Circumnavigating Great Britain in an 18ft speedboat: Spotting whales on the Irish coast

Circumnavigating Great Britain in an 18ft speedboat: Spotting whales on the Irish coast

In this series, we follow Ian Furby as he continues his story of circumnavigating Great Britain in an 18ft speedboat

Having made it from Yorkshire to South Wales in just five days aboard his 18ft open sportsboat, Ian Furby pushes on up the West Coast of Ireland in his bid to circumnavigate Britain in less than 12 days.

Make sure you catch up on the rest of Ian’s circumnavigation:

Runswick Bay to Harwich
Harwich to Brixham
Brixham to Milford Haven

Day 6: 15 June – Milford Haven to Dún Laoghaire, 125NM

The alarm was set for 3.30am but I didn’t need it as I was awake and watching the stars grow dim as night slowly turned to day. I put on full yachty wet gear. It was a little chilly and I had the Irish Sea to conquer.

Teeth brushed, bunk stowed, engine started, navigation lights on and lines slipped, I backed out of my berth and made my way to the lock.

By 4.45am I was steaming back up Milford Haven. The water was like glass. I passed St Ann’s Head and turned north-west towards Skomer Island, 10nm away. That was the point when I had to decide if I was heading across to Ireland or sticking to the Welsh coast.

With the sun rising behind me, I started singing the 80s classic Should I Stay or Should I Go in the hope it would help me decide. The sea was flat enough and I’d already plotted a route to Rosslare. I made my decision. Ireland it was.

For the first 10nm, a slight sea state meant I was only making 17-18 knots but then the waves flattened and my speed lifted.

All I could see in any direction was sea, sea and more sea.

It was a chilly early start from Milford Haven but at least the conditions were calm

Then 100m ahead of me I suddenly caught sight of a dorsal fin. “Whale ho!” Backing off, I waited to see if I could get a better look but no such luck. It didn’t reappear.

The next couple of hours passed uneventfully until Channel 16 burst into life on my VHF. Minehead Coastguard were issuing a small vessel warning for exactly the area where I was headed. When I’d checked the weather yesterday, everything looked fine but now a southerly Force 7 was fast approaching – not pleasant in a 40ft boat, near suicidal in a small, open 18-footer.

That was the first piece of bad news; the second was that due to soaring cases of Covid in the UK at the time, any English boat owners setting foot on Irish soil would be locked up, flogged and stoned. Or something like that. Too bad, I was well over halfway across by now so I decided to crack on before that damn storm caught up with me.

A short while later, Ireland appeared out of the clouds. Rather than going into Rosslare, I headed north towards Wexford. It was at this point that I made an almighty cock-up.

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The bay leading into Wexford is guarded by sandbanks – loads of ’em. Some are visible above the water while others lurk just beneath. I had the Garmin zoomed in and wasn’t paying enough attention.

By the time I realised, I was on the wrong side of one of these low-lying sandbanks. I pulled up and considered my options. What I should have done was backtracked, but no, even though my depth sounder was broken I decided the water was clear enough for me to pick my way through the shallows using sight alone.

The other thing I should have done was go slower. Too late. My engine hit the bottom. For the first time ever, I had run aground.

Killing the engine and tilting it up, I realised we were still afloat – but only just. With no means of powering the boat, I was now drifting fast over the sandbank on an ebbing tide. F**k! If I got stuck here, I’d be at the mercy of the fast-approaching storm.

The only good news was that I’d hit soft sand; there wasn’t even a chip in the propeller. If I could just reach deeper water, I might get away with it. All of a sudden Summer Buoys stopped dead.

A glorious sunrise behind Skomer Island helped convince Ian to cross the Irish Sea

Now I was definitely aground. I jumped over the side and got my back against the transom, lifting and pushing with all my strength. Nothing. Then, just as I was about to give up, she moved! I kept pushing. A seal bobbed up a few feet in front of me, its big eyes appearing to mock me for being such an idiot.

But if the seal was swimming, deeper water couldn’t be far away. A few metres later and I was free. Back aboard, I lowered the prop and fired her up. Shaking all over and with sweat dripping off me, I slowly edged forward until I was back in open water.

I had got away with it but lost a crucial 20 minutes in my race to stay ahead of the storm. Dún Laoghaire was still 60nm away. The waves were building but the southerly wind was behind me and for the moment I was still making 25 knots. I hugged the coast to take advantage of the lee inside each bay.

That worked well for a while but skirting round the northerly edge of them was now getting seriously lumpy.

Rounding the southern point of Dublin Bay, the Force 7 had well and truly caught up with me. By the time I pulled through the entrance to Dún Laoghaire, it was blowing its arse off.

