Irish Sea Crossing, May 2016
When I saw Alan’s post on an email from Explorer’s Connect something connected.
It read something like this “I’m walking from Manchester to Dingle. I somehow need to cross the Irish Sea, maybe rowing or kayaking, any help or advice appreciated”
It was the sheer innocence of the request that connected.
I emailed Alan, we established he had never been in a sea kayak before. He had a life-long fear of deep water and only learned to swim a year ago in an attempt to overcome this fear. Despite all of this he wanted to journey 60 miles across the Irish sea in a kayak.
This is the kind of challenge I respect. Alan was undertaking the journey in memory of his sister who had died a few years ago, in the process he was hoping to raise money for MIND Manchester and Dingle Communities.
Alan had done some earlier research into rowing and had had a quote for a support boat of £5000. Quite a cost for a journey that was meant to be raising money not spending it.
Given Alan’s lack of experience I suggested that the best way across could be in a double sea kayak which he liked the sound of.
So first thing’s first we needed to meet, and get Alan in a kayak. He drove down to Aberdovey, we chatted, we had a pleasant paddle in the estuary, performed a capsize and self-rescue, chatted some more, ate, and arranged another more testing kayak training day 3 weeks down the line.
Alan was keen to work on his fitness in the meantime so I advised him to go swimming as much as possible to boost his shoulder and back muscles, and it’s also great to be as comfortable in the water as on it.
So a few weeks later Alan came down again. There was a bit more wind about, a steady force 3 gusting 4/5. We paddled from Aberdovey up to Cae Du and back and went through an impressive hail storm. We also had a chance to play around in the surf on the edge of Aberdovey bar. All went well. I felt confident, given kind weather, that the only thing that would stop us paddling to Ireland would be a lack of perseverance. I’d only met Alan twice but after listening to his motivation for taking on the journey I believed that he would have enough in the tank.
I got in touch with a few paddling companies – Reed ChillCheater sponsored us with super warm base layers and beanies, Stu from VE Paddles agreed to loan us 2 super light paddles which I highly recommend, Nigel Dennis said he would make us a new Double Sea Kayak(!) however given the time available this didn’t work out, but it was a nice thought. Thankfully The Outward Bound Trust lent us a Perception Horizon Double Sea Kayak, as this was the boat we had trained in it seemed right to use it for the crossing.
I ruled out any notion of a support boat. We would either do it self-sufficiently or not at all. Adding a support boat adds another dynamic which we didn’t need. All we needed was light winds and the ability to keep paddling west.
So Alan started his walk from Manchester and planned to be in Holyhead 10 days later. If I had spent an extended time in Manchester I too would want to leave it any way possible. I started studying the weather 7 days in advance, 5 days, 3 days this is normally when things start to firm up 2 days…. yes it’s looking good. I confirm to Alan who was somewhere near Bangor that we should take our chance the morning after he arrives in Holyhead. Sunday 15th June – the very first day of our weather window.
I’d done some big picture tidal planning. In essence, if you keep paddling west from Holyhead you will hit Ireland. The tidal considerations are: what time to leave and; an accurate estimate of journey time. if you plan your departure right you won’t drift into the ferry routes and if you estimate your journey time right you will turn up in Dublin as opposed to 20km north or south of it.
We met on the Saturday evening at Anglesey Outdoors, had a good feed in the Paddler’s Return, and popped down to Porth Dafarch for Alan’s first look at where we would launch from on the Sunday. It was flat as a pancake. Encouraging.
Sunday. A couple of Alan’s friend’s met us at Porth Dafarch, they looked quite nervous. We set off around 10:20am. I had made a rudder and attached it to the kayak – it turned out to be crap, so we stopped just short of Penrhyn Mawr and took it out of action. Off we went. Paddling.
There was a steady Force 3 from the NW for a couple of hours, thankfully this eased by around 14:00. We paddled. Stopped every hour for a couple of minutes to eat something small, little and often was the strategy. Every now and then one of us would wee allowing the other to have a slightly extended rest.
