I remember sitting one evening around November time 2013 in the Ramore Restaurant in Portrush having dinner with my friend Karen Mitchel. Karen is a nurse and had been helping out as a medic for north coast big wave surfer, the legendary Al Mennie. We had been discussing, in awe, his paddle from Northern Ireland to Scotland!
I had gotten into stand up paddle boarding while living in New York in 2007. Back then, it was the new craze and people were starting to do long distance paddles around places such as Manhattan. It was something that had sparked my interest. Al’s challenge was really inspiring but I was well aware how difficult and dangerous that would have been in the North Atlantic Ocean.
Alan Simpson Simpson had also completed a gruelling 37 mile stand up paddle around that time along the River Ban. This took 7 hours and 20 mins which was also an incredible feat!
Karen was asking me what kind of long distance paddle I would like to do. I thought paddling to Scotland was way out of my league and comfort zone. I decided I would be a lot happier hugging the coast. I remember the idea just came to me as we were talking. I could just join the dots! I had only been home a short time at this point, but I had managed to pick up a new paddle board and had paddled parts of Belfast Lough. I had also paddled a little along the Antrim Coast and parts of the North Coast. So maybe I could try to paddle the coastal route from Portballintrae on the North Coast to Belfast Lough on the East Coast? When I measured the distance, it was 75 miles and would probably take 3 or more days. I would have to do a lot of training and research though as there were strong currents to deal with along the rugged north coast. Also Rathlin sound was well known as a hazard to shipping from early times. The turbulent water and large whirlpools have caused several well documented ship wrecks. Some of the other notably tricky areas included crossing Larne Harbour and Belfast Lough.
This was just a thought in the back of my mind when my cousin Allyson Bell was diagnosed with breast cancer and it was terminal. Her family was really keen to try anything to help her get better and had heard of a special treatment she could try in Canada which would cost £60000.00. Our family and friends decided to try raising the funds her her so she could give it a try. I decided that this was the push I needed to do my long distance paddle 75 miles from Portballintrae to Belfast.
The training began and I was glad I took the advice from Alan Brannagh to upgrade my paddle board to my sturdy, reliable and fast M1 Mistral racing board. This trusty board has served me extremely well in the ocean during choppy conditions, rips and swell.
I wanted to say a huge thank you to Al Mennie who generously gave me tips on training, funding, safety etc. I definitely wouldn’t have been prepared for it without his help. Also a big thank you to Gavin Knox, who accompanied me around the coast sharing his all his local knowledge. It is so good to be one step ahead and aware of any dangers along the coast. I also got a lot of help from Ballycastle Harbour master and James Duncan who was a great help with advice on how to get around Torr Head. My friend Richard Wasson a master yachts man and coast guard helped me understand and read the tide so I knew I was paddling with it and not against it.
Big thank you to my boyfriend back then Richard McIlmoyle for being my on-land support. Keeping an eye on things from the land. Also big thank you to Gerry Mehan an experienced cross channel swimmer who offered his services as a rescue boat. Very kindly Joyce Ferder offered to come and take photos along the way and Karen Mitchel was my wonderful medic. Also a big thank you to Sean Quinn who decided to help fundraise. He ran the route along the road while I was in the sea.
It was hard going around 7-9 hours a day for 3 consecutive days but I managed to do it in spring 2014! I remembered thinking after…never again!
Sadly Allyson did not survive her treatment which was very tragic and a huge loss to our family. The £3000 raised went to Marie Curie and expenses to help the family pay for travelling back and forth from Canada. Allyson was beautiful inside and out and our last conversations with her in Canada she was making quilted bedspreads for everyone.
I got married in 2015 to Richard and had my son in 2016. Not long after I was back thinking about what my next long distance paddle challenge would be. I wanted to try something longer and came up with the idea of doing Belfast to Dublin. I would be hugging the coast again, this time for 100miles. Some of the more notable problem areas would be crossing Strangford and Carlingford Lough. More strong currents and dangerous whirlpools to watch out for. I wanted to fundraise for the RNLI this time, as I know how dangerous the sea is and the life boat crew are so incredibly brave risking their own lives to help save others at sea. But the idea of paddling 7 hours a day or so for 4 days in a row was not appealing. Besides I was already juggling work and childcare at home. I didn’t have the time to put in all the training that I would need to do.
