Words by Gene Cahill
Photos by Sandra Bickerdyke, Gene Cahill, Cian Walsh
“I can think of no other edifice constructed by man as altruistic as a lighthouse. They were built only to serve.” – George Bernard Shaw
The Fastnet Rock is an isolated outcrop situated approximately 19km off the coast of Baltimore and Schull, Co. Cork and lying about 7km off the eastern tip of Cape Clear Island. It is the most southern point of Irish soil. It’s name in Irish is Carraig Aonair, which translates as the Lone Rock. Its old Norse-name Hvastann-ey means Sharp-toothed Island. They are apt names for this rock which is also known as the ‘Teardrop of Ireland – a physical manifestation of a lament to hundreds of thousands of Irish migrants making their way across the Atlantic to escape famine, poverty and unemployment. The rock, and in later years its lighthouse, would be their last sight of Irish soil as they crossed the Atlantic to distant shores. On a more positive note, for those making the opposite journey from America – sailors, traders, passengers and merchant seamen, the rock and its lighthouse would be a source of hope and acknowledgement that their Atlantic crossing was almost at an end.
Built upon this rock is a granite lighthouse, completed in 1904 under the guidance of renowned Lighthouse builder and Chief Engineer William Douglass. The construction of the lighthouse was commissioned by the Commissioners of Irish Lights to replace an existing cast-Iron lighthouse that was built in 1854. The original tower stood on the highest pinnacle of the rock but even then, it was pounded by the strong Atlantic swell and ferocious waves, and after a similar cast-iron lighthouse on Calf Rock, Bantry Bay was snapped in a heavy storm in 1881, it was decided to construct a totally new tower on the Fastnet. In an ingenious and audacious engineering design, Douglass decided to construct the base of the lighthouse on the harder slate, below high-water level at the water’s edge. This meant that the 54m-high tower would receive the blow of the heaviest seas before they reached full height. On its completion in 1904, the light – the strongest of its day – had the strength of 1.3 million candles and at 22 miles, its glow was still visible across the surface of the sea.
In the early years of the 20th century, the Fastnet Lighthouse on a lone rock standing against the fierce Atlantic Swell had become, in the words of the most celebrated Irish astronomer of the time Sir Robert Ball, “from the navigator’s point of view, the most important outpost in Europe.”
Since then, the rock has taken on a mystique and aura of its own. Elaine Bunting, editor with Yachting World, has described the Fastnet as being both “beautiful and deadly” – as famous and notorious in its way as Cape Horn. “Often shrouded in low cloud and beset by strong winds and seas from a succession of Atlantic lows, it was a place where ships could – and did – come to grief.” For sea kayakers in Ireland, it holds a special place. It is on the bucketlist for most of us and it is hard to describe the pull of this lone rock. But it pulls nonetheless!
My first encounter with the Fastnet, was through the pages of Nick Ward’s terrifying book “Left for Dead: Surviving the Deadliest Storm in Sailing History”. The book recounted Ward’s own experiences in 1979 during the world famous Fastnet Race. The race is a 608-mile adventure, beginning at the Isle of White on the south coast of the UK, sailing around the Fastnet Rock 8 miles off Ireland’s southwest coast and looping back before finishing off the UK coast at Plymouth. During the 1979 race, one of the worst storms in modern history resulted in the deaths of 15 sailors and three rescuers during the race.
It wasn’t until a 2014 kayaking trip to Roaringwater Bay in West Cork, that I saw the Fastnet for myself and suddenly heard its call. I had a few kayaking friends who had successfully kayaked out to it and I was drawn to their stories of their journeys out there. There was an awe and respect with which they spoke of this Lone Rock. They had made the journey both from the mainland and by using Cape Clear island as a launching pad. At only 7km off the eastern side of Cape Clear, the length involved – a return trip of 14km of open ocean crossing (about 5km more if you wanted to include a safe place to launch/return to from Cape Clear) – didn’t sound overly long or unmanageable. But that was without considering the ever-changing winds and ferocious seas that were not uncommon to the area. Add to that, its history, mystique and notorious reputation and suddenly the task became much more daunting. In his authoritative book on Irish islands – Oileáin – David Walsh warns that it is “one of the most exposed lighthouse island landings, always subject to surge and scend. Certainly few kayakers get here, because it is remote, but far few still go ashore, because to do so is so difficult”.
As I kayaked around the eastern tip of Cape Clear back in 2014, and gazed the 7km across the Atlantic swell at this solitary rock and lighthouse, I immediately understood both the awe and respect my friends had for this rock. Although relatively small in size compared to the vast ocean and open space around it, the Fastnet nevertheless exerted a tremendous pull, far outweighing it physical presence. One of my friends on that trip – Sandra Bickerdyke – also sensed it and said simply to me “someday”. To non-kayakers, it might seem crazy and maybe it is. But if you’ve ever sat in a sea kayak and seen the Fastnet, you will understand its attraction. Impossible to put accurately into words but it casts its spell.
