It felt like a long time coming, but at the end of May, one Friday, we finally left East Down YC for our first trip of the year. It was a holiday weekend, tides were favourable, so The Isle of Man was the destination. We planned to try and go rockclimbing at the south end of the Island, so planned to head to Port St Mary. Sinead, Kevin, Stian and Andrew were coming along, all outdoor instructors. We loaded up on Friday evening – which took quite a while – cushions fuel, books, charts – everything that was needed at the start of the season was going on.
The alarm wet at 5 a.m. on Saturday morning, there wasn’t a breath of wind, so we cast off, headed out of the Dorn, towards the Narrows. The tide was starting to ebb and we made good progress out past Strangford and Portaferry, through the eddies and boils at the Routen Wheel with seals popping up around us.
It was pretty misty and chilly and after about an hour, Northern Ireland disappeared. Sinead, Kevin, Stian and Andrew hadn’t done much sailing, so we set a course for the south end of the Isle of Man and motored on, into a light SE wind. Although it was only going to be a 6 hour crossing, and was reasonably calm, we settled into a pretty relaxed routine. A few people felt queasy and dozed in the cockpit. Kevin quickly headed below and slept. After another hour or so, someone yelled ‘dolphins!’ Should we wake Kevin? After a discussion (which probably lasted longer than it should have!) Kevin was woken and came up on deck. We have 5 ‘common dolphins’ with us for the best part of 15 minutes, swimming alongside us and playing at the bow. They are beautiful animals, and seem to just enjoy putting in an appearance and playing. After the left, Kevin went back to sleep. He sleeps a lot.
Pretty soon, the mist started to lift and the bulk of the hills on the Isle of Man started to appear. As you approach from the west, there are two low spots in the hills. The first is where Port Erin is – a small town in a bay, south of Bradda Head. South again, the hills rise up around Cregneash, before dropping off to the sound between the main island and the calf, the small island to the south of the Isle of Man. Cregneash is where ‘Waking Ned Devine’ was filmed, a film that is well worth a watch, about a small village in the west of Ireland and the villagers efforts to collect the lottery winnings of Ned, who died of a heart attack when he realised that he had the winning ticket. The full movie is available to watch here, hopefully!
The passage between the Calf and the Isle of Man is narrow, maybe just over 50 metres wide, and the tide runs through strongly. It is important to have the tide with you, especially if you are sailing. As we got closer, the beacon in the middle of the sound became clear. We had to pass north of this, then turn south, before heading back east and north east under the cliffs of Spanish Head and the Chasms. There was an area of overfalls, short steep waves formed by the strong tide running through the narrow gap. Someone went below to wake Kevin again – we would be in Port St Mary in less than an hour.
We motored up under the cliffs, trying to make sense of possible rockclimbs. Our guide book was quite old, printed from Mike Caine’s blog. Download it here. There are now a few other guides available. The cliffs on the south coast of the island are impressive, rising over 100 metres from the sea. Huge blocks have slid down the steep slopes, leaving massive cracks – The Chasms.
There is a huge sea stack, The Sugarloaf, which has a pretty easy route to the top, however getting onto the stack looks to be be pretty exciting. A couple of miles north east of Calf Sound, lies the small town. of Port St Mary. I was last here in October 2015, when I swapped Kotuku for Koala. The harbour wall was almost empty, with a lot of space for us to come in alongside. The tidal range in the Isle of Man can be big – up to 8 metres, so long shorelines are needed!
I had been to Port St Mary many times in the past, usually over June bank holidays with friends from Greystones, Heather and Marshall King, and their mum Heather and friend, Tess Tinkler. We would be part of a group from Bray, Dun Laoghaire and Dublin who went for the long weekend. I remember rafts of boats, 5 a 6 deep, with up to 40 or 50 yachts in the harbour. With pontoons now available in Douglas and Peel, Port St Mary has become a bit of a cruising backwater, which is a real shame, as the town has become a bit deserted. Port St Mary is a great place to go, as long as you are confident about your mooring skills and are happy to climb up a long ladder to get onto the pier! The harbour master dropped down and asked us to settle up with him before leaving, how relaxed is that!
We sorted the boat, had lunch, wandered around the town and basically took it easy. After dinner on board – chorizo risotto – we headed up to the Albert Hotel, a small hotel and bar which overlooks the harbour, for a few pints.
We headed back to Koala, for a good nights sleep as we know we would be going climbing the next day. However, at about 3 a.m., we were woken by a boat coming alongside. When we got up in the morning, we found a beautiful J111 alongside. They had been racing in the Round Mann race and had been first finisher, taking 17 hours to sail the 70 miles around the island in the very light winds. They borrowed a frying pan (they had removed theirs for the race!) and asked us up to the Isle of Man YC for a barbeque later that day.
Once our climbing kit was sorted, we made our way to the club and were made feel very welcome. We had a great barbeque and stayed for the prizegiving for the Round Mann race. Interestingly, the boat that placed 4th is owned by Nigel Rollason, who is apparently the only rider to have won both sidecar and motorbike TT races. As we sat on the balcony, we could hear the bikes out on practice laps for TT Week, which was about to start. The sounds were probably coming from the Quarter Bridge area of the course – the first big corner on the course and about 10 miles from where we were tied up.
After lunch we headed south, out of town on the coastal path towards the Chasms. The first crag we came to was Kionne y Ghoggin, not too easy to find and definitiely not easy to make sense of some of the route descriptions. However, Kevin (who was now awake!) and Stian climbed a nice looking route, up a groove through some steep ground, at about ‘Hard Severe’ whilst Sinead and Andrew climbed a V. Diff up an arete and wall. Whilst they were climbing, I scrambled around the cliffs to Primate Wall – aptly named as it is steep and juggy and has quite a few routes in the VS – HVS range. A crag to visit in the future.
When Kevin and Sinead had finished, we followed the top of the cliffs around past the Sugarloaf and dropped down to the hut circle. Here the routes were easier to make out, with clearer descriptions. We dropped down past Torque Test, a route I had climbed a few times before and headed back north below the cliffs. It soon became apparent that gulls were nesting in the distance, so we climbed routes just below the descent. We subsequently found out that there are climbing restrictions in this area during the summer – no mention had been made in the guidebook and there were no signs. As soon as we saw that we were approaching nesting gulls, we changed out plans. If you are going there to climb, check this guide, which we only discovered when we returned home. It will show you the restricted areas.
Andrew and Sinead climbed a 2 pitch route with a chimney first pitch, whilst Stian led Kevin up a pretty sketchy V Diff.
Last route of the day was to be Gulgond, a VS below the big overhanging prow of Dragonquest (E2). It is a fine crack line, rising out of a jungle of ferns in a hole in the ground. Its is reasonably straightforward, with a couple of strenuous moves around the two bulges near the top.
This is a route worth doing. I was followed up by Kevin, Stian and Sinead. Sinead ‘styled’ it, laybacking the crack through the bulge.
We headed back to Koala at about 8.30, after a great afternoons climbing, dinner was followed by another visit to the Albert Hotel. We were lucky enough to sit beside a magician and his friends who were having a bit of a laugh. He was pretty slick!
We checked out with the Harbour Master on Monday, not an easy job as he is really easy to chat with and full of interesting stories. A few years ago he waterskied from Ardglass in N Ireland to the Isle of Man – he only fell off 6 times!
We left at 11, caught the last of the tide through the Calf Sound and headed for Strangford. More dolphins, 2 hours of sailing and plenty of relaxing – all of a sudden we were back, motoring up the Narrows, back to EDYC.
A great trip – lots learned about Koala.