2001 Towards Galicia

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This year the Causeway Coast Maritime Heritage Group embarks on the final stage of the Celtic Odyssey experience. Colmcille 2001 – Towards Galicia will involve three curraghs – Colmcille, the Sant Efflam and another of Basque origin, will trace the sea journey made by monks in the Middle Ages from Brittany to Galicia – an epic 2,000 km rowing and sailing expedition! It is estimated that the journey will take between 6 and 8 weeks and will begin in Douarnenez, Brittany, on the 4th July 2001.

Colmcille 2001 – Towards Galicia is an exceptional opportunity to develop cross-community and cross-national relationships, as well as the development and shared experience of the crewmembers. The project will seek to develop existing links amongst coastal communities in the more northerly parts of the Celtic world. It will also establish new links between the communities of southwest France and north Spain in order that the cultural similarities and differences amongst these maritime regions may be identified and celebrated.

On arrival in Galicia, crews will participate in a number of cross-community and cross-national events to celebrate the success of the final stage of the Celtic Odyssey Adventure. Finally, the Colmcille will be prepared for transportation back to its base in Coleraine, Northern Ireland. From here, the use of the boat as an agent of cross-community development work within Ireland will continue!

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The Retrieval of the Currach “Colmcille”: 6th-13th October, 2001

Goal: the safe return of “Colmcille”, and the team, from Vigo, Galicia

Saturday 6th October

The storms of the week had abated slightly as Jeremy (McCool), Robin (Ruddock) and I (John Logan) set off in Robin’s Landrover at 0915 to Dublin. We were booked on the 1800 Dublin Swift sailing to Holyhead and we listened with some trepidation to the radio weather reports which warned of “the possibility of some disruption to Irish Sea ferry crossings”. The Landrover was packed with equipment and personal belongings, sufficient, we hoped, to allow us to reach Vigo in northwest Spain and return with approximately one tonne and 12 metres of currach. On reaching Dublin port our fears were realised: the storm was preventing the Dublin Swift from sailing. Our complimentary passages, however, were transferred to the conventional but slower 2115 sailing. This presented no real problem as we knew that we still had sufficient time to make our rendezvous with the Bretons in Plymouth next morning prior to the departure of the ferry to Santander.

Having decided to spend the afternoon in Dublin, we parked close to the Natural History Museum and enjoyed a leisurely hour investigating the exhibits. On returning to the Landrover, however, we discovered a puncture: no immediate problem was foreseen as the spare was sound and we had borrowed a hydraulic jack. There was a need to find somewhere in Dublin where we could get the puncture repaired and, as it was approaching shop closing time we began the search. Eventually, on the suggestion of a customer in a supermarket, we located a franchise tyre depot and were fortunate to find the proprietor doing what might be best termed as a “homer”. Although he was officially closed, he did a marvellous job for us and we set off for the port in a greatly relieved state of mind.
Sunday 7th October

The crossing to Holyhead was uneventful and, on arriving on the British mainland, we wasted no time in heading east across north Wales and on to the M6. Sharing the driving we made good time through the night and did reach Plymouth well in advance of the ferry’s departure. We were relieved yet again when we saw Colmcille’s trailer waiting for us and, when we had completed the checking in process we saw Tristan, Isabelle and Dominique coming to meet us across the compound. They had transported our trailer, as well as their own, from Douarnenez via Roscoff. No mean feat! By this time the storm was at its fiercest in terms of wind and rain and we feared that our departure might be delayed. Should this have happened it could have had serious consequences for the entire expedition as we were working to an extremely tight time schedule. As it was, the ferry left on time, albeit in the teeth of the storm and we endeavoured to settle into conditions on the ship. Except for the weather these were by no means insurmountable – Truckline had provided us with complimentary passages which included cabins as well as entry to the commercial “Drivers’ Club” where sustenance, both solid and liquid, was always available and always of high quality.

After dinner two anti-sea sickness tablets sorted out my 24 hours – no nausea and plenty of sleep, a good thing in the light of what was to come.

Monday 8th October

We docked in Santander some 5 hours late due to the storm and had already decided that we would head for Vigo, collect the boat and equipment and return immediately to Santander. The goal, after all, was our safe return and the safe return of the currach to our own north coast. On leaving the Brittany Ferries compound Tristan, who was towing the St Efflam trailer, was stopped by the Civil Guard. We remained unaware of the reason until we ourselves stopped some 20 miles from the city in order to refuel. As it turned out, the trailer’s registration papers were in France and the trailer was impounded until the following day when they were faxed to the Spanish police. We travelled on through the night once again sharing the driving but this time with empty trailer in tow.

