Written by Gene Cahill
Photos contributed by Jon Hynes
This article is based on a number of conversations I had with Jon Hynes in the weeks leading up to his adventure, and in the weeks and months after his return.
“It is in the compelling zest of high adventure and of victory, and in creative action, that man finds his supreme joys” Antoine de Saint-Exupery
On the morning of 16th June 2015, a small group of people gathered on a slipway on the eastern side of the Old Head of Kinsale, County Cork. They had come to see off two kayaking adventurers as they set off to achieve one of their life’s dreams of sea kayaking around Ireland. Jon Hynes and Seán Cahill had been kayaking for many years and they had been on many kayak adventures all over the world. This was one adventure; however, that had been on their mind for a long time, and as they departed Kinsale that morning, they were about to live their dream. It was epitomised by the name on Jon’s boat Dream Chaser. Their journey would last days and an excellent documentary account of the adventure became available online recently. Jon is a good friend of mine – he was the person who really introduced me to seakayaking and we have been on a number of trips together. I’ve spoken with and interviewed Jon over a number of occasions about his trip around Ireland in order to try get some sort of insight into his motivations, his experiences and his thoughts on finally achieving a long-held dream.
Jon first had the idea of seakayaking around Ireland sometime in June 1996. He had been on a week-long sea kayaking expedition along the west coast of Ireland under the guidance of Donal Dowd, who had himself circumnavigated Ireland a few years before. That summer, Jon was working as a trainee instructor in Cappanalea Outdoor Centre, Co. Kerry. Jon had been whitewater kayaking since the age of 11 but this was his first summer in a sea kayak and he was instantly hooked. Captivated by the wonders and beauty of the coastline, Jon knew there and then that he would eventually paddle around Ireland by sea kayak. It would be 19 years later before his ambition would be realised.
It was 2013/14, before events conspired to allow Jon to seriously plan the 1500km circumnavigation of Ireland. Work and family commitments had finally balanced and allowed Jon the time necessary to undertake such an adventure. He had known Seán Cahill for many years and they had worked together whitewater kayaking in the French Alps many years before. They had often spoken about such a trip but their schedules never merged to allow it to happen. It was at the Irish Sea Kayaking Association (ISKA) annual symposium in Baltimore, West Cork in October 2014, when Jon and Sean sat down, had a chat and shook hands on it. They agreed to make an attempt the following summer of 2015. However, one potential major obstacle had to be overcome: permission from his wife!
Jon has been married to Alayne for the last 14 years and they have two children, Sinead and Aoife. Alayne, a very competent and proficient kayaking instructor in her own right, had always been supportive of Jon’s past adventures, and probably knew the day was going to come when Jon would announce his intention to paddle around Ireland. Alayne was direct and to the point when Jon asked her opinion – do it! And don’t come back until it’s done. “My family were totally cool and supportive about it” said Jon and in hindsight, he believes the whole adventure actually brought them closer together as a family. With permission from their wives – Seán’s wife had also given her blessing and support – the planning and training began in earnest.
Jon believes the biggest challenge in his training was the mental focus. Over the years, he had clocked up significant mileage on the sea, but this was taking things to the next level. Could they sustain the mental focus for anywhere between 40-80kms open water paddling a day for in excess of four weeks? With that in mind, Jon hit the water any chance he got. During the months leading up to his trip, he was studying for his BA in Outdoor Learning from the Institute of Technology in Tralee, Co. Kerry. Once lectures were finished, Jon was in the water building up the mileage, physical strength and focus. While home at weekends, it was the same story. Long distance day trips in all weather conditions were common. It was also the first time that Jon had ever used wing paddles and it took him quite a bit of time to get used to those.
There was speculation from some within the seakayaking community that Jon and Sean were in with a shot of potentially beating the record for the fastest circumnavigation of Ireland (at the time it was 25 days for Jeff Allen and Harry Whelan back in 2011). For Jon and Seán themselves, a potential record breaking attempt crossed their minds in the weeks leading up to it but it was far from a major aim. While they appreciated people’s faith and confidence in their abilities, their main priority was getting home safe to their families. As Jon explains “We knew we had the boats that were built for speed (they both were paddling Rockpool Tarans) but setting a record was very much dependent on favourable wind and weather conditions, something that is quite difficult to get in Ireland! And while it was never a primary goal to get the record, we weren’t looking to hang about either. It was to complete the journey in the fastest possible time that the conditions and safety considerations allowed.” Jon and Seán were also both mindful enough that they didn’t want to break each other in a pursuit of a record that may or may not have been attainable.
