Sunseeker Chapter 10
At two o’clock on Thursday afternoon, the 17th August we weighed anchor and motored out into the broad expanse of Waterford Harbour. Bright sunshine sparkled across the calm water, highlighting the greenery along the cliff tops and reflected in the house windows on the far shore. When we were able to shape our south-westerly course Sunseeker’s red wings were unfurled and her engine was cut. The breeze was from east by southeast only about force two – but we were in no hurry. Gradually working away from the coast the emerald green of Ireland faded into the haze and then disappeared into the gathering dusk. During the night we identified Mine Head light away to starboard and later, in the early hours, two large ships crossed our course; maybe out from Cork.
About twenty miles south of Cork Harbour lies the Ballycotton Gas Field and a further six or seven miles to the southeast are the two production wells of Kinsale Head. As we approached, on a course to pass equidistant between the two fields, we spoke, on VHF, with a support vessel shepherding the Kinsale restricted area. The morning was again calm and fine but visibility was down to between two and three miles through haze.
Both of the Kinsale rigs had been faintly visible but we were becoming very worried by a very loud roaring sound ahead of us becoming louder. It was like the constant roar of a. busy motorway – only louder, much louder. As there is no motorway marked on our chart it worried us. The operator on the support vessel allayed our fears, however. He advised us of a new drilling rig located to the west of the existing field. If we maintained our present course, he told us, we should pass well clear and to the north of it. A little later, out of the haze appeared a gigantic, fire-breathing monster, excess gas being burned-off through an exhaust chimney. As we sailed by, the noise was deafening, though being visible the threat was lessened. We only once speculated on the possible effects of an accident.
On and on we sailed through a balmy afternoon and into another sunset. Before midnight our little breeze left us. We motored through the rest of the night, thrilling to the sight of countless millions of stars above.
Over the weekend we entertained an unexpected visitor. A handsome racing pigeon circled Sunseeker before landing on the aft cabin rooftop. He was obviously very tired and although he accepted some water we were unable to tempt him with any food. Very soon he made himself comfy in the doghouse and stayed with us for two days. Once or twice he flew off only to circle us and return. Whilst consulting the chart on Sunday I’m not sure whether he was trying to highlight a particular navigational feature or commenting upon my navigational abilities but he certainly left his mark on it.
On Monday morning he took off circling Sunseeker once more before flying away northwards. We like to think he made a good landfall – we were still within a hundred miles of the Irish coast.
At two o’clock, early on Sunday morning, Sunseeker reached the signpost which pointed south to Spain (50 degrees North, 10 degrees West). One hundred and seventy miles made good; only five hundred more to go. By daylight we had covered ten miles more when the breeze left us. We motored ’till noon and then just drifted with the current to conserve fuel. Throughout Sunday and Monday we were becalmed although during Monday afternoon a slight whisper of a breeze occasionally ruffled the glassy surface, fooling me into hoisting sail, only to lower them again as it passed us by.
Tuesday mid-morning, with just a light breeze to give us steerageway, we were delighted by the antics of a small pod of dolphins playing with Sunseeker. Seven in number, they propelled themselves in turn towards her bows before swerving away or diving under at the very last moment. Tuesday had all the makings of a busy day because in the early afternoon we were buzzed by a light aircraft. We spoke with the pilot on VHF and learned that they were part of the Fisheries Protection Scheme. When we explained our hopes to be in Spain before September he told us,
“If you’re still around here in September we’ll drop you some more supplies.”
A little later in the afternoon I was enjoying a late constitutional when Rene called excitedly for me to come up and see. By the time I had sorted myself out it was too late to see the cause of all the excitement.
“Two great big dolphins, or something else because they were too big to be dolphins, swam towards the side of the boat and at the last minute dived beneath and up the other side. But then they swam away.” Rene told me, hardly able to contain her excitement.
However, ten minutes later the sea all around was full of black fins. Some in pairs, some singly. Some larger, obviously older and some with small young ones. We reckoned the largest was about twenty-two maybe twenty-five feet long, nearly as long as our Sunseeker. Their backs were black with hooked fins curving backwards. Unlike dolphins, their heads were shaped like torpedoes, bluff and rounded. We thought they must be Pilot Whales, fifty, sixty or even more.
During the course of their visit the wind became lighter and Sunseeker slowed. We watched, fascinated, as the whales closed in all around us. Rene, perched on the bowsprit, could see them four deep below and to each side of the boat. We had seen them in small groups around a calf, as if supporting or guiding it. As the wind increased once more and Sunseeker’s speed rose they moved away again, satisfied, perhaps, by the recovery of their protege.
They swam all around us for almost three hours. We could clearly see their blowholes and hear and smell the expulsion of stale air as they surfaced. Suddenly, as though responding to a signal, they all veered away to port, leaving Sunseeker to continue along her course. The last two to leave swam, one along each side, dipping and rising, until they too left us. Maybe they were the first two that Rene had seen. Were they saying goodbye, or were they telling us to follow the school?
We’ll never know, but not long afterwards the wind increased quite suddenly. Grey-black clouds spread menacingly across the sky and, as the darkness of night enveloped us, the seas grew alarmingly.
This wind, from west of north force six to seven, should have given us a fast sail through the night. But we had never encountered waves this big before and were awed by the tremendous power that was obviously within them. We were frightened, wondering if this wind was going to become even fiercer. We decided to heave-to and let the bad weather pass over us.
End of Sunseeker Chapter 10