The 2020 Next Challenge Grant opened for applications today. And to the mark the occasion, we have a story from 2017 grant winner Joanne McCallum, who took a paddle board across Lough Neagh.
One of the great things about Jo’s trip is that she managed to fit it around life and work by spreading out the three days of her paddle over several months. A reminder that adventures – and my grant – don’t always require quitting your job and disappearing for months on end.
The other thing I enjoyed about her account was this line about her third day on the lake:
“I’m not sure it was enjoyable. But I was determined to get the whole last leg done.”
A reminder that, as Mark Twight says, “It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun”.
Besides, Jo does go on to say: “There were occasional moments that were awesome though…”, which she describes below.
Paddle Boarding Lough Neagh
by Joanne McCallum
In the middle of Northern Ireland lies Lough Neagh. Like a hole cut out of the centre of the country and filled with water, it is the largest freshwater lake in UK. Its area is 383 square km, with a shoreline of 125 km and containing over 800 billion gallons of water.
Home to eels, 400 tonnes of which are caught and sold all through Europe each year, as well as Pollan, a white fish and survivor from of the last ice age, unique to the Lough. Not to mention the many different types of birds found on the numerous wildlife reserves around the Lough. In the winter 100,000 wildfowl fly in from Iceland, Russian Arctic, Greenland and Canada.
Despite being just 20 minutes from my front door, I have never explored the Lough, only seeing it in the distance when driving past. I’ve always had a notion that I’d like to stand-up paddle board across Lough Neagh. But it was always put to the bottom of the list of things to do and places to go, as it’s ‘only down the road’ and it could be done anytime.
After applying to The Next Challenge and being selected for a grant, the time had finally come to plan this home adventure. I was awarded £60* by Tim and the other generous contributors, which was very gratefully received and used to buy an essential piece of kit for my SUP trip – a personal flotation device. A necessity, but hopefully it would not actually be required!
*(£60 was the full amount that Joanne requested in her application! – Tim)
After a bit of Google mapping – satellite view, distance measuring, looking for potential ‘escape routes’ if things got bad, put in points, areas to be cautious in – I reckoned that not just crossing Lough Neagh would be challenge enough, but actually paddling around the circumference of it would be doable. I figured a few days would see me round a full loop of the shoreline.
Now it was all down to the weather, specifically the wind. As it is a great expanse of water and relatively shallow in depth throughout, any small amount of wind can whip up pretty big waves in a short space of time. The shore line is also extremely shallow in places with protruding rocks, but it isn’t a constant so you never know what could be ahead of you in the next couple of meters. So began the weather watching for a few calm wind days.
Day 1 – Kinnego to Ardboe
The conditions looked good for the first leg of the Lough. I planned to paddle from Kinnego Bay Marina, on the southern shore, in a clockwise direction to finish at Ardboe on the west shore.
Early start, arriving before the barriers were open to the marina carpark. Pump up the inflatable paddle board and I was off. It was a really calm still morning the water was like glass and it felt like I was just gliding across the surface of the water.
Such a peaceful morning, just the sound of water and occasional call from the birds.
I passed by a sand dredging company on the shoreline. There are several of these along the shore. This is a contentious activity on Lough Neagh, with companies using suction dredging barges to extract sand from the Lough floor for commercial purposes. Two million tons of sand a year are extracted, which obviously has an impact on the Lough.
On to Coney Island, where I pulled in to the jetty for a bite to eat and to stretch my legs. History shows that there was human settlement on the island as far back as Neolithic times. It would be good to come back again and go for a little explore.
Back on the board again and continuing across to and up the west side of the Lough now. The wind was starting to get up, blowing from the east. This meant I had to paddle only on the left side of the board to stop being blown across into the land. Tough going after a couple of hours!
Thankfully it calmed down again in the afternoon. A lot of the shoreline to the Lough is scrub land, tees, occasionally the odd field or property. But with the majority being natural environment, there is a peacefulness of being surrounded by nature.
Passing by one small island just out a bit from the shore, I could hear birds squawking. When I got up level with it there were hundreds of birds flying around the island while screaming at each other. Not quite sure what was going on, but it was quite a sight and sound.
Thought I’d get a photo, in concentrating on getting the picture, the dreaded rocks struck the board in the shallows. Catching me off guard with a paddle in one hand and a camera in the other, I was going in for a dip!! It was all in slow motion, I knew what was going to happen but couldn’t stop it. I literally was fully submerged in only a foot of water. First time I’ve fallen off the board, it was quite funny though, and it was nice and refreshing!
A little stop to see the Ardboe High Cross. The first high cross built in Ulster over a 1000 years ago. Then in to my finish at Ardboe Life Boat station. The end of the first days paddle and a beautiful day for it too.
Day 1: 30km, 6hr 34m (7hr 36m), 31/05/18
Day 2 – Ardboe to Antrim
The next day started again at Ardboe. Another calm sunny morning saw me off on glassy water again, beautiful morning on the Lough.
Today was going to be the day I crossed Lough Neagh. I had been quite apprehensive about this as I have never really paddled out in deep water and too far away from the shore. I was also on my own, and all the advice of going in pairs or threes was echoing in my head. Plus, the fact that I’d be crossing the deepest area where the sand barges use and I didn’t want to get run over. And if I fell in, would the eels start chewing on my toes?!
