Jonathan Footerman continues his quest to circumnavigate the UK in a mini-yacht, this time swinging over to Ireland, stopping at Isle of Man, before heading back to the ports of the UK.
Working down the West coast in the second half of my UK circumnavigation, I arrived in the Belfast Lough after a long, rough journey from Girvan in Scotland. The plan was to sail down the Irish East coast to Ardglass, and cross to the Isle of Man. A long southwards leg would bring me to Wales at Conwy, my kick-off point to thread the dramatic Menai Straits between the Isle of Anglesey and the mainland, past Welsh Bangor. I was looking forward to that, but for now I was in Irish Bangor. And the arrival of another of the Atlantic low pressure systems which had kept me four days in Girvan, was going to lock me up for another four here.
It was no hardship. In the quarter mile from the marina up the high street, I passed at least a dozen bars, all well populated. Very nice to be back in Ireland! And very nice to find barber shops offering hot towel shaves. You can walk a long way in London for one of those, but girls, they are a pleasure like having your feet done (the barber does the talking).
There are birds in Bangor with their feet done in temptress red. They flew over from Canada when global warming forced hungry polar bears south into their Canadian home, and had chicks in Bangor marina. The Black Guillemots did not like the look of my camera and swam away, but their red feet are very cute and just detectable under water, and match the berries on the Rowan trees that fill the sea-side gardens; much redder than those in Arran, possibly due to the used Guinness which often fertilizes the roots after a long night out. The further from the town, the less maintained the gardens so that by the time you reach the old bandstand and outdoor chess board, they are a relic of past glories. Park benches abound, with plaques to dead people who “…loved to walk here”, and one that adds “… and still does, thanks to Cancer Research”, and gives the telephone number. Bravo!
I used the happy railway link to Belfast, not like the dismal London routes where a friend missed a train to Liverpool which never appeared on the electronic boards because it left from platform zero. Platform zero? How Harry Potty is that? The French SNCF is never happy, it is a matter of national character. Belgian train information is congenitally inadequate. Austrian trains are a serious affair, and some have super-windows over the roof so that one can enjoy the mountain scenery with one’s nose in the air, very Viennese. But certain light-gauge local trains in North Spain are happy: to change platforms you just walk across the tracks, no frowning injunctions about where the public is not allowed to go as profoundly unauthorised persons. I came back from a day in Belfast on the train. Going, I asked for directions to the station from a man serendipitously on the point of driving there, who dropped me in Donegal Street. Dave, another kind local, warned me in Girvan to ‘… be careful where you walk in Belfast with your accent’. So I had a stroll around the centre with as neutral an accent as I could manage, and bought some trousers in Marks & Spencer. (I wore out two pairs controlling little Elektra while the weather ensured that my shorts and legs saw little daylight.) Then, drawn like a moth, I walked into the ‘troubled’ Falls Road area carrying my camera case in the M&S bag (which has a different accent altogether). The atmosphere was not good: men hanging about with covert vigilance, or walking with unnecessarily big sticks, ostensibly to control unnecessarily big dogs, ill-kempt parks, broken fences and bins, endless graffiti, republican references in every store name, propaganda in every window, and so on in joyless fashion. I had come to visit a language and culture gallery just off my tourist map that I never found, so I inspected the memorial by the Falls cultural society to those in the ‘…2nd battalion of the Irish Republican Army who made the supreme sacrifice…’. Gilt lettering was carved into a black marble monument in a style borrowed from English and European empires; who took it from those arch-imperialists, the Romans, who slaughtered and supplanted the Celts still associated with Ireland. It seemed to present Irish identity as offspring of its unnamed enemy, which it is not. Heading for the culture gallery, I had been hoping for something more spiritually Irish. A few steps on was the Sinn Fein Gift Shop: perhaps that was it. Do all political parties have gift shops? I wonder if they send flowers.
There are great coffeehouses in Belfast (and plenty of pubs). I was in my thirties before I abandoned London cafés, nothing like coffee emporia at the time, to live in Europe. London City’s early coffeehouses nurtured the joint stock company, like my 17th century namesake Jonathan’s which listed stock prices, but it is for historians to explain why they disappeared latterly. Wikipedia advises that a coffeehouse has some of the attributes of a restaurant but is not the same as a cafeteria. Golly gosh! It tracks their arrival in West Europe from Istanbul via Hungary and Austria, a route that I have retraced. I enjoy the cup steaming on the table while the world passes by, and conversations in suspended time as raindrops run down the windows. To my shame, I ended up in a branch of a chain contributing to the worldwide uniformity of the shopping mall. Conversations in the Café Global (with free WiFi) may one day design the first and last world-wide government, but I’ll be dead, or in yachtsman’s limbo in Portavadie.