Some way into the journey I busted out the music system that I had made watertight in a big tupperware container. Quite surreal listening to Dwight Yoakam whilst not being able to see land in any direction. Then suddenly what I thought was a wave broke 3 metres to our right, it was actually a minke whale trying to catch a listen to some honky-tonk. It gave me quite a shock but was then instantly soothing as we watched it swim to the south, every now and then breaching the now very calm surface of the Irish Sea.
We paddled. It got dark. We noted the massive ferries, sometimes to our north, sometimes to our south.
We started to see the glow of Dublin. The battery died on the music system.
I had a period around 02:30am when I felt incredibly committed, which as it happens I was. Alan started singing. Then it was my turn, we alternated for around an hour which helped us to keep paddling through the darkness.
We could see lots of port lights, boat lights, most of them confusing. I started seeing strange shapes, was I hallucinating? I contacted Dublin Coastguard on the VHF radio to let them know we are big eaters.
06:00 we had been able to see Dublin for an annoying amount of time now, we were trying to pin-point Dun Laoghaire Harbour as this is where I would be getting the ferry back to Holyhead from…. or so I thought.
We paddled. The wind picked up from the West.
We spotted Dalkey Island. We went for it. We thought we saw a man standing on the sea, it was in fact a buoy.
Our paddling efficiency was beginning to fail and we struggled on to the east side of Dun Laoghaire Harbour wall, we crawled onto the rocks.
Monday 16th May, 07:50am. We had made it to Ireland.
We clambered over the wall somehow and looked at a peaceful harbour that looked quite celubrious. There was a distinct lack of ferry action.
We looked particularly ungraceful as the morning Dublin joggers whistled past our array of dry bags, damp kit, and general salty mess.
Alan made some phone calls to his Dublin fixer. A Port Authority vehicle pulled up, for a minute I thought we were in trouble. But no it was Alan’s fixer. Things were happening. A VW Transporter turned up, a friend of the fixer, and we proceeded to put a double sea kayak in the back of a van… it certainly didn’t fit but it didn’t matter, we were in Ireland.
So it turns out that ferries had stopped operating out of Dun Laoghaire a couple of years ago, they all depart from Dublin Port now. Luckily I had the VW Transporter to take me there. We hugged then Alan was whisked away by the fixer in a Mercedes.
All sorts of shenanigans occurred at Dublin Port including an appearance on a SKY television programme on importing drugs with a kayak, a story for another time. Big thanks to Vinnie from Stena Line for helping me make it onto the ferry with the kayak.
The crossing had taken close to 22 hours and the end seemed so rushed. I had to get back to Holyhead and Alan had to continue on his walk to Dingle. Next time I paddle to Ireland I’ll stay there a little longer.
For the full journey, and to donate, please visit Alan’s website http://www.walkforaoife.com,
Climbing Mount Elbrus (North Route), Russia May 2015
When I climbed Mont Blanc in 2008 I thought it was Europe’s highest mountain, turns out it’s not…
Here’s Dave’s report of our May ski ascent of Europe’s highest mountain:
May I addd that the Russians make fine soup and excellent socks.
Climbing and skiing in the High Atlas Mountinas, Morocco January 2015
Me and Dave climb Toubkal with our skis… the best ski descent I’ve ever done.
This video sums it up.
Sea Kayaking County Mayo, Ireland – April 2014
We arrived in Westport in time for breakfast having driven through the night from Dublin Port. It was 8am. Nowhere was open for breakfast until 9, I remembered we were in Ireland.
There was an hotel open so we went in for a coffee and a quick planning session. As we sat scouring the weather forecast, tide times, charts and maps a senior chap came in and ordered a Jamesons, swiftly followed by two other patrons wanting a Guinness and a Magners. It was 8am on a Saturday morning in Westport.
