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The Quinlan-Owens family of Kinvara are expected home in Galway Bay within the next day or so with their 39ft steel ketch Danu of Galway, a 1993-built ocean voyager which Marine Institute scientist Vera Quinlan and her husband Peter Owens brought up to superb seagoing condition to take their two children Lillian and Ruairi on a 15-month dream cruise circuiting the North Atlantic.

They departed from Ireland in June 2019, and all was going to plan with the sailing paradise of the Caribbean reached by the New Year (after spending Christmas in the highly unusual setting of a remote jungle river in Guyana) when the remorseless spread of COVID-19 started to impact on the plans for the second half of their voyage. In the end they managed to get themselves well located in Antigua for an exit via the eastbound Transatlantic hop to the Azores, and while the ocean crossing was a frustrating business with more than their fair share of headwinds and calms, they arrived at Horta in the Azores just as those welcoming Portuguese islands were leading the world in emerging from the Pandemic.

In fact, so fortuitously had they timed their arrival in Horta that Danu was the first visiting cruising yacht to be certified COVID-free and entitled to cruise at will in that loveliest of archipelagos. The precious few weeks of cruising in the Azores have done much to offset the frustrations of the later period in the Caribbean. But they knew that in due course they’d have to prepare themselves for the 1,100 mile passage home to Galway, knowing that the further north they got, the more restless would be the Atlantic, while temperatures would plummet.

But Danu has ploughed on through those increasingly cold and restless seas, and as of 10.32 GMT today (Tuesday) she was 110 miles west of the Blasket Islands, and making five knots on course for home.

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The Cruising Association of Ireland was back on the water last weekend with a cruise around the Kish Bank Light on Dublin Bay and onwards to the Royal Irish Yacht Club at Dun Laoghaire Harbour.

Seven yachts rounded the Kish of which five lay alongside the Royal Irish overnight, sailing back to Howth, Malahide and Carlingford the next day.

This was the first outing in ten months for the association but the summer is far from over, according to CAI Honorary Secretary John Leahy, and the cruising group has several events planned including a cruise to Belfast Lough as Afloat previously reported here. Further events include the Liffey Rally on September 19/20.

At the Kish Light on Dublin BayAt the Kish Light on Dublin Bay

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The pressures of assembling an ocean-going crew on-line in the highly-constrained times of Coronavirus may have been a factor in experienced Arctic voyager Nick Kats’ decision to cut short what would have been his third cruise from Ireland to East Greenland in his 39ft steel ketch Teddy. Having left Clifden last week, Teddy was making reasonably good progress in the Atlantic and was approaching the halfway stage to Iceland, but the skipper – who has overcome deafness from birth to make some extraordinary voyages – had the feeling that things weren’t working out to create a sufficiently experienced seagoing team among his three new shipmates.

Over the years, he has drawn on the experience and teachability of a total of 35 widely-varied crewmates for long voyages, recruiting them through the Internet. But that was in periods of less pressure, and without limitations on the ports he could visit. However, during this past week, while sailing north, he has reckoned there was insufficient time and space available to have a properly seaworthy setup in place as Teddy sailed into the really demanding seas and weather of the high latitudes.

So the decision was taken to head back, stopping for a rest at St Kilda, and then heading on for an Irish port at Tory island so that the crew could disperse in an amicable fashion. “They were very disappointed but were graceful about it, and we parted on decent terms” the American skipper messaged to “These are three great people, and I hope to stay in contact with them. Getting solid crew is the hardest part of my trips. I had not met any of them before, but that has been the case with most of the 35 total that I’ve taken on my trips. Which isn’t ideal but it is reality, yet in this case it just wasn’t to be.”

Nick KatsNick Kats decided with a heavy heart that this was the voyage that he had to curtail

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The uniquely compact boats of Ireland’s characterful Drascombe fleet have their own way of doing things. Encouraged by their easily-lowered rigs and extra-shoal-draft-with-centreboard versatility, they’re well able to explore little-known harbours and winding waterways where bridges or overhanging trees might make cruising impossible for more orthodox craft.

Yet they’re also deservedly renowned as able sea boats. Here in Ireland, at least one has made the circuit cruise, with the young Ogden brothers from Baltimore getting round in their Drascombe Lugger in 2015, while others have been to the Outer Hebrides. And of course the American Webb Chiles saw no reason why he shouldn’t sail across the Pacific in a Drascombe, and did so, and subsequently, he has sailed round much of the world using several of these distinctive little craft.

So it’s entirely in keeping with their able boats and individualistic approach that the Irish Drascombe Association should see the history-laden links of the 12th July 2020 - the 330th Anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne - as providing the ideal occasion to hold a Boyne Rally using the cruising potential of the partially restored Boyne Navigation, with the fleet made up from the north and the south of Ireland for a cruise-in-company involving sea passages and river transits.

