By Conor Mihell
Just when they thought they couldn’t push it any harder, Britain’s Jeff Allen and Irish paddler Harry Whelan dug deep, emptied the tanks and crushed the 20-year-old speed record for sea kayaking around Ireland. They completed the circumnavigation in 25 days; the previous record was 33 days.
Last Friday, in Kilkeel, Northern Ireland, Allen and Whelan realized they would likely miss the window for meeting their families in Ardmore, Ireland, where the began the clockwise circumnavigation on April 22. They had barely three days to paddle over 225 miles—this after slugging it out in persistent headwinds and heavy seas for more than three weeks. Allen blogged, “The whole trip had been about maximum effort. How could we dig deeper?”
Fueled by fats and carbs (fish and chips and Guinness), Allen and Whelan decided to make a go of it. A non-stop 75-mile session left Allen hypothermic and barely able to summon the energy to crawl into his sleeping bag. Then, the pair paddled the final 140 miles in 54 near-continuous hours on the water, taking only four breaks for catnaps and sips of Red Bull, and hallucinating along the way. In the end, the relentless wind thwarted their plans of finishing on Sunday. But a throng of supporters waited until Monday, May 16, their 25th day, to greet them at Ardmore with bagpipes and cheers.
Later, Allen took the time for a C&K interview while still, of course, recovering from the epic push.
C&K: What was it like to cross the finish line?
JEFF ALLEN: “It was really quite surreal, neither Harry nor I had any real sleep in the last two to three days and we had started to hallucinate over the previous 12 hours. As we approached the quay we saw a crowd and assumed it to be busy so we looked to land at a nearby beach when Harry spotted Vaughan’s [a friend who offered land-based expedition support] van at the head of the slipway. We decided to brave the crowds and then realized when they started to applaud and the bagpipes started playing that they were there for us. [It] all became quite an emotional moment, but we were so knackered. I hadn’t moved from my cockpit for 29 hours and needed help to stand.”
You must have some serious “saddle sores” and blisters and such. Did the expedition take serious tolls on your bodies? “I suffered blisters and sun sores [that] became quite infected, [and] during the last 54 hours of paddling I also suffered cramps in the back and stomach. Harry also had issues with his hands and on top of this [had] saltwater sores beneath his arms and round his waist.”
You were able to make the most of some pretty marginal weather conditions. What allowed you to push through winds and rough seas? “Training and focus, really. The offshore winds were more worrying than any sea state as the coast is so open and exposed. The [Rockpool] Taran sea kayak proved to be an exceptional expedition sea kayak and performed really well, especially in rough water.”
What were the most memorable parts of the trip? “Seeing my wife and family at the end was fantastic, paddling the Dingle Peninsula with school after school of dolphins, and the beauty of the Donegal coastline are all lifelong memories.”
How long do you think this speed record will stand? Did you and Harry really raise the bar? “Who knows how long, what with the way that [sea kayak] designs are evolving and the standards of skill are always improving. We have done some fairly big expeditions and paddled in some pretty harsh environments, but this was the hardest by far. It really is all about the weather; given good weather we both feel the record could go to sub-20 days. But as we said at the start [see C&K’s story, “Pluck of the Irish,” from April 15], this challenge is all about the weather. Now, in hindsight we are glad we had the bad conditions, it’s easy to paddle far and fast on the flat, [but] going far and fast in four-to-six meter [14-20 foot] swells and 25-30 knot winds is more of an achievement. We pushed ourselves beyond what we realized was personally possible for us. If someone beats it in similar conditions, they’ll have our respect for sure.”
Read more about Allen and Whelan’s expedition on their blog, roundireland2011.blogspot.com.