Learning the sea at Doolin Bay & Crab Island

The Cliffs of Moher, (aka The Cliffs of Insanity in the Princess Bride movie)
The Cliffs of Moher, (aka The Cliffs of Insanity in the Princess Bride movie)

I want to take you on a trip out west. Not south-west to the island that you could expect, Sandycove Island. This time, it’s west to County Clare we go and a different but also special bay and island, another island that like Sanycove, many have seen but few have known and fewer have appreciated, a few of those whose hearts are given to the sea each in their own way; surfers, divers, and this one swimmer. Before the Copper Coast and Sandycove Island and the English Channel it’s the place where I learned the most about the sea, even though I was not often aware what I was learning.

First sight of Crab Island & Doolin Bay with a big swell
First sight of Crab Island & Doolin Bay with a big swell

Crab Island is on the west coast of Ireland, about 500 metres off Doolin Pier, in County Clare to be precise. The island itself is the remnant of the mainland,  If you know how to approach Doolin in the best way, taking the tiny back hill road from Lahinch over the hill, you will crawl along, carefully avoiding the occasional local inhabitant and/or surfer who knows this road. You climb up out of Lahinch, up the hills at the land side of the Cliffs of Moher, and half a mile before you cross the coast road, you will crest the hill. The spectacle of the Aran Islands, the Clare coast, outer Galway Bay, Doolin Bay and Point and Crab Island suddenly present themselves, no slow unveiling but a dramatic entrance.

Beyond Doonagore Castle the Crab Beast roars
Beyond Doonagore Castle the Crab Beast roars. Inissheer Island is on the horizon.

If the sea is in your heart and blood, and if a westerly Atlantic ground-swell is running, I cannot describe the sensation of excitement mixed with awe and fear, that the sight of the swell roaring off Crab and into Doolin Bay can bring, and that fear can only come from personal experience.

Crab Island (just Crab as it’s known) is legendary amongst Irish and a few of the world’s surfers. Big Crab describes when a westerly groundswell, originating in the western Atlantic or Caribbean hit the west coast, with an easterly off-shore wind, is a notoriously heavy wave with a technically difficult right-handed wave (which means it breaks from left to right as you ride it).

Breaking Crab, lethal at high tide
Breaking Crab, lethal at high tide

Crab can hold very big waves and regularly breaks boards and bodies. A heavy wave is a surfer’s description for a wave that has volume, front-to-back depth, and speed. The rest  would call it a serious or scary wave. Heavy waves can be moderately sized but generally these are the waves that grace the covers of surf magazines and that the surf companies use for their ads.

The notorious wave breaks on the outside of the tiny island onto a series of flat reefs, the only hint of mercy, though a hard rock is still a hard rock, and is impossible at high tide. A deeper channel separates the island and is the most usual access and exit, but when the swell is big enough, the wave outside the island can break the whole way across the channel.

The most obvious breaking wave, the one that grabs the attention of anyone land-side because of its closeness and immediacy is Doolin Peak, which breaks right in front on the limestone terraces. Standing in front of this wave is like standing in front of the ocean’s maw, where the ground can shake and even the landlubbers realise how insignificant we can be compared to the sea.

Doolin Point A July29 03 (cropped)
Doolin Point breaking big. Spring 1999

And then, south and left of the peak is Doolin beach and bay, more forgiving than Crab but which nonetheless can hold a big wave.

Doolin Point_MG_2364-resized

Holding a wave means that a  particular location will allow waves to break cleanly as the swell size grows. Most locations can’t hold a big wave, most beaches can’t hold a big swell as the bathymetry, (the shape of the sea bottom) transition is too gradual from deep to shallow. Reefs like Crab allow a sudden transition from deep to shallow, which increases power, speed and predictability.

Doolin beach
Doolin beach. Bigger than you think.

In recent years the discovery of one of Ireland’s two globally known tow-in wave spots, Aileens (discovered by Waterford surfer and Clare resident John McCarthy, the other being Mullaghmore in Sligo), only a few miles away under the Cliffs of Moher, has eclipsed Crab but only because for the media and the average viewer, big is the only measurement that counts.

But you should visit Crab Island if you can as soon as possible. Because as we all know, anything good in Ireland will be touched if not ruined by uncaring planning decisions, and there is a current proposal to extend the Aran Islands ferry pier to such an extent that it will threaten the existence of these famous waves and location by forcing backwash of the wall back into the breaks. Efforts to contest or change the proposal continue.

Cliffs of Moher from Doolin Point_MG_2404-resized
Cliffs of Moher seen from Doolin Point, their immense height not easily apparent

 What did I learn at Crab and Doolin over my years visiting?

  • I learned about ground-swell. Transatlantic, two thousand miles swell. Swell that reaches to the horizon.
  • I learned about waves so big and powerful and close that the dry land you are standing on quakes when they break.
  • I learned about a sound that I can never describe; a sound that is difficult to record, the sound that only comes with big swell. A sound that combines the wind, the muted roar of  breakers, the scrape of rocks on the sea bottom. A sound that is almost below sound, that you feel as much as you hear, but if you aren’t attuned to it, passes you by. 
  • I learned the effect that minute shifts of wind have on the sea state. Crab is notorious for requiring just the precise amount of wind, from just the right direction. Too strong and you can’t launch off the lip, any hint of south or north in the wind and Crab becomes impossible or blown-out.
  • I learned about being offshore. Paddling out on a board to get to somewhere dangerous at sea with no possibility of assistance. Sometimes even on a surf-board the paddle out could take twenty-five minutes due the heavy wash into the channel. From the main-land the island looks so close, from the break on the far side, the mainland looks so far away.
  • I learned limits. Crab was sometimes at the limits of my ability, often beyond and which it was on any given day I only found out when I was out there. I once surfed there for three hours, on my biggest board, on the biggest day I’d ever seen there, and only caught one wave. And that one wave still sometimes looms in my dreams.
  • I learned the terror of being at the top of a two storey high wave looking down, with rocks in front of you and a nuclear mushroom cloud of white water to your left and behind you. And you not sure your board is big enough or you can paddle fast enough or have the skill to go right, down the line and into the safety of the Channel. But it’s too late, and you have to commit, you have to commit 100% or you will be crushed.
  • I learned about being prepared for the sea, having once been slammed head first into the outside reef of the island by a big set wave as I was clambering across, and then dragged across the rocks, destroying the board, and surviving inly because I never surfed Crab without a helmet, that simple precaution saving my life.
  • I learned another time what it is like to be sure the sea is about to kill you and what it is like to be about to die, which all happened in a few seconds as I rode a big one into the Channel and then had a multiple wave hold-down..
  • I learned what it is like to then not die, to be spit out by the sea and to know you can never explain what those few seconds were like. Seconds that were valuable years later, seconds that came back when I was in the Channel, when people asked me what went through my mind when I was trapped under the pilot-boat. When all I can say is how bright the bottom of the boat and the sea was turquoise with sunlight gleaming in rays past the keel. When in truth I was also thinking about that green deep under the water at Crab that I knew would be the last thing I saw.
  • More than anywhere else, I learned to never step into the sea without respect for it in my heart, and even when it might not be conscious respect, Crab crashed it into my bones until it became part of me.
Swimming with a bottlenose dolpin at Doolin Pier
Swimming with a Bottlenose dolphin off Doolin Pier, yours truly in the orange cap, the scuba divers were a bit… surprised that I was in without a wetsuit. The water temp was 6.8C.

Recommended links

A Tour of Lough Hyne (FermoyFish.com)

There’s no such thing as a freak wave (loneswimmer.com)

 

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