A Tale of Two Ferries……..
Ireland had always been an ambition of mine, I knew the waters of the Atlantic were often angry and un-diveable, however, I knew they could also be beautifully clear, and the natural history under their surface was said to be spectacular, it was not that long before, in 1967, that the Spanish Galleass (a hybrid Galley/Galleon) Girona had been discovered by the Belgian Diver Robert Sténuit and the wreck of La Trinidad Valencera was found by local divers. Those discoveries, and the raising of a cannon and some actual gold escudos and real treasure pieces from the Girona (although both sites lay in Northern Ireland), had led to an outpouring of articles in the dive press and the news about the Irish West Coast and scuba diving there, I had seen a couple of articles in Diver magazine from those lucky enough to get dives in the Irish Atlantic and it had made me keen to see for myself
I decided to gauge what the appetite would be in FSAC and to look at putting on a trip to Ireland, I had to take into account there would be holidays to consider as getting to Southern Ireland kills a day travelling, and there would be the same on the return journey, it wasn’t just a case of driving either, there were ferries to book and they weren’t cheap. The trip would have to at least pay for itself in terms of fuel, accommodation, diving and ferry costs otherwise I would catch hell from Ellie, I knew we didn’t have the money to support such a trip if there wasn’t enough interest from the club and that meant ensuring any trip would be on a bank holiday weekend, so there would only need to be a day taken as holiday at the worst………I needed to look for a dive centre too, we would need all the support out there, a dive boat, air fills, somewhere to stay and someone who knew the areas dive sites as I was going in blind here, I’d never dived Ireland, the last time I was in Ireland…….well that was another life……
I took my time looking for the right area and for the right dive centre and eventually landed on pretty much the farthest away from England you could get in that direction, an obscure little place I’d never heard of called Valentia on the Ring of Kerry, essentially the point of Southern Ireland that pokes furthest out into the Atlantic Ocean, and the closest you can get to America whilst still this side of the pond! How I came across Des Lavelle’s dive centre I cannot actually recall, I know I took months making sure everything would be there, the local Valentia waters had seen Spanish Treasure from the wrecks of the Armada recovered by divers in the ‘70’s, there were islands off the coast with Gannets, Seals, and marine life in abundance from the descriptions I had read before considering booking, and when I did, eventually, call to discuss a trip with Des Lavelle he was enthusiastic and very helpful, with a trace of that uniquely “Irish” humour and assured me we would not regret coming across to dive Kerry
So around January of 1998 I put up a poster in Fenton Manor advertising the Irish Adventure, the dates and a £200 price per diver, I’d done rough costings based on Des’ prices, the ferry costs and accommodation a little down the road from Des’ dive centre at Knightstown between there and Portmagee, the mainland town linking Valentia to Ireland. Before I got any further we had to get some people interested, and I wanted Ellie and the boys to come across if possible too…….I should have been more careful what I asked for really…… There wasn’t a problem getting enough people, we only needed three to break even and as my brother Barry had decided to come across we only needed one more with us and that place was taken by Paul Tinsley, we rounded it off with Toots joining us and that meant it really was more of a family foray rather than a truly “club” trip…..but we were all members….. and we all couldn’t wait to get there. I’d booked ferry places from Swansea and we turned up on the Friday morning to be told the weather was too bad to get the ferry into or out of the harbour, apparently a very rare occurrence, but we’d just driven almost 3 hours to get there and I was fuming…still, there was a long shot….the Holyhead ferry was still sailing, our tickets would be honoured on it and all we had to do was make a 5 hour trip through Wales onto Anglesey and all the way up the A55 to Holyhead……….now today “health & safety” would go ballistic if someone drove those hours…..but when things get tough………we got going!
Unknown to me the fun had hardly started yet, the drive was punishing, we had Ellie with two young lads to handle with no support from me and even if we made it onto the Ferry, I had to get some sleep (which we all tried to do in the wait whilst we queued to get aboard) because when she docked in Dublin, I’d have a couple of hours drive to Valentia at the end of which the next morning we would be straight onto Des’s little boat and out for the day’s diving……this was starting to get challenging! Now to say the trip was fraught is understating the case, the kids were not overenthusiastic about another long drive and tempers were strained to say the least, but we made it to Holyhead and onto the Irish Ferries “Superferry”, a solid looking ship, she could handle the rough crossing we were facing to get to Dublin. I won’t dwell on the trip too much but recall with some pride both Lee and Lewis shrugging off the majority of passengers firmly wedged in the ships “heads” praying to the lords of many nations to stop the stomach wrenching sea-sickness almost everyone on board was going through, as the valiant Superferry took all the Irish Sea could throw at her, and simply rolled with the punches……literally!