Drascombes from  north and south anchored at Staleen on the Boyne NavigationPeaceful invasion. Drascombes from north and south anchored at Staleen on the Boyne Navigation on the morning of Sunday, July 12th, 330th Anniversary of the battle of the Boyne. Photo: Jack O’Keeffe

As is expected with the 12th July and the days around it, many flags were flown by a fleet of eleven Drascombes (five from the north and six from the south) along the Boyne water. But it was all in a spirit of the warmest friendship and a shared enthusiasm for special boats and the unique exploration opportunities they provide, with a potentially complex six-day programme involving distant launching points and coastal passage-making, with a growing fleet and stopover ports towards the Boyne.

small boat cruising enthusiast Jack O’KeeffeThe man to find any coast’s hidden places – small boat cruising enthusiast Jack O’Keeffe. Photo: W M Nixon

It was smoothed out by John White from the north shore of Carlingford Lough for the northern division, who launched on the afternoon of Wednesday, July 8th at Greencastle at the entrance to Carlingford Lough, and Jack O’Keeffe of Cork, whose group from the south had their most southerly launch point at Skerries. Others from north and south launched at Port Oriel at Clogherhead where the total fleet was finally assembled on the evening of Friday, July 10th, with those who’d sailed there reporting a variety of seagoing experiences.

The northern group had stopped at Gyles Quay under the Cooley Mountains and enthused about the extraordinary selection of bird-song to be heard in wildfowl-rich Dundalk Bay, while those from the south had seen the most exploration by Jack O’Keeffe, whose passage northward had included a brief diversion up the shallow River Nanny at Laytown, “the only harbour in all County Meath”, which is just the kind of thing you do with a Drascombe.

Drascombe Boyne Cruise as approached from the south at SkerriesThe Drascombe Boyne Cruise as approached from the south at Skerries. Jack O’Keeffe from Cork took his own sea road less travelled – he diverted briefly into the River Nanny on the coast east of Julianstown, where Laytown is “the only harbour in all County Meath”

Port Oriel provided the opportunity to liaise with Sean Flanagan of the RNLI whose local knowledge was invaluable, and then Saturday morning saw the combined fleet sail south round Clogher Head, and into a first river stop in the Boyne estuary at Mornington to see how helpful advice from Drogheda Harbour Master Martin Donnelly helped shape their plans for the day.,

With low water there at 1045, the tide was soon flooding up the history-laden waterway into the heart of Ireland past Drogheda, where the best berth for Drascombes was at anchor off the Coast Guard slip. There, they were made welcome by the Coast Guards, and some took the opportunity to explore the nearest parts of an ancient port city which at one time rivalled and even exceeded the seaborn trade going through Dublin.

Knowing they’d need to lower masts to negotiate bridges on the next stage upstream, some simply did it at anchor in a neat demonstration of Drascombe convenience, while others did it at a handy berth alongside a dredger, and then there were good wishes from the shore and from above from spectators as they negotiated the bridges to reach the sea lock into the Boyne Navigation 2.5 miles upriver of the Coast Guard slip.

Queuing to get through the sea lock at IdebridgeQueuing to get through the sea lock at Idebridge. Photo: Myrrthin James

The members of the Boyne Branch of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland have been restoring their bit of navigable water for some time now, but as it’s an outlier which does not connect with the main waterways system, it has often been a lonely struggle. The Covid Lockdown had not helped in having the locks in full working order, but as the Drascombe Weekend approached, they put in a heroic effort led by Stephen Early, who was helped on the day by the Boyne IWAI’s Anne Gregory, Willie O’Donnell and Fiachra de Reoise to make sure everything was functioning and undergrowth cleared along this well-wooded waterway.

IWAI Boyne branch members (left to right) Anne Gregory, Stephen Early, Willie O’Donnell and Fiachra de ReoiseWilling helpers – IWAI Boyne branch members (left to right) Anne Gregory, Stephen Early, Willie O’Donnell and Fiachra de Reoise put in much effort to ensure the way was clear for the Drascombe fleet. Photo: Jack O’Keeffe

Trevor Williams brings his Drascombe through the magic green tunnel. Trevor Williams brings his Drascombe through the magic green tunnel. Tree growth is so lush and rapid along the Boyne that maintaining air draft can be an even bigger challenge than retaining channel depth. Photo: Myrrthin James

As a result, a milestone was smoothly passed with the Drascombes providing the largest number of boats to transit the restored lock at once, in fact numbers were such that it had to be done in two batches of six each. Once through and above the salt water, they were into such a different world, with trees and meadowland and rural aromas, that it was difficult to remember that only that morning they’d been in been in sea-dominated, fishing-boat-flavoured Port Oriel.

Staleen anchorageNot even a hint of salt water – quiet spot for the night at Staleen. Photo Jack O’Keeffe

And the transformation was made even more complete by their overnight fleet stop at Staleen which was total country – kingfishers and other waterfowl, quietly evocative rural sounds, atmospheric sunset, and everyone dining on board their little boats in a shared mood of bliss.

dawn chorus greets the misty sunrise and Drascombes asleep in the Boyne NavigationThe dawn chorus greets the misty sunrise and Drascombes asleep in the Boyne Navigation on the morning of Sunday July 12th 2020, the 330th Anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne. Photo: Jack O’Keeffe

Morning came early on their central target date of Sunday12th July, with the dawn chorus at full strength by 0500 hrs as the sun emerged through the mist. It was a busy day with a morning stroll along the Boyne Footpath to meet Claidbh Gibney at the Boyne Currach centre with its fascinating demonstration of ancient boat-building, with the bonus of his encyclopaedic knowledge of much local coastal and river lore.