On the opposite side of the city is the river Lagan, and near it the old clock-tower, leaning a little away from the traditional site of the city’s beginnings, St. George’s churchyard with its Rowan trees. The clock is reflected in the glass of a nearby tower block. Belfast is not especially photogenic, but it has a blithe mix of architecture and a good working city ambience. Only the riverside redevelopment has a ‘concept’ look, where I inspected brand new pontoons upstream of the weir, hoping to bring the boat. The next day, a gale blew through Belfast Lough and took the opportunity away.
I was planning to go when Alastair returned from his trip to the isles, heading south to Eire via Ardglass, my next destination. With him was Nel Gwyn, of similar size to Elektra, belonging to Gerry, a long-time single-hander, and it was more fun to leave with them a day later. The large Loughs create cross-flows at the coast where it is shallow and the bed uneven, choppy with overfalls in any conditions. Gerry said he could see Elektra’s entire hull as she perched on waves in the Copeland Sound at the mouth of the Belfast Lough; a bit indiscreet, but no surprise ‘cos I saw Nel Gwyn’s bottom. The Atlantic tide floods in through the North Channel, and also through St George’s Channel from the South. At about the latitude of Ardglass, the flows meet and cancel out, so when the tide turned before we got in, the effect was negligible and we arrived in good time.
There is not a lot in Ardglass, some pubs and a chippie/burger/kebab takeaway, but I was glad of a fuel station nearby – they are often on the outskirts, a hard walk with jerry-cans. Outside the pub, men were tossing a log at skittles, watched by two dozen spectators in hushed excitement; whereas poor Miss Sally was being ignored. She no longer arouses much interest because her skin is not in its elastic prime, and she has slept around the marina for long enough to have known most of the locals as youngsters. But it is good to see her and her companion seals, as they won’t go anywhere the water is dirty. Holiday-makers had not come in the bad weather and the marina was not nearly full enough for the middle of the holidays, with a few exceptions like a lovely couple from my Peel, on the Isle of Man, which had the opposite problem: a lot of resident yachts (sailing is integral to the island leisure culture) and not enough room for the visitors if they did not sail. The couple had not told the harbour master of their departure in case they had to come back, but now they generously gave me their berth number and a message to the HM to allow me to use it.
Alastair sailed on southwards and I went east to Man to wait out the next cyclone. On that heading, any breath of wind up or down the Irish Sea would have given good sailing, but it was a windless seven hours in the tidal slack already described. Yet like the stretch to Stonehaven on the East coast, it was an unexpected interlude of beauty that tests my descriptive ability. Dolphins escorted me for an hour or two while the remains of a swell slipped away and the water grew as flat as any I have crossed outside the Caledonian lochs. Clumps of seaweed peaked through the surface as they floated past, the doldrums come to Ireland. Thin-textured cloud cast a featureless grey dome from horizon to horizon, and a distant mist crept up and blended the sea and the sky until I was moving across a surface without boundaries in any other dimension, the odd far vessel pinned in tiny black profile on a grey curtain. Yet in the invisible rays, a fleeting brilliance would sparkle in the surface around a bit of kelp, or fluoresce for a few seconds on the sea-birds, or glare in sudden, short-lived glory from Elektra’s white superstructure, beguiling the eye in surreal delight. All my attempts to capture it in a photograph were as vain as these words – they show only dull grey.
Peel harbour is protected by a castle connected by a spit of land, and there is a swing bridge and lock to enter the port. I arrived 40 minutes before it opened, and as usual I was overtaken by yachts racing to be first in – they had to wait for the bridge just the same. I watched them manoeuvring in the outer harbour as the moment grew near, nonchalantly enough to fool nobody over five years old. Living in London, I am familiar with the ordinary driver who jumps into every momentary gap and accelerates to every stop in case someone else should do what he just did. I suppose he is bound to bring that attitude on to his yacht. Can’t we banish them all like the Ailsa Craigers, to a social desert of their own?
The English monarch is head of state of the Isle of Man, but it is not part of the UK or the EU. So I could tell I was in Peel because I started to pay roaming charges on my mobile phone, and punitive data charges that cell-phone companies extract the instant their customers set foot outside their domicile. But the Creek Inn had Wifi, and from time to time I would walk up the hills that overlook Peel from the South, to a point where I could get UK reception on a clear day, with a view onto the castle. Foraging gulls glided along the harbour to the kipper smokery at the inland end, where they would soar up and sweep back over the gorse of the upper slopes on the look-out for a linnet’s egg or an unlucky chick, then down to the castle to complete the circuit.
