The edge of the wild or the edge of the tamed?


For two days we stayed an anchor in the relative comfort of Kitchen Cove, toward the top of Dunmanus Bay. We chatted a bit with local fishermen, but more talked outside the pub with the many English people who own holiday homes in the area. Apart from having to chase after a wayward dinghy (the painter broke loose and it drifted off seaward, to be retrieved by a kind fisherman, deeply embarrassing) our time there was quiet, restful, uneventful.

On Thursday we decided to sail back around Mizen Head, across Long Island Bay, into Baltimore harbour so Steve could explore Sherkin Island and Baltimore before heading home on Saturday. This sail gave me an insight into the edgy-ness of voyaging a coastal area like this. The last time I came to this Bay I anchored in Dunmanus Harbour relatively near the entrance. I focussed my attention and my writing on the wild and ancient aspects of the Bay, maybe rather too romantically seeing a wild and relatively untouched ecosystem. Having come further up to Kitchen Cove–more sheltered, more pastoral, more homely, more developed; and with both a local fishing economy and a more or less wealthy international community–I am seeing a different, maybe more complete picture.

Once we had hauled the anchor out of the mud into which it had firmly settled and motored out of Kitchen Cove, we hoisted the main sail with one reef and began to reach west by south down the Bay. Soon it was clear we had too much sail up and in squalls approaching 30 knots Steve climbed onto the deck and took in a second reef, mainsail flapping wildly. As we continued down the Bay the countryside on each side becomes wilder: no trees, and with pockets of cultivation in sheltered hollows only. This is the typical landscape of this area: emerald green fields bounded by stone walls tucked between duller rough hillside and rocky outcrops. The sea too changes character, almost lake-like at the top of the Bay with increasing wave height toward open sea, particularly west of Carbery Island, which with its sisters Furze and Horse Islands, forms a protective barrier half of the way across.

At the entrance of the Bay we were held up for a few frustrating few minutes rocking around getting nowhere in the wind shadow of Sheep’s Head to the north, then we were in the open sea, with mostly 25 knots of wind from the northwest throwing up moderate waves with white horses blowing off the top. Coral was in her element, bounding over, or sometimes crashing through, the waves at over 7 knots. The waves bearing down on her quarter sometimes lifted her easily, sometimes slapped hard against her side, sometimes broke over in a sheet of spray, but she kept up her speed and felt secure. We skirted well off Three Castle Head, eased round more southerly onto a broad reach to pass Mizen Head a good two miles to seawards, and carefully gybed round onto a southeasterly course across the wide entrance to Long Island Sound, with the Fastnet Rock on the horizon to starboard and Cape Clear Island ahead..

On this coastal passage past exposed headlands we were truly on our own, in an untamed wildness. And we were adapted to it–with our deep-keeled yacht, our waterproofs and lifejackets, our modern navigation equipment, and after two weeks at sea not the least feeling of queasiness at the motion of the ship. And yet I cannot say we were completely in the wild: I was well aware of the coastguard up on Mizen Head, maybe looking out at us, writing down the ship’s name in the log, watching us gybe around and sail safely out of view. We had exchanged a brief radio conversation the previous day about our missing dinghy, so maybe, I thought, he or she is thinking, “There go those Englishmen who can’t look after their dinghy.” Much more likely they were just having a cup of tea, and gave us no more than a cursory glance as we passed. But, nevertheless they were there in my imagination.

We had a wonderful fast sail across toward Clear Island, now in smoother water, sparkling in the sunshine. For a few minutes we were accompanied by a pod of dolphins, the second group we have seen this week. We followed the Pilot book instructions to find our way through the rocks into the north passage to Baltimore harbour (which is actually a large enclosed bay with a harbour proper in one corner) and found a quiet anchorage out of the wind by Sherkin Island. The wind dropped, the sun went down, the nearly full moon shone almost exactly over the middle of the harbour entrance between the beacon and the lighthouse. We had moved back and forth over the edge between the wild and the civilised, ready now for a huge supper of sausage casserole and pasta.


Pushing down the coast

Although we have been delayed by the windy weather, once on board Steve and I have managed to push down the coast into the westerlies. On Sunday we found we could make Fowey on one tack down the coast past Looe and Polperro, and on Tuesday managed the next leg round Dodman Point to Falmouth where we are now spending a day waiting for the next depression to pass over.

The winds have been fresh, squally at times, so much of the sailing has been hard work, Coral heeled against the wind with the lee rail under water and seas breaking over the bows and rushing along the side decks. We sailed Coral just off the wind to keep up her speed through the waves, so she charged along at around five knots. From time to time a wave hit the bows and water cascaded over the decks, or threw up a sheet of water that crashed onto the the spray hood. I kept snuggled behind the canvas and for the most part stayed dry, but Steve decided he felt better when helming by hand so was more exposed. His waterproofs were drenched several times, and when we arrived in Falmouth I noticed his cheeks and eyebrows were covered in dried salt. The last ten miles or so were really hard work, as the wind built up to Force 5 or 6 and headed us, so with white horses rolling across the bay we had to make several tacks to reach into the quiet of the Carrick Roads. We were happy then to leave the steering to the Aires wind-vane, which followed an exact course on the wind and of course didn’t mind getting wet!