This included an enthusiastic outline of the “lost” medieval harbour of St Denis close west of Port Oriel, which resulted in a typically easily-made Drascombe change of plan, as they agreed they’d spend that last night at St Denis rather than Port Oriel, persuaded by Claidbh by his assurance that he’d be there to guide them in.

But there was much to be done before they reached that mysterious place, for by lunchtime they’d made their way along the short haul on the waterway to Oldbridge and the gardens of the Battle of the Boyne centre, where the arrival of a mini-fleet proudly displaying flags of north and south in a spirit of warm friendship on the 12th July really was something very special indeed, even if the Covid-restrictions mean that Oldbridge House itself is closed until July 20th.

The layby at the Turf Lock for a handy berth to visit Oldbridge House at the site of the Battle of the BoyneThe Drascombes used the layby at the Turf Lock for a handy berth to visit Oldbridge House at the site of the Battle of the Boyne on July 12th. As it happens, with Oldbridge House itself closed because of COVID-19, this friendly little fleet provided the only show in town on the 330th Anniversary of the history-changing battle. Photo: Jack O’Keeffe

In fact, this meant that the Drascombes – who are more accustomed to doing their own thing quietly under the radar – were akin to being the main event at the site on the 330th Anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne on July 12th 2020. But they took it in their stride with the usual mixture of banter and boat talk which soon took on an extra purpose as the turn of the tide was approaching, so it was back to seafaring business as they headed down through the sea lock with their two transits, and then with a fine fair ebb, made short work of negotiating Drogheda’s bridges and the lengthy stretch along the estuary to Mornington, accompanied all the way by the folk from Boyne IWAI and the Boyne Currach centre.

The route taken from far inland on the Boyne to the ancient “forgotten” harbour of St Denis west of Port OrielThe route taken from far inland on the Boyne to the ancient “forgotten” harbour of St Denis west of Port Oriel

Mornington was a hive of activity afloat with boats being made ready for sea, as the introduction of the ultra-ancient harbour of St Denis into their cruise-in-company plan gave an added urgency. But by 1800 hrs they were emerging on time into the Irish Sea at Boyne Mouth, and a crisp two hour passage northward around rugged little Clogher Head took them past Port Oriel and on towards that barely-visible indentation of the coast where the remains of the medieval harbour that used to serve the sacred St Denis’s Well were to be found.

Claidhbh (Clive) Gibney was there, ready on the shore to guide them in, his readiness and enthusiasm being such that he promptly waded in chest deep to make sure they found the channel, and then provided the additional service of “walking the seabed” where each boat chose to anchor to ensure that they wouldn’t be settling on a boulder at low water.

Low water in the ancient harbour of St Denis Late on a summer’s evening at low water in the ancient harbour of St Denis. Thanks to Claidhbh Gibney of the Boyne Currach Centre “walking the seabed” for the fleet while chest deep in the sea, all settled comfortably into a drying berth free of boulders. Photo: Pat Jones

This was purest Drascombe territory. An elusive wraith of a forgotten port being brought briefly back to life for the fleet’s last overnight together, with few if any lights visible from the nearby shore as the summer night closed in. Yet again, there was enormous effort needed to realise that their day had started in a very different place, deep in the heart of the country as the dawn chorus grew in strength over the mists of the Boyne on the anniversary of the history-changing battle.

Teatime at St Denis Harbour“Teatime at St Denis Harbour” – on the last night together in this memorable miniature Cruise-in-Company, it was a time for reflection and friendship. Photo: Myrrthin James

Their final morning together provided the time for an exploration of the remains of the forgotten St-Denis harbour’s walls before the new tide floated them off and the fleet dispersed – some north to Carlingford and Greencastle, and others swiftly south towards Skerries along the now-familiar coast of County Louth, all making good progress – whether headed north or south – in a healthy west wind off the land – “off the grass” as the crewmen in Irish Lights fondly describe it – to find their road trailers and the way home.

By Tuesday night, all were safely back in their home ports, which in many cases means on the road trailer in the front drive. Yet as the Boyne 12th July Long Weekend had well shown, if it’s a Drascombe on that trailer, your home port will give ready access to some truly intriguing cruising grounds very remote indeed from modern suburbia.

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The Cruising Association of Ireland says there is a lot of interest being shown in their first event of the season which is a sail around the Kish Bank at the entrance to Dublin Bay in a Cruise-in-Company on 25th July.

A gathering of boats at the Kish lighthouse will arrive mainly from locations on the east coast of Ireland.

