Fastnet Rock that afternoon, and they said, “Yes, we saw you! We were driving on the road into town and saw a sailboat at the Fastnet—that must have been you.”
As on every sailing trip, there were unexpected challenges. One involved a main halyard that fouled on Jammy Bee’s steaming light while we were in Baltimore. Because the halyard led from the aft side of the mast, the lower spreader prevented us from standing on deck and “flipping” it off. In the end, we tied the free end of the halyard to a bottle of detergent, tossed it over the spreader and then flipped it loose. After that we tossed it back over the spreader, prompting cheers from a group of onlookers.
Our final day’s sail was a rollicking reach from Glandore to Kinsale in 20-plus knot winds and manageable seas (about 8ft). A southerly gale, given the 500-mile fetch from Spain to Ireland, would have made for much tougher going. Jammy Bee slogged gamely along, though her 35ft length wasn’t an ideal match for the wave intervals. There was enough pitching to keep the crew alert and to knock the boat’s clock off the saloon bulkhead! Still, as we tacked the last five miles into Kinsale and tied up at Sovereign Sailing’s dock, we felt privileged to have sailed this beautiful cruising ground.
Dean Bevan has been a sailor for nearly 50 years, enjoying coastal sailing in the Atlantic, Pacific, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, as well as Chesapeake Bay, Lake Michigan, and Kansas’s Lake Perry, where he kept a Catalina 30 for 25 years.
Photo courtesy of Dean Bevan