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26 Days to Circumnavigate Ulster By Kayak

31st July 2010
26 Days to Circumnavigate Ulster By Kayak
Twenty six days after leaving the calm waters of Lough Erne, local lass Elaine Alexander AKA 'Shooter' completes her toughest challenge to date – the circumnavigation of Ulster by Kayak.

Shooter's expedition started in difficult weather conditions which gradually deteriorated. Departing from Share Holiday Village on June 26th she faced two days of tough paddling to Ballyshannon into a head wind across the Broad Lough – Lower Lough Erne, which due to its size can be similar to paddling on the sea. On reaching Ballyshannon Elaine became slightly nervous about leaving the inland waters to brave the rolling seas, but eventually made it out through the breaking surf. A local lad who was fishing saw the kayak struggling in the surf and called the coastguard. After several attempts to contact Shooter, the coastguard helicopter was scrambled to ensure that this intrepid Kayaker was ok, as Elaine explains;

"Due to the tight weather conditions, I was concentrating on not capsizing as a sea kayak laden with gear can be very difficult to roll, so I missed the two phone calls from the coastguard. But on arrival in Teelin I checked my phone and realised that the helicopter that was circling overhead was probably for me! I'm glad to see that the people on the shore were looking out for me and that the coastguard was on alert however am sorry for any inconvenience I caused them."

Leaving the fishing community of Teelin, Shooter accompanied by a pod of Dolphins paddled up around Malinbeg and the fantastic coastline of Donegal in splendid weather where she was guided through caves and arches by a herd of Seals. On arrival at Rossbeg she stopped for some guidance from Rob Henshaw, an ex employee of SHARE, who has circumnavigated Ireland 3 times in a kayak, sailing boat and canoe.

Unfortunately the good weather didn't last and as she set out for Arranmore and Burtonport the wind and sea state increased.

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"Local knowledge on an expedition like this is key, and can stop you from making some big mistakes. The locals around the coastline were extremely friendly and gave useful information freely. I couldn't have done it without all the help and support I received along the way. In the bad weather I got very frustrated that I wasn't making any progress, but fortunately I gained motivation and help from a friend – Adrian Harkin www.justkayak.ie whose knowledge of the tides and sea state helped me to get round the Inishowen Peninsula. This was definitely one of the toughest parts of the journey."

Once Elaine had made it round Malin Head the wind and swell were with her and she began to make real progress and get back on track. With a number of paddling partners she paddled from Glengad Head to Shroove and onto Portrush and Ballintoy in strong winds. From Fairhead and Torr Head the weather began to ease and she made it on as far as Cushendun where she had her second acquaintance with the emergency services.

I passed a boat heading the other direction who must have radioed the coastguard to say they saw a kayak out at sea in windy conditions. On arrival at Cushendun I saw a coastguard van close to the shore that was checking to see I made it to shore safely. It's funny that the first two things people say to you after you come ashore are 'what are you doing out in weather conditions like that' and when they hear about my expedition they ask 'are you mad?!'

Elaine paddled on to Glenarm, Larne and Whitehead then across Belfast Lough to Bangor in a small window where she would not have to deal with the swell created by the Stena HSS. From Bangor the weather turned bad again, the wind swung into the South East which meant that she had to deal with the head on wind. Hugging the shoreline for safety she found herself caught in several eddies (where the tide flows the opposite direction) which was making it even tougher.

"I was quite surprised about the tidal range on the East coast and with the strengthening head on winds, it felt like I was paddling uphill. I must have been too close to the shore, but I didn't want to venture too far from land in case some unexpected weather closed in."

Crossing the Strangford Narrows proved to be a challenge too far in the weather conditions and Elaine had to rest up in Portaferry for the night with SHARE'S chairman – Bill Hosford. The Narrows is one of Ireland's greatest tidal races with tidal ebb and flows of up to 15 knots. Bill describes his admiration for Elaine's journey;

"As I watched Elaine paddle out through the swell, I was overwhelmed by this one lady's determination, Elaine was concentrating hard on her paddling and crossed the waves quickly and skilfully! She made it safely across to Gunn Island, but for a few minutes, my heart was in my mouth!

However the hairiest part of her trip was yet to come. After stopping in Dundrum Bay for the night, Elaine attempted to paddle out through the surf at Newcastle which in a heavy boat can be extremely difficult. Realising that she may well capsize Elaine turned and 'Bongo Slid' back in losing some of the gear strapped to her boat. "I had to wait for 1.5hrs until the tide dropped and the sea state flattened. This experience had taken its toll on her boat as she found that her kayak had started to take on water. She stopped in Cornmill Quay courtesy of Life Adventure Centre to fix the damage to her boat.

The following day Elaine paddled from Annalong to Kilkeel and headed for Carlingford and into Dundalk Bay where she would enter the quieter inland waterways of the Fane River. However as she was paddling against the flow, the two days paddling to Lough Muckno was longer than she had first anticipated. From Lough Muckno she hit dry land where she got a lift 7kms to Ballybay where she entered the Dromore river system stopping at Tanagh OEC. Paddling on to Belturbet and Crom, Elaine entered the home straight to Share on Upper Lough Erne, where she had started 26 days earlier. She was greeted by Share Staff.

Although the initial paddle forms part of her training, Shooter's long term goal for 2011 is a goal is to complete the 1000 mile clockwise circumnavigation of Ireland in 2011 as a fundraiser for SHARE whose leisure suite was flood stricken last year.

If you are interested in following Shooter's Challenge you can join her facebook group: Canoe Around Ireland which will have regular updates on her progress as well as blogs for each day and photos and video footage en route.

Published in Kayaking
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