* A DIRTY BIRTHDAY KISS * DRYING OUT AND NAKED PROBLEM SOLVING * SMALL BOAT REFLECTIONS *
“Cruising Cork and Kerry.” The title of our portage book. Reading in my head with an Irish accent, I thought it was some whimsical slogan, but learned that it’s just the names of the two southwestern counties of Ireland which we would be exploring. Looking at a chart, the jagged coast is indented with long bays, nooks and crannies that makes summertime cruising popular here.
But first things first. My birthday. We were still in Kinsale when I turned 32, and I had yet to don and twirl my free-spirit traveler robes. Regardless, I felt a responsibility to muster some semblance of desire for my special day. So I picked an interesting castle just a bus ride away, which would take us through Cork city as well, offering an opportunity to see a more urban side of Ireland.
The castle seemed to have beautiful grounds, including fern gardens, an old growth Yew grove, and a mansion which offered tours. Seemed quaint and simple, a good easy choice. But as we rolled into the town of Blarney, it became obvious that more than a few people knew about the place. In fact, the whole village ran off tourism from the castle and the old Woolen Mill shopping center. Turns out that Blarney Castle is somewhat famous, known world over for a gigantic stone built into the roof terrace wall. Visitors literally bend over backwards to kiss this stone, reputed to impart the gift of “blarney” (the ability to bullshit).
We bought the 20 Euro tickets, regrettably foregoing the tour of the Blarney Mansion, and walked among throngs of visitors through beautiful gardens towards the castle. By taking advantage of a 10 foot stone wall, the builders got an instant leg up on height. Add in the dramatic visual effect of walls sloped slightly inward and badda boom, you have yourself an impressively daunting fortress. A line of gawkers stretched out the gate, and a sign stated that to kiss the Blarney Stone, one would have to stand for an hour, inching up to the roof of the castle. Dana was not interested. I almost bailed on account of intense period cramps, but Dad seemed intrigued and it was hard to take that away from him.
So we crept along, celebrating each advancement through a new doorway into a lofty grand hall, or a small chamber (I always thought castles were more massive), up the narrow spiral staircase, with hundreds of tourists intent on pressing their lips against the same stone as thousands before. Somewhat of a romantic, I was skeptical how I could ever be special to such a slutty stone.
Despite slight dizziness and exhaustion from my own physical state, I was happy to see inside the castle, and the slow pace allowed us ample time to appreciate the thick polished stone slabs comprising the spiral stairwell (which was my father’s biggest interest to begin with). We stepped onto the roof finally, and approached a bored guard laying tourists on their backs for the full experience of arching upside down to kiss the stone, and an equally bored worker clicking the camera for photos available to purchase in the lobby.
I hadn’t planned to kiss the stone. I felt too cool, too aloof. I wanted to be the one that got away. But then the time came, and Dad did it, and was swept up in the novelty of the moment. (Damn those irresistible hard rocks!) So I laid down and pressed my lips to the germy stone. And it actually felt kind of nice, cool. Despite being polished smooth by countless previous smoothers, I felt for just that moment that maybe we actually had something. Or maybe it was just nice to kiss something. Not until later in my travels did a local man disclose the stone’s lesser known reputation. That which involved local schoolboys and nighttime forays into the castle, to pay their teenage respects by ritualistically peeing on it.
Having fulfilled our amorous duties to the castle, we were free to wander back down at our own pace. So we roamed from room to room, discussing (as we do) what was what, how that was built, the tiles on the floor, and with particular interest the potty rooms where a hole in the floor led down to a ramp that shot out the side of the castle wall. Woe is the ill-timed garden walker.
Later, I wandered the grounds alone, through a fern grove with waterfalls and benches, past the ice house and the kiln for making lime. Finally, sufficiently wiped out, I was drawn to the privacy of a leaf-curtained tree, and I found a suitable branch on which to recline. An instantly soothing sensation, lying in a tree. I realized that 3 of my last 4 birthdays I had spent hours laying in trees. One in a hammock writing my journal after a long, solo bike ride. And the other on a work break granted me for cleaning the Porta Potty urinal after a naughty student pooped in it. Shows what I will do when told to pamper myself, and the natural nutrients you forget you need.
Back at the docks that evening, I ran into the crew from the schooner Mariette. They invited me to the pub with them and, seeing as I was yet to experience a “pub” and it was my birthday, I accepted.
