A little drama with anchoring

After lunch I stepped up into the cockpit, thinking I would sit for a few minutes and watch the grey waves rolling out from the shore north of Blacksod Pier But as I looked around, it was quickly evident that Coral had moved from where we had anchored. For the second time that day she had dragged her anchor through the sea bed, not actually drifting, but not staying in place either.

I called Susi and Dave out to have a look, and their exclamations confirmed what I was seeing. Where previously the lower slope of Slievermore, the mountain on Achill Island, had lined up with the end of the pier, now the whole hillside was visible across the water. “There is no hurry, but we should move fairly soon,” I said, but no sooner had I spoken than the weather changed. First heavy rain rattled on the deck, then the wind increased so that Coral, lying sideways to the wind with the dragging anchor, was blown over so we had to hold on to keep our footing.

Soon we all had our full waterproofs on and the engine running, and while I did my best to hold her bows into the wind, Susi and Dave were struggling with a recalcitrant winch to haul in the anchor chain. As the wind blew up to 25 then 27 knots, sharp waves were gathered up by the wind and thrown against her hull. It seemed to me there was no point in anchoring again in the same place where the holding was evidently poor, and that it would be better to move three miles up the bay to where the pilot book indicated was the most sheltered in the bay. Once we had the anchor safely stowed we motored away from the shore and turned north.

By now the wind, touching 35 knots at times, had blow the surface of the bay into substantial waves and was blowing the tops off in streaks of foam. As they crashed against Coral’s side the spray flew up into my face; as her bows lifted on a crest and then plunged into the trough beyond, sheets of near solid water flew high from each side of the bows, blowing back into the sprayhood with a crash, or coming right over the top into the cockpit. I hung onto the tiller with one hand while wiping the water off my glasses with other, then discarded the glasses altogether, peering through poorly focussed eyes stinging with salt at the port marker as we passed, then at the low headland beyond that we had to go around. Dave, dry under the hood, was able to read from the pilot book and direct us into the anchorage.

The rain then stopped as abruptly as it began, but the wind increased again and veered a few degrees. Blue sky had been gathering in the west, and suddenly the sun came out. As the sea turned an azure blue streaked with white, Susi called out that she could see rainbows in the sheets of spray. Evidently a weather front was moving through. And as we motored toward a beach on the northern shore of the new bay the waves decreased in size and Coral pitched less and less until she was moving comparatively smoothly.

We dropped the anchor in five fathoms of water, paying out plenty of chain. Coral blew downwind and, as the chain became taught, swung into the wind. We took turns to reach over the stem head and hold the chain, which stretched like a solid bar under the surface. “It feels like it is set in concrete on the sea bed,” Dave observed. I took a bearing of the large white house on the hillside on Coral’s beam. The compass read 30 degrees, and it still did so an hour later. The anchor, so far at least, was holding.

This what it looked like after we had settled:

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Sailing fast through lumpy seas

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We arrived in Clifden on late on Monday by bus, to be welcomed by Damian and Simon from the boat club and given a lift down to the landing stage. After supper at the club we took our gear out to Coral and settled down for the night. Over the next couple of days everyone was kind and helpful, making our stay in Clifden truly memorable. Again, I pay grateful tribute to Damian and his colleagues for the generosity of their welcome, and highly recommend the bay to visitors in yachts and on land.

After settling into Coral and having a sail around the by to introduce Susi and Dave to sailing we left on Wednesday for a short trip piloting between the islands and reefs to Inishboffin where we spent Wednesay night. Thursday morning we left early to sail north on a longer passage past Achill Island to Blacksod Bay.

Through most of the day we had a fast sail in a moderate westerly wind. Coral was happy with all plain sail set, plunging over the seas, throwing up water from her bows. The crew was happy as well to start with, but as we approached Achill Head the sea became more and more confused, with no underlying pattern that could be recognized. There was some regular swell from the west, but the shorter waves seemed to come this way then that, making for an uncomfortable ride.

