When I saw Alan’s post on an email from Explorer’s Connect something connected. It read something like this “I’m walking from Manchester to Dingle. I somehow need to cross the Irish Sea, maybe rowing or kayaking, any help or advice appreciated”
I emailed Alan, we established he had never been in a sea kayak before, he had a life-long fear of deep water and only learned to swim in the last year. Despite all of this he wanted to journey 60 miles across the Irish sea in a kayak.
Alan was undertaking the journey in memory of his sister who had died a few years ago, in the process he was hoping to raise money for MIND Manchester and Camphill Communities - Dingle.
Alan had done some earlier research into rowing and had had a quote for a support boat of £5000. Quite a cost for a journey that was meant to be raising money not spending it. Having taken complete novices on some successful, albeit much shorter, journeys in double sea kayaks I suggested that this could be the best way to make the crossing, which he liked the sound of.
So first thing’s first we needed to meet, and get Alan in a kayak. He drove down to Aberdovey, we chatted, we had a pleasant paddle in the estuary, performed a capsize and self-rescue, chatted some more, ate, and arranged another more testing kayak training day 3 weeks down the line.
Alan was keen to work on his fitness in the meantime so I advised him to go swimming as much as possible to boost his shoulder and back muscles, and it’s also great to be as comfortable in the water as on it.
So a few weeks later Alan came down again. There was a bit more wind about, a steady force 3 gusting 4/5. We paddled from Aberdovey up to Cae Du and back and went through an impressive hail storm. We also had a chance to play around in the surf on the edge of Aberdovey bar. All went well. I felt confident, given favourable conditions, that the only thing that would stop us paddling to Ireland would be a lack of perseverance. I’d only met Alan twice but after listening to his motivation for taking on the journey I believed that he would have enough in the tank.
I got in touch with a few paddling companies - Reed ChillCheater sponsored us with super warm base layers and beanies, Stu from VE Paddles supplied two super light paddles which I highly recommend, Nigel Dennis said he would make us a new Double Sea Kayak(!) however given the time available this didn’t work out, but it was a nice thought. Thankfully The Outward Bound Trust lent us a Perception Horizon Double Sea Kayak, not normally the boat of choice for open water sea crossings, but as this was the boat we had trained in it seemed right to use it for the crossing.
I ruled out any notion of a support boat. We would either do it self-sufficiently or not at all. A support boat adds another dynamic, and cost, which we didn’t need. All we needed was light winds and the ability to keep paddling west.
So Alan started his walk from Manchester and planned to be in Holyhead 10 days later. If I had spent an extended time in Manchester I too would want to leave it any way possible. I started studying the weather 7 days in advance, 5 days, 3 days this is normally when things start to firm up 2 days…. yes it’s looking good. I confirm to Alan who was somewhere near Bangor that we should take our chance the morning after he arrives in Holyhead. Sunday 15th June - the very first day of our weather window.
We met on the Saturday evening at Anglesey Outdoors, had a good feed in the Paddler’s Return, and popped down to Porth Dafarch for Alan’s first look at where we would launch from on the Sunday. It was flat as a pancake. Encouraging.
Sunday, 15th May 2016. A couple of Alan’s friend’s met us at Porth Dafarch, they looked quite nervous. In line with my tidal planning (to get us through the Penrhyn Mawr tide race unscathed) we had a rather civilised 10:20am start. Off we went. Paddling. There was a steady Force 3 from the NW for a couple of hours, thankfully this eased by around 14:00. We paddled. Stopped every hour for a couple of minutes to eat something small, little and often was the strategy. Every now and then one of us would wee allowing the other to have a slightly extended rest.
Around about 21:00 I busted out the music system that I had made watertight in a big tupperware container. Quite surreal listening to Dwight Yoakam whilst not being able to see land in any direction. Then suddenly what I thought was a freak wave broke 3 metres to our right. It was actually a minke whale trying to catch a listen to some honky-tonk. It gave me quite a shock but was then instantly calming as we watched it swim to the south, every now and then breaching the now very calm surface of the Irish Sea.
We paddled. It got dark. We noted the massive ferries, sometimes to our north, sometimes to our south.
We started to see the glow of Dublin. The battery died on the music system.
I had a period around 02:30am when I felt incredibly committed and slightly vulnerable, which as it happens I was. Alan started singing. Then it was my turn, we alternated for around an hour which helped us to keep paddling through the darkness.
We could see lots of port lights, boat lights, most of them confusing. I started seeing strange shapes, was I hallucinating? I contacted Dublin Coastguard on the VHF radio to let them know we are big eaters.
06:00 we had been able to see Dublin for an annoying amount of time now, we were trying to pin-point Dun Laoghaire Harbour as this is where I would be getting the ferry back to Holyhead from…. or so I thought.
We paddled. The wind picked up from the West.
We spotted Dalkey Island. We went for it. We thought we saw a man standing on the sea, it was in fact a buoy. Our paddling efficiency was beginning to fail and we struggled on to the east side of Dun Laoghaire Harbour wall, we crawled onto the rocks.
Monday 16th May, 07:50am. We had made it to Ireland.
We clambered over the wall somehow and looked at a peaceful harbour that looked quite celubrious. There was a distinct lack of ferry action. We looked particularly ungraceful as the morning Dublin joggers whistled past our array of dry bags, damp kit, and general salty mess.
Alan made some phone calls to his Dublin friend. A Port Authority vehicle pulled up, for a minute I thought we were in trouble. But no it was Alan’s friend of a friend. Things were happening. A friend of the friend of a friend pulled up in a VW Transporter, we proceeded to put a double sea kayak in the back of a van… it certainly didn’t fit but it didn’t matter, we were in Ireland.
So it turns out that ferries had stopped operating out of Dun Laoghaire a couple of years ago, they all depart from Dublin Port now. Luckily I had the VW Transporter to take me there. We hugged then Alan was whisked away by the fixer.
All sorts of shenanigans occurred at Dublin Port including an appearance on a SKY television programme on importing drugs with a kayak, a story for another time. Big thanks to Vinnie from Stena Line for helping me make it onto the ferry with the kayak.
The crossing had taken close to 22 hours and the end seemed so rushed. I had to get back to Wales for work, and Alan had to continue on his walk to Dingle. Next time I paddle to Ireland I’ll stay there a little longer.
Many thanks to VE Paddles, Reed ChillCheater, Stena Line and The Outward Bound Trust - if you want to move very slowly but steadily across the Irish Sea then the Perception Horizon is the boat of choice.
Alan raised over £20,000 for his chosen charities - MIND Manchester & Camphill Communities - Dingle.