|Route clockwise from Cultra to Newtownards at head of Strangford|
The Ards Peninsula, a long limb of fertile land extending south along the coast of County Down, was a backdrop to my Ulster childhood.
The whole county is pebbled with low hills of glacial moraine called drumlins, which also account for the many islands and drying pladdies [small islets] of Strangford Lough, the UK’s largest sea inlet and a place of soft and tranquil beauty.
On the east coast of Ards is the North Channel of the Irish Sea from where Scotland and the Isle of Man are easily visible.
My cousin fishes prawn out of Portagovie and I’d often cycle down and round, visiting the fishermen and maybe crossing over to Strangford on the ferry that plies the fast flung tides of the Narrows at the mouth of the Lough.
In June 2014 I fulfilled a long held ambition to sail round the peninsula from Belfast Lough, down the east coast (visiting my bemused relations), up through the Narrows, and north into Strangford as far as the shallow draft of a Wayfarer would allow.
I took the water on the slipway of the Royal North of Ireland Yacht Club at Cultra on the southern shores of Belfast Lough, opposite the brooding basalt of the Antrim Plateau.
A few miles to the west is the city of Belfast, its skyline dominated by Samson and Goliath, the two colossal gantry cranes of the Harland and Wolff shipyard.
The local clubmen were very welcoming and the usual banter was struck up,
“is there any particular reason why you are doing this?”, “you are not going on your own are you?”, “did you ever consider going by car?”, “I hope the Coast Guard have been alerted?”Especial thanks to Gary who, between banter attacks, stocked me up on local knowledge.
For instance at Donaghadee Sound the tide flows south for only three hours. By 11:30 I could think of no further excuse for not setting sail.
I could feel some tension in my guts but, as Gary said “you need a bit of fear to remind you you are alive”.
|Setting sail from Cultra, southern edge of Antrim Plateau behind (Photo Noel Thompson)|
A colleague in Bristol was reared in these parts and I called her up seeking recommendations for a good ice-cream.
The sun was splitting the skies and I felt a bit freakish wandering amongst the day trippers in a dry suit.
All day there was a fairly thick bank of cloud sitting inland – a common and favourable pattern for the coastal cruiser.
With northerly winds blowing for the whole trip this was a lee shore and I decided to depart under motor and hoist the sail off shore.
The wind had freshened and I made a good call to reef before heading due south.
Ah - the sheer joy of running before the wind on a sunny day, the feel of the boat as she lifts on the wave, twists slightly and speeds into the trough, the sound of water chortling at the transom, landmarks quickly distancing to windward.
I made six knots to Portavogie – a little less when I furled the genoa which was finding it hard to set on the run.
I threaded my way, again under engine, into the inner harbour and tied alongside one of these hard worn wooden craft.
Cousin Roy was there duly bemused, and soon I was in the bosom of my fisher folk family, the victim of much banter, freshly baked sponge and an impromptu bagpipe recital.
The knot on the end of my rudder downhaul had pulled through the wood (I think because the joint is too stiff and my efforts too vigorous) and this was quickly repaired.
These people are made of stern stuff. The working day for a Portavogie fisherman is 18 hours.
Margins are tight with £1000 a week on diesel, competition from bigger vessels with “expendable” foreign crews and an unsympathetic Northern Ireland Fisheries Board (Roy was banned from fishing for ten days for accidentally landing 0.5Kg over his quota for cod).
The fish we eat are hard won. Yet there is a still a glint, a passion. I think they’d rather die than sit at a desk.
The next morning I headed off south again, bound for Strangford Lough.
350 million tonnes of water pass through the Narrows with each set of the tide.
The stream runs at 8 knots at springs and so all transits are determined by the tides which run a full three hours behind those at the coast.
I needed to enter the Narrows around 4.30pm so went cliff sniffing in pursuit of a nice sandy beach with an offshore wind.
Along the way I caught a first magical glimpse of the Mountains of Mourne. South Bay is not named on the charts but on the hearts of all those lucky enough to have discovered it.
Our Neolithic ancestors had rare taste in real estate. From Tara you can see the whole of Ards up to Belfast and south to those sinuous mountains as they sweep down to the sea.
Just to complicate matters and kill a bit more time I decided to sail past the entrance to the lough and south to round Gunn Island.
Ulster has few coastal islands (Rathlin being the most famous).
This then involved me in a long and sporty beat back north against wind and tide. Having run the Severn Bridges already this year, I was less frightened of fast tidal stream than I might have otherwise been.
The danger of the Narrows is on the ebb where huge standing waves develop at the mouth especially in winds E to SW.
I tried to be encouraged by the pilot’s advice to “enjoy the whirlpools”.
Caused by some underwater pinnacles there is a large one called “Routen Wheel” which you are advised to avoid but which I think I may have sailed straight across – less whirlpool, more giant jacuzzi.