From the Kish, the members will sail to Dun Laoghaire Harbour. There, they will join the Royal Irish Yacht Club for their BBQ to which they have kindly invited the CAI. The meeting of boats at the Kish is planned for 14:00hrs to be followed by the RIYC BBQ starting at 16:00hrs. Some boats may layover in Dun Laoghaire while others will have time to sail home before dusk.

Summer cruise to Belfast

The CAI had planned a summer cruise to Scotland in June, but this has been replaced by a cruise to the loughs of Carlingford and Belfast. The itinerary will include three primary locations, namely, Malahide, Carlingford and Bangor where the catering and social arrangements have been prepared in advance. In between the primary locations, boats may free sail, visiting places like Ardglass, Portaferry, Belfast, Carrickfergus and more. As Afloat previously reported, the cruise will be from the 12th to 23rd August.

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It is just over three years since the Cruising Association of Ireland fleet visited Belfast Lough. And now another trip north is planned for the middle week of August. The CAI has managed to keep active through the COVID 19 Lockdown with virtual meetings and online talks, during which time the membership has satisfyingly increased by 10%, including several new members from the North.

Commodore Vincent Lundy said “It has been an incredibly difficult year for us all but the bottom line is that we need to go cruising. Needless to say, we are bound to remain compliant with all restrictions imposed and these same conditions will dictate the levels of social interaction for the safety of our membership. Indeed is our duty to do so”.

This year the cruise-in-company is based around key locations where a greater number of boats may be accommodated within the safety of a marina able to berth reasonable numbers.

After a muster in Malahide on 12th August, the fleet will head north to Carlingford Lough, that spectacular fiord like stretch of water with the Mourne Mountains on the north and the Cooley Mountains to the south. Then on north to Belfast Harbour Marina, right in the centre of the city close to Titanic Belfast, followed by the option of moving on to the historic town of Carrickfergus with its Norman castle or heading east down the Lough to Bangor. From 21st August its free sailing home with the possibility of a visit to another fiord like sea inlet, the island-studded Strangford Lough.

The catering arrangements at each location is under continual review with respect to the current COVID guidelines

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When long-distance American sailor Nick Kats – now 62 - arrived into Clifden in far west Connemara nearly ten years ago with his 39ft steel Bermudan ketch Teddy, it started a fascinating new chapter in an already interesting life. For although his vocational training had turned him into a skilled carpenter and shipwright, his aptitude was as a sailor, he was also a doctor specialising in natural medicines, and in the exceptionally-varied environment of this part of Ireland’s always fascinating Atlantic seaboard, he was to find an area rich in possibilities, and his lifelong interest in foraging acquired new dimensions.

Nick Kats, this will be his third voyage to East GreenlandMany of many parts – for Nick Kats, this will be his third voyage to East Greenland

So although since 2012 he has had a longterm plan of sailing back to his home territory in the US’s Pacific northwest - ideally by using the Northwest Passage – events and changing circumstances have managed to prevent it, or at least put it on a very long finger. Certainly, he has made exploratory voyages to the High Arctic. But as often as not, he seems to have intentionally ended up well east of Greenland’s southern tip of Cape Farewell, way up around Iceland and Jan Mayen and East Greenland, and then Teddy invariably returns to her familiar winter berth, comfortably drying out at low water against the picturesque quayside in Clifden.

Teddy (centre) at Clifden Quay Teddy (centre) at Clifden Quay in the early days – there has been some building done beside her berth since this photo was taken

Apart from becoming part of the Clifden and west Connemara community, where he now has a shore base with a house set deep in that Land of the Sea, Nick Kats was already in several communications groupings when he arrived thanks to his eclectic range of interests, while he is also in a very special group of sailors in being deaf. Thus internet communications are a Godsend for him in recruiting crew, and the blogs by himself and various crewfolk hint at the diversity of characters that the wanderings of Teddy attract, such as Pierre the French chef who came aboard with rumours of experience in some very famous kitchens.

Nick Kats in Teddy’s comfortable saloonThe Master Forager in his den – Nick Kats in Teddy’s comfortable saloon with some interesting ingredients to hand

He’d been met through Hegarty’s boatyard at Oldcourt where he’d been working as a boatbuilder with Liam Hegarty, the restorer of Ilen among many other major projects. Yet somehow Pierre managed to spend a long period sailing on Teddy without cooking a single meal. But as Nick can rustle up superb food, occasionally from some unlikely ingredients, that was no problem.

We learn of this from crewman Josh, a New Zealander who claims with some pride to have no fixed abode, who tells also how they all get along with Nick’s virtually total deafness since his birth in France 62 years ago. It seems they simply take it for granted or forget about it as time passes, learning to face him fully when talking in daylight, while at night there’s something resembling telepathy to keep things moving along.

Teddy is the epitome of the ocean voyagerAt her own pace, in her own time – Teddy is the epitome of the ocean voyager. Photo: Kenneth Whelan

Not that Teddy is an excessively labour-intensive boat, as she is one of those rare but wonderful craft which can easily be made to steer herself on most points of sailing. Designed and built in steel as one of two in 1988 by Arne Hedlund of Denmark, her design certainly gives a nod to Colin Archer. But she’s very much her own boat, with a transom stern which provides valuable cockpit and deck space right aft, where a classic canoe-sterned Redningsskoyte design from Archer tends to be distinctly cramped.

