Derry to Galway on Celtic Mist

23rd Jul 2018

by Alexandra McInturf

On Monday, July 16th, Celtic Mist floated among the many clippers docked in Lough Foyle, all of which were adorned with colourful flags in the spirit of the local maritime festival. The ship itself would be recognizable to those familiar with the IWDG; however, the same could not be said for her new crew.

Fresh from her expedition in Iceland, Celtic Mist was prepared for sailing down the west coast of Ireland from Derry/Londonderry to Galway. During the six days of the voyage, she would be in the capable hands of Patrick Hartigan and Noel Bright, both experienced skippers and first-mates with the IWDG. What was fairly unusual about this trip was the rest of the group onboard. Aside from Patrick and Noel, our average age was 21. Among the five of us, our sailing experience was limited at best (though for most, non-existent). However, as university and post-graduate students studying primarily marine science, we’d jumped at this unique opportunity to join the sighting effort of the group.

We arrived on Monday evening to finish some last-minute preparations. These included making quite a scene walking our filled (and temporarily borrowed) Sainsbury’s shopping carts through the crowded festival to the ship. After a night onboard, we left Lough Foyle on Tuesday morning (July 17th) with the ebb tide. As we approached the mouth of the Foyle, two fully mature bottlenose dolphins joined us for a bout of bow-riding, swimming parallel to the ship and performing synchronized leaps out of the water. Their backs were tattooed with light scars, for reasons we can only guess. Our afternoon’s task was to round the Inishowen peninsula to spend the evening in Lough Swilly, and our challenge was to take on the swells at Malin Head. Not all stomachs survived, and by the time we arrived at our mooring near Portsalon, almost all of the new young sailors had become acquainted with the buckets we had on deck (including one that unfortunately featured a gaping hole in the bottom). Nonetheless, we considered the dolphins from the morning as a good omen, and we went to bed with high expectations for the rest of the trip.

 

As the sun rose Wednesday morning (July 18th), the calm waters of the Swilly mirrored the pink sky, and near Fanad Head lighthouse we searched for signs of basking sharks. The sharks have been periodically sighted between Fanad Head and Malin Head during the late summer months, likely as they migrate down from Scotland to feed on zooplankton blooms here. Not a fin broke the surface, even though conditions seemed promising: calm with a bit of sunlight. After the overcast sky and gusts of wind from the day before, however, we optimistically took advantage of the nice weather to continue searching for a spout or fluke as we made our way down the coast. We spotted a small pod of common dolphins breaching (i.e. leaping) in the distance around mid-morning, easily distinguishable from the bottlenose with their smaller size and the yellow-white patterning on their ventral and lateral sides. By the afternoon we had also found that, though sceptical as scientists by nature, we are not immune to false alarms; however, we thought we saw a large shape resembling the back of a small whale at one point, travelling along the coastline.

Though better adapted to life at sea after the day’s calmer conditions, we arrived in Arranmore in the early evening and immediately went ashore to go “exploring” as much as one can on a single main street. We didn’t stay long before returning to dinner and sea-shanties on the boat. This was probably for the best because after even just two days at sea, balancing on land can be challenging, and as most were inexperienced sailors already, we certainly didn’t need any additional injuries. As we were soon to find out, we would need literally all hands on deck for the remainder of our trip.

There were a few key lessons that we, as the young explorers, learned during this expedition. First, days at sea are not always defined by a certain number of hours or the cycle of the sun. Second, land is not always safer than water. Third, there is no such thing as a conventional bed on a ship; at a certain point the deck becomes just as appealing as your berth down below. This curriculum dictated our next two days.Thursday morning (July 19th) began blustery and gray, the swells preventing those of us who could even brave the bow from observing any wildlife. We periodically read and slept for much of the afternoon as winds increased to over 20 knots. The ship rocked side to side, battered by swells, and we decided to turn towards shore by 17:00 rather than try to make it to our next destination: Broadhaven. A few hours after changing course, however, it became apparent that the descending fog, rain and wind would render anchoring near land impossible – it was safer to remain at sea and try to sail through to Broadhaven, which we estimated we would reach in the early hours of the morning. Most of us retreated to the cabin to stay dry, sleeping off the threat of seasickness while Pat and Noel braved the weather at the helm. Unfortunately, at midnight, we realized that Broadhaven was perhaps even more dangerous to approach in the dark.

At this point we decided to continue through the night until the next planned stop, the island of Inishbofin. It was another 12 hours away, 5 of which would be in the dark. We set up the night watch with each junior crew member awake for a two-hour period to accompany either Pat or Noel. Others slept in the main cabin or, if their stomachs allowed, in the bunks below. By late Friday morning (July 20th), the winds had finally died just as we approached our destination. The swells had calmed and we moved slowly into the harbour. There was a general air of quiet, as if even the ship were exhausted. But Inishbofin, unlike our other stops, offered a pub with warm food, a full shop, and something even more tantalizing: showers.

 

We returned to Celtic Mist that evening with bellies full, smelling of Inis perfume and shampoo. But we had one last task before crawling into our bunks for a peaceful night of much needed rest. One of our crew members, Austin, had somehow turned 23 at some point during the chaos of the previous 24 hours, so we celebrated with chocolate, biscuits, and paper airplanes as the sun went down.

Saturday (July 21st) was to be our last full day onboard before we arrived at Galway on Sunday. We awoke fully rested and rejuvenated. Our focus was back to the task at hand: whalewatching. The water was finally calm, though the sky a bit overcast. Fins, flukes, and spouts would be easy to spot. We passed the time scanning the horizon from the bow, while others sang and played ukulele at the stern. Some cetaceans must have enjoyed the music, as we were approached by pods of leaping common dolphins throughout the afternoon. No whales had yet to be seen as the Aran Islands emerged from the distance. But as it turns out, whales have impeccable timing.

At around 16:00, the strong, constant hum of the engine went silent. We heard only the sails flapping in the wind. Despite the best efforts of Pat and Noel, our engine could not be resuscitated. We were close enough to land that we didn’t panic, especially with the sails guiding us toward shore. For the next few hours, our biggest threats were the ferry boats that crossed across our navigation screen, directly in our path. Of course, that was when we heard that shout: “Whale! There’s a whale!” Indeed, though we’d spent all day searching along the continental shelf, a minke whale had decided to reveal itself among the ferry boats just 2 miles south of civilisation (Rossaveel, to be exact).

We were towed to the nearest pier as the fog settled in and the sun descended on our final evening at sea. The engine fixed, we would finish our mission in Galway, though not before spotting yet another minke whale swimming amongst the boat traffic outside of Galway harbour (who needs a continental shelf?). For the young members of the crew, this was an adventure we wouldn’t soon forget. As the saying goes, it’s the process of searching, not necessarily what you find, that teaches you the most about yourself. That’s a life lesson we learned in the most literal way, but our journey was undoubtedly a critical first step in forming in a lifelong relationship with the sea. As we said good-bye, we assured Pat and Noel that we would certainly want to join the crew again. Of course, this was after our feet were firmly on dry land. 

 

Alexandra McInturf is a PhD candidate affiliated with the University of California, Davis and Queen’s University in Belfast. She is in her second year of conducting research on the basking sharks at Malin Head with the Irish Basking Shark Study Group. This was her first expedition with the IWDG (and she certainly hopes it won’t be her last!). If you’d like more information on my research: alexandramcinturf.squarespace.com

it’s the process of searching, not necessarily what you find, that teaches you the most about yourself