In September 2019 I decided to give it a go but to take it easy maybe just going from harbour to harbour to get warmed up.
Once I got down the east coast to Strangford Lough I was hoping I would be feeling stronger and more prepared for some longer distances. Maybe I could do the last leg to Dublin in one go? There were no rules to this, it was my challenge to myself and I could do it as I liked!
So in Autumn of 2019 I started making my way out of Belfast Lough, harbour to harbour and down along the Ards Peninsula.
Big thank you to coast guard Stuart McMeekin who I still regularly quiz about conditions and ideas on how to do sections safety. Also Lynn Gilmore (Browne) who was a member of the RNLI and helped me understand the dangers of crossing Strangford Lough.
I didn’t get too far though because by winter 2019 I had to stop as the wind was picking up and it was getting was too stormy. Then in the New Year of 2020 unfortunately covid struck and we were unable to travel anywhere so everything ground to a halt.
Summer 2020 we were out of lock down but there were travel restrictions. I was incredibly busy teaching paddle board lessons as everyone had to spend that summer at home. It was September 2020 when things quietened down a bit and I got back to my challenge. I continued my way, slowly again, down the east coast. I had been stressing out about crossing Strangford Lough, so it was a huge relief getting that done and safely on 14th September 2020.
Back tracking a little now…but during the summer of 2020 I got word that my dear friend Ailish, whom I met in New York, was terminally ill with cancer and had been given a month to live! Ailish Keating was returning home now with her daughter, to be with her family in Ireland. I was deeply shocked and upset by the news. Our friends in America were fundraising for her. I was wondering what I could do to help. Not being one for baking buns, I thought another long distance paddle fundraiser would work. The only part of the coast left for me to paddle in Northern Ireland was the North Coast. As Ailish was from the South of Ireland and I was from the North. I thought I would start from Donegal in the south of Ireland and finish in Portballintrae in the north of Ireland. Again just joining the dots where I had left off from the first big paddle. This would be just over 20 miles and I was hoping to do it in one go. The most obvious dangers here would be passing a firing range at Magilligan and another notoriously dangerous Lough Foyle.
I had run each of these ideas past Al Mennie again to see if it would be doable. He gave me the thumbs up with lots of advice on how to tackle it. He actually joined me for the first part of this crossing Lough Foyle which I did in October 2020. The border was closed due to covid so I couldn’t start in Donegal, I had to paddle across from Magilligan and back again. That was definitely the toughest part of the day and I was really glad Al was there. The whole paddle just over 20 miles took around 5 hours and 20 mins and was particularly special as I was lucky enough to encounter a beautiful pod of dolphins at Portrush just before Ramore Head. Huge thank you to Dave Bustard and his son Adam who were my trusty safety boat crew and an amazing help that day. Also thank you to Portrush Yacht Club for letting us use their rib. Thank you to Michelle Michelle McTernan for all her help getting the word out to the press. We raised £3000 for Ailish that she used to invest in a bio mat and I am thrilled to report that Ailish is doing extremely well and has bounced back to health again!
More lock down restrictions, covid passports and what not. I still needed to complete my 100 mile paddle which was really dragging along at this point. Got back to it February 2021 paddling out of Strangford Lough and slowly made my way down the coast to Carlingford. Here I hit a personal milestone of having paddled the whole way around Northern Ireland!!!! Pretty chuffed with that!!!! During the spring and summer of 2022, I really got some momentum going and was feeling up to covering bigger distances again. I powered my way down the coast and finally get to Dublin October 2022. Relieved that at long last I can tick the box, the “100 mile paddle to Dublin” as now complete!!!
I am very grateful to everyone who has helped me and sponsored me along the way. Especially for the wonderful support I get from my husband and son, enabling me to do my long distance paddles and making them now fun family trips away.
Thank you to the local coast guards who I check in with during all my long distance paddles. I always feel safer just checking in with them before setting off and straight after I land. They keep me posted about anything else I may not have calculated into my paddle like sea fog and firing ranges in areas etc.
I am still fundraising for the RNLI life boats, if you have sponsored me already THANK YOU so much. If you would still like to, here is the link to my just giving page.
You can also watch all the videos of the whole journey if you follow me on Facebook.