The Sea Road: Puffin Island, Co Kerry

Go Sea Road: Puffin Island, near Valentia in Co Kerry, is owned by Birdwatch Ireland and is an important sea bird colony, home to thousands of puffin, Manx shearwater and storm petrels

I FOUND my brother at sea. After years not really knowing each other at all we both got into kayaks and discovered a fondness for each other’s company that had been lost. And what brought us together? A small island off the Iveragh Peninsula in Co Kerry called Puffin. It’s 1.7km long and less than 500m wide but, by the time we had got around it the first time on a Shearwater trip, it had remade our friendship and made us into kayakers. The island is on the Atlantic, one side always calm and sheltered, looking towards the mainland. The other open to the Atlantic, wild and unnerving.

We usually stay on Valentia, another island, 7km up the coast from Puffin in a great BB called Shealane Country House where owners Mary and Jim feed us fantastic breakfasts just a stroll across the bridge to Portmagee on the mainland. (If you like to sleep even closer to the water then the Moorings in Portmagee, with its award-winning bar and restaurant is ideal.)

My favourite route to Puffin is from Portmagee, past the tiny Church Island and out along the same route the tourist boats take for the Skelligs. It’s a magnificent route that sets the cliffs of Valentia’s Bray Head in its sights and passes along Horse Island and Long Island before bursting out into the full force of the Atlantic and turning south towards Puffin. The colours, sounds, shapes and smells along this route are worth coming for alone. Rain or shine, the Atlantic swells and billows here, raging against the coast as the wind that has been travelling non-stop across it since America finally hits landfall.

This time we don’t take this route though. Instead, my brother, David, is keen to revisit another starting point – Boat Cove – where we once spent 45 minutes paddling among a pod of dolphins. Boat Cove offers a shorter route to Puffin and is also the best kayak launching spot for the Skelligs, those incredible rocky outcrops that sit marooned 16km from shore, always tempting you to venture further.      

The conditions are good: the first blue-sky paddle in this series. We know this route well since we’ve capsized, surfed, fought and roared along it a number of times. There’s plenty of rock hopping to be done and caves and diversions to be found. It’s a short enough route, covering a little over 10km there and back, if we go around Puffin.

The water is beautiful. The wind is returning for sure and every so often a small downblast surprises us when it shoots down off the cliffs, but we’re well sheltered.

Reaching Puffin we turn into a small cove to land. It’s a suntrap and the water is rich with marine life. Jellyfish push through forests of seaweed, seals play alongside them and small fish dart here and there. We just float along on top watching it all, not eager to land. It’s a tough rocky landing, particularly at low tide. Someone has to get wet so my brother ends up in the water, clambering up the slippery rocks and helps me ashore. We spend some time just wandering.

The island is owned by Birdwatch Ireland and is an important sea bird colony, home to thousands of puffin, Manx shearwater and storm petrels, among others.

We don’t stay very long. The skies are still blue but sitting on a high vantage point we realise that the wind has increased again and we still have to get around the island. Launching again we head for the southern tip of Puffin and turn the corner. The other side of the island couldn’t be more different. We’re facing directly into the wind now at the end of slack water between tides. The churning sea and sunlight is incredibly beautiful against Puffin’s towering cliffs. We need to get around before the tide turns causing the wind over wave to meet forcibly, an experience neither of us will enjoy. We head north and find the swell bigger than expected.

The Sea Road: Puffin Island

The birds scream and dive overhead but we don’t have much time to enjoy the show. We’re fighting to stay on track, the swell increasing all the time. I spot white breakers up ahead, a sign that the seas are growing wilder. It takes longer than we expected and finally turning towards Puffin Sound the waters are bigger again.

My brother is tiring now. He’s a skilled paddler but he hasn’t been on the sea much this year and so the sustained paddle around the island has taken its toll. We decide to head for home beneath the shelter of the cliffs. The wind is still strengthening though and as we pull around the headland and push into Boat Cove the downblasts hit us full on.

In moments we’ve gone from gentle sheltered waters to full gale conditions and it’s a surprise. We have to fight to make headway but we’re getting pushed back and so, as a tactic, dart in and out of inlets to take shelter where we can.

We’re not far from home now but we’re not making much progress and I’m getting worried. David is having trouble with his skeg and has stopped paddling to try and fix it but this allows the wind to push him back out to sea. It’s a dangerous situation that will eat up his energy reserves fast. I shout instructions but he can’t hear me over the wind and so I turn around to go back to him.

We talk it out for a few minutes, evaluating whether this is a small squall that will pass or might it get worse. Better safe than sorry, we decide to use our towrope. I wear the rope as part of my standard paddling equipment and fasten one end to his boat and tow his boat in. It’s really about keeping him on track more than compensating for strength and there’s no shame in getting home the smart way. We’ve trained for this and it’s fun, after a fashion, but we begin to see how calm days at sea can turn to tragedy at a moment’s notice.

As it turns out, the tow is the best tactic. The wind isn’t a squall and continues to build into a massive force that blows for two days.

Puffin Island and Boat Cove always offers us something we don’t expect it seems – one year dolphins, the next year storms. As unpredictable, testing and magical as the foothills of the Skelligs should be.

Eat: The Moorings restaurant and the Bridge Bar, Portmagee. See

Sleep: Shealane House B&B. See

Published by Gary Quinn

Writer on the Sea Road. Gary Quinn is a writer and editor based in Dublin. He's the author of the Harper Collins book Irish Whiskey (2020) and writes about whisk(e)y for the Single Malt Shop, The Irish Times, Stories & Sips and others. He has won several national and international awards for his writing and media work.

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