My image of pubs was of drunken fights, slurred yelling in malt-thickened Irish accents, late night commiserating of politics and life. But I found myself seated on a stool, in a window nook of a cozy, dark bar, sipping wine, getting to know my new friends, sharing cultural differences. I asked about life on Mariette, reflecting on my own time aboard a big ship, living with a small crew of people. I learned that here in Ireland there is apple cider on tap, and that one can order just a half pint. And that we weren’t there to get totally wasted, just to sit and chat. So I learned, and socialized, and sipped my wine, holding tight the secret that it was my birthday.
I felt an urgency to get off the boat, an anxiety to have a plan. I plugged away to get some ducks lined up. Bought a local phone for internet, registered on the Workaway website to find work trades in Ireland and beyond, checked Donedeal, the Irish craigslist, and constantly schemed a wide spread of ideas. Walking down the scenic Irish roads I fantasized about riding down the scenic Irish roads. So I poured over bikes for sale. But then I would need camping gear. So I checked out tents. I reasoned that I could spend a few hundred on camping gear to save on transportation and accommodation. I was learning that Europe would not be a walk in Latin America as far as hostel pricing.
But Dad assured that I was welcome to cruise with them for a while, so I tried to set aside some mental presence to enjoy the unique view of Ireland from a boat. Their plan so far was to work back west, checking into some of those long, intriguing bays, before finding a winter haven for the boat.
We would wake up one day, and in a few hours decide to move to another harbor. The cabin would be stowed, the anchor up, and us headed back to sea. I often felt disoriented, a little sea sick, but if I steered and watched the slate green Celtic Sea water, with swirling white veins of foam off the hull, I would feel a little better. Before long we’d be back at anchor, a new charming shore laid out around us.
Pulling into Courtmacsherry Harbor, I noticed a trail running around the point up towards a rolling green cliff side. We glided up the channel, and the trail dove into an enchanting forest, dense and impenetrable, kinky cedar foliage and scrawny crooked limbs fading into blackness. The rocky shoreline was exposed, the tide so low that a fisherman stood up to his waste, just a hundred feet to port. Our keel soon found that same shallow bottom, muddy and soft, and we poked around for a while, seeking a consistently deep channel inside the buoy markers. But after being pulled to a stop on rise after rise of mud, we finally surrendered and puttered to the side of the channel, throwing out two anchors.
The dinghy was finally pulled from it’s bag on the cabin top, inflated and plopped in the water. The outboard was not quite up to running yet, so we set off for shore with the tiny vestigial oars that came with the boat, short stubby baby hands for paddles. After a walk through town, proving fruitful in my discovery of a stout canvas bag for my trash collecting contributions to the littered Irish shore, we loaded back in the dinghy to fight the current to the boat.
The scene was comical. Three fully grown adults, distributed evenly in a 6 foot rubber boat. Dana seated center rowing ferociously with teaspoons for paddles. Dad in the back, coaching her energetically, calling directions and corrections to keep her headed for the boat, as an outgoing tide pushed insistently from our side. Water flinging off the little grey oars, the stubby dinghy jerking from side to side. As if we were a racing team on a Japanese game show.
When we reached the boat, I stayed behind, and drifted back in the tethered dinghy, relishing in the peace of my own little floating world. To a boat kid the dinghy was like a fort, or a treehouse. Filled with rain water, it was a bathtub. I would retreat there to be alone with my toys and imagination. Today I sat and scanned the shore, that mystical forest. I fantasized about an inflatable kayak, as I had in Panama. My own little source of independence and exploration. I made a mental note to look for one on Donedeal. Just one more plan. I sat and meditated, closed my eyes and relaxed into the gentle rocking, until pierced by a shrill calling from the depth of the enchanted woods, birds roosting for the night. I pulled myself back to the boat to go to bed.
Dana and Dad’s chatter woke me up in the middle of the night. I was already restless with a strange slapping of water on the hull by my ear, but it had not been strange enough to wake my brain fully. When I finally awoke, I realized I was leaning, pressed against my bunk wall. Had the boat leaned the other way, I would have awoken for sure as I would have rolled on the floor. Dad and Dana must have been squished on top of each other. The tide was going out, we were aground and tipping over. We were drying out.
What an odd sensation. Some boats are built for this, but not ours. Dad prodded the water with a spinnaker pole to make sure we weren’t on the edge of a channel. I stood outside to see if he needed help. The night was dead still and the boat leaned heavily to port towards the inky water, as the keel pushed against the sandy bottom. I crawled around, staying low as I thought any movement might cause her to tip further, like a car balanced on the edge of a cliff. I flashed to a midnight moment 18 years ago when we ran aground on a reef in the Bahamas, and the boat tipped so far that I fell down the width of the cockpit, before a perfectly timed swell floated us up and off the coral head.