The forecast for the next 48 hours was such that it pleaded for us to start our circumnavigation of Achill Island immediately. We bought some camping gas and a pair of sunglasses from www.portwest.ie (who gave us a welcome discount) and we set off for Achill.
We called in on cousin Anne in the Valley, immediately tea and sandwiches were produced. After a good tea session we headed off to Dugort strand, on the north side of Achill. After a thorough kit faff session we were ready to go around 15:00. We left the truck at the ever-friendly Stand Hotel.
Our first camp was at Lough Nakeeroge, the lowest lough in Ireland, and possibly the most remote. The tide was close to it’s low and so revealed the beautiful silver sand of Annarh Strand. A great place to land. We set up camp between the Atlantic and Lough Nakeeroge, made all the more special when an otter passed by our tent and plunged into the Lough.
To get round Saddle Head and Achill Head we needed to leave at around High Tide. What we hadn’t really factored in was that at high tide the elusive Annagh Strand was covered, we would have to launch into dumping waves from a boulder field. This turned into an interesting challenge, and the “make or break” moment of the trip.
The swell was big around Saddle Head, but the wind was negligible which made for a fun trip around the imposing Croaghaun cliffs – the highest sea cliffs in Europe, apparently.
We pulled into the magical Keem bay for lunch around about 13:00. Here we bumped into cousin Colin, Maria and Erin – we hastily arranged to meet for some drinks when we had finished. We realised it was Easter Sunday and pulled out the mini-eggs that cousin Anne had given us. Katie ate most of them.
When it’s sunny in Keem bay you inevitably relax, we eventually pulled away at around 16:00. The wind had picked up and clouds had come in for our crossing to Dooega. We landed at Ballyhawny Harbour (near Dooega) at around 19:30 after a good workout in the wind.
Easter Monday, through Achill Sound and back to Dugort. Our tidal planning for this section was crucial and we couldn’t have planned it any better, a very enjoyable final day of our circumnavigation of Achill Island.
After a few Guinness on the Monday night in The Annexe Inn, we paddled over to Clare Island and carried on our circumnavigation theme in rougher conditions and very dramatic coastline. A wild island worth exploring.
After a few days rest and surfing at Keel beach we then completed a horseshoe tour of Clew bay from Rockfleet Bay to Louisburgh taking in Westport and a summit of Croagh Patrick on the way.
Climbing Denali, Alaska (6,198m) July 2011
We were dropped off on the Kalhitna Glacier on Wednesday 8th June by Sheldon Air Service (who were awesome), and were picked up on Tuesday 28th June after the whole team successfully summiting. I will just describe the summit day for now, hopefully I’ll get a chance to write up the whole expedition.
We got up to high camp (5200m) late afternoon on Sunday 19th June and there were high winds. We were stuck there through Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. The radio weather report on Wednesday reported high winds predicted for Thursday up to 60 mph but reducing to around 25-35mph on the Friday so we thought it looks like Friday is our best chance as high winds were set to return over the weekend. With the ambient temperature at the summit easily reaching -30 degrees Celsius we didn’t like to think about the effect of wind chill.
I couldn’t sleep. I lay in the tent listening to the winds battering the tent all through Wednesday night until about 6am when they seemed to die down. I continued listening and eventually got up and had a look at Denali Pass. It looked good to go, this was our window. I woke everyone up, we took a while to get ready as we were expecting Thursday to be a sit it out day.
It was steady progress up until Denali Pass where the wind hit us solidly for about 2 hours. We trudged along. Jimmy’s crampon came off twice and at one point he dropped his ice axe about 60m down a slope. But he got through it, showing unbelievable determination. The climb, the wind, and the altitude was taking all of my strength so to have to deal with kit issues would have been a real kick in the balls.
There were only 15 other people making a summit attempt that day – four rangers, a group of South Koreans, a commercial group from AMS and a solo turkish climber.