Skirting along the coast of Ireland en route to Dublin before the wind caught up with him

Thankfully the big harbour walls provided excellent protection. Steaming into the marina, I quickly found the fuel berth; that just left the small issue of it being illegal for me to step ashore.

A small pilot RIB headed towards me and asked if I needed fuel. I nodded and tried not to say too much, fearing that my Yorkshire accent would give me away.

He told me to tie up on the fuel pontoon while he went to get the keys. I half expected him to return with the Gardaí in tow but 10 minutes later he was back, lowering a long hose down to me. I’d got away with the first part of my plan but now I had another favour to ask: in my finest Yorkshire accent, I asked him if I could tie up on one of the pontoons until the storm blew through.

“Where have you come from?” he asked.

“Cork,” I mumbled.

“How long have you lived in Cork?”

“Eight months, working in agriculture. I had a right job getting over with all this Covid b***ocks.”

Then came the crunch. “I’ll have to check with the office,” he replied. “Difficult times.”

“Look, if it’s going to cause you a load of hassle, then don’t worry.”

Damp and chastened but still very much alive, Ian gives the thumbs-up

He knew I was lying but kindly suggested I pick up one of the visitor moorings instead. Thanking him, I scurried off to find a buoy. The trouble was, they were only a few feet from the harbour wall and with hundreds of people going back and forth, I could get reported at any moment.

After ten minutes fretting, I decided to head back into Dublin Bay and see if I could find a safe anchorage. I found a spot in the lee of the harbour wall and dropped the hook. Despite the wind whistling overhead, it was millpond-calm and the sun was out.

What now? I couldn’t go ashore so I stretched out on the bench and had a kip. Half an hour later, I was awake and restless.

My mate Dobbo was due to join me in Oban tomorrow evening for the last few days of my big adventure so I called to tell him I was unlikely to make our 7.30pm rendezvous. I also asked if he’d managed to source any of the special two-stroke mixing oil I desperately needed to keep my engine running.

The news wasn’t good. He’d rung every chandler within 50 miles of home to no avail. I thanked him and said I’d figure something out. Powering up Google on my phone, I searched ‘Evinrude dealers Dublin’. Three came up: one was miles away; another, MGM, was half a mile away; and Pod Marine – I kid you not – was two hundred metres away!

I rang the latter but got no answer, so I tried MGM. They didn’t have any but suggested I try Viking Marine, a big chandler in the city. They did, and a chap called Jack even offered to deliver the four gallons I wanted after work for an extra €5 – hallelujah.

Blasting up the Sound of Kerrera past the Western Isles of Scotland

I killed the afternoon diving off the bow, sunbathing and even risking a quick trip behind enemy lines to see if Pod Marine was open. It wasn’t. Shortly after 5pm, Jack called, saying he’d meet me at the Yacht Club’s private pontoon.

It took me a few minutes to find him but there he was standing on the pontoon holding a bicycle with four one-gallon containers of Evinrude’s finest XD 100 hanging off the handlebars like strings of onions!

After thanking him profusely, I called Dobbo to let him know then made my second stupid mistake of the day. I’d promised my wife Sheddy that I wouldn’t do anything dangerous but if you’re in a fast boat and checking the weather regularly, you shouldn’t be at any great risk unless you do something you shouldn’t.

So I did something I shouldn’t. Yep, you guessed it: Captain K**bhead here decided to don his oilskins and attempt to knock a few miles off tomorrow’s run. It wasn’t a completely stupid idea, even though the wind was still blowing hard from the south.

Dublin Bay has a large peninsula at its northern end and I reasoned that if I could get round the point, the water beyond would be sheltered. The trouble was that the tide was flooding north as well and the water rushing past the headland was stirring up some very messy seas.

Ian’s makeshift cabin demonstrates that necessity is the mother of invention

By the time I realised my error, turning around in such big seas brought with it the real risk of being swamped and rolled. My usual confidence had abandoned me, replaced by a ‘want-my-mum’ plea for help. As she’s no longer with us, she wasn’t much use either.

I judged the best gap in the waves and went for it. I survived the turn but was now going directly into the wind. Waves crashed over the bow, completely covering the boat. Come on Furby, keep your s**t together and get out of here.

Forty minutes later, I was back at the very same anchorage I’d left 90 minutes earlier. I’d done a grand total of 9nm, used a shedload of fuel and taken a few years off my life. My oilskins – well, you’d be forgiven for thinking I’d swum back.

I was definitely staying put for the night now, so for the third time that day, I snuck in behind enemy lines, found a Burger King and sat on a quiet bench to eat my dinner and calm my shattered nerves before heading back to my boat, erecting my temporary cabin and crashing out exhausted.

