Sea Kayaking around Sybil Head

09th May 2016

An Irish style talisman in a naomhóg at Dooneen Pier

The combination of a day off work and a good sea forecast allowed me to jump on a long-awaited kayaking opportunity this afternoon. The idea had been in my mind for awhile - a trip around the northwest tip of Corca Dhuibhne, from Ferriter's Cove, past Sybil Head and the Three Sisters before coming back into the shelter of Smerwick Harbour. From land these cliffs are impressive. The ridge of Sybil Head is a jagged staircase of sandstone rising from sea level to a peak over 200m high. And the Three Sisters are unrivalled in Ireland in terms of large scale landscape symmetry. Seen from both the east and west, these three little coastal hills are a marvel of geology, formed in ancient sediment and since sculpted by erosion as though to please a lover of landscapes. From the seaward side, facing thousands of miles of open ocean, they could only be more amazing. Spurred on by a recent read of Brian Wilson's brilliant account of his solo circumnavigation of Ireland I lashed the kayak to the roof of the car and made the short trip to the sea.

My paddling career has been on and off up to now, and there's plenty of room for improvement. Both my boat and my skills could be better, though they're not terrible. That said, I don't take to the sea lightly. I plan in advance and only ever go out in calm weather, with a similarly calm forecast. A worthy kayak manned by an experienced paddler can manage some fairly tough conditions, but the idea of being out in heavy weather scares the shit out of me. I'm a fair weather kayaker.

An Tiaracht, Inis Tuaisceart and An Fiach

I left the slip at Baile an Chala shortly after four, and was soon down to short sleeves under mild, muggy clouds. Almost immediately Inis Tuaisceart and An Tiaracht came into view, then Inis na Bró, the western end of An Blascaod Mór and a short section of Inis Mhicileáin were all on my western horizon. After years of dreaming about paddling in this area it was strange to find myself suddenly looking out at The Blaskets from the seat of my kayak. A man in a high vis jacket kept an eye on me from Ferriter's Castle, no doubt a security guard for the film set on Sybil Head. I don't know why anybody would have much interest in the trivial happening's of a make-believe movie production when there's so much real life drama in the same surroundings, and I was little threat to the secretive set high on the clifftop. I pulled paddle strokes through calm water towards An Fiach, a long narrow islet off Sybil Point. A closer inspection of the cave on its southern side revealed a passage through to the west, a hole in need of a filling in this giant, jagged tooth. After watching what the swell was up to I headed through. The walls of the open cave plunged straight into the depths below sea level, soon lost in the darkness and emphasising the feeling of being out of my element. The butterflies in my stomach settled after awhile and I headed back through the arch to cut between Sybil Head and An Fiach, cutting a short bit off my journey.

A wider view of An Fiach, showing the open cave

Sybil Head is named after Sybil Lynch, a woman that eloped with the legendary Piaras Feirtéar during the 1600s. When her family came to claim her back Piaras hid her in a sea cave nearby while he defended his castle, but the poor woman drowned in a rising tide in the meantime. The northern ridge that leads up to the headland is an astounding example of natural architecture, and would make a fine maritime-alpine mission, if only you could get dropped to the base of it. I stopped again at the gap between An Fiach and the mainland to suss out the sea conditions, and with little obvious danger presenting itself I pressed ahead. Pretty soon it was obvious I'd crossed a threshold, and the leisurely paddle turned into a much more committing affair.

The main ridge up to Sybil Head. Shame about the flat light. This would be an amazing rock climbing ridge, on heavily textured sandstone in an incredible setting

A strong spring tide was in full flow in the tight gap I'd entered into, and the swell from the open ocean beyond was meeting this racing water, making for much more lively conditions. Added to this, the high cliffs on both sides of me were bouncing the swells back out to sea, so the water was falling and rising and rushing in seemingly all directions, and I paddled hard to get beyond the confusion as quickly as I could. The atmosphere changed hugely in the next minute or so - the looming presence of Sybil Head was impressive but offered nothing of comfort, and up and ahead was the open ocean, rolling unstoppably towards me, hiding the horizon and giving even less of a feeling of safety. But the wind was quiet, the swell was steady and I took the opportunity to focus on the task ahead and forget all else in life. It was me, my little boat and the sea.

The conditions weren't bad but it was hard to overcome the overwhelming nature of the environment. I felt small and threatened by the vastness around me, though it was an amazing place to be. In reality I was in very little imminent danger, but I had to fight with my mind to convince it of that. It was a good test of mental strength, a much more valuable asset than muscular proficiency in the long run. I kept out to sea a little to avoid the slight confusion close to the cliffs and make sure I wasn't caught by some inshore rock I didn't know about. There's a funny line to straddle when paddling along high sections of open coast. Though the desire to be close to the apparent safety of land might be strong it's often much safer to keep a distance from a coast that offers no hope of a landing and reflects the waves that hit it, causing sloppy seas near the shore.