My next leg south to Conwy was one of two remaining long sails away from land (the other across the Bristol Channel), over 80 miles from Peel. Tides below Man run east-west, not especially strongly, so the time was easy to estimate at 18 to 20 hours at 4 knots. I wanted a weather window with a gentle sea state, which meant 24 hours of quiet weather before I cast off. I tracked conditions twice a day, interpolating the English, Irish and IOM forecasts, but winds gusting in the high 30s to 40s MPH kept me like a lemon in Peel. Eventually I resolved to go in any sea as soon as the forecast showed gusting below 30 MPH, force 6, a notch higher than my usual maximum. So when I set off on 21st August, south-westerly winds were forecast to gust to force 6 that evening, gale force the following evening, but drop to force 3 overnight and during the day. If I could deal with them that evening and get most of the way south by mid morning, Anglesey would shelter me from the worst when they rose again. If the gales came early, I’d just batten down and see where they took me on the English or Welsh coast. I set off at 8.45 p.m. to motor down past the islet of the Calf of Man at the bottom, make a short stop in Port St. Mary to prepare a hot meal, then continue overnight with the wind on my starboard beam. It is hard to put to sea into high wind and waves, and I never felt less enthusiastic for the journey ahead.
It did not go to plan. There was a 4-foot bumpy swell when I left Peel under thick cloud, and pilotage was difficult as darkness fell with few shore lights or buoys. I did not like sailing blind on the plotter and tried to take bearings with the handheld compass along the black profile of the coast: but it was useless. Just in these conditions, I would suddenly need confirmation of my position. As the lights of Port Erin appeared, the track of the boat on the plotter began to make a large U, slipping 750 metres further off shore and back the way I had come. I could not feel the movement, the boat was still facing the direction it was intended to go and I could still see the lights on my port side. If I had been swept back, a contrary current off the Erin headland, was strong enough to defeat my 3.5 knots and a favourable tide. After about fifteen minutes, the track resumed its previous bearing, but further out. It may have been malfunction, or correction of accumulated error, or an anomaly in the GPS signal, but I was spooked by the alternatives of a malfunction just when I was depending on the plotter, or dangerous currents. I decided to go deep around the Calf of Man – there is an off-lying lighthouse and at high water a small boat can pass inside it, but I would not take a risk with so little visibility, although it added a lot to my journey.
Working wide to the South-East put a sharp 5 foot swell and wind on my beam, and I had to helm energetically for the last ninety minutes into Port St. Mary. It was too dark to see the waves clearly, and conning half on the compass and half by the sensation of the stern rising on the next peak, I felt very vulnerable. It was more than I wanted to cope with for a whole night, and I decided to stop in Port St. Mary. At 2.30 a.m. I crept into the bay bounded by rocks, east of a breakwater partially protecting from the South. There were no harbour lights, not even at the end of the breakwater, and it was as dark as the Devil. Crouching behind the backstays at the outboard, with the lamp in my other hand, I explored gingerly, ready to swing off instantly if I found myself upon a moored boat. I knew where to find a line of white visitor buoys but on that dark night they were hard to spot, dull yellow in the lamplight and invisible more than 5 metres away: I circled for 15 minutes to locate them. I needed to get very close since the modest chop would bounce the boat as I tried to get the boathook into a loop on the buoy or its pick-up line. But the bow would blow off the very instant I cut the throttle, and in the two seconds it took to clamber back to the cockpit, the buoy would already be beyond reach. I tried ferry-gliding on to it; sliding it along the side; trying to catch it as the boat blew onto it; backing onto it at the risk of running the prop onto the pick-up line; every manoeuvre from every quarter, but the last two seconds always defeated me because I had to keep the lamp on it, and I needed a third hand. After 45 minutes, I tried approaching at speed, upwind, with the buoy on the starboard side. The bow hid it from view, and when I judged that it was almost under the bow, I rammed the outboard over to swing the stern to port through 90° and put the wind on the beam to stop any drift, cut the throttle and dashed into the cockpit. I risked a tangle under the boat, but I hoped to find the buoy right by the port side; and there it was. I tied up and ate some soup from a thermos, wondering if I would have to go back to Peel in the morning.
I went to bed at 4.15 a.m., disconsolate and still in the Isle of Man.
Next week: Welsh castles.
Jonathan’s trip is excerpted from his book and serialized here:
My ports of call:
- Gosport, Haslar marina, the start and end of the voyage.
- Eastbourne (Sovereign marina)
- Felixstowe Ferry (River Deben)
- Wells-next-the Sea
- Grimsby & Spurn Head
- West Hartlepool
- Low Newton-by-the-Sea
- Muir Town Basin (Caledonian Canal)
- Dochgarroch (Caledonian Canal)
- Fort Augustus (Caledonian Canal)
- Gairlochy (Caledonian Canal)
- Corpach (Caledonian Canal exit)
- Crinan (Canal entrance)
- Ardrishaig (Crinan Canal exit)
- Lochranza (Arran)
- Bangor (Belfast Lough)
- Peel (Isle of Man)
- Port St.Mary
- Milford Haven & Dale
- Newton Ferrers (to visit friends)
- West Bay (Bridport)
- Yarmouth (Isle of Wight)
(From there back to Gosport)