Sunday, November 23, 2008

Whale Patrol

Day-dreams of craggy headlands, taut canvas, wide blue horizons - clearly, I was in the grip of a bad case of sea-fever. The fever was not reduced by a steady stream of reports that huge beasts were on the move just off-shore. This far north, the sun sinks early, and gales are frequent; I would have to wait my chance.

I found a Saturday with a weather window just wide enough to slip through (framed by gales); found a willing crew (Mr. H); and so, arrived at a deserted slipway at dawn to launch my dinghy into the teeth of a nor'wester whose brisk chop delivered a bucket or two of seawater into the dinghy before by the time we reached Briongloid.

With only a modest set of sail, Briongloid fairly leapt along under a mostly-blue sky, across an empty sea - not another mast to be seen; we steered south west to bring us close by the Old Head. We could have dodged south to escape the tide race generated by the flood coming east around the Old Head of Kinsale, but the gold of the early sun on the craggy cliffs and the lighthouse tempted us within convenient photographic range. We knew the tide race when we met it: Briongloid's bows buried to the deck, and a certain skipper dogged the forehatch down tight in a hurry...

The Old Head about an hour after dawn (Picture: D. Hoberg)

The pounding of the tide race was short-lived, and soon we were around the headland, beating across the white-capped chop of Courtmacsherry Bay; a good wind, force 5 to 6. Three hours out, investigations of circling sea birds - gannets, mostly - lead us to our first sighting, a brief glimpse of a common dolphin no more than 10 or 15 metres dead ahead. Mr. H missed it; not long after, I saw a patch of mist hang in the air 50-70 metres or so ahead - gone again a moment later. Did I imagine it? Within a few tens of seconds, I had my answer: another whale-breath misted into the air, and a huge black back showed for a moment before vanishing once more into the depths - straight towards us - almost certainly a Minke whale.

There is something uniquely heart-pounding about encounters with the mega-fauna of this planet, something beyound the sheer physical bulk, a thing that is absent in mere scenery; perhaps it is the sense of an encounter between human and non-human minds... that we look at a beast, and the beast looks back. Now, in the cold blue vastness beneath us, something huge and wild moved unseen; but though we turned and searched, and turned again, our whale escaped us.

Not long after, a small pod of common dolphins moved across the bow; too close for co-incidence, I think. Mr. H saw them this time, but they moved off to windward, and dived; perhaps they just surfaced to take a look at us? We searched on, sailing into the easternmost extent of Clonakilty Bay, with the white gleam of the hotel showing above the strand. Then the clock told us it was time to turn, and we tacked for home, taking our lunch a few km south of Seven Heads - hot tomato soup, very welcome on a cold winter day.

The final incident of the day came when a bottle neck screw vanished from a stay on the leeward side - I really have to get hold of some seizing wire. Luckily, I had a replacement, and got it fitted while Mr. H paid especially close attention to keeping a steady course. Not so luckily, we heeled well over, a sea stole on deck and crept inside my waterproofs, soaking me to the knees. That gave me a real problem: I was wearing jeans, and the cotton wicked the water steadily up my legs; by the time I was finished fixing and checking rigging screws, I began to shiver, and my speech to slur, and my mind to get a little foggy. Hypothermia is an isidious enemy. I dried off my feet, keeping them bare, then layered up, and wedged myself into the (comparitively) cosy corner of the fore-peak while Mr. H stood watch alone.

Right on schedule, we slipped into the cove against an ebbing tide as the sun dipped below the horizon, saluting a feeding seal as we came, and tacked onto the mooring as a huge flock of crows swept in a black gyre low over the woods and the river mouth; from the east, more dark wings swept by in squadrons, until thousands swirled above us, and the twilight echoed with their cries. Well might they huddle in their roosts: their worst enemies fly by night.

Day's run: about 65km, in 8 hours, almost entirely under sail (GPS track on Google Maps).

Important Lesson: wear hydropobic synthetics only - and bring a change of clothes, no matter how good your outer layer is.

No comments: