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7 August 2004

Seven Heads trip

Earlier in the week I had made arrangements with Jon Hynes of H2O Sea Kayaking to join him and four other paddlers, Noelle, Gerard, Rob and Susan on a weekend expedition. The provisional plan was to paddle around the Seven Heads on Saturday, camp and go on towards Clonakilty on Sunday. On Friday Jon rang and asked if I had been watching the weather forecasts as the tail end of Hurricane Alex was stirring up a storm due to pick up from the south east at some time on Saturday afternoon. He suggested we get started as early as possible on Saturday to make the most of the available weather window but accepting that we might have to pull the plug at any stage.

Map of The Seven Heads.We set off from Coolmain beach and made directly for Barry�s Point across Coolmain Bay. The crossing was sheltered by The Old Head of Kinsale as the wind was in the south east and the small waves made it possible to paddle together in twos or threes chatting but we could see larger breaking waves � a sign of things to come - on Horse Rock as we approached Barry�s Point.

Once past the point we regrouped head to wind and swell, to discuss the next section. Jon explained that we would paddle across Seven Heads Bay towards Vregira Point, then past another couple of headlands to Leganagh Point. From there, he explained, we would have about two kilometres which he described as the crux of the trip in that there was no landing place and we would have to keep paddling.

We made good progress across Seven Heads Bay with the swell growing as we lost the shelter of The Old Head. Now we were paddling directly across the waves having to lean into them as they approached the side of the boats and adopting a longer paddle shaft on the windward side to counter the wind and swell that was tending to turn us towards the shore.

As we rounded Vregira Point we passed a yacht going the other way just outside us, we exchanged waves and I imagined how mad they must think us to be out in what were now developing into quite adventurous conditions. From Vregira Point and beyond we found the waves increasingly large and confused around each headland with evident clapotis. This made it ever more difficult to predict which direction the next wave might strike from and heightened the need for constant observation all around one (while I was busy watching the waves Rob managed to spot a sunfish as we rounded Illaunbaun).

After we passed Reenreagh we again regrouped facing together into the waves and paddling slowly to hold our position. Jon checked how everyone was doing and I told him I was a little nervous of the growing swell and that I was suffering from a stiff right leg (I was afraid of cramp and had been trying to stretch and straighten it whenever the waves did not seem too threatening). Jon explained that we were now entering the crux and that once past the next headland (Leganagh Point) we would keep going quickly towards Dunworley Point which we could see adorned by a fortification set back from the tip of the promontory.

Fortification above Leganagh Point as seen from Dunworley Point.
By the time we rounded Leganagh Point the swell had grown to about 1.5 metres and was coming from behind us across the windward quarter, this made things quite tricky as one could not see what was coming. Despite frequent glances over my left shoulder, there were inevitably some bigger waves that hit me unsighted requiring swift corrective action. At one point, a large wave broke right over me. I instinctively made a strong low brace into the wave on my left hand side and stayed steady while the water crashed over me. Jon and Noelle saw this and congratulated me on my brace. I had not seen the wave coming, as perhaps they had, and did not think it noteworthy but was glad that I had not lost my instinctive paddling skills.

I found the next section, the crux, much more threatening. This was not due to any immediate danger, but rather, to the intense and sustained concentration required to paddle a course, stabilising the boat as necessary, while watching out for waves from behind and keeping in contact with the rest of the group.

By the time we reached Dunworley Point I was longing for a break, not because I was physically tired, but just to be able to relax my concentration for a few minutes.

Rounding the point was again quite an anxious moment as the sea state had been steadily increasing and we were now very exposed. We were past the crux as we could have got in to Foilareal Bay but Jon had decided to go another 1.5 kilometres to Dunworley Bay which was a preferable camp site.

Channel between Bird Island and the headlandOnce around the point we cut across the small bay and made for the narrow channel between the headland and Bird Island. Jon went in first and found a position facing outwards where he could hold station and call the rest of us in one by one whenever there was a break in the waves. When my turn came my adrenaline surged as I paddled like mad for the calm water beyond the rocky gap, silently uttering a prayer that I would get there before the next wave.

