Unlocking an ocean of untapped water sports in Cork

SHOULD it be every Cork resident’s right to get out on the abundant waters of the harbour, or the River Lee?

Unlocking an ocean of untapped water sports in Cork

It’s big enough to share, with 100 miles of indented shoreline within its harbour embrace, if you include all the windy bits.

Yet, in terms of water activities, Cork’s only ‘dipping its toes in the water’.

Cork people boast that theirs is the second-largest harbour in the world. It’s in good company, then, because others also lay claim to that title.

Those others include Poole in the UK, coming after Sydney, Australia, and Kaipara in New Zealand. And San Francisco, too, with which Cork is twinned — and both embrace infamous and historic prisons in their waters, Alcatraz and Spike Island.

It’s possible to go afloat in Cork City on a raft (not so advisable), in a sleek rowing-club boat or kayak, a more sturdy coastal yawl, or a chubby currach or a coracle, in a punt, a dramatic dragon boat, dinghy or yacht.

Despite expectations, even yachts are a cheap enough option if you act as crew for someone else: join the Royal Cork Yacht Club on a €180 introductory membership offer, and they’ll set you crewing, or visit the legendary Eddie English’s Sail Cork facilities in East Ferry.

Want to row a bit? Naomhoga Chorcaí will take you out on the Marina in a currach any Saturday morning at 10.30am, for €10, and, if you blister, at least you’re not Blasket-bound.

It’s a heritage blast — and you might inveigle your fellow oars-people to stop at the city boardwalk, or Blackrock village, for a cappuccino.

Short, less-taxing but exhilarating trips can be had by fast RIB, or slower boats, for view-taking, and common and bottle-nose dolphin watching.

It’s a new, eye-opening tourism product for Cork that, by now, has brought thousands to see and to sea; yet, like the open-top bus tours as another way of revisiting the familiar, it’s something most Cork people seem to leave to the tourists.

And while Cork can claim to host the world’s oldest yacht club — it started in Haulbowline in 1720, then moved to Cove (Cobh) and, more recently, Crosshaven, the RCYC is now a leading club and event organiser, and it has a 300-year anniversary coming up in 2020 — it’s only now that the harbour is becoming more and more democratic and broad-based for all classes of leisure use, abetted by the cleanest waters in decades. This week’s EPA report is duly noted, however, with more long-overdue treatment plant work to do in the lower harbour at Ringaksiddy, Cobh and Passage West.

Started in 2005, and open to all sorts of non-powered boats, the Ocean to City annual race now has nearly 400 participants, and 12,000 spectators, and rowing races have a 150-year tradition; hands up who remembers power-boat racing on the Marina in the 1960s?).

There’s belatedly been growth in marina berths for boats of all speeds, with about 600 berths shared by the main marinas in Crosshaven, Marlogue, and at the latest, Monkstown, while there’s an additional 1,000 or so of registered moorings in key points, and out-of-the-way navigation channels.

Three years ago, Port of Cork put some money where its revenue streams start, and where the city’s river channels recombine, with a small marina by Custom House Quay.

Since that visionary, yet quite plainly obvious calling card, the city centre’s got in on the act, too, with racing dinghies, yachts, and the super-yachts of the rich and famous now making a way to the city centre.

They tie up just down-river of City Hall and the game-changing Lapps Quay boardwalk (another river connection only recently forged), reminding citizens of the waterways connecting them to their past, and to the far wider world, by sea.

Yet, there’s scope for multiples of these berths and those figures quoted are just a ‘drop in the ocean’ compared to the amount of boat users along the length of the River Shannon (9,000 boats there, according to some estimates).

What does the harbour need to progress this growth? “More access points, such as slipways and pontoons,” says Donal Lynch of Meitheal Mara, the community-based initiative and registered charity, which has introduced a huge cross-section of southern landlubbers to the waters since 1996, including school, youth and socially marginalised groups.

And “marinas, marinas, marinas”, says Crosshaven yacht broker and seasoned salt, Donal McClement.

Most existing slips dotted around the harbour are either decrepit, too tidal for full-time use, or not able to take cars and trailers, says Lynch.

Meitheal Mara are actively campaigning for improved access as “the number of launching slips and destinations is small, and launching of boats and berthing and going ashore are beset with difficulty.”

They also would love to use heritage buildings on the quays for more public visibility: there’s an irony in the fact their quite inaccessible Crosses Green base flooded earlier this year.

A bright, exemplar beacon is a new pontoon at Aghada pier, in the eastern harbour fringe, where there’s a coastal rowing fraternity, and other points suggested to follow suit could be from the end of Cornmarket Street, through the Lower Glanmire Road/Marina, already resurgent Blackrock village, Passage West, Ringaksiddy, Spike, Cobh and even out towards Fountainstown, beyond the harbour mouth. Some 34 destinations are rated by Meitheal Mara as having limited facilities, and considerable further potential.