Over the next three years, some more of my kayaking friends reached the Fastnet. One of my friends – Cian Walsh – managed the very enviable achievement of actually landing on it. For me however, it remained elusive. My kayaking skills improved in those years and my confidence on the water and understanding of the seas also developed. At the start of summer 2017, I had determined that this would be the summer I would do it. I was keeping a close eye on the weather, winds and tides while trying to juggle family and work commitments. In August, a trip with three friends had to be abandoned after a few kilometres. What started as a beautiful sunny day changed suddenly as unexpected and unforecast low lying fog, strong winds and rough seas replaced the calm conditions we had initially set out in.
A group of us had planned a kayaking/camping trip for Roaringwater Bay for the weekend of the 15th/16th September. We knew the Fastnet would loom over the weekend but we made no definite plans, focusing instead on exploring some of the many beautiful islands dotted around this most scenic part of Ireland. However, in the days leading up to it, weather conditions seemed to be changing for the better and we kept close watch on a high-pressure front due to move into the area. When 6 of us departed Baltimore at 9.30am on Saturday morning, our plan was to lunch on Cape Clear island and then kayak across and camp on Middle Calf island for the night. However, on our journey across, with the forecast conditions improving all the time, the realisation hit us that the Fastnet could be an option the following day. We changed our plans and set up camp off a small rocky beach just off Cape Clear’s North Harbour. An evening of stories, laughter, whisky and more laughter followed and we went to bed with the plan to be on the water for about 9-9.30am the following morning and make a call on a trip to the Fastnet.
Sunday 16th September arrived with blue sky, a light Easterly F3 wind and by 9.30 we were into the last hour of an ebbing tide. Fastnet was on! It was obvious from the sea conditions that a trip out was manageable but it was highly unlikely that a landing would be possible. The easterly wind was a cause for caution for while being behind us on the outward journey, we knew we would have it against us on the more tiring return journey. Patrick, Sandra and myself left our campsite and headed off to Fastnet at 9.40am. Two of our other friends had already been to Fastnet and they bade us farewell and good luck! As we paddled free of Cape Clear we agreed to continue only as long as we were all comfortable with the conditions. The first 30 minutes, we were closing the gap to the Fastnet but it didn’t appear to change in size as our distance closed. I was trying not to get my hopes up but I knew I was really close to completing this bucket list adventure. Then about 3 kms out from the Rock, we began to note the change in appearance. It was visibly much closer now and we were able to make out some of the features of both the rock itself and the lighthouse.
As I looked, I couldn’t help but admire and marvel at the audaciousness and effort that must have gone into constructing a lighthouse on this rock. Granite blocks were bought from John Freeman and Sons in Penryn, Cornwall. They were carried on a specially built ship, the SS Ierne, and lifted onto the rock by means of carefully constructed pulleys and masts. The foreman of the whole project, James Kavanagh, personally set every single one of the 2,074 granite blocks that made up the tower. The rocks had been specifically cut with dovetail joints in all directions which interlocked and gave extra strength to the tower. It meant that no individual stone could be removed from the tower, without all the stones above it being removed first. This dovetailing bonds the stones and creates the huge 54-metre high monolith which is the tower. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like at the height of its construction when 22 workers lived on this rock, building the lighthouse as ocean and wind hammered at the rock. I observed a large black cylinder which I recognised as the remains of the original cast-iron tower. The original tower had been taken down in 1904 but its lower room had been left intact and converted into an oil store. I could see the uneven steps – almost chiselled into the rock as they led upwards from the waterline – imagining waves coming crashing over those who were building them. The small helipad area was visible above me as I floated and bobbed beneath it.
My observations were interrupted by noticeably more turbulent waters which are common in the 200-meters around the rock. We were here! To say I was delighted would be an understatement but it is difficult to put into words exactly how i felt. Relief, happiness, pride, a feeling of achievement and a massive sense of awe and respect for both the sea and the rock all collided in my mind as I realised I was finally here. The same feelings were visible on the faces of my two paddle buddies that day – Patrick and Sandra. It was just over three years and 2 weeks ago, that Sandra had said to me “someday” when we first sighted the Fastnet in our sea kayaks. That “someday” was now! With the tide at the low water mark, and the conditions at the rock a bit ‘sporty’, a landing was out of the question, so we paddled around and under the rock and took in its magnificence.