We got to Pig Hill, the final rise just before the summit ridge, it didn’t look that steep but at the time it really felt like a hill too far. It was hell. Once we got onto the summit ridge we re-focused and pushed on. We summited around 5pm on Thursday 23rd June. The altitude must have really affected Dave as he decided to propose to his girlfriend on top of North America. I started to get pretty cold whilst taking photos.
We got back to high camp around 11:30pm completely exhausted. To this day I have never been so tired. In the 10 days from Sunday 19th June to Tuesday 28th June our summit day was the only day anyone got to the top so we considered ourselves to be lucky. That said, we had put ourselves in a position to be lucky. What’s that saying… luck is when preparation meets opportunity, or something like that.
With the success rate being pretty low (53% for the 2011 season, with 9 climbers dying on the mountain) people asked me did you ever think that you weren’t going to summit. With this team I knew that if it was possible, then we would do it.
Swimming Over The Cuillin, Isle of Skye, Scotland May 2009
After a previous day of awkward rope-work on the Cuillin Ridge, myself and Tom awoke at Glen Brittle campsite to a beautifully clear blue May sky. We soon decided that our focus for this fine day would be water rather than rock.
Our first water feature was a dip in the sea at Loch Brittle, a dip we decided to place in the realms of the “bastard cold” temperature range; after the coldest winter since circa 1534 the sea was indeed taking a long time to warm up. We followed the track/road up to the river that would lead us to the magic of the fairey pools. We enjoyed much plunging, diving and head-freeze in the pools and then basked in the finest sunshine that Skye can offer.
Energised by the cool water and warm sunshine we pulled the map out and began plotting an ambitious route over the Cuillin, with our final water feature being Loch Coruisk. By our reckoning we had just enough cereal bars to get us there and then back to the pub near The Sligachan Hotel without the need for an epic – particularly as there was not even a hint of a cloud in sight.
As we followed the river upwards we discovered many great spots for water fun – you could spend the whole day enjoying this river. However we were focused on getting over the ridge, down to Coruisk and out so we had to limit our breaks.
As you can see from the Google map that I retrospectively plotted the route is around 17 miles and is not for the faint-hearted.
We climbed up steep, un-even ground over the Cuillin ridge (running south-west of Am Bastier). Once over this ridge we were faced with a more than tricky downward south-east traverse over scree and boulders which eventually brought us to the ridge that runs parallel to the main Cuillin Ridge displaying Inaccessible Pinnacle in all its glory.
Another tricky descent brought us to a much needed soak in Loch Coruisk. We found a nice shallow area which had been warmed by the sunshine all day, it must have been at least 12 degrees Celsius – toastie compared to Loch Brittle.
Loch Coruisk was a fine arena for swimming with the majestic Cuillins peering down as you swam. It felt like the definition of remote, we both thought what a great spot this would be for wild camping.
Alas we faced a walk out that would bring us to the Sligachan Hotel just after they had stopped serving food. Guinness, nuts and some homemade shortbread sufficed. Exhuasted we broke with tradition and took a taxi back to Glenbrittle campsite to collapse.
If I did this route again I’d turn it into a two-dayer with a wild camp at Loch Coruisk, allowing more time for fun and exploration.
This route is remote, at times exposed, and involves some difficult moving over steep ground, scree and boulders.
View Swimming Over The Cuillin in my Google map.
After returning from a little travelling I was asked by Kate Rew, founder of the Outdoor Swimming Society, if I’d write a piece on how to find good spots to swim for the OSS’s newsletter… here it is:
Mike Alexander has been a dedicated member of OSS since 2006, during which time he has picked up tips from Lewis Pugh and Olympic & World Medalist Cassie Patten. In December 2009 he left his teaching job in London to lead treks across Costa Rica, during which time he has been finding great swim spots en route. Here he gives his secrets to finding good swim spots abroad.
My passion for outdoor swimming was conceived back in 2000 when I joined a small freediving club. We would immerse ourselves in various water holes around North Wales and, although I came 3rd in the UK Championships, I realised quickly that I preferred to enjoy and explore the water rather than target a specific depth.
