As much as I was nervous about travelling in the remote areas of North Donegal I was more nervous about travelling in Northern Ireland. Having never travelled much in this part of the country and much of what I knew of the area was based on years of news reporting on the troubles when I was growing up, I knew however that things had changed and I put my nerves aside and began to look forward to this exciting chapter of my adventure.
As I rounded Inishowen head I was met by the Greencastle Coast Guard boat, they were out to meet the Clipper boats as they arrived from a transatlantic crossing into Derry. The Clipper race is an amateur yacht race around the world, similar to the Volvo Ocean race but the only professional sailor on board the boats is the skipper. The Finland boat had just arrived and passed up the Foyle in front of me.
With Donegal behind me and flat calm sea I decided to cut a straight line for Belbane head, the head land off the world famous Giant’s Causeway near Portrush. I had the tide in my favour and the forecast force 6 winds did not seem to have arrived, although the tide running out of Lough Foyle did make things a little bumpy for a while.
As I progress along the coast I was making great time and I could feel the wind grow in strength behind me and was pushing me along onto of the growing swell at tremendous speeds, well 5mph, tremendous for me!
I was passing Portrush on the second last day of the Irish Open golf and thought I might get a glimpse of the action but as conditions deteriorated I had little time to look around. Then at 4.30pm a weather warning was issued, the previous small craft warning of winds up to force 6 had been upgraded to a Gale warning meaning winds of force 8 or higher were now likely and I was in the middle of it.
I held my course initially as I was making good time and felt if I could keep up my speed I would run ahead of the weather and stay out of trouble. The sea continued to grow and waves increased to 3 then 4 then 5 metres, these were the biggest seas I had seen so far and was reluctant to try and surf them in my fully laden 18’ boat. I started to doubt my own ability and skills and scanned the chart for a get out plan, Portbalintrea was 4 miles southeast of my position and if I change my course I would be there in less than 2 hours and safe on dry land. I wrestled with the decision then changed my course and made for land.
After about 5 minutes I noticed my speed had now dropped and I was getting knocked around a lot more than before, this was due to the fact I was now crossing the wind and swell instead of running with it. I looked to my left to Belbane head and decided although the longer distance it was the safer and quicker option; I committed and went for it.
A couple of hours of what felt like arm wrestling an Octopus on a Rodeo bull later I was passing the headland and it offer sufficient shelter to calm the seas back to a comfortable state. I could now make out what I thought was the entrance to Ballintoy and still on the fast running tide I closed the gap rapidly. By now the wind had also backed and was blowing off shore; imperceptibly nudging me away from the land.
A couple of miles out form my destination I began to make out some details and adjusted my course to aim for the harbour entrance, by this stage I had drifted off shore and as I corrected my course I had to face into a gusting wind which was reluctant to let me move. A one hour battle ensued as I forced the boat through the eye of the wind to gain back the ground which I had lost. I then had to carefully negotiate my way around the rocks which guard the harbour as the large swells smashed into white foam almost blocking the entrance. I timing my move through and with a flurry of strokes I passed into calm water and into the old harbour and onto the slipway.
I was greeted by some of the friendliest people I have met on my trip to date and this was a great relief and as I set up camp I chatted to some inquisitive locals about my journey so far and about my wild day in a gale. I was then invited to join Colin and Yvonne who had travelled all of 6 miles from home in their retro camper van to enjoy their 29th wedding anniversary in one of their favourite spots, Ballintoy. I joined them for a drink and wished them a happy anniversary as I took my weary body off to bed.
So far I have been woken my rain on my tent, rain on my face and graffiti artists but this morning I was woken by something very odd indeed. I had planned to sleep late to catch the tide so when I could hear a crowd gather outside my tent just before 9 I was not impressed, as I lay trying to drown out the chit chat and fall back to sleep one voice took over. At first I thought I was imagining things but as it happened 3 times in all I am sure I was camped in the middle of a baptism ceremony. I was sorely tempted to poke my head out of the tent for a look but was afraid my scruffy appearance would not fit in and could disturb proceedings. After about 30 minutes it was all over and the crowd went on their way and I got up to begin the packing.
A late start was essential today as I was about to pass through the Rathlin Island sound and around Fair Head and there was no point in trying to fight these tides as they ran at up to 8mph a speed which I could not contest even with a tail wind.
I had checked and rechecked the times and as I departed the harbour it was hardly recognisable as calm water had now replaced the crashing waves of last evening. I moved along the shore watching closely for indications of the tide flow as it passed rocks or fishing buoys, I knew it would not turn for a while but as soon as it did I wanted to be on the train to make the most of what it would offer.
A couple of miles off Fair Head it picked up and I was off like a rocket around the corner with free miles in the bank. I was familiar with Fair head as a famous rock climbing destination and as I passed I spotted the red and blue jacket of 2 tiny dots, climbers mid way up the vertical rock. It is n impressive and distinct headland and it is easy to see way it attracts so many climbers.
Around the corner I was careful to stay in the flow and held speeds of almost 6moh for the next few hours making short work of the northeast Antrim coast. This section of water, The North Channel separates Ireland and Scotland and off to my left was the Mul of Kintyre, only a short 11miles away, it was tempting, but it would have to wait for another time.
I had picked the town of Glenarm as a finishing pint for today, it had a marina and I figured it would have a patch of grass nearby for my tent. The late start was always going to give e late finish but with my break neck speeds I was delighted to see the ETA on my GPS was for just after 8pm. Happy that I had some time on my side I pulled into the final headland a couple of hours form my destination to relieve myself. Back on the water and moved back out to catch the tide and as I did I moved through an overfall, not unusual in strong tides but instead of the normal increase in speed I slowed dramatically from 3.5mph to 1.5mph. Something was wrong; I looked to see if I had snagged something on my rudder, no nothing there. What was going on? TI dawned on me, a back eddy, they had been marked on the tide chart and I just paddled straight into it. The fast tide which I had been on was still running offshore and it was smashing into the next headland at Glenarm and turning back on itself back up the coast right to the headland where I had just stopped. I could either tackle it head on and grind out the last 5 miles or play smart and move offshore to find the favourable tide and although going the long way around it should prove quicker.
I moved out, then moved out some more and yet more and could not catch the tide, after almost an hour I broke free and my speed climbed again and I finally pulled into the Marina in Glenarm as the light began to fade. On my approach I had noticed a large marquee in the town which was obviously hosting a music gig and I wanted to avoid this part of town. The slipway in the marina was ideally situated well away from here so I popped out of the boat the survey the land and find a campsite, gravel, wasteland and a main road were all that were on offer. On the far side of town across the bay was a public park with a stony strand and some nice flat grass, but only a stone’s throw from the concert.
I could see some police on the road on that side so I jumped back in the boat and shot across onto the strand. A fisherman on the beach was of no great help with local information as he was from out of town so I jumped over the wall to chat with the police; they were running a speed check on the road. It turned out that there was a police station right across the road from my landing site and after a chat with the 2, very friendly, police officers I decided I would take the chance and pitch my tent on the grass above the beach.
I was nervous that I might get some hassle later that night from the concert goers so I brought all of my kit into my tent and stayed up reading for a while. I eventually feel asleep and was not interrupted, I woke to yet more rain and set off to catch the tide and to rendezvous with my resupply in Groomsport, but not before I would have to negotiate Belfast Lough.