Achill Head sticks out into the Atlantic in a thin sliver of rock, behind which steep cliffs rise nearly 700 metres straight from the sea. The south facing side is folded into a series of ridges and appears lush with vegetation, while the north is bare rock showing signs of landslips. There is a fair weather anchorage close to the point, not appropriate in today’s fresh winds. What we saw from a distance was spectacular enough, one moment bright in sunshine the next disappearing in cloud and mist.

This is true Atlantic sailing, right “on the western edge.” And yet, as ever, I am guided by the pilot book that draws on the experience of generations of sailors, the beacons and towers that have been erected on key points along the way, the large scale charts and of course the electronic navigation systems that locate me in relation to satellites going round the planet. It is not so much an “edge” as an interpenetration of the technology of civilization and with wildness of ocean and coast.

After rounding the head the wind was dead behind us, so after rolling around in the confused seas for a while we decided we didn’t need to be purist sailors and motored the five miles into Blacksod Bay. I could have chosen an anchorage more on the direct route north, but it is forecast to blow up overnight so we are happy to be in a sheltered spot. Depending on how long the blow goes on may be here for two nights.

So today was a typical long distance sailboat cruising: Some exciting sailing and some fabulous scenery all set in within a degree of tedium and discomfort.

Working the transits and finding my way

Golum Tower

As Coral emerged from Brannock East Sound at the northern end of Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands, the easterly wind caught her sails, heeled her over, and set her bouncing off over the short sharp waves. It was an overcast day with the sun just seeping through thin cloud. The Connemara coast was visible in the distance as a line of darker grey between pale sky and steely sea. I could easily make out the old watch tower on Golam Head, which is the key marker for pilotage on this coast. Once clear of the sound and in deeper water, the waves became longer and Coral’s motion easier. I brought her round onto a close reach, heading away from the fragmented limestone of Inishmore to find a new anchorage on the mainland.

It’s only a short passage. I had scarcely time to settle myself in the cockpit before the land grew closer. I checked the chart yet again. This coast is strewn with rocks and was completely unfamiliar to me. The chart shows deep water around Golam Head, but Fairservice Rock lurks under the water offshore. I went below to the chart table to do some formal pilotage. The waypoint I had set off the Head was bearing 29 degrees. I set the protractor and drew a line on the chart: this left me well to the east of the hazard.  Feeling more relaxed I looked toward the cluster of visible rocks around the entrance of Kilkieran Bay. The nearest one must be Seal Rock, I decided, although it looked bigger than I expected. Behind it lay a cluster than must include Eagle Rock and its two smaller companions, but from this angle they all merged into one dark jagged line along the surface of the water.

As Coral continued on a northeasterly course, I stood in the cockpit shuffling between chart, pilot book and binoculars, trying to sort them out in my mind. Then as we sailed past the changing perspective enabled me make out which rock was closer, which more distant, and to distinguish each from its neighbours. I also began to understand the transit lines that are marked on the chart. Redflag Rock to the north of Eagle Rock open with the Head offers a clear path west by north through the Inner Passage up toward Roundstone. The low grey line in the middle distance I identified as Carricknamackan which lines up with the south of Eagle Rock to clear the dangers going eastward. I had done my homework, studied the charts and poured over the pilot book many times, but it was easier to remember the names and transits now I have actually seen them.

By now we were closer to land, and the offshore hazards no longer called my attention. I brought Coral round to port to clear Golam Head and studied the eastern coastline of Kilkieran Bay. Immediately north of the Head, Golam Harbour opens with a seaweed-covered rock in the middle of the entrance, and beyond that the islands of Freaghillaunmore and Freaghillaaunbeg. Not only do the names run together in my head, but so does the coastline: it is almost impossible to distinguish one island from the next until I can actually see the clear water between them. They are all low-lying, with scattered boulders along the shoreline and outcrops of granite – so very different from the limestone of Inishmore – between low scrub. Here and there a roofless building stands between tumbledown stone walls that follow a winding path from the water’s edge to the low ridge above.