I negotiated the channel safely and passed into the sheltered water behind Bird Island. Finally, I was able to relax and I drifted gently for a minute with my paddle resting across my boat feeling slightly giddy as my nervous energy dissipated.

Channel between Bird Island and the headland
When the whole party was safely through we laughed and congratulated ourselves and found an even more sheltered spot in a sea cave where we were able to stop, admire the scenery, share some coffee and take pictures.

After a little rest we paddled out of the cave and into the calm water of Dunworley Bay taking time to explore another dramatic sea arch on the way in to the slipway beneath our camp site. Again, Jon went in first calling us each in turn onto the slipway, between the bigger waves, from where we carried the boats up to some conveniently located picnic tables for lunch.

Breaking waves at Dunworley beach on Sunday morningOur total distance travelled for the day was about 14 kilometres.

On Sunday morning the sea state had risen substantially and Jon made the decision to abandon any further hope of paddling as launching, let alone landing, through the surf would be too challenging.

Additional photos from this trip are available here.

1 August 2004

Old Head of Kinsale trip

Map of The Old Head of KinsaleI had booked a beginners' sea kayaking expedition with H2O Sea Kayaking in Kinsale to coincide with the start of a family holiday in Cork and persuaded my wife, Deborah, and her sister, Imelda, to come along too.

We met our instructor, Noelle, at Sandy Cove and, after getting us all kitted out, she gave Deborah and Imelda a brief paddling lesson before we set off.

Once out of the shelter of Sandy Cove Island the calm water gave way to a smooth oily looking swell of about 0.5 metres, the clear water giving good visibility to the seabed below through waving fronds of kelp.

The moving water gave us all the chance to get a feel for the handling of the boats. Deborah and Imelda seemed to enjoy working together in the double while I found my extremely wide boat rather unwieldy and bracing my knees on either side of the gaping cockpit felt like doing the splits. Despite my reservations, the boats did at least make good progress and we soon rounded Hake Head where we spotted cormorants perched with wings outstretched drying in the sunshine.

We paddled towards a secluded beach for lunch and the appeal of sea kayaking began to sink in. This isolated spot could barely have been reached by any other means as it was nestled beneath cliffs with no access by land and even small craft would have difficulty getting in close.

After a leisurely lunch we headed across Dooneen Bay for Blackhead, the swell was larger now but the sea surface retained its oily smooth quality. Even in these benign conditions I was aware of the vulnerability of our boats on the open sea as we left the shoreline about a kilometre off to starboard.

Noelle showed us the entrance to a dramatic sea arch at Blackhead and I paddled in to explore and take some photos, unfortunately, the tide was too low to paddle through.

Double kayak setting off after lunchWe rounded Blackhead and found ourselves in a slightly heavier swell of up to 0.75 metres and we paddled for the castle visible above us on the cliffs at the narrowest part of the peninsula. Under the castle are three sea arches which go right through the headland and we explored each in turn hoping to find a way through.

Paddling into the middle, and largest, arch was the highlight of the trip. Our arrival roused the colony of nestling terns perched on every nook and cranny around the entrance creating an awful squawking din. Also notable was a strong smell of fish, presumably the birds� leftovers.

Sea arch under The Old Head of KinsaleOnce inside the arch the water was shallow and clean and we saw shoals of sprats swimming beneath us and small starfish clearly visible on the seabed. At the far end the sun shone in as if through a Gothic cathedral window. We clambered out of the boats at a stony beach halfway through to explore the exit. We carried one boat over the rooks and Noelle went to investigate the far entrance but felt that the breaking surf might make it tricky for Deborah and Imelda and so we returned the way we had come.

On the way back we saw a seal in one of the other arches and as we paddled back along the coastline we saw more cormorants perched in rows along a series of rocks and apparently observing a strict pecking order with the largest birds occupying the best vantage points.

Once we rounded Blackhead the swell was behind us and we were able to catch a ride from the waves until we got further into Dooneen Bay where the water was more sheltered. We stopped to chat to a family fishing from a small boat who donated some mackerel for Noelle�s supper.

Finally, we arrived at the Quay in Dooneen delighted with our first day�s sea kayaking.

Total distance paddled was about 12 kilometres.

More photos of the trip are available here.