The South and West coast were all somewhat familiar to me and I was always in close range to friends or family. When I moved into the northwest I had expected to be isolated and lonely and have to admit this section of the coast was one that made me nervous.
So far though Donegal had treated me well, friendly faces and a warm bed had been a welcome relief from the epic night with the birds on the rock.
When I set out from Bunaniver I had a feeling it would be an interesting day with a forecast for very mixed weather and some challenging cliff coastline and the possibility of strong tidal races and overfalls.
The first few miles went by easily as I approached Bloody Foreland, for all the might in the name it is a little disappointing as it is not the towering cliff I had imagined but a bed rock slab sloping gently into the sea. As I rounded the head I had an immediate slide towards regret, my decision to cut the previous day short right now did not seem like the right one. A fierce head wind had kicked up and as I fought yet again to make progress into the wind and tide I could picture how flat and peaceful this section looked the previous evening as we drove to Paddy’s house.
But this was now time for regret I had made my decision the previous evening based on what was right at the time, it was the correct decision then, it was my decision and regret would get me nowhere now! As I battled I focused on what was positive, the fact that I knew the wind would ease and that the tide would change and also that I had control over my own destiny the decision to move or stop to push hard or back off were all mine to make.
This got me thinking about a friend of mine, Chris Bryan. Chris is Irelands leading open water swimmer and is one of the hardest working and most dedicated athletes I know. In the lead up to the expedition I met up with him for some training as he prepared for Olympic qualification, in the past few days he found out he would not become an Olympian this year and that his 4 year journey was over. A number of decisions which were outside of his control had conspired against him and I felt hugely disappointed for him as although he had done everything in his power to go to London ultimately the decision was not his and he will have to wait another four years for his chance.
Thinking about this helped me to focus on the task ahead of me and I felt lucky that I was in control of my destiny, yes the weather had played its part in my journey so far but I did not have to contend with outside parties telling me I could or couldn’t go, these decision were all my own.
My fight with the wind lasted for over 2 hours then as I found shelter near the land the pressure on the paddles eased and the boat began to glide once more. Then as I approached the high cliffs of the promontory headland of Horn head I had one of my worst fears realised. A huge Thunder Storm exploded in front of me and passed across my path.
The deluge of rain, gusting winds and deafening thunder were a frightening mix and as the visibility dropped to all but a 100m I kept a close eye on my compass as I sought shelter near the cliffs. Within 20 minutes the rain had eased the wind had dropped and the thunder echoed from the clouds as they drifted into the distance.
Now I had a dilemma on my hands, in unfamiliar territory I had to make a choice. I needed to make as much ground as possible east to try and rendezvous with the Mulroy Coast Guard Unit but I was also conscious of the time and of my slow progress. I could cut into Sheep Haven and be ashore in under 2 hours or I could cut across the bay and land on one of the remote beaches of the Rosguill peninsula and hope the Coast Guard would come and meet me.
More mental arithmetic, a consultation with the charts and with Google maps on my phone I picked out a possibly landing site that would be sheltered and give me a good launch pad to get around Malin head the following day. Across Sheep Haven it was then. The breeze now behind me I began to move swiftly, but as I did the breeze freshened and I could sense dark clouds over my shoulder, then the skies opened and as I was enveloped in rain. Flash, out of the corner of my hood I caught the flash of lightening as it lite up just behind me, as I gasped in fright, Bang, the thunder rumbled tight over my head causing me to shudder.
I downed paddles and sought what shelter I could by ducking down, to be honest it offered no real shelter at all but it felt better than sitting up straight paddles in hand like a human lightening rod. I sat still for a number of minutes as the gusts of wind hurtled me forward in the maelstrom. Slowly the rain faded and the dark cloud rumbled ahead.