The ocean dream – Teddy self-sailing while dolphins play around the forefootThe ocean dream – Teddy self-sailing while dolphins play around the forefoot

In fact, Teddy is a boat of moderation in everything, being neither too wide nor too narrow, neither too heavy nor too light, with as much accommodation as can reasonably be fitted without reaching sardine-can territory. Her hull balances easily, and having a ketch rig increases the options for sail combinations to minimize helm load while still providing driving power such that – like Slocum’s Spray – once set in the grove, she just goes effortlessly on steering herself for miles and miles, the ease of it all shortening the apparent distance.

Nick Kats’ pleasure in all this is such that, although he was in East Greenland waters as recently as last year, yesterday (Monday) Teddy departed from the comfort of Clifden, outward bound for his third visit to that remote area beyond Iceland, over towards Greenland, and up to Jan Mayen. There, the ice cover is certainly much less than it was when Lord Dufferin made his pioneering high latitude cruise with the schooner Foam in 1856, as a result of which the charts of that rugged and remote island still show a small cove named Clandeboye Creek on the eastern shore, far indeed from the luxuriant ‘Gold Coast’ of North Down where Dufferin’s ancestral lands were centred around Clandeboye House.

Beerenberg on Jan Mayen Beerenberg on Jan Mayen as seen from Teddy in today’s conditions, above an ice-free sea. Photo: Alex Hissting

Beerenberg suddenly appears through a gap in the clouds above the fog and the ice around Lord Dufferin’s Foam (lower left) in 1856 Beerenberg suddenly appears through a gap in the clouds above the fog and the ice around Lord Dufferin’s Foam (lower left) in 1856

Teddy’s current voyage is limited only by the fact that two of the crew – Dutch finance student Arjan Leuw (24) and Italian architect Piero Favero (33) - have flights booked out of Iceland on 6th September, following which Nick and remaining Irish crewman Aodh O Duinn (29, and a veteran of tall ships) expect to head for home and Clifden double-handed.

But just what some of the remote ports and settlements that they expect to visit will make of a boat coming in from far beyond the seas in this time of COVID-19 remains to be seen. As things are, it is quite an achievement to have assembled an international crew and get free to voyage towards distant horizons and remote snow-covered peaks.

Meanwhile, there is much busy research currently under way among various cruising and long-distance organisations as to just what is or is not possible in the Arctic, where we instinctively feel that the disease will not be so rampant, thanks to sparseness of population and the purity of air.

Northwest Iceland as seen from Teddy last year.Will it be as fresh and healthy as it looks? Northwest Iceland as seen from Teddy last year

Whether or not that is the case is a moot point. As it is, we cannot help but notice that, through the month of June, many frustrated Irish sailors were sustained by the wonderful thought of the one-armed voyager Garry Crothers successfully battling alone across 3,500 miles of the Atlantic in order to get home to Derry.

And now, the mantle of our sailing dreams has been taken over by a highly individualistic owner-skipper who has not let profound deafness limit his joy in voyaging and savouring the special nature of the High Arctic cruising grounds. Our thoughts are with the crew of the Teddy, and thanks to Damian Ward of Clifden Boat Club, we have this drone footage of the ketch taking her low-key departure from Clifden Quay, and heading out for other places beyond the northern seas.

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Garry Crothers (64), of Lough Swilly Yacht Club and Foyle Sailability, was making good progress this (Monday) morning, with a speed of 6.6 knots in the right direction on his Ovni 435 Kind of Blue, taking steady chunks out of the 500 miles which now remain between the one-armed solo sailor and his home port of Derry.

Having been left marooned and alone in the Dutch island of Sint Maarten after the coronavirus-cancellation of scheduled flights which were to bring his daughter Amy and regular shipmate Ken Curry out to help him sail home to Lough Foyle, he was faced with either shutting down in isolation for an indefinite period in the island - a hazardous proposition as his age makes him high risk in relation to the pandemic – or else making the mighty effort to sail home alone. This was despite his one-armed status as a result of a motorbike accident in 2007, and it would involve lone voyaging all the way from the sub-tropical Caribbean to the still distinctly chilly and stormy North Atlantic in the approaches to northwest Ireland.

Having departed on June 1st, his progress was closely monitored through the Ocean Cruising Club’s routing and tracking service being provided by OCC Vice Commodore Daria Blackwell and her husband, Rear Commodore Alex Blackwell, from their base at Port Aleria on Clew Bay in Mayo.

As well, his many friends in Lough Swilly YC and Foyle Sailability have been ready with advice on technical backup when any problems arise, the most recent being a day ago as Kind of Blue reached the edge of the unseasonably cold weather which we in Ireland have been feeling acutely. The Eberspacher heater wouldn’t start, but Ken Curry was immediately in touch with heater ace Cian McAllister on Foyleside, and Garry being no slouch on technical matters himself, they soon had welcome warmth filling the boat.

