Artist Joanna Martin sailed south exploring Ireland's wild west coast, where the power of the ocean meets rugged cliffs and deserted shores. She joined husband Mark and son William for part of their circumnavigation of Ireland, heading from County Mayo to Kinsale
From a distance the Skellig Islands look like two shards of rock sticking out of the Atlantic. Skellig or Sceilg means ‘splinter of stone’. It was a calm, hot and sunny day and we had motored from Dingle, County Kerry, to get close to Little Skellig. It has the largest colony of gannets in Ireland and I wanted to sketch them. The sheer, jagged cliffs soared above us, every ledge packed with birds and whitewashed with guano. The gannets grow to be huge, with a wingspan of two metres.
One of the joys of cruising is watching the gannets flying gracefully in a row of two or three, far out at sea, close to the surface of the water. The largest seabird in the North Atlantic, they are white with cream-coloured heads and black-tipped wings.
I could see them perched, sparkling white, each one in their own space with no shelter from the elements. Make no mistake, however, these birds are vicious, and any chick wandering near the wrong nest will get stabbed. The noise and smell was all-encompassing as it came from every facet of the rock. Before long we were dive-bombed by flying adult birds, and the deck became splattered with guano. We made a hasty exit.
This was July 2022 when my husband Mark sailed anti-clockwise around Ireland in our Moody 33, Bonaventure II, and I joined the boat at Broadhaven Bay, County Mayo. On this leg we visited some of the most remote and wild places on the Wild Atlantic Way, the 1,600-mile route along the west coast. As a wildlife artist and printmaker, I get my inspiration from these sailing trips. Wild cruising enables us to be immersed in nature, at the mercy of the elements, with adventures around every corner.
County Mayo is all sweeping mountains and bogs, with a coastline of jagged rocks, cliffs and lighthouses. This was when I was first introduced to the Atlantic swell and I was glad to get to Achill Island. To shelter from a storm we sailed across the Achill Sound, up a long inlet to Bellacragher Bay.
Our son William joined us here, having travelled from Dublin airport. We walked to Mulranny in the rain to hire bikes and cycled the Great Western Greenway across the island through stunning scenery, purple heather peat bogs and mountains.
The following day we raced back up the North Achill Sound against the last of the flood tide, rounded Achill Head in very confused seas in a westerly Force 5, and set a course for the island of Inishbofin.
A haven for corncrake
Inishbofin is a fantastic sized island. We hired bikes at the pier, giving us the chance to explore the whole island in an afternoon. We cycled around narrow hilly roads between drystone walls, bracken, montbretia and yellow flag iris. We sat outside the Gallery Cafe looking out across white sand and turquoise sea across to the Mayo mountains in hues of purple.
The ‘krek krek’ sound of a corncrake could be heard coming from long grass in a tiny field. This island has become a haven for this virtually extinct bird and there are many areas left wild to create important breeding sites. Further on, above grassland rich in wild flowers known as ‘machair’, a skylark hovered.
With a forecast of winds Force 4-5 gusting 6, we put in a reef before we left Bofin harbour.
After passing through High Island Sound we were careful to steer well clear of a breaker. These are one of the hazards to be avoided on Ireland’s west coast where a great mass of white water can rise up without warning.
The sail to Inishmore, the largest of the Aran islands in County Clare took eight-and-a-half hours and we passed no other yachts.
We anchored in Killeany Bay and the following morning headed ashore. It was overcast and very windy. Once again the island was all set up for bike hire. A tip: go for the electric option! I didn’t and regretted it. This is a remarkable place, with a huge slab of limestone sitting in the sea, latticed with drystone walls and virtually no trees. Fissures in the rock provide shelter for small flowering plants.
There isn’t room for a proper description of the prehistoric forts, gigantic cliffs and breathtaking geological features like Poll na bPéist (The Wormhole). To me, the island was like a massive film set for a Game of Thrones epic.
We set off for Dingle at 0430 and passed through the Gregory Sound and sailed on a reach with a north-westerly Force 3. Almost straight away the Atlantic swell affected me and after a few hours I became terribly seasick – my first experience of this.
The visibility was moderate, with land barely in sight, just a great expanse of grey sea and sky. Once again on this 15-hour passage no other yachts were to be
seen. Halfway there, Mark turned on the engine.
We finally rounded Sybil Head in a sea mist. The Blasket islands appeared as ghostly shapes as we passed through the notorious Blasket Sound. Then suddenly the mist lifted and everything became visible in full technicolour. The sun shone, the sky was a clear blue and we could see the Dingle peninsula in rich shades of green reassuringly alongside us. I could see cottages, people and washing flapping in the breeze. It was an uplifting moment.
We arrived at Dingle, County Kerry, and the first proper marina in 302 miles – one of only a few between there and Cork. It didn’t disappoint. The facilities appeared to be recently built and were excellent – everything operated well with €1 coins. This is a popular stop-off for transatlantic yachts and we met a Canadian boat waiting for parts. We also met a Dubliner who had kept his boat there for 40 years but had never ventured north through the Sound. He was interested to hear about our experience in the fog!
We motored out of Dingle Harbour into Dingle Bay, which is vast and overlooked by the Iveragh Peninsula mountains. It was a calm, sunny morning and in the distance I saw the tail of a whale as it dived. On every leg of Mark’s round-Ireland journey, dolphins have joined Bonaventure II, and it wasn’t long before a pod joined us here.
They sought us out from a distance, turning sharply and allowing the force of the bow wave to propel them along. It’s pure play and they whistle and squeak as they jostle for position. I was inspired to sketch their joy and then turned the sketches into a linocut.
In some cultures dolphins are seen as a sign of good luck and safety and I can see why. It was exhilarating and joyful watching them so close up through the clear water, a highlight of the trip.
We cruised on towards to the Skelligs, then to the gorgeous natural harbour of Derrynane. The wind picked up again enabling us to sail to
Cape Clear Island.
After the wild remoteness of the west, the south coast is like another country. The good weather helped, but every port we visited was a hive of activity with sailing schools, racing yachts, motorboats and motor cruisers. From Crookhaven and Schull to Baltimore, Castletownshend and Kinsale, everywhere was bustling.
Kinsale was our crew changeover base so I headed back the 300 miles to County Down the next morning, taking the bus to Cork, a train to Dublin, and then a further train to Belfast.
As I sat and reflected on the past three weeks, it was the changing geography of the coast that made such a lasting impression. It had been a truly amazing way to see
this beautiful country.
Written in memory of my father Billy Martin and Mark’s father Max Browne. Sailing was their passion.
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