Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Eleventh Letter

Dearest Ireland,

Several months ago I remember sitting in Ted and Leah's living room in Port Orange, FL and talking about my summer plans to be in Ireland.  I mentioned that I was trying to get in shape so I could climb the 612 steep, winding steps of Skellig Michael, a rocky outcrop off the Kerry coast with 1500 year old monastic ruins at the top. Ted, knowing his mother-in-law is no exercise fanatic, rolled his eyes cynically and asked if I realized how many stories high 612 steps would be.  I think I snarled at him.

So knowing that Ted and Leah would be visiting Ireland in August, Doc and I decided to include them in our adventure.  We reserved four spots on the tour boat that takes brave, acrophobia-defying souls across the seven miles of Atlantic Ocean to "Scary Michael".  It was good we booked in advance because the excursion has become very popular this summer due to the latest Star Wars filming there.  Each boat is limited to twelve passengers and we had to call several captains before we found four seats with Captain Dan.

He told us the Celtic Victor would only set out weather permitting.  I wondered what kind of weather would be considered "permitting".  It rains and blows almost every day along the southwest coast.  Dan sounded skeptical on the phone so I thought we shouldn't get our hopes up.

But of course we all did.  We were giddy with anticipation the night before the trip.  We stayed right in Portmagee near the docks so we could get a reasonably good night's sleep and be on time for our 9:00 launch.  Leah had not been feeling well (maybe a little food poisoning, she thought) but was not deterred at all.  I prayed hard for all of us to be well and for a warm, sunshiny morning.

And my prayer could not have been more beautifully answered. When we woke, the air was sparkling and we passed around the sunscreen as we excitedly piled in the car.

When we reached the pier, Doc walked straight up to the first man he saw and engaged in conversation.  I wondered if it was someone he had recognized from Thurles.  When I joined him, I discovered it was Captain Dan he was talking to.  I still don't know how Doc knew who he was right away.  An Irish man thing, I guess.

Captain Dan had a grave, foreboding look on his face.  He said the weather out at sea was very bad.  Really? How could that be when it was perfect at the dock? Obviously, I am not a sea person.

The plan was to give it a try, but we were told over and over that if we could not disembark safely at the island, we would turn back. Safety was the top priority.  I was good with that......sort of. I might have been willing to risk a small fracture or two, but definitely not drowning.  So when all twelve of us were aboard, precariously seated six on a side like eggs, Captain Dan revved the engine.

As soon as we cleared the harbor, we understood with the clarity of Yoda.  The waves were not choppy.....they were huge, rolling fields of spray that took us by surprise. We were already getting soaked when the first mate started passing out rain suits and tying up barriers behind our backs.  We were on a seafaring ferris wheel, rising and falling and churning miserably and yet, laughing and joking like carnival clowns.

It's been a long time since I had motion sickness.  Still I took precautions and tried to stare at the horizon, which was difficult because it kept disappearing under the boat. Smiling, innocent faces among the passengers  turned 40 shades of green to match the Irish pastures we were leaving behind.  Eyes closed two by two, as we tried to anchor ourselves with our feet so as not to go bounding across the deck.  It was an hour long episode of Deadliest Catch and as Skellig Michael grew closer,  I was praying we could get off the boat there, even if we had to be air lifted.

When the motor finally stopped, we had to wait for another boat to clear the landing ramp (it's probably not called landing ramp) in the little cove for our turn to step off. We held on tight to whatever was available and, each time the boat rose on a crest, the first mate hoisted one of us off as if we were sacks of flour at a loading zone (well, we were still partially standing, I think).  By this time I had almost forgotten about the challenge of climbing to the monastery.  I felt victorious having survived  the Celtic Victor.

It took very little time to lose our sea legs and feel steady again. We gathered with the passengers from a couple of other boats to hear a guide give us warnings of all the dangers about.  I wondered if he knew what we had just come from.  He encouraged us to "turn back" if we felt exhausted as we climbed to the summit.  But he also said anyone who was "moderately fit" shouldn't have a problem. And, by the way, the boat leaves to go back in less than two hours.

This made me nervous. What if I were the only one who couldn't make it? I looked around....lots of young, backpack toting millennials with ponytails and water bottles.  I remembered how long it took me to reach the top of the Devil's Bit last summer, though everyone said it was more of a walk than a hike.  I'd had to take a long rest halfway up.

There was nothing for it now but to start stepping.  The steps, made by the monks so long ago, were irregular and uneven...some made of one large stone and some made of smaller flat stones jammed together. The landscape was stunning and we four walked together slowly, stopping often, not from fatigue, but to take it all in.

We were disappointed that the seasonal puffins had already flown away, but everything else was dazzling.  There was an other-worldly feel about the place that was both eerie and calming.... gray and haunting.  I imagined the strong wind at my back was the ghosts of those early monks nudging me along, and I was shocked when we reached the top so quickly.  I must actually be "moderately fit" after all.

Another guide was waiting for us to explain about the monastery: the beehive huts where the monks slept, the church, stone crosses and modest graveyard. We wandered around taking pictures, peeping into nooks, ducking into the beehives, admiring the architecture almost in disbelief. Then it was time to start our descent.

Now the wind was in our faces and we estimated it was truly hurricane strength (and we Floridians know what that feels like).  We could hardly stand against it as we eased ourselves back down the slope.  It wasn't hard to imagine how every year there are serious accidents here and sometimes even fatalities. I was relieved when we hit sea level once again.

Getting on the boat was easier than getting off but, as we cleared the cove, the waves seemed even bigger than before.  There was a serious silence on the way back.  I'd like to think we were all meditating on the splendor and majesty of Skellig Michael, but I know in my heart we were just mostly tired and/or sick. I felt both.  I am not embarrassed to say that I was the only one courageous enough to swallow her pride and upchuck her breakfast over the side.  I hoped the couple down wind from me didn't notice.  I felt much better afterwards.

Thank you, dear Ireland, for another story, another treasured memory and interested readers to share it with.


  1. Brilliant post, Kim! Your words brought back all the great memories of that wonderful day. But, you did leave out one very important detail: I saw a EUROPEAN STORM PETREL on the way back! Despite the rough seas, the birding was amazing! I will forever cherish the memories of our trip to Scary Michael and Smelly Skelly.

    1. Had I only known, I would have devoted several paragraphs to the petrel. The fifth member of our party, your binoculars, was a very welcome and entertaining guest.