With the wind forcing GARY QUINN to take a break from the Sea Road, he looks instead at getting started in the sport and, below, Elaine Alexander tells him about completing her 1,600km solo voyage around Ireland
IT’S NOT UNTRUE to say that sea kayaking has changed my life. Not only has it made me fitter, stronger and smarter, it has revealed Ireland to me in a way that I had ever expected.
The structure of my week and that of my family is shaped around the sport, and I spend most of my free time either on the water or planning to get there. My social life is more varied, my physical and mental health is better and I feel younger. Perhaps every sport brings this feeling of wellbeing, but I’m sold on the sea. Here are my tips and reasons for joining in:Choose your trainer well
There are many different organisations offering sea kayak training around Ireland, but choose carefully, as not all standards are the same. At the very least, a training provider must be qualified. There are two basic levels of qualification set by the Irish Canoe Union: personal proficiency skill awards and instructor qualifications. You need to ensure that your training provider holds personal proficiency awards for their own kayaking skills, but also qualifications to certify them to teach these skills. They are separate qualifications. In addition to this, providers should be trained in first aid, use of VHF radios and offer a small student/instructor ratio.
Prepare to make new friends The social aspect of sea kayaking is very strong. While the sport can help you reach lots of lonely corners of Ireland, to get there safely you’ll need to be part of a team. Training providers report that the majority of people sign up for classes on their own but, because the sport is so interdependent on its participants, people make friends very quickly. After all, it’s hard not to get to know someone who has just helped pull you out of the sea.
Enjoy burning calories
Sea kayaking is an all-body workout. Although people presume you just need to have strong arms, much of the work comes from your legs and torso. Sea kayaks have fixed pedals in the interior of the boat. In simple terms, a paddler pushes against these with their feet as they draw a stroke with the paddle. The force generated travels through the body and is released. You will also be taught how to twist your torso as you draw each stroke. This combination of push, pull and twist in each stroke creates a great workout for the whole body.
Choose your passion There are many things that pull a person to sea, including:
The views: the coastal architecture around Ireland is stunning. Almost every part of the country offers something exceptional, whether it is caves, islands, rocky inlets, sea stacks or cliff faces. Kayakers undertaking training can start exploring these in organised trips after only a number of sessions.
The wildlife : Irish waters are packed full of wildlife. Sea birds dominate and the thrill of getting up close and personal with thousands of them is an incredible draw. Dolphins and whale sightings are increasingly common and kayaking with seals in the water around you is a fantastic experience.
The challenge: Irish waters, winter or summer, are a great attraction to thrill seekers. Whether it’s the great Atlantic swells, the challenge of reaching distant islands or surfing the huge breakers that dominate our west coast.
Ask yourself, am I too old? Sea kayaking is a very physical sport, but providers around the country report having brought first-time kayakers of all ages to sea. One provider has even brought a 90-year-old to sea. The only real restriction is your own mobility, and courses and goals can be set to match this.
Choose your kayak Not all kayaks are the same. There are a number of different craft that fall under the general term kayak. In sea kayaking terms, a kayak is an ocean-going craft equipped to handle open sea conditions. It has a cockpit that the paddler sits into which is covered by a spray deck worn around the waist.
A craft that has become popular here but isn’t suitable for offshore sea kayaking is a sit-on-top. This is an inshore craft which is more suitable for short journeys. A paddler sits on top of this rather than in it.
Become an equipment nerd Kayak organisations provide all the equipment that a kayaker needs to start. A basic kit includes a wetsuit, a personal flotation device (life jacket), spray deck, paddle and paddle leash. As you start to buy your own equipment, the kit list can grow indefinitely: helmets, boots, dry suit, gloves, compass . If you like “stuff”, you’ll love kayaking.
Learn to love the wind
Controlling your craft at sea and staying safe isn’t just about the mechanics of paddling. As your training advances, you will learn about tidal flows and wind direction. You will also learn to read weather forecasts, take map readings and trip planning.
Leave no trace
Sea kayaking is a great friend of the environment. You are your only power source so, apart from the manufacturing process that built your boat, your impact on the environment is close to zero. Most kayakers adhere to the leave no trace creed. Our ecosystem is fragile and even landing on an island can be harmful to breeding birds or seal colonies.
Invest in some thermals
Let’s face it, Ireland is a cold- water climate. You will fall in and it will be cold. Training organisations can provide the outer gear for your paddle, but what you wear underneath your wetsuit can make a big difference too. Even at the beginner stage it’s worth investing in some warm thermal underclothes – and always pack a spare set, so if you do take an unexpected swim you can pull in and change.
Some sea kayak providers
Cork : atlanticseakayaking.com
Dublin : deepblueseakayaking.com, shearwaterseakayaking.ie. Donegal: northwestseakayak ing.ie; Gartan Outdoor Education Centre, gartan.com
Galway : kayakmor.com
Mayo : irelandwestseakayaking.com
Waterford : seapaddling.com
Massive swells, big crossings: The thrills and spills of a 71-day solo paddle around ireland
ELAINE Alexander (aka “Shooter”) came home from the sea last week – 71 days after launching into a mammoth solo paddle around Ireland. It was a dramatic trip, punctuated by some of the hardest summer weather we have seen in years.
“The mental aspect was the hardest,” she explains. “I knew that I had trained well, that physically I could handle whatever came at me, but being alone and trying to judge the sea was really difficult. The repetition of paddling, getting changed into wet clothes. You have 4am starts on cold dark beaches, trying to force yourself to eat even though you don’t want to, then paddling for four to five hours before getting a break.
“But the people kept me going. I met such hospitable, friendly people. Strangers would come down and meet me, invite me home and let me stay the night. It made all the difference.”
The trip was a fundraiser for Share in Co Fermanagh, an organisation that provides outdoor activity programmes which promote the inclusion of people with disabilities in a wide range of arts, land- and water-based recreational programmes, and where Alexander works.
She was paddling a Valley Etain, a new expedition kayak from the British company that she came to love. “I wondered about it when I pulled away from Antrim yacht club in May. Would it be okay, be my kind of boat. It worked really well for me,” she says.
The best test is that on the 1,600-kilometre journey it kept her dry throughout. “The only time I was even close to a capsize,” she says, laughing, “was when I was almost home. I just relaxed and next thing a wave hit me broadside. But I managed it. In fact, this boat got me through everything. Massive rolling swells, big crossings.
“The hardest part was getting around Mount Brandon in Kerry. I got really sea sick. Waves were piling in on the cliffs, but it was such an exposed stretch I had to keep going.”
Very few women have completed the circumnavigation of Ireland and fewer again have done it solo. Eileen Murphy of Shearwater Sea Kayaking in Dublin is the only woman Alexander knows of who has completed the solo trip, although the two women haven’t met.
She says that sea kayaking has begun to change a lot, with more and more women getting involved. She doesn’t put it down to any particular action but a widening of the sport and perhaps more frequent recreational and social paddles that have made it easier to get on the water.
She believes it is important that more women are encouraged, but is equally confident that it’s simply a great sport. “I have a great time whoever I go out paddling with, but I am proud of myself, as a woman, to have done this trip.” Next up for Alexander is completion of her level-five coaching award.
“I’ve done all the training for it, so it’s important now,” she says. “I don’t think there are other women with this award in Ireland yet. Then maybe another long trip, perhaps on the continent this time.
“But I don’t think I’ll do another solo trip. The company on the paddles matters a lot. When people joined me on sections during this trip, it really made a difference. People matter.”