Garry Crothers’ Ovni 435 Kind of Blue on Lough FoyleHome waters. Garry Crothers’ Ovni 435 Kind of Blue on Lough Foyle. Photo: Peter Fallon

Yesterday the forecasts for the final approaches to Donegal were so bad for later this week that Garry for a while was contemplating making his final approach around the east of Ireland. But fortunately, the meteorological expectations are looking slightly more optimistic now, and while it isn’t going to be summery by any means, Plan A of coming in past Tory Island and Malin Head is back in place.

It’s a heroic feat of sailing which can be followed here on the OCC Tracking system here

An overview of the system reveals the number of ocean-voyaging boats which Daria and Alex Blackwell have been monitoring and helping for the past two months and more with a supportive dedication which made them our popular “Sailors of the Month” for May. Several of them are Irish boats which were heading for sanctuary in either the Azores or back home in Ireland, on voyages which became increasingly urgent as the COVID-19 Pandemic took hold in Central America, the Caribbean and the southern states of the US on such a scale that restrictions and potential infection could be in place for many months.

People go off on long ocean cruises and the live-aboard life for many reasons, but if asked to sum up why they pursue their carefree nomadic existence with such dedication and enthusiasm, they’ll say they do it to “get away from it all”.

By “all” they mean modern life in its most demanding and disagreeable forms of crowded schedules and busy cities and traffic jams, with the noise and being stuck in the grimy day-to-day rut – the lot, in fact. Yet the irony is that in order to achieve the cruising dream, the complete structure of the modern world has to be in place to make it possible. In other words, you can’t get away from it all, unless “all” is always there, and fully functional in the first place.

dream anchorage on an exotic islandGetting away from it all? Being securely anchored in a dream anchorage on an exotic island is usually ultimately dependent on the smooth functioning of global communication, health and travel systems

So although most people regard the sometimes difficult experience of modern air travel as a mixed blessing, the remote ocean cruisers rely on a worldwide airline network in order to effect occasional crew changes, and sometimes get themselves home to handle the inevitable extended family situations which arise from time to time.

Then too, like many others while they abhor the incessant babble of 24/7 communication, most of them prove to be remarkably sophisticated in using some very advanced communication systems to keep in touch when they want, which is at a time of their choosing. And equally, they rely on an advanced society ashore which will provide them with accurate weather predictions and competent technical services when they come into port, when they will of course immediately plug into shore power in order to keep their multiple on-board systems functioning.

Alex and Daria Blackwell of the Ocean Cruising ClubThe Good Shepherds – Alex and Daria Blackwell of the Ocean Cruising Club

In other words, when the going is good, they’re getting the best of both worlds, slotting into the nearest outlet of a modern society for complex services when required, and then freely sailing away to some palm-fringed lagoon when the need for escapism and the “simple” life overtakes them. It sounds idyllic, but it takes a lot of planning and dedication and a steady level of quiet vigilance and sound management – plus a very large helping of good seamanship and technical expertise - to keep such shows on the road, and no-one would begrudge the ocean wanderers their success in achieving the dream.

Yet behind its successful achievement, there is this need for a functioning, efficient and civilized society in each port they visit, particularly when it’s a major port and they’re checking-into a new jurisdiction. For several decades now this has been the case in much of the world, so much so with long-distance cruising boats being made welcome almost everywhere that pessimists began to feel that it was maybe just all too good to be true.

If we wait long enough, the pessimistic view will eventually be fulfilled, even if only for a limited period. And the adverse effect of the global COVID-19 lockdowns on many ocean cruising projects has been a classic case in point, underlining the ultimate fragility of the civilised world system on which the free pursuit of the voyaging dream depended.

Thus boats in the Caribbean which had a global circumnavigation in mind immediately had their dream cut off by the virulent shut-down of Central America and the Panama Canal with it. The area has been so badly hit that the system may take years to return to anything remotely approaching normal. Yet then they found that the friendly Caribbean itself was no longer friendly, with fearful little island nations imposing lockdowns which made any free cruising impossible. And while it was an option to try laying the boat up locally and get one of the rapidly-reducing flights home to Europe, these options soon closed off, and the only choice was to sail home Transatlantic unless you were prepared to spend an undefined time – probably many months – in virtual isolation while discovering that an island Paradises can become an island Hell.

Bill Forde’s Beneteau 44cc Cajucito at East Ferry in Cork Harbour Bill Forde’s Beneteau 44cc Cajucito at East Ferry in Cork Harbour in 2016 with preparations under way for extensive ocean voyaging. She is now securely laid up for the pandemic period in New Caledonia in the southwest Pacific. Photo: Bill Forde

Bill Forde of Cork Harbour

For those who had got well into the Pacific, the circumstances were even more extreme. Either you got yourself very quickly to a larger island with proper boatyard or cyclone-proof marina facilities (if such a thing exists) and then managed to fly home, or else you were a stranger in an increasingly strange land, facing virtual solitary confinement for an alarmingly indefinite period.