I thought of how this small rock had borne witness to so much maritime history over the preceeding hundred or so years. Fastnet would have been the last bit of land ever seen by the 1,503 victims of the Titanic disaster in 1912. Just over three years later, during the first week of May 1915, lighthouse keepers on the Fastnet reported to the Royal Navy that they had seen German U-boat activity nearby. By midmorning of the 7th May, the RMS Lusitania was passing the Fastnet rock. There was lowlying cloud in the area that obscured the rock although some passengers claimed they saw the Fastnet while others stated they were unable to see it. Nobody on board reported seeing any sign of the submarine which was also lurking in the waters nearby. For some of those who saw the Fastnet that morning, it was the only glimpse of land they would ever sight again. Later in the afternoon at 2.10pm, the same submarine known to be in the area, U-20, fired a single torpedo at the Lusitania, 12 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale, Co. Cork. Within 18 minutes, the ship had sunk beneath the surface with a loss of 1,198 lives. The Fastnet was also the scene of a daring attack by Irish military forces during the Irish War of Independence. During the conflict, the British army stored arms and ammunitions on the Fastnet. Because of its location and the British belief that it would be impossible for anyone to successfully land and attack it, the stores were left unguarded. On the night of 29th June 1921, a raiding party of 12 Irish Volunteers set out on a 24-foot boat, the Máire Cáit, and headed for the Fastnet. Around midnight, the boat reached the rock and Irish Volunteers’ Schull batallion commander John O’Regan, stood on the prow of the boat with a rope looped around his waist. When a wave lifted the boat, he leaped onto the rock and in the absence of any jetty, tied the rope to the steel ring attached to a rock and hauled the Máire Cáit in. The lighthouse keeper on duty offered no resistance, and when the boat departed over an hour later, the IRA had acquired 17 boxes of guncotton and three boxes of primers and detonators.
The swell around the base of the rock brought back memories to me of the first time I had really read anything about the Fastnet. I thought of the 1979 Force 10 storm described in Left for Dead with such a tragic loss of life. I wondered what the rock and lighthouse itself must have been like in such a storm as the waves pounded mercilessly against this lonely remote outpost. I looked up at the height of the 54-metre tower and tried to comprehend the size and power of the wave that crashed into the 49-metre high light in 1985, smashing the glass and overturning the vat of mercury on which the light rotated, sending the toxic liquid spilling down the stairs. In more recent times, the Fastnet was the backdrop for a dramatic rescue during the 2011 Fastnet Race when the 100-foot Maxi Rambler 100 capsized in rough water soon after rounding the Rock. The Irish Coastguard coordinated the rescue and response, and thankfully no lives were lost, but it served as a grim reminder of the power and unforgiving nature of the seas I was floating on in my kayak.
We took a few photos of the Lighthouse and rock but the crashing waves against the base kept us on our toes and we were careful not to outstay our welcome. My friend, Brian Wills said to me earlier in the morning before we set off that “the Fastnet isn’t a place you want to hang around too long.” Heeding his warning, we bade farewell to An Charraig Aonair and began the paddle home.
The 11km back to the North Harbour of Cape Clear was spent mostly in silence. We had a stiff easterly breeze blowing on our faces, and though we had the flooding tide behind us, our return journey was considerably longer than our outward one. When we finally entered North Harbour 2 hours later, we heaved a collective sigh of relief and hoop of delight! We had done it! We had answered the Fastnet’s call. It was not the Siren call of destruction or anything mythological. It was a call more real but equally magical. We were greeted and congratulated by our three friends on shore – two of whom had made the trip previously. We packed and stowed away our camping gear before enjoying lunch and sitting back into our kayaks for the 12km return journey home to the mainland.
My trip to the Fastnet was as much about the history of the rock and its lighthouse as the paddle itself. I love learning about the history of the places I paddle because it gives my kayaking trips more meaning. If I took anything from this trip however, it was respect. My parents always raised me to respect the water and when I started kayaking, this respect only increased. My trip to Fastnet cemented my respect, not only for nature, the ocean and its power but for many other things: respect for my kayaking friends who made the journey before me, for I was only following in their paddle wake; respect for my kayaking friends who paddled out with me that morning; respect for the builders who braved wind and sea in the construction of the lighthouse in such a lonely and remote outpost and respect for the men of the Commissioners of Irish Lights who served on the rock between 1904 and 1989. Although magnificent in its own way, the lighthouse itself is aesthetically plain and similar to many others. There was no ego behind its construction. It wasn’t a vain attempt at highlighting wealth or power. As George Bernard Shaw said, the only purpose of a lighthouse was to serve. And so it was with the many lighthouse keepers who served on Fastnet, keeping ships safe as they approached or departed the Irish coastline. To paraphrase Eddie Vedder, from the Pearl Jam song Force of Nature, these men stood at the edge of the ocean, a beacon on dry land. Their eyes above the horizon, in the dark before the dawn.
As the door closed behind the last lighthouse keeper of Fastnet in March of 1989, following its conversion to an automated system, it signified the end of an era. Even though the light on Fastnet still shines, visible at 27 miles and with the brightness of 2.5 million candelas, the rock is once more the Carraig Aonair. A lone rock at the edge of Ireland rising out of, and standing against, the mighty Atlantic Ocean. A drop in the ocean. A teardrop but a powerful one at that. A calling that has been, and will always be, answered by sea kayakers.
i. Light on a Lonely Rock: http://www.economist.com/node/12792727
iv. Walsh, David, Oileán, available at http://www.oileain.org
vii. Hoehling, Adolph A. & Hoehling, Mary, “The Last Voyage of the Lusitania”, Rowmand & Littlefield (page 92)
viii. McKenna, Joseph, “Guerrilla Warfare in the Irish War of Independence 1919-1921”, MacFarland & Co. 2011. (pages 217-18)