To see the boys waiting until one side, port or starboard, had reached its zenith….and then haring across the width of the ship as it fell back level and then heaved equally high the other side was hilarious and death defying at the same time………and I’m sure it was a source of much macho embarrassment for many of the passengers to endure watching the lads have so much sheer fun, in the face of such gut wrenching fear around them…….my heart swelled with pride I must admit…….even if Ellie was scathing at my enjoyment and at the scandalous bad parenting I displayed in encouraging such behaviour! Despite the drama, and the rather frenzied trip through Southern Ireland on roads I would describe as “B” roads at best, sometimes more resemblant of those country roads seen in Devon & Cornwall, but appearing on the maps (Yes….no SATNAV in those days) as “A” roads…….go figure……we heaved around one corner to see, indifferent at our intrusion, a Donkey & Cart, the Donkey tucking in to tufts of grass at the view point on the side of the road, as we came into sight of the sea from the heights around the Ring of Kerry, which, I have to say is beautiful on the eye when not focusing keenly on the road in front and its twists n turns………
It turned out Valentia was for most of eternity, an island, linked only by the ferry at Cahersiveen, and it wasn’t until the 20th century a bridge was constructed linking the Island to the mainland. We were staying in Valentia and crossed from Portmagee on the R565, we rolled into Knightstown at somewhere near 10:00 pm and barrelled straight into the nearest bar, I believe it was Boston’s but perhaps otherwise (memory has me thinking it was closer to the ferry), time has played hell with my memory, needless to say we were worried we would be having one quick drink as the kids needed bed and we were close to English “Last Orders” which was 10:30 in the UK…….Ellie grabbed some seats in what was a very lively little place, warm and welcoming with 2 dozen locals enjoying the “craic”…..I went straight to the bar and ordered a round and asked, “what time do you close…..” as expected the answer came back “10:30….” In the most wonderful Irish accent possible, the barman, clearly having had his joke at my expense then said “…tomorrow morning….” I love Ireland, and I was absolutely in love with Valentia from that moment on!
We got everyone settled in the Hostel we’d booked and next morning set out for Port Magee, 15 minutes back the way we’d come last night, the town and the bridge finally hoved into view and Des’s little dive boat was there to meet us and we just had to drop the kit into the boat…..it was time to dive and that shook most of the cobwebs of the previous evening away from me, despite the rigor of the extended odyssey we had just completed. Our first dives were out of the beautiful little harbour at Port Magee and around the Southernmost tip of Valentia itself, Des would take us to a scenic little area where we could get some decent wildlife around us and some interesting rocks and formations and we weren’t disappointed
Kitting up and rolling off Des’s “Bael Bocht” into crystal clear Atlantic swell was wonderful, the sea was welcoming us it seemed, gentle as any I’ve dived in and once we paired up, Barry and me buddied and Paul with Toots (the start of a diving partnership that lasted a good few years after too) we set out to explore the rocky underwater terrain, around us was rock shelf, cut into vertically by cracks and small gullies with occasional Kelp and nooks and crannies everywhere and my dive log records: “12/04/98 HARD BOAT DIVE – Dan Gan Mor Head – Eire Des Lavelle’s boat “Bael Bocht” Out to a local wall dive, – Anemones, Sponges, Overhangs & a Huge Crevasse, Corkwing & Ballan Wrasse with plenty of Cuckoo & a couple of Coalfish – Wonderful stuff!! W Temp 10’ Viz 15m (Brilliant) Air in 200 Out 135 Buddy Barry”
I recall the wonder of descending the huge crevasse in the cliffside as we went from a rock plateau into a fissure only just big enough to swim in line, and then dropping deeper and deeper as the huge break in the tortured rock of the cliff paralleled the headland for what seemed like half a mile but in reality would have been a few hundred meters or so. The light in the narrow confines was dimmed more the deeper and further we swam, we were not beyond 25m below the surface swell but it seemed we were way deeper just by the brooding atmosphere of the place, I was loving Ireland and its Atlantic coast as much as anywhere I had dived, and the visibility remained 20m or so throughout, this was all I’d hoped for and more!