As the skies cleared I could now see I was half way across the bay and I overheard the Mulroy Coast Guard boat checking in on the VHF, they had launched and were coming to meet me. I hope I am not going to get a fuel bill for all these coast guard visits! I kept a keen eye out for them as I knew I would be hard to spot and after a short while I spotted them a mile or so off, searching for me. Then an abrupt change in course and increase in speed, they had spotted me and were on the way.
It was nice to have some company on the water once again and some local knowledge was a great help as they showed me into a small bay, cutting my distance for the day and setting me up nicely for the following morning.
Up onto the beach and in a flurry of activity I was unpacked the boat loaded onto the RIB and I was off to Downies and the Beach Hotel for the night. I was given the royal treatment by the staff at the hotel and the Mulroy Coast Guard team could not have been more helpful. I was all set for the big one the following day; it was time to go “Over the Top”.
At this stage of the trip I have been around the most Southern and Western parts of Ireland, all going well today I would go around the Northern tip, Malin Head. The day started great with a hearty breakfast at the Beach Hotel before Brian from Mulroy CG picked me up and we headed back out to my landing site from the night before. Conditions were ideal with a light tail wind and a favourable tide I made good steady progress around the first headland and with good visibility Malin head was clear to be seen on the horizon.
Making good time I closed in on the head quickly and as I got within a couple of miles I could see something odd. A distinct white line on the horizon extending from the head for a couple of miles north. A mile or out it was clear what it was, a massive overfall which is caused as the sea is squeezed around the headland forcing up large waves which surge and break, the white line was the foam of the breaking waves. If I could see this from over a mile away it was big, especially if I could see it from my low vantage point.
I decided to be cautious and move off shore where the waves would be smaller but I did not want to venture too far off as when I rounded I would have to move back in shore and any added distance was added time. I passed about a mile north of Malin head in great visibility with the sea boiling beneath me in a mess of crashing waves all being torn apart by a rushing tide. Fortunately the rush was in my favour and I was carried through the mess quickly, this was not somewhere I wanted to hang around as the unpredictable waves knocked me around in the boat like a rag doll and regularly forced me off course. I had been warned by many that it could get rough up here, I was glad I had caught it on a calm day as I would not like to round in heavy swells of with strong winds.
Once on the down hill side I made my way inshore conscious that the wind would possibly turn to blow off the land and I wanted to be in the calmer water to make good progress. I stopped into a little beach for a call of nature and stretched my legs for a few minutes. As I moved back out I lost the flow of the tide and found my speed dropping as I fought a cross wind and a strong current. Frustrated with myself for not staying on the strong tide I ploughed on as my ETA to Culdaff on my GPS ran later and later.
After an hour the current against me eased and I gained some shelter from the wind beside the cliffs, then my speed increased as I picked up favourable tide again, I had been in an eddy, now I was free and my ETA began to tumble back down once again.
All I knew of Culdaff before I arrived was that it had a pier and the village was a couple of miles away. I therefore expected it to be a quiet spot with a few small fishing boats and I was not wrong. There were a few fishermen working on their boats as I arrived and as I set about looking for a spot to pitch my tent I got chatting to a few locals about what to expect on the next leg of my journey and possible landing sites for the end of the next day.
They finished up their work and left me in peace to pitch my tent on the pier between the boats. As I went about my routine I was just selecting some rocks to hold down the tent, as my pegs won’t go into concrete when one of the locals returned. A young guy named Shaun who lived across the road had seen me put the tent up on the concrete and with 2 empty holiday homes he felt for me. He offered a bed and I gladly received, it was an amazingly generous offer and as he helped me move all my kit into my home for the night we had a chat about his hopes to move to Cork this autumn to attend the National Maritime College to study marine engineering. He then went off to fetch his quad to bring the boat up from the pier and we put it safely into a shed for the night.
This was my third night in a row under a roof with a bed and I was starting to get accustomed to it, but I knew I had plenty of nights left in the tent yet. The next morning I slipped away early and I never got to thank Shaun in person but I did meet a local lady, Patricia, who I had called down to see me off and asked her to pass on my thanks.