Rocks in the fog

“One of the things we could do today,” I said as we finished our breakfast in Derrynene Harbour, “is to go out to the Skellig Rocks.” It looked like it would be another calm day, and although the Irish Met Office forecast “fog patches”, visibility seemed better today than yesterday.

“I’m totally up for that,” said Suzy, “I’ve been fascinated by what you have told us about the Celtic monks living there.” Gib nodded quietly in agreement, so once we had washed up and stowed everything, we made our away out of the harbour mouth along the leading line and turned west toward Bolus Head and the Skelligs beyond. The pilot book says that Muckiv Rocks, awash to the west of the harbour entrance, nearly always has breakers on it which show its position. Today just tiny waves washed around its edges, not a sign of white foam. But more ominously, ahead of us I could see a yellow-grey cloud of sea fog gathering round Scariff Island and blowing across the bay. Too late to turn back, as the entrance to Derrynane was soon obscured as well, but there was a hint of a horizon in the far distance, so it seemed that this patch of fog might be limited to the coast line.

But it wasn’t. It was patchy, at times gathering right around the boat in a circle of damp greyness; at other times opening up to a hint of blue above us and a vague horizon. We motored, then sailed westward, with plenty of room to clear Bolus Head. But it was disorienting, difficult to steer a steady course and keep a good lookout at the same time. With a neophyte crew I was reluctant to go below and do more careful pilotage.

After about half an hour we heard the sound of little waves washing on rocks and the calling of seabirds close too. A vertical cliffside emerged out of the gloom, closer than was comfortable. We had strayed off course and had closed with the headland. After a momentary alarm, we steered clear–no harm done, but an important warning. I started the engine and set a steady course for the Skelligs. As we left the coast behind us the top of the headland emerged above the fog.

The visibility opened up so we could see a circle of calm water around us, dotted with tiny puffins–I imagined they were this year’s chicks just fledged. They bobbed about in the waves like little bits of fluff, struggled to take off the fly away, but entirely confident about diving. Two gannets seemed at first to be ignoring us, but suddenly took flight as we got close, beating a path along the water with their feet, wings powerfully lifting their bodies clear. They are very big birds when you see them up close. We passed a small fishing boat, two men attending to lobster pots. It came into view about half a mile away and seemed to float in a space between the gently undulating sea and the featureless sky.

Then the hint of a stronger shape began to emerge through the fog, scarcely present at first. A pyramid of rock rising, pinnacled above, streaked with white–Little Skellig, with its colony of gannets. In a moment of excitement, Gib and Suzy go forward with their cameras for a better view. Then it disappeared completely from view as the fog closed back around us. Disoriented again, we continued very slowly, gannets sitting in the water all around us, caught a first whiff of bird shit, then the whole rock face opened some thirty yards in front of us, mist swirling around it, gannets sitting on every available ledge. Further west we caught a glimpse of Great Skellig, a ghostly shape emering in the mist, then swallowed up again.

As Coral rocked gently, still in very deep water just a few yards from the rock, we stood on the deck and silently took it all in. This huge lump of rock, massively solid yet full of fissures and ledges and pinnacles, arising sharply from the sea; the smell and the sound of the birds, the pattern they made sitting on their ledges, the shadows of those flying past thrown by the thin sunshine. Gib said later that she felt we had entered another world, “It’s the gannet’s world,” she said, “Not our world.” Suzy thought it was surreal. I could see what she meant: the fog surrounding the rock took away any sense of a context.

Leaving the gannets to their own business, we made our way further west to where Great Skellig was hidden in the mist. Again we came on it suddenly, seeing first the shapes of the boats that had brought visitors from the mainland clustered around the foot, the upward sweep of rock, mist clinging in the crevices, up to where we could just make out the beehive huts the monks has constructed hundreds of years ago. Slowly we circled round. It is bigger by far than Little Skellig, rising so high out of the water that we had to crane our necks to see the top. Suzie and Gib were silent for a while, seemed awestruck but its grandeur. I was content to make a quiet circumnavigation, feeling a bit like the archetypal ferryman who had brought these visitors to this sacred spot. On the northern side, where we could see the old landing place,and the steps coming down to the water’s edge, presumably cut by monks with simple hand tools. The path leads at a steep angle up from the sea then turns sharply to continue up the higher cliff toward the huts. We got a bit hysterical as Suzy wondered whether she could swim ashore and climb the path in her bikini. Thankfully she wasn’t too serious.

But she was later, when she asked as we sailed back toward the mainland, “What do you take away from an experience like that?” We tried to answer her question after supper that evening, but didn’t get very far. But we all agreed that the things we had seen in the past two days–the dolphins leaping, the whale emerging through the surface of the sea, the puffins bobbing around; the gannets clustering around Little Skellig and the majesty of Great Skellig–were impressed strongly on our minds, images we could recall easily and vividly.

For my part, I found this second encounter with the Skellig Rocks less dramatic than my first, two years ago. Then I was dumbfounded and silenced. This year, maybe more thoughtful. I recalled that many years ago I had been to see the Grand Canyon in January. It was full to the brim of fog, yet still had an extraordinary grandness. Now I had seen the Skelligs similarly appearing then disappearing. Somehow fog turns one’s perceptions upside down or inside out: you have a hint, a glimpse something special, only to have it almost immediately obscured. This seems to be an appropriate way of understanding spiritual experience. Grasp at it, try to hold on, and it is gone.


  1. says:

    Very evocative writing Peter, is that gannet I can smell?!
    Sounds amazing, would love to experience it.
    Happy sailing and look after your tender…..!

    Steve R

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