I would constantly check above and behind me to ensure Barry was ok, always getting a grin and the OK signal back I could see Barry was enjoying this as much as I was, as this was Barry’s first real sea diving he was getting spoiled….if only he knew that! I couldn’t see as far back as Toots and Paul most of the time, they had to trail us by several metres just to avoid getting our fins in their faces, but I assumed (correctly) that they were loving this just as much. Neither Paul nor Toots is given to outpourings or waxing at all lyrical, but they both came over the side of Des’s stalwart little dive boat with huge grins on their faces and it was clear they’d loved the dive. Next Dive was on the way back in to Port Magee, the same spit of the Southern tip of Valentia just a more sheltered dive amongst huge boulders that had evidently come from the rock face above us, here there were more crab and fish than we had seen on the more exposed front side, and the water was less of a swell than our first dive, we hunted in and around every rock catching sight of plenty of life as we meandered about for 40 minutes or so
We had an equally great dive recorded so: “12/04/98 HARD BOAT “Bael Bocht” in Eire @ Dan-Gan-More-Head again a wall but down to rock gullies & huge boulders – again fields of anemones & plenty of Wrasse & Coalies with a safety stop in kelp forest – Retro Falklands! Air In 210 Out 140 W Temp 10’ Viz 15m Buddy Barry” a briefer description of a dive which I recall enjoying more than the script might suggest, there really were some very large boulders under those cliffs and it did resemble, very closely, the diving I had done off New Island a couple of years before on Don Shirley’s Southern Craftsman exercise in the Falklands, written up elsewhere on here. The South Atlantic around the Falklands is similar to the more remote of sites in the North Atlantic on its Western side, temperature and visibility very similar, the wildlife not perhaps so inquisitive perhaps and maybe not as abundant as the South Atlantic, but very similar!
Those of you struggling with the location should not worry, I believe the “Dan-Gan-More” to be a colloquialism, a local in-joke perhaps, lost in translation. The area we were in was Bray head, the very Western-most tip of Valentia before you reach the Skellig Islands, Skellig Michael and Small Skellig, It would be a year or two more before we got to Dive Luke Skywalkers’ idyll……..but more on that another time
Our second day of diving, in this 4 day international odyssey, saw us diving off “Puffin Island” which is a bird sanctuary under the control of the Irish Wildbird Conservancy and is home to colonies of its namesake Puffins, Manx Sheerwater, and Storm Petrels, of course it is not exclusive to those birds but they are the predominant focus of the wildbird conservancy!
My Navy Log records: “13/04/98 HARDBOAT DIVE – PUFFIN ISLAND – Eire Probably the best of the Eire dives round a cliff face with anemones everywhere small and medium – lovely colours – plenty of Wrasse & Coalfish but the best of it was the huge gully between the cliff face & fallen slabs – a lovely tight squeeze & plenty of surge to ride plus huge area deep and long – great stuff – excellent dive Air In 200 Out 130 Temp 10’ Buddy Barry” I have to say, of the dives we did this one was my favourite and you can see I wasn’t alone from the photo Toots took of Paul, Barry and Me sat on the stern of Bael Bocht immediately after exiting, Puffin Island just visible behind us!
Our last dive of the long weekend was on the wreck of the Sailing Barque SS Crompton, I cover that wreck in another section on this site so I won’t go into any detail on her history in this piece, suffice to say she is well worth some of any wreck divers time in the read! The dive made it into my “Little Red Wreck Log” and is recorded as “13/04/98 Valentia Eire Wreck of CROMPTON a four masted Barque that was wrecked in 1910 & not discovered again until 1970. The main anchor is on Des Lavelle’s forecourt. We dropped onto the second anchor – slightly smaller & quickly found the mass of rusting chains from the for’ard chain locker & then ferreted back amongst the spars & plating back to a great little rock “squeeze” & back up to find the 3rd anchor & more chain – great ferret about & well worth another visit great viz!” I recall looking everywhere for something more of the wreck but finding very little, it was a little disappointing if I’m truly honest. I can understand any wreck sunk under a North Atlantic cliff for 88 years is going to be little more than matchwood and metalwork, but I’d hoped to find more of the metal about the site, in hindsight I think the smaller of the anchors we found may have been a different wreck, however Des didn’t know of another in this area so it is entirely possible it was from the Crompton. Despite the lack of rusty metal we still had a great dive with excellent visibility and plenty of interest around the cliff base, it amazed me when I learned that some of the crew managed to climb the cliff following the Crompton’s wrecking, but if you get ashore you are motivated to incredible feats of self-preservation I’m sure!
All that remained of the trip was to get back to Ellie and the boys and pack everything up for the journey back, I knew Monday was going to be a long day but that didn’t matter, the “craic” from all involved in the diving was enough for me to know we would likely be back in Eire in the not too distant future, all being well, after all…..there were two distant rock outcrops that Des had been telling us about, something about monasteries, hooded monks, the wreck of a world war II bomber and seals…..lots of seals…….I couldn’t wait!