Very quickly, the traditional and formerly almost quaint view that there’s no place like home became the motto for many of the ocean cruising community. The way that COVID-19 is spreading, erupting alarmingly just when over-confident authorities had declared it conquered, made any longterm cruising plans impossible, as rumours circulated about serious yet hidden outbreaks at some of the most popular world cruising areas.

Being alone or with a few chosen shipmates wandering among remote islands no longer seemed a special private delight. On the contrary, it became hyper-vulnerable isolation, your fate a matter of indifference to officials whose first and virtually continuous concern was with the well-being of their own community and nation, with a new range of rigidly obeyed and implemented hyper-strict regulations imposed from on high.

Sensing that this was on the way, experienced voyager Bill Forde of Cork – who sailed away into the wide blue yonder with his Beneteau 44cc Cajucito in 2016 such that she is now in the southwest Pacific – made the arrangements to lay up his boat in a proper boatyard in the well-run French territory of New Caledonia in a timely manner, and flew home to Ireland.

Bill Forde of Cajucito Bill Forde of Cajucito got himself safely home to Ireland ahead of lockdown after finding a secure location for his boat in New Caledonia

island-hopping aboard Cajucito in pre-pandemic daysWhen the good times rolled – island-hopping aboard Cajucito in pre-pandemic days. Photo: Bill Forde

It wasn’t quite a “last helicopter out of Saigon” experience, but subsequent communication with friends who missed getting away have confirmed that an imposed and confined stay of indeterminate length in New Caledonia reduces the island’s charms to just about zero. However, Bill does hope that with the close attention and care the French give to their overseas territories, he will be able to rejoin Cajucito in September.

Another Irish voyager came within the Blackwell’s OCC Atlantic remit - this was Eamonn Washington from Wexford, with his Amel Super Maramu 53 ketch Travel Bug. He has been at the long-distance sailing for years now, but his exit from the Caribbean was brisk as the pandemic loomed – he sailed single-handed down the islands to Martinique to pick up two crew, then they went swiftly to Guadeloupe for two more, then with five on board Travel Bug headed rapidly for Ireland, and having checked in at Castletownbere close ahead of a gale, the boat is now in peace and seclusion in Lawrence Cove.

Eamonn Washington’s Amel Super Maramu 53 Travel Bug Eamonn Washington’s Amel Super Maramu 53 Travel Bug is now safely back in Ireland after an efficient sail from the Caribbean

Both Ireland and the Azores became highly-desirable destinations with everything in the Caribbean starting to shut down completely, and many followed the track of the Quinlan-Owens family from Galway Bay as they struggled from Antigua on their 39ft ketch Danu of Galway with light winds – often from ahead – to reach the Azores, where the pandemic was being kept well under control to the point of local eradication. When they finally arrived, thanks to what Vera describes with refreshing candour as a bit of the “Galway Gab,” Danu became the first boat in Horta to be given complete pratique to sail freely among the now Covid-free islands.

While light winds plagued Danu in the final stages of reaching the promised land, this doesn’t seem too likely a scenario for Garry Crothers and Kind of Blue as they close in one the familiar coast of Donegal. But in the current very unsettled spell of weather, all things are possible. Yet even if calm does arrive unexpectedly, they’ve enough fuel on board to motor the rest of the way. But whatever way they get there, there’ll be the father and mother of a welcome when Kind of Blue comes up the Foyle and into her home port to complete a really remarkable achievement.

Kind of Blue in an island berthThe dream on hold……Kind of Blue in an island berth. For now, the dream is on hold as Garry Crothers brings her home to Ireland and refuge from rampant COVID-19

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The autonomous Azores islands, administratively linked to Portugal and 800 miles westward of Lisbon in the midst of the Atlantic, have become European pace-setters in controlling and eradicating COVID-19. And in doing so, they have been able to provide a welcoming if closely supervised process for receiving Transoceanic crews trying to escape from the Caribbean and other cruising areas where the disease is still spreading, and where brutally-imposed emergency restrictions took little or no account of the special problems of isolated long-distance cruising boats.

In the Azores by contrast, the Lockdown was imposed in a timely manner, and while boats newly-arrived from the Caribbean were put into quarantine, it was quarantine with COVID-compliant services to meet the special needs of ocean voyagers reaching a destination port.

An alert Pandemic Patrol welcome Danu to to HortaA good-humoured but decidedly alert Pandemic Patrol welcome Danu to Horta to begin a process of several days whereby the Galway Boat became the first yacht in the port to achieve full post-pandemic clearance to cruise the newly restriction-free Azores

No harbour has been more up-to-speed with handling the situation than Horta in Faial, which is deservedly popular as the cross-roads of the Atlantic. Thus when the Galway Bay family of Vera Quinlan and husband Peter Owens and their children Lillian (12) and Ruari (10) finally reached port after the 25-day voyage from Antigua with its stifling regulations, it was to be met in Horta by a cheery “Pandemic Patrol” which put them though the procedures in as friendly a way as possible, and ensured that their time spent anchored in quarantine in the Outer Harbour was minimized.