In 2001 I found myself working in San Francisco as a web developer during the last gasps of the dot-com boom. I joined the Dolphin Swimming and Rowing Club in San Francisco Bay, just opposite Alcatraz, and swam every other day. I loved the coolness of the water, the space to play, and I often thought of Clint Eastwood’s character in Escape From Alcatraz. What a great way to escape prison.
When you think of the Pacific Ocean and California you may be tempted to imagine warm water. Well you’d be wrong – the water in the Bay averaged at 12 degrees Celsius during my time there. My brother experienced this when he was over on a visit. Shortly after venturing into the Bay he turned back to the changing rooms pretty sharpish, shocked by the cold. As he was making his way back he saw an “old guy” jump in, casual as you like, and perform a smooth crawl. My brother, inspired by the “old guy”, promptly launched himself back in and ended up staying in the water longer than me. This very fact – that we can be inspired and inspire by just jumping in – has stuck with me ever since. When I discovered the OSS years later I was made up.
Mike’s advice for finding great swimming spots:
1. THINK MOUNTAINS
Mountains are the best arena for rivers. Cool, fresh, deep, shallow, fast, slow, but always invigorating. Getting involved with mountain rivers always soothes my soul and energises my mind and body. The colder the better. Rivers often lead to lakes and, although not as fun, allow you to really stretch out and actually swim.
2. FINDING A SPOT
The best places I have swum abroad generally aren’t places where people go swimming so relying on locals generally isn’t an option. You are best getting the local map, heading into the hills and seeing what you can find. If you are experienced with map reading and mountain walking this is relatively easy to do. If not you could combine your search for swim fun with another water-based activity: kayaking, canyoning, trekking, gorge walking. All of these pursuits are catered for more than outdoor swimming is, at home and abroad. By partaking in these activities you’ll find some great spots that you can enjoy at the time or come back to. Obviously all of these pursuits may present some danger, but always remember they are all a great deal safer than driving on the motorway.
3. TAKE THE PLUNGE
So you’ve found somewhere that looks great for a quick dip or a long soak…but no-one else is swimming. Is it safe? Am I mad? You can answer these questions in your own time but never be put off by the fact that no-one else is doing what you want to do. These questions ran through my mind when, en route to Costa Rica, I called in on a friend in Arizona. We went hiking around Mount Lemon and discovered a pristine lake at 7000 feet. It was frozen over at one end, the end in the shade of the fir trees, there was still snow interspersed between their leaves. No one was swimming. A father and son were fishing. I stripped off and jumped in. Bliss, cold and brief bliss, but bliss all the same. The fishing duo were shocked but loved the spectacle and asked many questions about wild swimming. I hope to have inspired them a little.
4. PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS
If you are going to go into the mountains plan a route that features rivers and lakes. Consider your entry and exit points carefully, the weather, clothing, food, drink, timing and your own personal mountain experience. If you are not comfortable with planning routes or any of these factors find a friend who is or hire a local mountain leader. You may have a friend who is an experienced mountain walker but isn’t sure about wild swimming – if so, just combine the two activities – and have them ready with a flask and fleece for when you get out. You never know, you may inspire them!
5. DON’T FORGET THE SEA
Most of my favourite plunges have been in the mountains, but the sea holds something special for swimmers too. For me I need to have a target to aim for – an island or an anchored boat. Personally, I find it quite difficult to swim in a straight line in the sea, so having a target to aim for helps. The first island I swam to was just off Majorca in 1995. I then didn´t swim to another island until joining SwimTrek on their Inner Hebrides tour in 2008. Inspired by this, I swam from Achiltubie to one of the Summer Isles in North West Scotland last year and I am currently planning some inter-island swimming off the west coast of Ireland.
Although I have had some great solo wild swims, I’d generally advise company both from an enjoyment and a safety point of view. In the words of Christopher McCandles in the Jon Krakauer book Into The Wild: “Happiness is only real when shared”.