As with the Severn, I was surprised how well the boat kept its course in the turbulence.
Near the end of the Narrows, where the stream is fastest, is a tower from which are suspended two huge electricity turbines.
I tacked in front of this but slightly traumatised myself by getting pulled down by the current much faster than anticipated.
I missed the structure by 20m but 100m would have been better. The sight of the tide heaping up against the tower gave me the willies.
No waves, land all around, the beautiful Mournes beckoning in the haze.
I headed now on a single tack to East Down Yacht Club and picked up an empty mooring.
Here I had my first attempt at erecting a boat tent. Dave Barker’s (UKWA) instructions were superb (first instructions I have actually read in a long time) and the Ralph Roberts under boat bungee system inspired.
However, no sooner had I got it up than I took it straight down again.
Firstly I felt strangely nauseous in the slight swell, secondly I felt deprived of the wonderful views all around and thirdly I knew there was a dry night ahead and no call for a roof.
I don’t think I could have been happier, tucking into a hot meal, listening to the varied and urgent calls of the birds and reflecting on all that had happened that day.
I could still read a book at 10.30pm and settled to an acceptable sleep – sunglasses making a good barrier to the sun rising at 4.30am.
Perhaps I was lonely because I did put on Radio 4 over breakfast and spent the morning doing the sorts of seamanship drills I never find time for at home: MOB, coming out of irons, taking a mooring buoy and rowing in close quarters.
I did an experiment to check the fuel consumption of my 3.3HP Mercury 2-stroke. It used around 300ml of petrol in 10 minutes at full throttle.
With a tank of 1.4litres that gives me about 45 minutes in one fill. Accounting for tides, the boat under power has a top end of 6 knots.
With 7 litres stored I have an engine range of about 28 miles.
Before leaving East Down I was regaled with tales of their Wayfarer exploits (there are 20+ at the club) including a man in a boat called Blunderbuss who shot the Narrows only for the wind to vanish.
The poor bugger rowed to the Isle of Man in ten hours.
Though it doesn’t pay to get complacent. A few years ago near that spot I was feeling very pleased with myself as we reached parallel with a yacht in full sail.
I commented glibly to my crew that according to the chart we were currently sailing over an island and just as the words were spoken we ran aground on a pladdy.
The yacht bobbed demurely on toward Portaferry where I now headed to check out a permanent aquatic exhibition called “Exploris”.
Having held a dog fish, stroked a ray and got up close and personal with cod, I headed back north with the tide toward my destination at the head of the lough.
The wind freshened and I had a long solitary beat to shelter on a mooring near Sketrick Island.
The river lies at the head of a huge mudflat 2m over chart datum. On my way north I balanced the boat by standing on the side deck and leaning back on the shroud.
This felt Vikingly and lent a good view of the sea bed and any lurking rocks. Note that I benefit from having an extra-long tiller extension.
First the centreboard and then the rudder was up but with a rising tide I was not too worried about grounding.
Again the excitement of approaching an unknown shore, constantly checking the chart and scanning the land for the inconspicuous emergence of a river.
Soon I was in a totally different environment surrounded by reeds and swans breaking into flight to stay ahead of my slow progress against the wind.
There was one tense moment as I passed under some telegraph wires with about 8 foot of clearance.
Eventually I arrived at the slip way of the “Comber Cruising Club”, which ranks alongside the Chepstow and District Yacht Club as the UK’s most basic sailing facility.
The slip was deeply clarted in mud and, more importantly, the access gate heavily padlocked with no contact details to be found.
So, my sail of 89 NM around the Ards Peninsula ended instead at the Newtownards Sailing Club and the strong back of my long-suffering brother.
What a luxury to have been saved the practical hassle of a hitch back to the start, one of the less fun bits of a typical Wayfarer outing.
Navigation was generally easy by sight and local knowledge.
Save yourself £25 and buy the Irish Cruising Club’s hardback guide to the East and North Coasts in the 1990 edition – very little had changed except phone numbers.
I used Navionics software on an iPhone to check my speed over ground and to verify distances.
A newly acquired reefing system for the genoa jib (www.aeroluffspars.co.uk) worked a treat and several times saved the need for a second tuck in the mainsail.
I doubt I’m the only single-hander to spend long hours studying his rig and thinking of (or plainly inventing) things to fix on return to shore.
I love to sail alone and in company in equal measure, particularly on sea passages: solitude is accompanied by total immersion in the physical act of sailing, a heightening of the senses and a clearing of the mental decks.
Yes, and a variable amount of fear. I’d take solace in the transitory company of a song.
With a careful eye on tide and weather I would commend this trip to any wayfarer with some sea experience.
Though the land has changed so much, the sea and much of the immediate coast is the same as it ever was.
This voyage was one of connecting back to my own past and that of generations of visitors to these hallowed shores.
Trevor Thompson, 1st July, 2014.