Over the previous few days the tide had played a big part in my progress and had been major the factor which determined how many miles I would make each day. I knew this would be the case for much of the east coast so making the right decisions and accurate reading of the tides would be crucial over the coming week.
First up however I had to make Groomsport in the next 24 hours to collect a package which contained food rations, charts and batteries for the tracker. Andree had arranged for it to be delivered to the post office for the following morning. At a distance of just under 25 miles it should have been a straight forward day to get to Groomsport and my reward would be a late start tomorrow as I awaited the parcel.
An early start in Glenarm would give me plenty of time and with a southerly headwind forecast for alter in the day I could hopefully get as many early miles as possible before it would inevitably slow my progress. The early start would also mean that I would have to fight the tide for a few hours but by hugging the shore I hoped to stay out of the strong flow and make steady progress.
The day started brightly and with no swell I was less than 5 metres from the shore for much of the morning, it was a strange feeling knowing that I could almost get out and stand or walk ashore at any stage, this was the closest I had stayed to the shore since the trip began.
I knew that the wind was due to change and to keep up to speed with any changes I pulled in after a few hours to a slipway to stretch my legs and use my phone to go online. No major change, strong headwinds still forecast for early evening and fog patches moving up the Irish Sea.
When I relaunched I expected to pick up a favourable tide as it was due to turn and run in my favour for the next few hours. No sign of it just yet so I remained close to the coast waiting to feel the release of the pressure on the paddles as the boat was picked up on the tidal flow southwards. With little breeze working against the tide feels like paddling in treacle, although moving forward to boat does not glide and every metre has to be earned.
As I approached Larne the first of the fog moved in and visibility dropped to only a few hundred metres. As I was still close to the shore this was not a problem for navigation, the problem I was facing was crossing the busy shipping lane at the entrance to Larne port. The lane is less than half a mile wide so if I could get into the right position I could cross in 10 or 15 minutes. I also had the option to contact Larne port control for traffic information to make sure that I would have a clear path through the fog, the high speed ferries which travel frequently to and from the port can travel at up to 30knts posed a major danger in the limited visibility.
As I weighed up my options the fog began to lift and the buildings and infrastructure of the port which was still 3 miles away came into view. I could now also see the buoys which marked the channel and the lane was clear of shipping traffic, one ferry was alongside in the harbour but with no sign of it moving I progressed along the shore.
As I moved off the shore the breeze which had helped to clear the fog began to build to a stiff headwind slowing my progress. Then a safety message was broadcast over the radio, a warning of high speed ferry traffic, within minutes a ferry appeared and passed through the channel into port. I now thought the coast was clear so I tried to increase my speed, battling the breeze, to get across as swiftly as possible. As I approached the buoy which marked the channel the ferry which had been in the port began to move and I had a few minutes to determine if I could cross before it arrived or would I have to wait. With my slow speed and the steady acceleration of the ship I decided to hold my position and let it pass, then I upped the pressure on the paddles and pushed to cross into safe water.
Once safely across I made my way across Browns bay to the corner which would see me start my approach to Belfast and the even busier shipping lane servicing one of the busiest ports in the country. The wind still increasing and the fog returning I had a few options open to me. I could press on south and attempt to get to Groomsport before dark, I could make my way closer to Belfast Lough and pull in waiting until the morning and good visibility to cross or I could pull in to Browns bay cutting my day short and with an early start still make Groomsport before lunch the following day. With a safe beach to land on a good potential for a campsite Browns Bay was the sensible option so after bouncing all the options around in my head for a few minutes I turned into the bay and up onto the sand.
At low tide I had a short hike up the beach to find a clean park area, and for the first time on the trip I was faced with “No Camping” signs, great! A little bit of further exploration and I spotted a camp site on the far side of the road. With nobody around the campsite I enquired with the nice couple in the chip van which was parked nearby, they informed me that you need to book the campsite online; it was a little late for that now.