I must confess I find the long Gaelic names are difficult to remember, let alone pronounce. But this area of Connemara is An Gaeltacht, a Gaelic speaking region. The names on the Admiralty charts are not in the original Gaelic: they were Anglicized by the naval surveyors in the nineteenth century. Gollam Head in Gaelic is Ceann Gólaim; Kilkieren, Cill Chiaráin; Lettermore, Leitr Mealláin; Freaghillaunmore, Fraoch Oileán Mór; and so on. As Tim Robinson points out, “some of the rocks have acquired strange English names, through over-literal translation of the prosaic Irish.” Thus, further up the coast are Wild Bellows and Sunk Bellows.  Robinson tells us, “bolg can mean a swelling such as a shoal, as well as bellows, and báite, merely submerged as well as sunken or drowned.”

I sailed gently into the bay, again puzzling over the chart and pilot book while keeping a careful eye on the depth sounder. Then, as so often, everything fell into place, and I realised the headland ahead must be Dinish Point, and so that the course I was sailing headed straight for the shoals off its southwest corner. On a calm day like today, there would be water enough to sail straight over the shoal. But I needed to learn my way about, so I sailed toward the middle of the bay looking out for the two low hills on Lettermore Island – Lettercallow and Lettermore – that with Dinish Point provide alternative transits to clear the shoals. Gradually the features of the bay became clear and I began to make out the geography of the far shore as well.

But more time for that later, for soon I was clearing Dinish Point, could see the fish farm just round the corner, and was sailing very pleasantly eastward in the completely calm waters of Casheen Bay. The two islands ahead – Illauneeragh and Inishbarra – merged together, more boulders and low scrub. In the far purple distance loomed the Maamturk Mountains and The Twelve Pins, along the waterline little coves shone with beaches of bright, almost white sand.  I noticed with a twinge of alarm that while I was gazing at the scenery the depth sounder, which had been showing over thirty feet of water, now suddenly showed fifteen, now ten. I edged Coral away from the islands into deeper water, belatedly noticing the shoal spit marked on the chart.

I might have anchored there, next to these lovely beaches. But it was rather exposed so I decided to go further, skirting the second fish farm, on to the end of the bay where I could anchor in deep water sheltered from nearly all directions. The water was clear and motionless, with patches of weed floating on the surface. The anchor quickly found a firm hold and once I turned off the engine I was enveloped by a penetrating silence.

Once settled, I went ashore in the dinghy. The white sand I had seen earlier was coarsely broken shell. Some of the scrub was bracken, but there was low-lying gorse with a few late flowers, and deeply purple heather. Nestled in short grass was a pretty and fragile flower I did not recognise – four bright yellow petals separated by green sepals. Back on board and consulting my flower book, I wondered it was Hoary Rockrose (and it is such a nice name I wanted to use it anyway!) but in the end identified it as Tormentil.

Next morning the anchor came up covered in sticky mud and needed lots of scrubbing before it came on board. I motored gently out of the bay, passing a lone fisherman in his open boat. He waved cheerily. I often wonder what these people who live by the sea think of us in our yachts.  Cautiously, I explored the anchorage off Illauneeragh I had passed by the previous evening, following the deeper water between the shoal and Inishbarra. The pilot book says to anchor where the narrow cleft between the islands is just closed, but I must have been in the wrong place for I could not see a cleft although there one is marked on the chart. I carefully extricated Coral from the shallow waters, and headed out into Kilkieren Bay proper, skirting Illauneeragh. I was now looking for the transit to clear Fock rocks, which lurk below high water, in the middle of the bay. The pilot book instructed me to line the bump on Green Island with the chapel – “a grey, slated building” – on distant Lettermullen. I found the former, but even after staring through binoculars could not clearly identify the latter against the morning sun.

