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



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