What happens when three seasoned adventurers from the West of Ireland get together a for paddle? A night crossing of the Irish sea no less!
On June 26th at 8pm Ali Donald, Shane Young and myself set out from Rosslare in County Wexford on the Southwest coast of Ireland to cross the Irish Sea to Pembrokeshire in Wales, a journey of 85 km as the crow flies. This is a serious crossing with big tidal flows, lots of shipping traffic and the exposure of venturing 40km from the nearest land is never to be taken lightly.
This was not the plan that had been hatched in the lead up, but a last minute scramble to make the crossing as safe as possible and ended up delivering an amazing experience.
Rewind a few months and I was driving to the Inishowen Sea kayak Symposium with Ali as we were both coaching at the event. Ali mentioned that Shane and himself were eyeing a crossing of the Irish Sea, without hesitation I said I was in and we discussed some strategies for the rest of the journey.
Ali has been paddling for a lifetime and has lots of experience on rivers and the sea, Shane has done loads of adventure racing and ultra running and I have done my fair share of endurance paddling, none of us had done any thing like this together before as a team but, we had all completed at lease one non-stop Devizes to Westminster, so we knew we could go for a long time in a kayak. A strong team by all accounts.
We set up a Whatsapp group to discuss plans and set the window of June 25th-27th as our target. We would simply prepare for the crossing and hope the weather would line up on the dates we were all available. It's always 50/50 in Ireland with the weather, but to our surprise it wasn't the usual high winds or big swell that was going to be our obstacle with the weather on this occasion.
June 25th arrived and we found ourselves in the most unlikely situation of a massive heatwave that had temperatures soaring in the UK and Ireland for a few weeks.
I met Ali and Shane in Athlone, we all piled into Ali's van to drive to Rosslare. The initial plan was to sleep on the beach and hit the water around 5am the following morning. Giving ourselves 12 hours to make the crossing we would be in Wales at 5pm that day and on the ferry home that night.
On our way to Rosslare the heat soon had us all drenched in sweat, with fans on max and windows rolled down for some relief. It must have been close to 30 degrees and the forecast for the following day was for higher temperatures. We started to wonder if we would be cooked alive paddling through the height of the midday sun, on what would be effectively a huge mirror. A new plan was needed!
After some discussion for and against we decided to pull our plans forward and go for a night crossing as soon as we got to Rosslare. This would allow us to avoid the daytime heat and also make spotting ships easier. It did mean however we would have no rest or much time to prep. We stopped for food and to re do the tidal plan. After 30 minutes we had a bearing to follow for the crossing. Straight across!
Fueled up we loaded the boats, sorted our gear and set off paddling into the evening at 8.19pm passing Tuskar Rock to our South, with a huge school of porpoise passing close by as we paddled.
The weather was perfect, flat calm seas, no wind and warm enough to wear short sleeves. We didn't have time to think about the magnitude of the paddle ahead with the change of plans and rush to get on the water. Not a bad thing to be honest!
We set about executing our plan and 20km soon passed, the sun set behind us in magnificent style, it was hard not to turn around and gaze at it. Onward we pushed, at around 11pm it was dark enough that we had to light our deck compasses. As we did we were surrounded by a school of dolphins who were keen to play, but we were busy and they cruised on. The moon rose steadily ahead of us, arching across the sky through the night. For a few hours we had no visibility as a low bank of cloud matched the colour of the sea, differentiating the two was impossible and the compass was our only guide.
Around 3am the moon blazed red before sinking below the horizon, sun rise creeped up and the sky filled with jets crossing the Atlantic. We were deep in to the effort now with over 50km paddled. Shane was struggling with fatigue. An experienced adventure racer and ultra runner this was his first big outing on the sea and unfortunately he was unraveling. Me telling him we had only 30km to paddle probably didn't help. The classic juxtaposition of endurance sport, he was in a hole and 30km sounded like a liftime away, I was feeling good and relished the finish line insight. It could have been any of the three of use feeling the effects, but we needed to work as a team to protect Shane to get him to the end. Ali was flying and we had to reel him in a few times and manage the pace. I was confident Shane could pull through, he's tough and we weren't going to let him stop.
It was full daylight by the time we reached the South Bishops Light House 10km of the Welsh coast. Here the tides run strong and we were soon paddling hard to cross river like tidal streams. A 5km ferry glide to Ramsey Island and we were nearly there. As we ferry glided we all split up taking different lines, Ali went low and direct, I went high looking for the eddy and Shane followed in between. Its always so tempting to go for the direct line when you are close to the finish but its a trick to catch you out, I've learned the hard way. My high line catapulted me 500m ahead of the lads. I waited behind Ramsey Island to regroup and shout some encouragement, we could potentially break the 11 hour mark if we pushed hard for the finish..
The closest landing looked like St. Justinians, so the last 2km push was on through some tidal flow. We regrouped 50m from shore and landed together stopping the watches after 10hrs 51min and 92km paddled. Bang on target and just under our real target of 11 hours. Making us the second fast team to complete the crossing.
The paddling wasn't over though, there was very steep steps and no coverage at Justinians, and our lift was due to meet us at Whitesands 2km around the corner. As we paddled into Whitesands we could see Benjamin Edom waiting to chauffeur us to the ferry at Fishguard. We got ourselves cleaned up and unpacked the boats ready for the return home. Minimal chat on the 30 minute drive as we were all knackered. A big feed in Fishguard was called for before catching the next ferry back to Rosslare.
Kayak instructor, athlete, business owner and outdoor enthusiast from the west coast of Ireland.
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