Danu’s quarantined pontoon berth in HortaDanu’s quarantined pontoon berth in Horta. She is a 39ft Bruce Roberts-designed ketch steel-built in 1993. Photo: Vera Quinlan

As Vera Quinlan has admitted in a report in, there was definitely a bit of deployment of the renowned “Galway Gab” in ensuring that Danu was allocated one of the coveted quarantine-compliant marina berths, which permitted a minimum of shoreside exercise. But it would seem that by this time, the Horta Harbour Health officials were thinking of Danu and her crew as their restriction-lifting mascots. For as the process of formal testing to avail of the full lifting of COVID-19 restrictions throughout the islands got under way last week, it was the crew of Danu who were first to be declared free to sail among the islands just as they wished.

Jose Azevedeo (left) fourth generation host of the Café Sport, welcomes Danu’s crew Jose Azevedeo (left) fourth-generation host of the Café Sport, welcomes Danu’s crew of Vera, Ruari, Lillian and Peter to his famous ocean cruising institution of hospitality

Naturally, the first thing they did was call at Transatlantic HQ at the legendary Café Sport in Horta, where Jose gave them a tremendous welcome. But a more thoughtful moment was visiting the painted memorial left behind on Horta’s harbour wall by Vera’s father Fergus Quinlan when he and his wife Kay were visiting with their 12metre steel cutter Pylades (which Fergus built himself) during their multiple-award-winning global circuit in 2009-2012.

Danu’s crew with the harbour posting in Horta left behind in 2012 Remembrance of things past. Danu’s crew with the harbour posting in Horta left behind in 2012 by Ferus and Kay Quinlan of the global circumnavigating Pylades in 2012. Photo: Peter Owens

The orginal plan had been that Pylades would sail out to the Azores from her home anchorage of Bell Harbour in North Clare to meet up with Danu in early August as the next two generations sailed in from the Atlantic, having completed much more extensive cruising along the American shorelines than has been possible with the COVID-19 shutdowns. The two newly-united boats would then do some Azorean cruising-in-company before heading home for Galway Bay together.

It’s a reminder of what might have been before the Pandemic struck, but in the uncertain circumstances elsewhere it was decided that Pylades was best to stay in Galway Bay. So for now, everyone is grateful that Danu is safely away from islands and coastlines where the plague still rages, and at liberty to sail among the islands which are the first part of Europe to be declared pandemic free.

Fergus & Kay Quinlan’s Pylades sailing freely in the PacificFergus & Kay Quinlan’s Pylades sailing freely in the Pacific in 2011 during her global circumnavigation. Pre-pandemic plans for her to meet up with Danu in the Azores in early August as the latter returned across the Atlantic have now been put on hold, and Pylades is currently in the boatyard at Galway Docks to enable Fergus & Kay to complete maintenance projects.

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Garry Crothers of Lough Swilly YC, who has refused to let life-changing injuries from a horrific motorcycle accident prevent him from fulfilling his dream of sailing the oceans, is now better than halfway home across the Atlantic in his Ovni 435 Kind of Blue, sailing the 3,500 miles from Sint Maarten in the Caribbean to his berth in Derry on Lough Foyle.

Normally Garry (66) would sail with two others, as the prolonged after-effects of his accident eventually resulted in the amputation of his left arm. But the imposition of strict COVID-19 travel restrictions in the vulnerable Caribbean islands meant that the crew intending to fly out to join him for the homeward passage from the Dutch island were unable to do so.

The ingenious Ovni 435 – an aluminium-built ocean voyager The ingenious Ovni 435 – an aluminium-built ocean voyager with a lifting keel which facilitates extra cruising in very shoal waters – is big enough to be quite a challenge for a fully-fit solo sailor and a very real challenge for a one-armed sailor on his own

Having drawn a blank in recruiting even one shipmate from among the already depleted group of ocean voyagers in Saint Maarten, he decided he that he and his boat Kind of Blue would have to do it on their own, encouraged by the fact that he had already logged a five day solo passage in his extensive cruising during the past two years.

We’ll be looking at the remarkable Crothers story - and how his oceanic progress is continuing - in more detail this weekend in Sailing on Saturday. But for now, the good news is that, after departing on June 1st and finding some slow – at times extremely slow – sailing through the light winds which have plagued the Atlantic between the Caribbean and the Azores, he is now making a smooth 6 knots in the right direction, with Kind of Blue in the strategically useful position of being around 500 miles west nor’west of the Azores.

Her speeds have picked up to a more regular five to six knots as she and her lone skipper start to get into the Atlantic westerlies out to the northwest of the persistent Azores high pressure area. There’s a long way to go yet, but the achievements of Kind of Blue and her skipper are already remarkable, and we look forward to returning to this story on Saturday.

The indomitable Garry Crothers at home aboard Kind of BlueThe indomitable Garry Crothers at home aboard Kind of Blue

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