Plenty of wildlife to see

Day 7: 16 June – Dún Laoghaire to Bangor, 100nm

I awoke at 4am to the sound of rain. My makeshift cabin had done its job; I was toasty and dry. The wind wasn’t due to shift for a couple of hours and the sea would take time to settle, so I tried going back to sleep.

It was no good; impatience got the better of me. At 5.30am I poked my head out. It was a bit wet but the wind had dropped and shifted to the west. I decided to leave as soon as I’d made ready.

Wrestling with the tarp and getting into my still damp oilies took a while but I was underway just before 7am. The headland I’d had such trouble rounding yesterday was dispatched at 18 knots and, as hoped, the sea flattened off nicely behind it. I was now pushing 22-25 knots. Game on.

The hours rumbled by and just after 1pm, I pulled into Bangor marina. I’d covered 102nm in six hours, including a 20-minute stop to refuel at sea from my jerrycans. I still had another 125nm to go to Oban, including crossing from Northern Ireland to Scotland where the sea can do all kinds of crazy things, but for the moment things were looking good.

A sublime Western Isles approach with Oban in sight

Bangor to Oban, 125nm

Pausing only to refill my fuel tanks, I set off once again and an hour later could see the Mull of Kintyre emerging on the other side of the Irish Sea. Rounding the north-east tip of Northern Ireland, I decided to go slightly back on myself to Ballycastle, partly to top up with fuel but mainly because I liked the name and had never been there before.

By now the tide had turned and was flooding north through the narrow 12nm channel separating Northern Ireland from Scotland. With the Atlantic rolling in from the west, these two fast flowing bodies of water were now trying to squeeze through the narrow gap.

Fortunately, there was no wind so all I had to deal with was a mass of swirling eddies. At times it looked like an enormous jacuzzi with mini whirlpools all over the place and a riot of waves as the currents rushed through at 10 knots or more.

I skirted round the edge of it and five minutes later, pulled into Ballycastle harbour. It turned out they didn’t sell petrol after all, despite Reeds Marina Guide assuring me they did. Fortunately, I had more than enough fuel to reach Oban and could at least now say I’d been to Ballycastle.

Turning tail, I legged it back towards Islay, running through Rathlin Sound and back into the eddies. Rather than take the most direct passage, where there was a whole world of liveliness, I steamed east-north-east towards Kintyre.

The eddies finally subsided as the two bodies of water began flowing north in unison, the same way I was heading. With a massive tide under me, I was making 28 knots at just 4,000rpm.

Enjoying some pleasant running

An hour and a half after leaving Ballycastle, I was coming up on the most easterly point of Jura, when a whale breached just 50ft feet in front of me. Whoa!

I throttled back to neutral and waited, phone ready. It was a minke, and a big one at that. According to Wikipedia, these beautiful creatures grow to 35ft. This one was at least twice the length of Summer Bouys (18ft) and swam slowly around and under the boat, looking directly at me with its big, soulful eyes.

At one point, its mouth rose up four feet out of the water, so close I could have touched it.

On another pass, it deliberately snorted through its blowhole for attention. At no point did I ever feel threatened, just blessed to share this time with such a graceful, intelligent creature.

A minke whale provided Ian with a magical communion with nature

After 20 minutes of this amazing interaction, I had to break up our budding relationship and get on my way. Time was marching on and I still had 50nm to run.

The next couple of hours were incredible. With the Paps of Jura to port and the mainland to starboard, the scenery was epic. I’ve been coming to the Western Isles for donkey’s years, sailing, diving and riding around on motorbikes.

It sounds a bit twee but I feel at home among the islands, and with the weather and sea still with me as I made my final approach up the Sound of Kerrera towards Oban, all was well with the world.

As Oban marina is actually on the north shore of Kerrera, I headed over to North Pier Pontoons in Oban itself just in time to see Dobbo walking up the quay. I’d travelled 235nm since leaving Dublin that morning, had an amazing day and arrived only 20 minutes after Dobbo’s train. What were the chances of that? I should have gone straight out and bought a lottery ticket. I’d enjoyed the last four days on my own but I was ready to share the rest of the adventure.

Oban’s ready to give up its curry-house secrets

Back on the boat, we cracked open a couple of beers before making our way to the B&B and on to a curry house. By 11.00pm we were tucked up in my first proper bed since leaving Harwich six days ago. Within seconds I was dead to the world, dreaming of whales and whirlpools.

Next month

Ian and Dobbo head north to the Outer Hebrides then around Cape Wrath to John o’ Groats and the Orkney Islands as they attempt to complete a 12-day circumnavigation of the UK in the four days remaining.

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