Tuesday 9th October

Our outward route took us along the north coast of Spain and then south to Vigo where we arrived at 0600 after some 500 miles and 12 hours’ driving. We parked outside the marina where Colmcille was stored and tried to catch up on some sleep in the Landrover – not an easy task. At 0730 I phoned our contact Roscio to arrange access to the store where our equipment had remained since August. Eventually I located her and she came down to meet us. Having followed her to the store, we loaded the Landrover with outboard, rudder, canopies, barrels etc and drove back to the marina. By this time it was open and the manager, Fernando, gave us considerable assistance, through the use of a forklift, in order to get Colmcille on to the trailer.

All was safely secured by 1100 and, only 5 hours after arriving in Vigo, we set off for Santander, 500 miles to the northeast. This time, on Fernando’s advice, we took the inland route, a decision we were soon to regret. All went well for a couple of hours – the Landrover slowly but heroically pulled its load and the trailer up the long mountainside autovias. At the top of one such incline, however, a single Civil Guard stepped out on the carriageway and waved us on to the roadside. I was driving and immediately produced my licence and my best Portuguese which allowed a reasonably comprehensible conversation to take place. This presented no problem but the same could not be said for the trailer and its load. We were, apparently, in breach of road traffic regulations – the traditional Irish red rag fluttering from the currach was insufficient in terms of warning other drivers of a “hazardous load”. We were going to have to pay a fine of some £32 but there was another problem – we had no registration papers for the trailer. Purely and simply these did not exist, but the guard was not satisfied. He stated that he was within his rights to impound the trailer but I explained that its cargo was part of our country’s cultural and maritime heritage and that we had to get it back to Ireland. Showing considerable humanity and some bemusement blended with reluctance he relented and allowed us to proceed once we had paid our fine. He led us off the autovia to a filling station where he said we could purchase the required hazardous load sign for the currach which does indeed overhang the trailer by several feet. No sign was available but he left us there with our promise to obtain one as soon as possible ringing in his ears.

Our hopes, prayers indeed, that the Guard would not radio ahead to colleagues about us were fulfilled. We tried several other filling stations without success but, by the same token, we were not stopped at any other point. With stress levels rising and Santander still some 350 miles away we decided to do-it-ourselves and, stopping near a village, we located a hardware shop, bought a white plastic tray and adorned it with some of Jeremy’s fluorescent red tape which had been fixed to several points on the trailer. At this particular moment, on this particular side road in an out of the way part of Spain, Tristan and Isabelle drove past! It turned out that they had come off the autovia to refuel but, as they were heading for Vigo and we from Vigo there was little point in trying to convene.

We drove on, still searching for the sign. In one filling station we noticed a jogger’s fluorescent jacket and as the colours were right we bought it. Having folded it appropriately, we taped it on to our plastic tray certain that we were visible if not legal. We proceeded north eastwards. It was a beautiful night for driving even with a 12m currach in tow and the possibility of further police interest in mind.

Wednesday 10th October

Tiredness was a problem but we eventually reached Santander at about 0500, some 18 hours after leaving Vigo. We found a spot to park and while Jeremy and I tried to sleep in the Landrover, Robin laid out his sleeping bag on the oars of the currach and slept beneath the upturned boat. Come daylight we located a nearby public carpark and manoeuvered the trailer into a corner where we hoped we would be unobtrusive. We were only 10 minutes’ walk from the Britanny Ferries compound but we discovered that were not allowed access until Thursday morning, the ferry sailing at 1800 on that day. Thus we had some 24 hours to wait, hoping that the local police would not find us or, if they did, that they their interest would be purely positive.

We spent the morning profitably. After exhaustive investigation we located a shop where we were able to buy the “hazardous load” sign and it was with some relief and some rejoicing that we returned to the carpark and fitted it on to the currach. While we were within striking distance of the ferry we had kept our promise and our decision to pursue the matter was to stand us in good stead.

In a more relieved but more tired state we explored the seafront area of Santander, ate a pleasant meal and retired to bed, me to the Landrover and Jeremy and Robin to the oars. Car headlights and human voices adjacent to the currach during the night conjured up thoughts of further police activity but that was not the case.

Thursday 11th October

Shortly after 0900 we walked along the seafront to the dock and found, to our great delight and relief, that the vehicle compound was open. We returned to the carpark, hitched up the trailer, checked our route through Santander’s one-way sytem and headed for the compound where we arrived safely some 10 minutes later. Having parked we went into the café and enjoyed a large breakfast. On full stomachs and a comparative high we went “shopping” although not very much was bought. In early afternoon we returned to the port and waited for the Bretons to arrive. This they did shortly thereafter and we indulged in gentle and beer-free celebration which appeared to be somewhat premature when two members of the Civil Guard began to inspect vehicles in the compound. They found a problem with Isabelle’s vehicles – she was towing the RIB – and they stated that because of a number plate problem they were going to impound the trailer even though cars were already loading and we were only some 100 metres from the ferry door. The RIB would have to be removed and taken on the ferry by some other means.

Fortunately clear minds, cool heads and commonsense prevailed and the Guards decided not to take action. Indeed the Bretons had already been stopped and fined several times on their travels through Spain – we had been more fortunate. As the guards approached Colmcille we hoped, and prayed, that they would not find anything amiss. They walked around the back of the trailer, tested the security of our recently fitted sign and moved on! On entering the ferry itself we felt that no matter what happened from there the back of the mission had been broken. This was real relief.

The voyage back to Plymouth was pleasant. The sea was flat, the weather good and, of course, boats and personnel were safe. We enjoyed the hospitality of the Drivers’ Club in the knowledge that we had stories to tell which would be unequalled by even the most experienced of truck drivers.

Friday 12th October

Plymouth appeared on time and we bade farewell to the Bretons. How good it felt to drive on the left hand side of the road once again! We made good time to Exeter but in the service area where we had called to refuel, I hit a kerb with the rear wheel of the trailer. The tyre took exception to this treatment and immediately expired. The hydraulic jack proved its worth yet again but we had a new problem – the spare which we fitted had a slow puncture. We drove carefully to the next service area where we bought a puncture repair aerosol. This proved to be the answer and the repaired tyre brought us back to Portrush incident free.

A notable feature of our experience changing the wheel was the attitude of the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary. They appeared out of thin air, in squad car and Transit van, virtually as soon as our tyre blew but they were helfulness itelf. They showed an interest in our venture and in the currach in particular and wished us well on our onward journey – what a contrast from our previous experiences.

Saturday 13th October

Holyhead – another important expedition waymark: we arrived in good time for the Dublin Swift sailing at 0915, the night’s drive being by now a customary experience. Having checked in we relaxed as best we could and eventually boarded and sailed on time. No sooner had we eaten yet another large breakfast, this time by courtesy of Irish Ferries, than we entered Dublin Bay. Having docked we negotiated north Dublin without problems and, on the Belfast Road, found a tyre depot where we bought and had fitted a new tyre to replace the one damaged in Exeter. By this stage Jeremy and I were off the Landrover’s insurance and it was left to Robin to negotiate the route north. Avoiding the M1 because of severe tailbacks of which we were informed by Phyllis in a telephone conversation, we took the Antrim Road out of Lisburn and eventually arrived in Portrush at 1630 to be met by the Ruddock family, Phyllis, Gaelle, Ivor and Katherine. Champagne was opened, stories told and then fatigue began to make itself felt. Despite this there was sufficient energy to thank God for answered prayer.

We, that is Robin, Jeremy and I, thank all those, family and friends, who supported the expedition. Without the telephone calls and the encouragement received before our departure and during the trip, the achievement of the goal would have been more difficult.

We would like to offer special thanks

to Isabelle and Tristan not only for their contribution towards the planning of the expedition but also for their comradeship. They had many negative experiences during their travels but their spirits were always high

to Roscio for her helpfulness in Vigo

to Davilasport Marina, Vigo, and particularly the manager, Fernando. He, like Roscio, could not do enough to help

to the Galician Maritime Heritage Group, particularly for their sponsorship of storage costs

to Irish Ferries (Geraldine Ryan) whose interest in the project and whose generosity were exceptional

to Truckline (Steve Warner) who, like Irish Ferries were exceptional in their interest and generosity