When we were safely tied up in Falmouth Visitors Haven, Steve persuaded me to go walk along the pontoons and look at the gaff rigged boats that are going in convoy round the British Isles. It turned out that a friend of his knows the couple on one of the boats, and we were invited in for drinks and much talk about boats and weather and sailing–the kind of talk that yachting people so often engage in and which reinforces the camaraderie of our peculiar pastime.

So for a couple of days I have been completely absorbed in the business of sailing and in association with sailors. What has happened, I wonder, to the idea that this voyage is an ecological pilgrimage as well as an adventure?

First of all, I am struck by the sheer physicality of what we are doing. Coral moves with the waves and we have to move with her. We have to steer and reef and check our course; we have to make decisions about which tack to take, how far offshore to go; we have to feel the boat and sense how well she is running through the conditions. Of course I think about what I am doing but its not an abstract thinking about, more immediate choices informed by knowledge and experience. Safely tucked up in harbour I can be alarmed at the idea of being at sea in thirty knots of wind, but it is quite different in the immediacy of the moment. When the wind actually gusts up and the ship heels in response I check to make sure all is well, but am happy to let Coral respond as she is designed to.

Of course at times it all feels too much: as we beat against the wind for the last hour or so; as each tack seeming to take Coral only fractionally toward our destination; as the wind on either tack seems to choose to head us away from where and we want to go; as we realize we have missed lunch and are not inclined even to boil a kettle for a cup of soup; as the afternoon wears on and on… Then quite suddenly we tack round and it is clear that This time we will run clear into the entrance between Pendennis Head and Black Rock, and feeling of relief and even of joy wells up. Soon we are in calm waters and can drop the sails and motor up to the pontoon. A woman from one of the other yachts kindly takes our lines, and we fuss about the bow lines, stern lines and springs to make Coral safe. This rhythm of going out and return, struggle and delight, challenge and accomplishment feels very primal, very much part of being a human being on this planet.

So in some ways there is nothing very special about a voyage as pilgrimage. It is what sailors do and have done through the ages. The lines between pilgrim traveller and tourist is always very thin. I don’t have to be self consciously meditating on the elements, I just have to be doing what I am doing with as much mindfulness as I can muster. That is sufficient.

Travellers into tourists


Now we have decided not to push on north to Galway (and it is a good thing we made this decision as the winds are forecast to be contrary for the next week; we really would have struggled to get there) I feel I have taken on the perspective of a tourist and sightseer rather than a traveller or pilgrim. And since it is Steve’s first time on the southwest coast of Ireland, it seems only fair, after all his hard work to windward, to find a way for him to see the best bits.

So we sailed down Long Island Sound on Monday to Crookhaven, which is a deep and narrow east-facing bay a few miles from Mizen Head. I remembered when I first came here with my family on Corulus, a 28 foot Twister, the smaller sister to the Coral. It must have been 25 years ago at least, and then the bay was empty apart from a few boats at anchor. Now it is packed with empty mooring buoys, so finding a place where we can anchor is really difficult. As the young man behind the bar in O’Sullivan’s pub told us, many of them were laid when there was money around in Ireland, and most of them are no longer used. In the more distant past Crookhaven was an important refuge for sailing boats waiting for favourable winds across the Atlantic or up the Bristol Channel, and the myth has it that you could step from boat to boat across the bay without getting your feet wet.

After a walk to Galley Cove and a couple of Beamish stout in O’Sullivan’s bar–where we were assured it is so much better that Guinness–we watched the sun go down. The steep sides of the bay were quickly in deep shadow, while at the western end the last of the sun caught on the stone walls around a green field and the gable end of a white farmhouse. The evening shadow crept over the green by the minute, and when all was completely in shadow the high clouds turned pink and purple, filling the sky and reflecting in the water.

Tuesday we thrashed our way around Mizen Head–the most southwesterly corner of the whole of the British Isles–into Dunmanus Bay, the smallest and most underdeveloped of the five flooded valleys of southwest Ireland that point their fingers out into the Atlantic. It is a long and narrow bay, with stone walled fields and scattered white houses rising up from the rocks along the waters edge, above which an abrupt line runs along the higher ground where cultivation ends and the rough hillside starts. We watched the gannets and guillemots and wondered yet again how to tell the difference between cormorants and shags. Steve was just going below to get the bird book when I caught sight of a familiar shape in the water. “Look there!” I called to him, pointing at the dolphin that was leaping through the water towards us. Soon we were followed by the whole group, some fifteen or so playing around in the wake and the bow wave. It was the first time Steve had seen dolphins in the wild (he usually sails in the Solent) and he was enchanted, as indeed was I.

