By Conor Mihell
Among the many challenges awaiting sea kayakers Jeff Allen and Harry Whelan in their attempt to set a new speed record for circumnavigating Ireland, two stand out: The fickle weather and unforgiving cliffs of the Emerald Isle's west coast, and the temptation of pints of Guinness in countless coastal pubs. Next week, Allen, a Brit, and Ireland-native Whelan will set off to try to break the 33-day circumnavigation record set in 1990 by Mick O'Meara, Dermot Blount, Brian Fanning and Karl Heery.
Allen and Whelan are no strangers to sea kayaking in Ireland. Allen has paddled sections of the 1,000-mile route and Whelan has lapped the island's perimeter once before, in 2000, in a folding kayak. Whelan also shares a speed record for circumnavigating Britain, with Brits Barry Shaw and Phil Clegg, and German-American Marcus Demuth.
Allen says the Ireland speed attempt was Whelan's brainchild. "I quickly identified with his ideas," says Allen, a high-ranking British Canoe Union coach and the co-owner of Sea Kayak Cornwall. "I have often wondered what can I do, as a physical challenge, how far can I push myself and where are my limits."
As a part of their expedition, the pair is raising money for ovarian cancer research, and in support of victims of the recent earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan. Allen was quick to dedicate the expedition to the friends he made during a circumnavigation of Japan, in 2004, with Israeli sea kayaker Hadas Feldman. "We received so much help, genuine hospitality and kindness from all that we met on our journey," says Allen, who experienced a minor earthquake while he was passing through the same Sendei region that was devastated by the March 11 tsunami.
For the Ireland trip, Allen is stepping away from the tried and true Nigel Dennis Explorer sea kayak design that he paddled in Japan and on a 2005 expedition around Antarctica's South Georgia Island. Instead, he and Whelan will paddle the new Rockpool Taran, a speed-oriented boat that has impressed Allen so far, in terms of its handling in rough water. There's no doubt the pair will have their share of big swell, confused seas and heavy tidal streams on Ireland's west coast, which is "right out there, on the edge, open to every weather system that forms in the Atlantic," says Allen.
If Michigan-based sea kayaker Sam Crowley's Ireland expedition is any indicator, Allen and Whelan will need a healthy dose of luck to eclipse O'Meara's long-standing mark. In his 2007 solo trip around Ireland, strong winds and heavy seas once pinned Crowley down for 10 consecutive days. In dealing with seemingly endless days of wind and rain, Crowley made the reasonable choice of dry barstools over a misery on the water. "I did a different trip, more of a sightseeing kind," recalls Crowley. "I averaged 20 miles per day, which means around five to six hours per day paddling."
Allen acknowledges that the kind of socializing that made the experience most memorable for Crowley could be the biggest hardship he'll face. "I know of a few paddlers who not only didn't complete it, but also managed to become landlubbered along the way," he says. "So enchanted is the Emerald Isle, and some of its inhabitants."
Follow Allen and Whelan's blog and donate to the cause here: roundireland2011.blogspot.com/