The 54-Hour Finish

Inside Jeff Allen's record-breaking final push around Ireland

This story is originally featured in the August 2011 issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine, available on newsstands now.

"Last one to Ardmore buys the first pint. " Photo: Harry Whelan

After battling near-constant headwinds and 20-foot seas on Ireland’s west coast, sea kayakers Jeff Allen and Harry Whelan thought the island’s sheltered east coast would be the easiest part of their attempt to set a new speed record for kayaking around Ireland. At a pub in Kilkeel, Northern Ireland, Allen, 49, and Whelan, 42, challenged themselves to knock off the last 225 miles in three days. The 54-hour final push nearly killed them, leaving the paddlers hallucinating and the old record in tatters. Allen and Whelan lopped nine full days off the old record, finishing the historic run in just 24 days.

The clockwise trip around Ireland gave Allen an opportunity to revisit spots where he’d been stationed with the British Army in the early 1980s. For Whelan, a native of Ireland, it was a chance to follow up on his 2000 trip around the island, albeit this time at a breakneck pace. “I’ve never pushed it hard so consistently on an expedition,” Allen says of the Red Bull- and MuleBar-fueled finish. “When you’re feeling fresh and set yourself up, it’s quite easy to go out and paddle for 24 hours straight. But when you’ve already had 23 days of draining activity, it’s pretty hard to knock out the big days. We were trimmed to the bone.” -Conor Mihell

Photos: Vaughan Roberts

0730, Fri., 13 May: The Kilkeel Commitment
We played the numbers game and decided we could do the last 225 miles with two 18-hour days and one 24-hour push.

0200, Sat., 14 May: Hypothermic in Bray, after 18-hour day
The plan was to pick up waves and surf whilst crossing Dublin Bay. We got into a competitive state and were expending energy that we didn’t have. Then the tide switched and nighttime closed in. I was as happy as I’ve been in making a landing in a long, long time.

1000, Sat., 14 May: Depart from Bray, start of 54-hour final push.

0430, Sun., 15 May: Respite in Rosslare Harbour
We pulled our kayaks up onto the granite blocks lining the wharf, pulled our sleeping bags over us and rested for an hour. A guy turned up and told us to fuck off, there was a ship coming through.

1130, Sun., 15 May: Coffee Break in Kilmore Quay
We were really demoralized. The tide was against us and the wind moved to the west. We were both running on less than empty. I had blisters and sun sores that became quite infected. Harry also had issues with his hands, and saltwater sores beneath his arms and ’round his waist.

1600, Sun., 15 May: Ballyteigue Bay Catnap
We pulled our kayaks up the beach and lay down in the long grass and decided to sleep half an hour each. We knew if we both slept we might not wake up for a while.

Sun., 15 May-Mon., 16 May: Hallucinations
I’m not sure where we started to lose it. My initial hallucinations were silver bushes on the water, and trying to weave my kayak between them. I felt like I was surfing my kayak through a bunch of old people standing at a bus stop. Then Harry came over and said he had a penguin talking to him, riding a bike.

1615, Mon., 16 May: Arrival in Ardmore, New Speed Record
As we drew near the quay, I could see a crowd on the harbor wall and a beach off to the left. I said to Harry we should land on the beach where it wasn’t so crowded. Then he spotted Vaughan’s van. As we paddled toward the van, the bagpipes started and the crowd clapped. I could see my wife, mother and sister on the wall and thought, ‘Shit, we’re here!’

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