Assured we were on even bottom, we returned to bed. I slept with one arm clinging to the upside of my bunk, until the tide came back in, spinning us in the changing current. The boat returned level, but now emitted a loud creaking from underneath. Again, not a noise logged in my experience of worrisome issues, so I tried to sleep through it. But Dad was up again, frustrated and exhausted, stomping on deck. As the boat spun, one of the anchor lines had caught on the keel. The danger was that it could snap with the tension. I got up to try and help.
After much unwrapping and re-routing, a liberal amount of cursing and a frantic moment when the anchor threatened to pull out of his hands, all was secured. I returned grumpy to my bunk, sensitive and reeling from our frenzied snaps at each other. But there is a blessed truth that many of life’s stresses carry with them the powerful antidote of comedy. I suddenly smiled at my delayed realization that through the whole situation, scrambling from line to winch, leaning over the rail, being nearly yanked overboard, my father, in his usual nighttime disposition, had not been wearing any pants.
As a child, the deep gurgle of water on oars meant we were going somewhere, ashore for an adventure, or finally home after a long day. I rarely rowed. Everyone was older, stronger, and could get there quicker. I got used to waiting for rides, to calming my own impulses and needs. I was reliant on the rhythms of others. We all were.
During my month in Panama, I found a used inflatable kayak that folded to a small suitcase size, with a break-down paddle. I named her Puff, and she became my liberation. Grown now, I am too aware of my needs to silence them. I need freedom, independence. With Puff, I paddled to shore to run or walk, or towed my board behind to go for a surf. I paddled home at night through a rain storm and marveled at the drops bouncing on the surface of the water. Pleasure was simple and pure.
So, naturally, I obsessed over finding an inflatable kayak. Not so easy now. And what would I do with it anyways? Leave it on the boat, or perhaps lug it around to my next boat? “Crew available, brings her own dinghy.” But so is the nature of consumerism. Have a problem? Buy something that will fix it.
My problem was not a lack of a craft, however. One drizzly morning as we waited for the weather to clear, I offered to make a trash run to shore. I surprised myself with my confidence to take the dinghy. We left the Caribbean before I came of the age when a boat kid runs the outboard. In some strange regressive reliance triggered by the familiarity of Tiger and my father, I forgo that between then and now I had gained fairly significant experience with small boats. Ferrying passengers, landing in rough swell, pushing around a 150ft steel ship.
I wrapped in rain gear and zipped off to shore, relishing in my freedom. Weaving through boats, paddling in to the pier, tying up, walking around proud like “yeah, I just came from a boat!” On the way back I opened the throttle a bit, testing limits, and it
stalled mid-current. A fleeting self reprimand, and then I quickly determined that the issue was the choke left open. I got it going again and set off grinning.
Things like this my young self would watch older kids do. Things that meant independence in a watery world. Things I always thought I’d learn someday. But then they disappeared and older kids were doing new things. Things that didn’t make sense to a watery world. I craved fulfillment of my cultural rites. To sail a boat, to climb a coconut tree, to surf, to dive deep and stay under long, to drive an outboard. So I returned, a little late, to complete a process, fulfill a yearning, to check off one by one those little boxes of a curriculum that was put on hold. I pulled to a graceful stop alongside Tiger and smiled proudly, as a child who has just advanced a degree in her society.
A week later, anchored off Glengariff, a deep bay speckled with rocky islets, I took off for a solo evening row. Settling into a steady rhythm pumping the little oars with my arms and back, I sloshed a V in the still water. I didn’t go very fast, or very far, but I realized that all I needed was a little. Just the movement, the silence. It was not about reaching the shore, or the cave, or rounding the island. It was just about setting out across the water, the ability to feel my mind’s desire manifested in my body. Stuck in an all-or-nothing paralysis, I can remain motionless, gazing at an impossibly grand goal, forgetting that at least something is usually better than nothing.
I came to the wall of an islet, low tide exposing bright green seaweed clinging to the rock. A seal surfaced and swam towards a split in the rock, stopping to regard me a moment. I called to it like a kitten, hoping it might have an interest in cuddling with a hairless, not-so-soft, relatively boney relative of the animal kingdom. It turned and swam on. I sat a moment more, smirked, and headed back. Relieved to cross an idea off my list. Driving myself crazy seeking perfection. It was not a kayak I needed, but a change of perspective. To see that the discontent was in me, and to accept the perfectly adequate solution already available. Now I could turn my attention to bikes and backpacks.