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Down to Ireland's Southern Coast in Sails

May 10, 1987|MICHAEL VERDON | Verdon is a Hollins College, Va., free-lance writer. and

BANTRY BAY, Ireland — The beam of the lighthouse flashed white through the falling darkness. The passage down from Wexford had been a rough one, with heavy southwesterly gales blowing ever to windward, the huge swell threatening to swamp our boat as it tacked along.

Early that morning we had hoisted a storm jib and, when wave after massive wave appeared on the horizon, we had decided to cinch ourselves to the lifelines.

The sky, gray with storm clouds, had been ominous all day. By the time we reached Youghal, two hours behind schedule, the sky had opened and was pelting us with piercing, frozen needles of rain.

Behind us, Ram Head was disappearing quickly with the failing daylight, and the ebb tide leaving Youghal Bay threatened to make the passage too shallow, leaving us without a safe harbor in which to moor.

We lowered the jib and decided to chance it. Warily, my fingers red and stinging from the cold rain, I switched on the engine and steered into the narrow passage. By the water marks on the stone quays of the town, I could see that the tide was out. But how far?

With my eyes on the charts and the gray choppy water, I eased the boat into the harbor. At one point we scraped bottom, but there was just enough room to continue.

End to Day of Misery

A quarter of an hour later we dropped anchor with a resounding thud. The tide ran so swiftly through the harbor that we had to put out a kedge anchor and winch the boat tightly to it.

Was the entire trip going to be like this? We asked ourselves that question while rowing for shore. Hardly an enjoyable day's sailing. But that day of misery reversed itself as soon as we tied the dinghy to the stone quays of Youghal.

Minutes later, snug in a small pub and with a pint of Guinness upon each lap, the publican assured us that the day had been unseasonably rough and that, according to the weather forecast, it would blow over by morning.

The four of us snorted in skepticism. But the publican must have been sympathetic to the four shivering yachtsmen in front of him, for he brought us each a free pint. That warmed us considerably.

An hour later, as we were consuming a beautiful lobster at Aherne's seafood pub, the wretched weather was forgotten.

And later, as we sipped yet more Guinness in the Moby Dick lounge, we became enchanted with Youghal. Segments from the film "Moby Dick" were shot here, hence the name of the pub.

The owner, Paddy Linehan, even has a scrap book of the actors from that film. Now, though, only a handful of fishing trawlers and yachts use the harbor. It seemed the same story with most ports along the southern coast.

We had journeyed to Ireland on the advice of friends who chartered a boat here from Andy Stott on the Schull Peninsula in West Cork. Stott now runs a yacht charter and maintenance service from his home.

The yacht we hired from him was a Dart 35-foot Warrior with a four-cylinder, Mercedes 36-horsepower diesel engine. In immaculate condition, it came equipped with all the essentials, including safety gear such as VHF radio and depth sounder. The cost of chartering the boat during a June week was about 550 ($775). For those who want a pilot, Stott will serve as skipper at no extra charge.

Ireland's southern coastline is one of the most remarkable in Europe, holding an attractive array of features: secluded anchorages, unpolluted water, gourmet restaurants and, most importantly, an ever-present wind. One thing's for sure: You can't make similar boasts about the Mediterranean. At least not at the same inexpensive price.

The publican had been right in his predictions of the weather, for the next morning broke bright and warm, with a beautiful easterly blowing. The oilskins of the previous day were stowed away and swimsuits brought out as the sunshine beamed down on our sails.

It was one of the most exquisite sailing days I have ever experienced: the strong gentle breeze, the sparkling blue water, the gulls reeling near the mast, the green coastline to starboard.

We sailed from Youghal Harbor past Knockadoon Head, through Ballycotton Bay, around Power Head and Roches Point and into Crosshaven. As we tied up at the Crosshaven marina, I felt both relaxed and invigorated with the warm, lazy sail.

At the mouth of Cork Harbour, Crosshaven is a tiny village that revolves around its yachting scene. The yachting club may be the oldest in the world, having been founded in the 1720s.

As we tacked further into the harbor the next morning, we passed the bustling village of Cobh, a huge cathedral sitting in its midst. Cobh was once the main port of exit for millions of emigrating Irish.

Directly across the harbor sits Spike Island, once an infamous prison. Farther into the harbor, chemical plants--spewing out industrial waste--sit on sites not a hundred yards away from animal and tree sanctuaries. Despite these mind-bending contradictions, the harbor is a pleasant place in which to sail, if only for the fact that Cork City lies at the end.

Cork a Friendly Town

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