So I paddled my way for a couple of hours up to Ballyronan which had a small sandy beach. Pulled in and had some food, while watching a big boat sail across where I would be going. Then the wind completely dropped. There wasn’t even a ripple out on the water. I knew I had to get going now. Just bite the bullet and go. Quick text to say I was crossing now and I’d text when I got to the other side, so at least someone would know if I didn’t make it!
Conditions could not have been any more perfect. I could see where I has heading for on the far side and just focussed on paddling. No boats nearby coming for me either which was good. About half way across in the deepest section it felt a bit weird. Like I wasn’t moving, even though I was paddling, such a strange sensation. Almost like if you ski or board in a white out, your moving but it’s like nothing else around you is moving. Very surreal moment.
Obviously as I’m writing this, I survived the crossing. Relief!
Still had another 3 or so hours to go to get to Antrim where I was finishing. The north shoreline running into Antrim was lovely. A lot of shallow rocky parts that came out maybe 100 metres from land though. At one stage I had to get off my board and walk across the rocks to deeper water. Having an inflatable board, I was always aware of not scrapping over the top of rocks, also didn’t want to break my fin as then I’d have no steering!
Such a beautiful day, the views and sky were stunning. Accompanied by the sound of the occasional bird call or lapping of water. Not a person around for miles, it was like I was the only person left in the world!
Made a stop about halfway to Antrim. Pulled in to visit Cranfield Church and Holy Well. The ruins of the 13th Century church are beside the Holy Well which produces fine spring water and amber coloured crystals.
The legend of the Holy Well says that the amber coloured pebbles protect women during childbirth, sailors from drowning and homes against fire and burglary. Emigrants leaving for America also swallowed the pebbles believing it would give them safe passage across the Atlantic Ocean.
The traditional annual pilgrimage to the Holy Well is between May Eve to 29 June. The well is also said to heal illness. The affected area should be wrapped in a rag that has been dipped in the well water, pray, then remove rag and tie it to the tree overhanging the well. When the rag decays, the illness will disappear with it.
Onwards to Antrim, forest areas come down to the shore now. Passed by Shane’s Castle, lots of history to it as well as being a location for filming of Game of Thrones. Then around the old torpedo platform, a remnant from WW2, when Navy and RAF had bases here using the nearby airfields and also Lough Neagh for bombing practice.
Being a sunny hot day, there were lots of people out on jetskis from Antrim marina. You can hear the whine of the engines for miles before actually seeing them, then the wake from them passing is a bit a challenge when you’re tired and have been paddling all day. But I got onto dry land, still dry! Another lovely day on the board and the crossing conquered.
Day 2: 30km, 6h 23m (7hr 22m), 23/06/1
Day 3 – Antrim to Kinnego
It had been a long break between the first two days and this last one, just with work, weather, life, etc. It was always there in my mind and I wanted to get the loop of Lough Neagh completed.
Turns out the first day of 2019 was going to work. Weather was low wind, no rain, bright and about 5 degress. Just another layer or two of clothing needed.
First of January at 8:30am there weren’t too many people on the roads, only a couple of dog walkers at Antrim when I arrived. Today was going to be tight for time. Sunset was 4pm or so, I had 30km to go at roughly 5kmph. Setting off just after 9:30am I knew I wouldn’t be slacking or stopping off anywhere if I wanted to be off the water before dark.
The first half was a long stretch of shoreline out from Antrim. The day began lovely and calm, still and sunny. Mid-morning the wind had picked up and was pushing me toward land, so it was another long tough slog paddling only on one side for hours.
However, Belfast International Airport was just over the tree line from where I was paddling so I was entertained by the take-off of quite a few New Year’s Day flights! This whole day I saw nobody and no boats. Just the birdies and myself were out in the Lough. The echos from the woods of shooting and the airplanes were the only man-made things I encountered all day.
Today was a test of endurance and strength of mind. It was brutal. It hurt. It was never ending. Just over 6 hours of solid paddling. I’m not sure it was enjoyable. But I was determined to get the whole last leg done.
There were occasional moments that were awesome though, like when three swans began running straight toward me to take off. I wasn’t sure they’d get lift off before getting to me, but they did, just. Amazing. Also watching the sun track low across the sky for the whole day, then watching the changing colours as it began set. Makes you appreciate the length of a day, hard to see or do when spending much time indoors during winter.
I had wanted to stop off at Rams Island. Once I had paddled across to it though, I knew I didn’t have enough time to go around to the jetty and have a quick wander. Another island to go back and explore. It has remains of an ancient monastic settlement, was permanently inhabited in the 1920s by the Cardwell Family and then was used as a RAF flying boat base during WW2.
Seemed like the whole day I was always paddling for the distant horizon. I cut across a few bays, so when aiming for the opposite shoreline you tend to keep watching it. I don’t know if it was the light or the time constraints I was under today, but it felt like I would be paddling and paddling but never getting any closer to where I was going. This was the theme of the day, chasing the horizon.
Coming in about 2km from Kinnego I was treated to a lovely sunset over Oxford Island Nature Reserve. The sun glistening off the waves in the Lough around me was stunning. Like nature’s reward for getting to the end!
Paddling in to the calm waters of the marina, just as it was starting to get dark, I was so happy to finish. Bliss to stop after such a tough day. Challenge complete. Time for fish & chips to celebrate!
Day 3: 30km, 6hr 09m (6hr 26m) 01/01/19