Searching for the chapel, I disoriented myself. Suddenly I felt completely lost. Nothing made sense any more. Everything was flattened out. No features stood out clearly. Where had Dinish Island gone? Was that Ardmore Point in front of me? It was too foreshortened to tell. After a moment of anxiety while I checked and rechecked, everything fell into place again: I realised that in front of me was rocky Illaunmaan in the middle of the bay, and by lining its western edge with Golam Tower I would clear the hazards.

And so it went on. I spent another hour or so pottering around the bay, checking landmarks and transits. Then I set a course out past Golam Head again, feeling satisfied that I had made a first pass at understanding its layout and the main pilotage marks.

These inshore transits and their markers are the marine equivalent of local footpaths. Those identified in the pilot book are the obvious ones: local sailors – both professional and leisure – will be aware of many more, both consciously and unconsciously, with different transits for different visibility conditions and states of tide. They will know how to avoid the isolated Outer Hard Rock off Ardmore in the same easy, half-aware and half-automatic, way I know when to change lanes driving down Wellsway into Bath.

Two days later I sailed back from Roundstone to Kilkieren Bay along the Inner Passage between the hazards along mainland shore and the rocks and reefs further offshore. This longer passage is marked by a main transit line – given in the Pilot book as Golam Head well open north of Redflag, 125°. However, with the wind was against me I was tacking Coral in broad sweeps each side of the transit and having therefore to be more aware of my approach to hazards at each end of the tack. I was able to use compass bearings and the GPS to do this safely, but for local sailors a whole range of familiarities would have made this unnecessary.

These longer tracks were in common use not so long ago by the sailing boats that supplied the communities along the coast of Connemara west from Galway toward Slyne Head. Robinson claims that over 400 or them – big decked Galway hookers up to forty feet long, and smaller open boats with their gaff rigs and tan sails – were active in the 1830s, and they continued to sail commercially well into the twentieth century. They still can be seen, maintained by enthusiasts and raced at regattas along the coast.

Longer still are the passages down the whole of the Atlantic seaboard from Iceland and Scandinavia, encompassing the coasts of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and the English West Country, through Brittany, Portugal and Spain to the entrance to the Mediterranean. As Barry Cunliffe traces in his book, Facing the Ocean, these seaways have brought together the communities along this coast in trade and cultural exchange for approaching ten thousand years, from a time when transport by land across the continent was far more difficult. The course I sailed earlier in the year from the Scilly Isles to Baltimore would have been part of one of these seaways. Robert Macfarlane points out that these seaways are as ancient and as significant as the ancient footpaths on land. And there is the same relationship between the immediately local, the middle and long-distance paths at sea as on land. Following these transits is another example of following what Macfarlane calls the Old Ways.

And how quickly one becomes accustomed to the landmarks! Of course, in the two weeks I explored the Connemara coast I didn’t gain the familiarity of a local. But I soon felt at ease with the main landmarks and their relationship. As I looked down from Macdama’s Island along the transit to Golam Head, I had a good idea of the location of the hazards inshore and offshore along the way. As I tacked down the Inner Passage, the relationships between the different islands and headlands changed and so re-oriented me along the way. By the third time of taking the passage I knew where I had to tack to avoid the Carrickaview breaker without consulting chart or GPS. I made mistakes, but I was sufficiently cautious that these mistakes were not dangerous, but rather provided me with new understanding. And of course the charts and pilot books and GPS were essential. The former allow me some tiny insight into the collective knowledge of this coast gained by sailors and chart-makers over centuries. The latter offers access to pinpoint positioning in latitude and longitude, and a way double-checking against the physical observation. But GPS, with its translation of physical space into coordinates and waypoints creates an abstraction that can disengage you from the reality of the coast around you.