I carried on to the north-east, straddling a line between confidence and concern. As I approached Binn Hanraí, the first of the Three Sisters, I noticed some small whitecaps where the wind was stealing down from the lower cliffs ahead of me. It wasn't a comforting sight and concern began to outpace confidence. Then something caught my attention behind me, and a quick glance over my shoulder sent my heart hopping. There were common dolphins bearing down on me, and hardly a second after turning to look ahead again I heard a long, high-pitched, underwater whistle and saw a flash of movement beneath my seaward side as a three dolphins surfaced. Three, or was it four? It was at least four, and then it was half a dozen or more, up ahead and god knows where else around me. Sleek, muscular, fast dolphins, scarcely shorter than my little yellow kayak and completely and utterly in their element while my feelings of vulnerability rose faster than the tide. Though any real threat from them was unlikely I was nervous that any boisterous behaviour close by might tip me over, and I didn't fancy practicing my rusty rolling technique. Plus, I had these whitecaps ahead of me to worry about, and I didn't care for the distraction! Thankfully I was of little interest to the dolphins and they were soon beyond me, leaving me exhilarated and feeling foolish for my fear.

The whitecaps were another wasted worry, and though the wind rippled the sea's surface it wasn't difficult to keep on top of things in every sense. As long as I didn't start daydreaming I could see what the sea was doing around me and act accordingly. It's important to be fluid in moving water. After all, a person sitting in a sea kayak has half their body below the waterline, so it's far better to go with the flow than try and resist all that shifting weight. A rigid body is less adjustable to the constant movement, though a little strength is required to fend off waves from the side and to power ahead and avoid drifting. I was soon past Binn Hanraí, approacing Binn Meánach. I had hoped to get a good look at the cliffs here, knowing that established climbs existed alongside plenty of potential. But there were a few rocks off the coast here and I didn't dare take my eyes off the sea ahead of me for long as I passed over a more agitated sea, more than likely caused by a submerged reef that connected those skerries to the mainland. The white noise as waves broke on the rocks was a loud reminder to not drop the ball. Though I was focused on the paddling over all else it was hard to ignore the presence of the cliffs, the highest I'd ever paddled past. I may not have had the leisure to stop and stare at their intricacies but their effect on me was marked all the same.

Looking back on the way I'd come

Coming closer to Binn Diarmada, the furthest east and largest of the Three Sisters, the sea was calmer. Most of the swell was probably spilling into Smerwick Harbour, leaving less to stir the surface outside. I stopped to look back at the way I'd come. It was an inspiring sight, the scale of it all reaffirming my smallness in the world. I was more relaxed now, though I still recalled the advice a seagoing friend of mine once received - don't let you guard down until you're safely home. There is potential for disaster in even the most sheltered of bays, and a flippant attitude invites ill fortune. As was said by a character in J.M. Synge's Rider's to the Sea, “A man who is not afraid of the sea will soon be drownded, for he will be going out on a day he shouldn't. But we do be afraid of the sea, and we do only be drownded now and again.” Fear can be a healthy thing if you can let it guide rather than control you.

A quick iPhone photo of Binn Diarmada. From here it's very similar in profile to An Tiaracht as viewed from Dún Chaoin

Twenty minutes after entering the harbour I reached the slipway at Dún an Óir, just as a trio of fishermen was backing a boat down the slip. Once they'd got her under control I paddled in and was glad of welcome haul a little further up the slip by one of the men. "Quare weather!" he greeted me with. It was indeed, with a warm wind and a constant look of imminent rain or thunder. As they were packing up I asked if they were headed back towards Ferriter's Cove by any chance. "I can drop you wherever you need to go" was the response, followed closely and with disbelief by "Did you come around from Ferriter's Cove?!". I was told I was fucking mad, which maybe I was, though I still reckon the danger was more in my head than anywhere else. With quick, strong hands my kayak was lashed down in the bed of a pick-up truck, more than half hanging out the back but fastened by an expert with ropes. In the presence of such experience I felt like an invader on the sea, too young and inexperienced to know what I was doing in such an elemental arena. But such feelings came from me rather than any impressions I got from the fishermen, and I was kindly brought back to my car just as the rain finally came.

I think I'll get a few more trips under my belt before heading out on such a committing journey again, and hopefully meet a few more paddlers too! With a bit of luck the summer might give us the kind of weather that suits a sea kayaker like me.

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