Wednesday 25 April 2018

From TV studio to the Fastnet

Bryan Dobson

'AH Bryan, we thought you must be on holiday when we didn't see you on the news last night," says Fergus O'Mahony, as we begin to peel off our life jackets and layers of dripping sailing gear just inside the low entrance door to Mary Ann's bar and restaurant in Castletownshend, Co Cork.

Outside, the rain is falling steadily. Gale-force winds are forecast for the coming night. But our boat is firmly anchored in the well-sheltered harbour. "The best anchorage in Cork," declares Fergus as he polishes glasses behind the bar and prepares for a busy evening ahead.

We have been sailing for the past three days, setting out from our base in Baltimore earlier in the week, mooring last night in Glandore and then, as the wind began to strengthen and the seas to rise, running for shelter here in Castletownshend. The village, with its steep, narrow main street running down to the shore, is a welcome sight after our short but lively passage.

My sailing companions, now ordering pints of Murphy's and Guinness and cups of tea, are a group of adult trainees who have signed up for a week-long cruising course with the Irish/French sail training organisation Les Glenans. As is often the case on these courses, we are an international group with a couple of trainees from continental Europe joining those of us based in Ireland.

Ours is one of three Les Glenans cruising boats based in Baltimore, each becoming for its crew their temporary home for the week they are on the water. We sail, eat and sleep on board discovering how the boat behaves in strong winds and light, under sail and power, how it rises to the ocean swell or how quickly it drifts to a stop as we pick up a mooring buoy.

Down below in the cabin, space is limited. Room has to be found for the crew, their bags and the supplies we need to be self-sufficient for the week. Before we departed Baltimore, provisions had to be bought, loaded on board and stowed away. We filled our tanks with drinking water and made sure we had enough fuel to run the engine. An inventory of the boat's equipment was checked and the crew given a safety briefing covering their own personal security and the safety of the boat.

My responsibility as skipper and instructor for the week is to insure, firstly, that the crew come to no harm, secondly that they have an enjoyable cruise and thirdly that they add to their sailing skills, knowledge and experience.

When it comes to sailing I am a late starter, nervously stepping on board a yacht in my mid-30s, alarmed as the boat heeled to the wind, only slowly realising that I wouldn't be tossed headfirst into the water as the vessel gathered speed.

For more than a decade, I sailed regularly, taking part as a crew member in off-shore races such as the Round Ireland, cruising along the Irish coast and making a few trips to Britain or France. Ambitious to advance my skills, I returned to Les Glenans in the late 2000s to train as a volunteer sailing instructor.

Most of the club's training is provided by volunteers giving a week or two a year to pass on their knowledge to others. As well as courses where trainees live on the boat, there is the option of shore-based training, where participants sail during the day and return to the base each evening. Many of those who learn with Les Glenans are beginners, but others return year after year, bringing their skills up to a level where they can take charge of a boat as skipper. Although Les Glenans was founded in France after the Second World War, it wasn't until the 1960s that its sailors began to explore the coast of Ireland.

Its first Irish sailing centre was opened in the old railway station in Baltimore in west Cork in 1969 where it continues to operate.

Clearly, these French sailors could recognise a world-class cruising area when they saw it. And the area's attractions for sailors are undiminished today.

Just beyond the entrance to Baltimore harbour is the wide and sometimes wild Atlantic but also nearby is the relative shelter of Roaring Water Bay and its many islands. Safe, unspoiled harbours are a short day's sail to the east or the west, set against a spectacular coast of rocky sea stacks, headlands and mountains.

And watching over the whole area, the famous Fastnet Lighthouse atop its isolated rock at the very edge of Europe. For thousands of Irish on the emigrant ships, this was the final view they had of their homeland. Today it's a place of pilgrimage for sailors: a rock famous for raging seas, but intimidating even on a gentle Atlantic swell.

Here in Mary Ann's bar, the conversation, as it often does on such occasions, turns to our plans for tomorrow: where might we go and what weather we can expect. But the question is also asked, can we visit the Fastnet?

Sitting in a corner of the bar, we huddle round someone's iPhone to check the weather forecast. The northwest wind will ease somewhat tomorrow, although it will remain strong and gusty. But after three days in occasionally testing conditions we are cautiously confident of our own abilities and have faith in our boat.

That night, the expected gale blows through the anchorage of Castletownshend, straining the mooring lines of the few boats in the harbour at this early stage of the sailing season. But dawn brings clearing skies and a light blustery breeze that hints at the stronger winds we will experience once at sea.

We cast off our lines and turn the boat towards the harbour mouth leaving the calm of Castletownshend in our wake, bound this new day for the rolling seas and the breaking waves of Fastnet Rock.

Irish Independent

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