In the months leading up to the summer of 2015, the idea grew in Jon’s mind about making a documentary about their trip. Jon himself had been inspired by Brian Wilson’s 1998 book, Dances with Waves, and also by Harry Whelan & Jeff Allen’s video of their 2011 circumnavigation of Ireland. He recognised that this was a trip of a lifetime with a great friend, and it would be a great source of pride as an Irishman to paddle around his own country. Jon began to believe that if done correctly, his trip could leave a legacy of sorts to inspire other people in the way that he had been inspired by Dances with Waves. He approached Cian Walsh with an idea for making some form of a documentary. Jon and Cian first met a number of years ago when Cian got kayaking lessons from Jon, who had been running H20 Sea Kayaking in Kinsale at the time. Over the months and years, the client relationship turned into a friendship as they paddled more often together. Discussions were held between Cian, Jon and Seán and the plans were made to record their experience and make a documentary from it.
When they set off that early morning in June 2015, little did they realise at the time the challenges, problems and frustrations that lay ahead. But little too did they envision the adventures, the people and the sheer joy they would experience along the way. The summer of 2015 wasn’t a great summer in Ireland weather-wise and indeed, for much of the first week, Jon and Sean spent days traveling in near-zero visibility through dense fog that had descended among much of the southern and southwestern coastline. Heavy winds only added to the challenge. One of the highlights of the trip was when John and Seán finally rounded Loop Head in County Clare on 23rd June – a week after they had first set off. They kayaked through a narrow gap (known as Lover’s Leap) between the mainland and the giant sea stack called Diarmuid and Gráinne’s Rock. As can be seen in the documentary, their emotions were running high. “Absolutely stunning” was how Jon described it in the seconds after they emerged through the gap and his voice cracked as he struggled to find words that captured his feelings. When I spoke to him a few weeks afterwards, he still struggled to properly describe it. The emotions were a release of the struggles of the previous seven days paddling when the weather gods conspired to try and beat them every single day. Blisters and swelling on Jon’s hands didn’t help and he was forced at one stage to cut off his wedding ring as it was cutting into his swollen fingers. However, they dug deep, endured and paddled on.
Despite their struggles on the water at times, Jon and Seán were blown away by the support, warmth and generosity of the Irish people they met along the way. Offers of camping spots, places to wash and shower and dry clothes, meals and well intentioned acts of kindness made them really appreciate the very best our country has to offer. Many non-kayaking people had been following them by GPS tracker as they made their way along the coastline and turned up to meet them on their way. Their messages of support, well wishes and overall interest in the trip was a source of surprise and pride and were a major factor in keeping their spirits up along their way.
Malin Head on the Inishowen Peninsula of County Donegal is Ireland’s most northerly point. Many of Jon’s kayaking friends joked that once they had reached this landmark, the worst was over “and sure isn’t it downhill all the way from here”! On day 21, as they paddled towards Malin Head, Jon and Seán were desperately hoping this would be true, as the previous two days they had been severely restricted and hampered by the weather. In one thunder and lightning storm, Jon was making a difficult entry into his kayak when the vacuum lock broke on one of his GoPro cameras. He hadn’t yet had time to tether it to his kayak and as the camera sunk into the water, so too did 92 high-quality clips of their west of Ireland experiences. The joy of their achievement in finally reaching Malin Head is clearly visible on their faces on film. With their compasses now pointing south or “the right way!” as Jon puts it, there was a renewed sense of vigour and enthusiasm to their journey. However, a very difficult crossing of Belfast Lough, with winds blowing the top end of a Force 5, put paid to any notions that it would be an easy paddle home. They seized every opportunity they had to clock up the miles and make their way home. To take advantage of the light winds and favourable tide they made a spectacular 30km night time paddle along the County Wicklow coastline, before coming ashore at Wicklow Harbour.
As they paddled around Baginbun Head, east of Hook Head, Co. Wexford, they were forced to get off the water due to angry seas and winds well in excess of Force 5. Their plan was to sit out the worsening weather conditions and set up camp. However, it was while at rest onshore that disaster struck, threatening to scupper their dream. As Jon was on his way from his tent back down to the beach to check on their kayaks, a gust of wind caught him as he climbed over a fence. As he fell, his foot got caught in the top two rails of the fence. A loud crack had Jon convinced that he had broken his leg and his trip would be over, just three days from home. Such a scenario, Jon explained, “would crush me”. Winded with pain, he was unable to call out for help and it was some passers-by in a car, who had seen the accident happen that came to help. They called to Seán in the tent and after a few minutes, Jon got his breath back and he was able to give Sean some details. They decided on a course of action. After visiting a local sports physio – Jon had refused to go and see a doctor or visit a hospital fearing it would put an end to his trip within sight of home – he was reassured that, despite the swelling and pain, his leg wasn’t broken, but there was a lot of soft tissue damage. With some strapping and anti-inflammatories, he was convinced and determined to paddle the rest of the way back home. Jon was helped by the fact that the bad weather meant they remained on land for a few more days, and this time off the water gave his leg much needed healing time. It also allowed for a few basic repairs to their boats – including a repair to the floor of Seán’s kayak which had been worn away by his shoes!