In contrast, pilotage brings you into more direct encounter the physical world and through it I have begun to know and be in relationship with the coast of Connemara. Understanding and working with these landmarks and transits brings me into a sense of presence in and participation with the seascape. I feel I know the place in a more complete way.

The picture shows Golam Tower astern on the line of the Inner Passage

Cunliffe, B. (2001). Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and its peoples 8000BE-AD1500. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Macfarlane, R. (2012). The Old Ways: A journey on foot. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Robinson, T. (2011). Connemara: A little Gaelic kingdom. London: Penguin Books. P.168

 

 

Rounding Slyne Head

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The last sail of this leg of the voyage took Coral round Slyne Head to Clifden Bay. I had not been expecting to take her so far, but had been unable to find suitable moorings in Galway Bay. However, when I contacted the people at Clifden Bay Sailing Club they were very welcoming, and offered to keep an eye on Coral while she was on a buoy in the bay.

I left Roundstone early in the morning to west along the coast. Although it was drizzling, I found it rather lovely: the green grey sea flecked with the shadows of waves; little white houses dotted along the coast under low cloud; the misty presence of the Connemara Pins and Errisbeg, which dominate the skyline at Roundstone. Visibility was poor, and once I was past the granite outcrop of southern Connemara the landscape flattened out; behind the coast is an area of bogs and small lakes. There was little to see apart from the breakers on the rocky outcrops off the coast, although once past Sunk Bellows and Wild Bellows the course to Slyne passes well outside all of them except the offshore reef Mullauncarrickscoltia.

There was a light southeasterly as I left, but as I sailed down the coast the wind increased and so did the rain, blowing under the spray hood, down into the cabin and even down my neck, until I put my hood up. Sailing downwind with the genoa goose-winged, Coral rolled extravagantly. On each roll, as the main boom rose high in the air, rainwater ran down the sail and poured in little rivulets off the boom. It didn’t feel windy, but when I added the speed of the boat shown on the log to the windspeed shown on the indicator–over six knots of speed added to eighteen knots of wind over the deck–I realised just how much it had actually had got up. Looking over my shoulder I could see white caps to the waves rolling down behind. Yet there was something deeply satisfying about managing Coral on my own in these grey and wild conditions.

Slyne Head itself is at the end of a string of low islands that reach out into the Atlantic, marked by a lighthouse and a second, now disused, tower. It felt very bleak indeed, taking this long route out into the ocean, as apart from lighthouse and the occasional buoy marking a lobster pot, there were no signs of human activities.There is a short cut between the islands, Joyce’s Pass, a difficult passage for a stranger, not to be attempted in these fresh conditions. As I sailed west, the two towers gradually came into line, then opened clear again. The headland was fringed with surf, and the seas took on the feel of open ocean, with a long swell lying under the shorter, wind-driven waves. Gradually the headland fell behind, and in the rain and low cloud I could see no sign of land beyond–it is always a weird feeling to sail beyond the end of a long headland into the open expanse of ocean.

Turning north round the head, as I expected, I felt the full force of the increasing wind. Coral crashed through the waves, heeling so far that water was running down her lee sidedeck. After a few energetic minutes I had the mainsail reefed and half the genoa rolled away, and brought Coral as close to the wind as she would lie. She raced on more comfortably, holding a her course well, heavy spray flying up from her bow as she encountered the waves. Soon the shapes of the coast emerged in vague outline through the rain, and shortly after I could make out distinctive white marker on the rocks outside Clifden. As we closed into the lee of the land, the waves subsided, and it was not difficult to follow the chart and pilot books past the reefs outside Clifden Bay and into its protected waters.

I was welcomed into the Bay and shown to a buoy by Damian Ward, the Commodore of the club who looks after the moorings. He explained about the facilities available, and told me that they were happy to welcome more cruising yachts into the Bay. The bay is well sheltered, and the town attractive. I was very happy to leave her there. I am on my way home to England for a few weeks before starting on the final leg toward Scotland.

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