After popping into Dunmanus Harbour to pay our respects to the ancient castle tower there, and piloting our way through the rocks around Carbery Island, we dropped our anchor in Kitchen Cove and basked for a while in the sun. That evening before supper we went ashore and enjoyed a couple of pints (Murphy’s this time) chatting to the mainly English people outside the pub about sailing, their holiday cottages, the weather and how quickly and cheaply they could fly over here from London. As we climbed back into the dinghy to return to Coral, we exchange greetings with a local man who was working on his fishing boat. “I’ve been in London and I’ve been in New York working on the buildings. Now I am happy to be back here,” he said, gesturing around to the water and the surrounding hills. Everyone seems to be in love with the place.

“I feel I am on holiday now,” I said to Steve, “Rather than on a deep ecology pilgrimage.”

“But there is still deep ecology here,” he replied, “Look at the way all these people love this place. They wouldn’t talk in your terms, but the feeling is still there deep down.”

I partly agree with him. But only partly. But it is important to notice how the line between everyday appreciation and the kind of nature writing I am attempting is essentially very narrow. It is strange that when I first came to Dunmanus Bay on my own two years ago and anchored in Dunmanus Harbour I saw and wrote about only the wild and ancient side of the bay. On this visit we have come only a few miles further inland to this Kitchen Cove and the tiny settlement of Ahakista, but here we are much more in touch with the “civilisation.” This delightful little cove has been sought after as a vacation spot for many years as is evidenced not only by the English visitors but by the Victorian and Edwardian piles we can see scattered amongst the wooded hills (the largest and most elegant of which is now owned, we were told, by the entertainer Graham Norton). I didn’t see then how the bay is right on the edge between the wild and the tamed, far more so than I had originally imagined.

We returned from the pub full of Murphys. Steve cooked our supper. Before we went to bed we enjoyed what may be the most important discovery of this trip so far: a desert made from dried apricots soaked in a spoonful of Calvados (all the best yachts have a bottle on board) with yogurt and a little honey. The line between the wild and the civilized really is very thin.


You can have too much wild


It had been a tough sail from Falmouth to the Scillies, close hauled hard into northerly winds all day, then motor sailing the last twenty miles when the wind backed further west with Coral bucking and plunging into moderate seas. In contrast,we had a delightful day exploring the Scillies. The sun was bright, the beaches shone bright yellow against the azure sea and the fresh spring green on the hillsides. We could well have stayed longer, but north easterlies were forecast, favourable for Ireland, and we wanted to take advantage of them before the backed northerly. So we set off early on a fine but very chilly morning, taking a more northerly course than the direct one and sailing on a close reach with the intention of following the wind round to the west as it backed and so, we hoped, reaching south west Ireland before it was completely contrary.

Apart from a short period in the middle of the night when it faded away for a couple of hours, the wind stayed at between 18 and 22 knots. We kept all regular sail up and between them Coral and Aries, our windvane self steering kept a good course just off the wind. We made our coffee and lunch wedging ourselves next to the cooker and managed to spill very little. We took turns in napping down below while the other kept watch. Steve enjoyed seeing the day come to a close and the half moon light up the seas. I watched the moon turn from white to yellow before it dropped the horizon and watched the stars as the brightened and filled the sky. For the last few hours, after the Irish coast appeared on the horizon, the wind backed and increased so we had to take in a reef and sail as tightly close hauled as we could in the conditions.

In many ways it was a good crossing. We picked up some familiar landmarks: the craggy shapes of Stag Rocks, the long grassy summit of Kedge Island, and then the lighthouse and beacon that mark the entrance to Baltimore harbour. We had sailed 170 miles in 29 hours and made landfall just where we had planned.

But we were of course short of sleep and physically tired from the movement of the boat. More than that, the unseasonable cold of the north wind felt debilitating, as if it had travelled right through us and taken our energy with it. Baltimore Harbour looked open and bleak, so we piloted Coral through the channels between Sherkin and Heir Islands into Long Island Bay and picked up a visitors mooring in the shelter of Schull Harbour.

After three passages into fresh winds it is time to rest up. Looking at the charts, I realized with some dismay that Galway is too far for us to reach comfortably in the time we have. We can’t go on and on battering ourselves against the elements. Schull is a lovely little town with all the amenities one could wish for. This morning we took the dinghy ashore chatted to people on the quay, visited the local market and had an excellent late lunch and Guinness in the Black Sheep pub. As I tucked into my home made fish cakes the phrase came into my head, “You can have too much of the wild.” So I decided to stay put in this area for a while and delay moving further north until July.