I decided that I would haul my kit up across the road and set up camp and answer for it later, when the warden arrived a little later that evening she was very nice and allowed me to pay in Euros and opened up the showers for me. The friendly reception in Ulster continued. After a tough day on the water and feeling a little sorry for myself for not making it to Groomsport I availed of the chip van and treated myself to some high calorie fast food.
All set for an early start and a short 11mile hop to Groomsport I managed to get all my kit and boat down to the low water line in only 2 trips saving some precious time. The plan was to stop off in Groomsport pick up the package, grab some food and then skip down the coast to continue my way south for the afternoon.
A dense fog still lingered from the previous evening and as I exited the bay and rounded the headland I began to question it would be safe to cross the busy shipping lane with this extremely limited visibility. I crept through the gloom the coast fading behind the fog; using my GPS and compass to stay on course. The sound of fog horns in the distance a reminder of the busy shipping lane only a few short miles down the coast.
I still had the tide in my favour but I needed to stay alert to work the eddies and stay in the fast flow, this was pulling me offshore and closer to the shipping all the time. It was growing more and more apparent that it was not safe to cross in these conditions and I scanned the chart for possible landing sites where I could pull in and wait for a clear spell of weather.
Then the sky began to brighten and slowly as with the previous day the fog lifted and as it did the wind picked up. A light headwind was no major problem and the clearing would allow me to progress and safely cross the Lough. The wind increased without warning and before I knew it I had a fight on my hands yet again and it brought a friend, the tide, Belfast Lough has peculiar tide patterns and I now found myself battling wind and tide yet again.
I had fought these familiar foes before but I never had to do so while negotiating a busy shipping lane. As I crossed the line of buoys marking the shipping lane I had a clear path but travelling at 1mph I had to remain vigilant, before I knew it a small coaster sitting low in the water appeared less than half a mile away it was clear immediately we were on a collision course so I slowed and altered my course to pass behind him. This was far from ideal as it increased the distance I had to travel and this was the last thing I needed in the relentless conditions.
The ship passed and I resumed my course, I could now see the village of Groomsport and had less than 3 miles to travel, at my current speed this would be nearly 3 hours. Still mid shipping lane I had stayed on high alert, the VHF radio was my first indication of traffic and next up was Stena Mersey alerting the coast guard they had departed Belfast Port. Looking to my right I could see the large white block coming up to cruising speed as i set a course for Liverpool. I continued my course for a while monitoring their progress, I even put on a burst of power to try and clear their path. My efforts were in vain and again I had to adjust my course to take avoiding action, losing more ground to the wind and delaying my arrival.
Clearing the stern and riding over the wake of the ferry I reset my course once again for Groomsport. The battle though had only just begun and my plans of arriving early faded as my shoulders ached and my wrists strained in the choppy sea and unrelenting wind. Now struggling to make progress with speeds of 0.8 then 0.6mph and occasionally dropping to 0.0mph as the boat would strike a wave.
Painstaking does not even begin to describe the next 3 hours, I even considered turning back and crossing back over the shipping lane and making camp on the north side of the Lough and waiting for a change in the weather, this was the easy option but would have major repercussions on the remainder of the trip and mentally I could not bear the thought of turning back, admitting failure.
As my body strained under the pressure of wind and tide my mind was distracted by a crackle on the VHF radio, a vessel in distress some miles to my north had issued a mayday and a rescue operation was underway. I glanced back over my shoulder to Blackhead lighthouse which I had passed in the mist hours earlier; this was the area the small vessel with 3 men on board was sinking. The calm voice of Belfast coast guard radio operator expertly instructed the crew of the vessel to remain calm as they dispatched the Bangor lifeboat and requested assistance from nearby vessels. I was too far away now to be of assistance but a motor boat quickly responded and sped to the assistance of the men in distress. Radio messages were exchange back and forth as the coast guard radio co-ordinated all the available resources to affect a successful rescue. Thankfully the 3 men were located safe and well and everybody involved could breathe a sigh of relief and as it all drew to a close I realised I was now only metres from my destination and I too could finally draw breathe and begin to relax, I had won this battle but in the process I had once again taken my body and mind to the brink.