On the 24th July 2015, Jon and Seán paddled through one final long sea arch along the Cork coast – “just a final little treat on our round Ireland by sea kayak”. They pulled into a nearby bay, a few miles from home, had a bite to eat and a small rest before they paddled their way to the same slipway they had departed 39 days previously. As they approached the final few hundred meters, they were greeted by a flotilla of kayaking friends and family. Jon’s daughter Aoife was paddling a kayak of her own while his other daughter Sinead was in a tandem with her mother Alayne. It was a moment of intese pride and joy for all involved. The embrace on the slipway between Jon and Seán was testament to the strength of their relationship and the fact that 39 days together in often very challenging and difficult conditions hadn’t destroyed the friendship, but rather had strengthened it. The celebrations continued in the nearby Speckled Door bar for many hours after!
During their trip, Jon and Seán also fundraised for a cause very close to their hearts. Cappanalea Outdoor Centre is based in Killorglin, Co. Kerry. Jon worked there as an instructor many years ago and Seán, a secondary school teacher, often brought his students on trips there. The Centre has a special focus on people with disabilities and making sure they have full access to the full range of activities on offer. To this end, they fundraised in order for a hoist to be installed that would allow wheelchair users to access the water in safety and comfort.
In the weeks and months following their trip, Jon has spoken of his delight at finally achieving his dream. But interestingly, he also mentions a sense of loss – that the trip is over. The routine of getting up early, preparing for many hours paddling, the connection they both had with the sea around them etc. Jon misses the peace and solitude that many hours on the water had brought him but this is tempered by the fact that he is back home safe and enjoying life with his family, and he has many more adventures ahead of him.
Their safe return was the end of one part of their adventure, but then another part began. Putting all the footage they had taken and making a documentary from it. This was where their good friend Cian Walsh came in as producer and director! “Cian is a real genius at things like this” Jon says. “The hours and effort he put in to making this a reality was massive”. The film was made on a shoestring budget – more like no budget! – and was largely filmed on GoPro cameras mounted on their kayaks and helmets. The result is the fantastic 45-minute documentary Sea Kayak Around Ireland available on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56kdWjqHdhc It was first shown at the 2015 ISKA symposium in Dungarvan along Ireland’s southeast Copper Coast and was very well received. Following a number of screenings in venues across the country, it was then subsequently released free to view online in December in an effort to share the adventure to as wide an audience as possible. It has since been nominated for the prestigious Irish Outside Magazine People of the Year award for Best Outdoor/Adventure film. It is the only kayaking film nominated in the category and people can still vote for it at the following link: https://apps.facebook.com/my-polls/form/yyqmkd
When I ask him how he feels about being nominated, he pauses and thinks for a few seconds. “I’m obviously very proud but…” another pause before continuing and he smiles broadly “but this is a fantastic result for Cian. He was the brains behind the operation. Yes, we paddled around Ireland, but it was he who brought our adventure to a much bigger audience…brought it to life.” And indeed he did. The documentary is an excellent account of what it was like to have paddled around Ireland. It captures all the emotions and the drama, the highs and the lows and contains some truly spectacular footage of the scenery along Ireland’s beautiful coastline. Jon, Sean and Cian have also created a website www.seakayakaroundireland.com that charted their journey and their plan is to make it a resource for any future kayakers who wish to embark on the 1500km paddle around Irish shores. Jon and Cian are also in the planning stage of making and releasing more adventure films together in the not too distant future.
So now that months have passed and with time for reflection, what are Jon’s favourite memories of the trip? He mentions his faith in Irish people – their generosity and support that they witnessed along their journey. It’s actually all about people rather than events or places. “Support from friends, people we met along the way, non-kayaking people who bought into the sport and their trip and their interest in our documentary since it has been released.” He also refers to a legacy that the documentary might hopefully have on a new batch of young kayakers, coming through the ranks – that they will be inspired to chase after their dreams. He is keen for people to view Ireland as one of the premier countries in the world for seakayaking. But he also wants to show people who might be considering the prospect of circumnavigating Ireland at some stage in the future. “The task is challengeable but doable.” Any regrets? “Regrets? No…no regrets, absolutely not.” Not even a small one that you didnt break any records? “No, it was never about that.” In any event, that same summer, and around the same time, Waterford-man Mick O’Meara smashed the previous record of 25 days, coming in after 23 days. It is a feat that leaves Jon shaking his head in total admiration “23 days, with 2 days off the water because of weather..and with the weather we had that time…imagine what he could have done if conditions were favourable? And all of that solo…with no support whatsoever… that is some achievement!”
At our last meeting, I ask Jon if he has put the whole sea kayaking around Ireland dream-become-reality firmly behind him now that he’s done it? He can barely get the words out fast enough: “God no,” he blurts out, “I’m going to do it again. I’d love to do it solo!” The name on his kayak is right: Dream Chaser!
To view Jon, Seán and Cian’s documentary visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56kdWjqHdhc
To vote for the documentary as best Outdoor/Adventure film at the Outside magazine awatds, please visit: