From Torr Head, on the coast of Northern Ireland, I can see the lighthouse on Scotland’s Mull of Kintyre, only 17 km away.
The North Atlantic and Irish Sea meet here, surging around Rathlin Island to create a maelstrom of tides and rough seas that has left a legacy of wrecks. Ancient stories tell of a fleet of 50 currachs, the hide-covered canoes still used in Galway, that was swallowed up by a whirlpool while trading across the channel.
The links were so strong that this corner of northeastern Ireland was united with western Scotland in the kingdom of Dalriada until 608. Despite the risk, travel by water was easier than crossing the vast peat bogs and rough mountains of the Irish interior.
“The tides are extreme, running to seven or eight knots,” says Joe McCollam, helmsman of the Red Bay Lifeboat. A naval architect by trade, he is one of the RNLI volunteers who help keep these waters safe. “The boat is rated to Force Seven gales, but we have never not gone out.”
Joe first joined the lifeboat when he was 17, before moving away to Cork for 15 years and rejoining on his return home. “There are 22 crewmen in total, eight of whom are helmsmen. We cover quite a big area for an inshore boat, all the way nearly to Bushmills and out beyond Rathlin, very close to the Mull of Kintyre, and down to The Maidens,” he says.
This entire coast is breathtakingly beautiful, a place where tiny stone-walled fields in endless shades of green run down to steep cliffs, against which waves crash in an ever-changing mood. Trees huddle in sheltered clefts and bright sandy beaches dot a shore more often covered in rocks fallen from the headlands above. The beauty tempts people into a wild land and seascape that will catch out the unwary or ill-prepared with changing weather or hidden hazards.
“A lot of our calls are for walkers who fall on the cliffs,” he says. “We also rescue a lot of broken down or dismasted yachts, and divers, especially off Rathlin.” When I ask why he gives up his time, his answer is simple. “I have always been involved in the sea and it would be a terrible shame to be standing here if someone was in trouble. My father and my sister were in it as well.”
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