Not Going Sailing


Shipping Forecast – Issued: 0405 UTC Thu 9 May

Wind: Southwest 5 to 7, increasing gale 8 or severe gale 9 for a time.
Sea state: Rough or very rough, becoming high for a time in west.
Weather: Rain or showers.
Visibility: Good, occasionally poor.

Today we intended to set out down the Channel bound for the Scillies and the west coast of Ireland. I was going to meet Steve—my crew for this leg of the voyage—on the Plymouth train at Westbury yesterday afternoon; we would settle into Coral overnight and set off this morning. But since early in the week the weather has deteriorated. The high pressure that brought such a lovely spring weekend has dropped south, a deepening area of low pressure is running along the top of it, so the westerly wind is intensified as it is squeezed between the high and the low. The map provided by Met Office with the Shipping Forecast shows two thirds of Great Britain surrounded by red shading, indicating gale force winds or more. The seas will not be just “rough” but “very rough, becoming high.” “High” is so unusual I have to look it up, and find it refers to wave heights of six to nine metres.  I remember Coral is only nine meters long.

Looking ahead, it seems that fresh to strong westerlies will persist into next week, which will make progress westwards hard work even when the gale passes. So rather than sailing down the Channel I am doing normal things at home: I went to my writing group last night; mended a bit of fence this morning until I got soaked in a heavy shower; and re-read parts of a book I have been asked to review.

In weather like this I can wind myself up, irritated at the interruption to my plans, wonder whether I really want to go to sea at all. I can make the interruption feel like a catastrophe. But there is something truly important about being stopped in one’s tracks by natural forces. It reminds us that we humans are not the masters of this planet, that while by working with the grain of the world we can accomplish wonders, forcing contrarily is not just uncomfortable but foolish and downright dangerous. I remember again Gary Snyder’s comment about things that take us out of our little selves into the wider whole as being sacred .

So rather that wind myself up I find a way to bow to the inevitable, even find a moment to appreciate the teaching the gales are bringing. I know from experience that I have to wait, that in time the weather will be more favourable. Patience is what is needed, patience, respect and careful judgement about when it is safe and sensible to sail.

It’s a lot of work…


It is amazing how much work it takes to turn Coral from a grubby lump of fiberglass sitting on its props in the boatyard into the living thing of beauty that I love. I think it was Elliot who said that while memory made life worthwhile it was forgetting that made it possible. Now I am sitting at anchor in Plymouth Sound, with a good supper and bottle of beer inside me, having just watched the sun go down in a completely clear sky, followed by the lights flicking up one by one on the waterfront and on the buoys and other marine markers. I am anchored in Jennycliff Bay just next to a green starboard hand marker that shows the easterly extreme of the deep shipping channel. It flashes green every five seconds. All is well.

But I awoke this morning, rather cold, to a cabin in complete chaos. Scarcely anything was in the right place, the second bunk was just a heap of bedding and bags of clothes, and the pilot berth was still full of bags of victuals. Why do things get in a muddle? because there are always more places where they shouldn’t be than where they should be.

I had carried everything down to the pontoon at the boatyard and heaved them onboard, finishing quite late at night. Through the morning I had worked to stow everything, which often meant moving things from one wrong place to another wrong place in order to get access to a locker. Its as if there has to be more chaos along the way to finding order. Eventually the pile disappeared, leaving just one or two things yet to find a home.

Then I set to work on the deep lockers in the cockpit: how to get two spare containers for diesel and two for fresh water stowed safely so I can still access the heavy anchor that lives deep in the bottom of the locker? I take everything out of both lockers, re-coil ropes that have come undone, and eventually manage to find a place for everything. Then there are the sails to get out of the bags and properly rigged,which means getting my bosun’s chair and climbing gear out to go halfway up the mast to sort out the rigging.

At times I am close to tears–there is too much mess, too much to do, and I am too tired; then moments later I get a glimpse of the delights of being aboard and I am strangely happy. I let go the lines and motor down river and into the Sound,and gradually get back into the rhythm of sailing. I find a quiet place to anchor. Night falls, I light the Tilley lamp, set up the anchor light, walk round the deck, tie back the halliards so they don’t bang against the mast in the night and check everything is in order before I climb early into my bunk.

Postscript: Some time after posting this blog, I was running around the deck sorting things when my internal Zen Master said very quietly, “Of course, is this really is a pilgrimage then all this is part of the process. Everything is an opportunity for mindfulness, a kind of karma yoga.”

Sue Boyle Online

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I'm Franklin Ginn, a cultural geographer at the Unviersity of Bristol. My research interests are in multispecies landscapes, plant politics, environment-society relations, Anthroposcenes/ Chthulucenes and philosophical questions concerning the nonhuman.


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