ISN’T it funny how, often in life, when something great is right on your doorstep, you don’t ever take the time to explore and enjoy it?
I have known about the Bantry Blueway since its inception in 2015 and as a fairweather kayaker, I had never married the two and taken a day to explore the route. However, given some of the fabulous weather August presented us with (pre-storm Ellen), it was almost a travesty not to get out and enjoy the water.
I made a few mistakes on my trip (which people can learn from), but I also got a lot right.
I set off from Bantry Abbey and struck straight for Bank House on Whiddy Island, with my goal being to do the Blueway in a clockwise direction from here.
The crossing was easy as the sea was calm and blue. Way out on the water, I could see a little sailboat darting in the breeze and about a dozen kayakers in rentals from Bantry Bay Boat hire, all having fun off-shore near the airfield. I kept on with my focus, to get to shore on Whiddy and then paddle along the length of the island towards the Blueway marker near Whiddy Point.
I passed Horse and Chapel Island where the mussel boats were working. Men in yellow oilskins out since dawn each day were carefully tending to the detailed aquaculture of maintaining the mussel lines that give Bantry Mussels its reputation as a renowned international supplier.
As I glided between their buoys, I could see the thick cords of rope going down deep into the water. It felt completely surreal.
Now I had crossed the open water, the wind had died down and the day was quieter in the space between the islands than it had been between the mainland and here. The voices and laughter which had been carried across the water from the kayakers had also faded away.
I started to hear birdsong from the shores of Whiddy and the sound of the tide lapping at the beach stones. An assortment of trees and bushes lined the shore and I saw a profusion of butterflies around the flowering woodbines.
I allowed my kayak to drift for a while in the shallows, resting my arms and listening to the sounds of nature all around me. It was such a rich, sensory experience. There were gulls above me and gills below me and I wondered why I didn’t do this more often.
The water was so clear that I could see tiny shoals of fish everywhere. It was like gliding over an enormous aquarium. The whoosh of kelp as my kayak brushed over it on my way through the shallows and the dip and splash of my paddle were the only sounds for miles.
As I neared the little stony beach, where the Blueway sign is, there was a herd of cattle cooling off in the shallows. They watched me in bemusement, like a welcoming committee, as I glided past.
Because I was drifting along with just the occasional paddle to steer my course, keeping me parallel to Whiddy’s shore, I made no approaching sound and was therefore rewarded with a beautiful sight of a family of mink — or maybe stoat, I am not expert enough to tell. There was an adult and three small ones playing on the sun-warmed stones. They were chasing and tussling each other with such agility they looked like fluid in black fur. They startled and disappeared when I accidentally banged my paddle against the kayak trying to get my camera out for a shot.
I pulled ashore for a rest and to admire the view at the Blueway marker near Whiddy Point. There, the floating bladderwrack looked like nature’s very own bubble wrap to make my landing as gentle as possible should I need it.
A cormorant was feeding nearby and as I watched it, I took out my own lunch that was packed in haste — a scone, a bag of skips (at least prawn flavour in keeping with the maritime theme of the day) and a bottle of water.
The setting was exquisite and I made a note that next time, my lunch here will be more fitting — like a gourmet salad and a glass of chardonnay. As I ate, a shoal of mullet, enormous and clearly visible in the shallow water, swirled all around my kayak and occasionally broke water so clearly in arcs of silver muscle, that I was sure one of them may accidentally beach themselves at my feet.
I set off again, and made a potentially serious mistake of adding an extra stretch to the paddle. As the day was so beautiful and I didn’t want it to end so soon, instead of following the marker from Whiddy to Reenbeg Point, which would have been a 45 minute kayak across open water in itself, I stuck with the Whiddy Shore until the point and then struck out across the open channel towards Eagle Point Camping Site, which I could see in the far distance. I would strongly advise paddlers not to tailor the route for themselves but instead to stick to the waymarkers.
As my kayak rounded the point and got into the channel, I could feel a different tempo immediately. Unsheltered by Whiddy, the water got choppy, the wind picked up and little whitecaps whipped all around me.
I know the channel drops to more than 18m in depth here and dolphins are known to love frisking about in this stretch of water. It certainly had a wilder feel and for dramatic effect, the sun ducked behind a cloud, turning the water an inky dark colour and I felt a little startled. I tested my mettle by keeping my course. A lone yacht whipped by, sails bulging, heading towards Glengarriff with the purple haze of Hungry Hill in the background.
As I paddled, I realised that the distance was deceptively longer than I had originally thought but I kept going, powered by determination and a squirt of adrenalin, and crossed the channel. To my left was Ardnagashel and I thought of the remarkable Ellen Hutchins, Ireland’s first female botanist, who lived here in the 1800s. A festival dedicated to her happens each August in Bantry.
Once I had crossed the channel, I hugged the coast all way back towards Bantry Harbour.
I paddled past Reendongean lake where the rowing club meet, past the golf course where I saw three men playing some holes overlooking the sea, and realised that it must have one of the best views of any golf club in the county.
I paddled past the inlet that leads up towards Donemark Falls, which is accessible by kayak at high tide and where folklore claims the first foot was planted on Irish soil in around 2680BC.
Then I rounded Bantry Cove and the lovely seaside walk of the Beicín came into view. I saw all different types of people enjoying the amenity, from a toddler wobbling along on his bicycle with just one training wheel on for stability, to an elderly lady and her four legged companion.
Passing the old Railway Pier, the new marina and Bantry pier, I paddled through all the yachts moored in the inner harbour until iconic Bantry House came into view. The house looks resplendent from the vantage point of the water and I make a note to visit the gardens again once I am back on terra firma.
I paddled past a boat of tremendous national importance, the Unité, which represents Ireland in the bi-annual International Atlantic Challenge, and on whom all other boats in the contest are modelled. Known as the ‘Bantry Boats’, they are modelled on the Admiral’s Gig left behind after the unsuccessful French invasion of Bantry Bay in 1796.
The Unité is 38ft long and powered by three masts and 10 oars. Proudly, her crew, which represent Ireland, are all local to Bantry and are a fantastic representation of local youth. They can often be seen training out on the bay and their teamwork and sense of camaraderie is palpable. The team were due to compete in Russia this summer, but the event has been postponed to 2021 due to Covid-19.
I give a captain’s salute to Unité as I pass and continue on my way to my finishing point as a light aircraft flies overhead, dropping in altitude as it prepares to land on the Bantry Airfield, a mere strip of Tarmac beside the sea. Not for the first time during this paddle, I thought it must be the best view ever for a runway, a golf course, a stately country home, a burial ground, a kayak.
Bantry Bay is certainly rich beyond measure in both cultural and natural heritage and begs to be explored.
The Blueway consists of three routes ranging from beginners to experienced. For more details and to download a route map, visit www.bantrybayport.com