Marine Minister and harbour habitué, Simon Coveney notes wryly that, looking at pictures of Cork Harbour in the 1920s, facilities were far better then than now.

Perhaps that’s because, back then, such access was vital to livelihoods, and for fishermen and small ferries. Now, it’s a vital way forward for harbour tourism and recreational enjoyment, Coveney says.

Key to attractiveness for the greatest numbers is ‘dry-shod’ access and activities, says Lynch — ie, the ability to get in and out of a boat without wading and getting feet too wet.

Meitheal Mara is now spreading to the Shannon, via Limerick city, to the Lagan via Belfast city, building a ‘new departure’ 16-foot dinghy in ply and epoxy, called the City One.

This simple boat design has been pioneered by Limerick City’s AK ILen school, with a similar social inclusion remit to Meitheal Mara and the bonding/building process is as integral as the eventual use and enjoyment process. There’ll be an inter-city race of the new craft for Limerick’s City of Culture 2014 year: clearly, it’s not just Cork City that is belatedly waking up to river heritage.

There’s a palpable excitement about Cork’s reappraisal and new-found appreciation of its maritime heritage, leisure amenities and ecology - RTE presenter Derek Mooney’s Dawn Chorus is broadcast from Cuskinny Marsh each May.

You don’t even have to go on the water to get in tune with it all. The massively-used cycle and walk paths, along disused rail lines, from the city via Blackrock, Mahon, Rochestown to Glenbrook, or Carrigaline to Crosshaven, are proof of the gains already appreciated by athletes, boat lovers, active citizens and skaters, residents, tourists and sundry passing visitors.

And they’re only a drop in an ocean of possibilities.

Paddler peddles Cork as a Venice of the north

A CITY without a river is a city without a soul , declares kayaker, oarsman Jim Kennedy who leads tours in Venice, Croatia and Mexico. But, Cork’s his favourite.

A former world champion, the fit 59-year-old is coming up on 50 years afloat along the length of the Lee.

Last weekend, the Ballintemple-born paddler par excellence was on Cork’s elegant Marina for the city’s long-established annual ‘Head of the River’ club rowing races.

Jim’s young granddaughter Lauren (10) was rowing, as were his sons Adam and Naoise, members of Skibbereen’s ace rowing club on the Ilen. On Saturday, they found an inscribed Lee Rowing Club tankard, won in a famous 1975 eights race by Jim and granddaddy Jim Kennedy, and crew. Sentimental? His children and grandchildren ribbed him about it, and he’s basking in it.

Kennedy was one of Ireland’s most competitive club rowers in the 1970s; when he took to kayaking a decade later as a super-fit athlete, he cleaned up in world championships, as well as in the gruelling, London-Devizes, 126-mile marathon, winning on his first attempt.

Along the way, he trained hard on the Lee.

Jim recalls living on a boat in Blackrock in his early 20s, kayaking down to Cobh and then racing the Cill Airne ships’ tender or the ‘Shandon’ tug back to the city, in all tides. Now, the pace might have slowed a tad, but the routes, and the passion for the harbour, are the same.

As the owner and leader of the niche ‘flotilla’ business, Atlantic Sea Kayaking, which is acclaimed by Tripadvisor, Jim has had visitors and journalists from all over the world paddle with him on the wild Atlantic waves, and on the safer, but no less interesting ones of Cork harbour.

He has taken myriad tours, from the boardwalk by City Hall, up-channel and down-river, under the city’s many bridges, by day and by night. He also does longer harbour hauls, on dropping tides, down as far as Cobh and Spike Island, “and people are blown away by the place, and by stories of emigration.”

He knows its every nook and cranny, and says, “believe it or not, I’ve been closer to wildlife in the city and harbour than in West Cork, from seals and otters to birds, like herons and egrets, and fish. They all seem tamer and more used to people”.

Jim has paddled the waters of many soul-blessed cities, and reckons in terms of ease of engagement with people on land, with its low quay walls and many bridges that “Cork, with its unique, accessible river and harbour and geography, and history of as many as 200 islands now covered over, is right up there with Venice for engagement with people on-shore.”

After success in sculls, eights, K1 and K2 kayaks, and sea-kayak tourism since 1995, what’s next — gondola tours?

Cruising into the big time

In their wildest dreams, Ireland’s inland counties could hardly imagine what an influx of up to 8,000 visitors in one single day would look like. If they really wanted to know, a visit to Cobh could show them, on a day when cruise liners come to call.

Such ships are getting bigger; now 5,000 passenger-vessels are regular callers to Cobh and several overlaps this summer, (such as June 2), will see two ships visiting at the same time, bringing over 8,000 passengers and crew between them, to the harbour at Cobh in one day. That’s equivalent to the discharge of passengers from over a dozen 747 ‘Jumbo’ jets or Airbus A380s.

Fairly universally, passengers and crews have high standards, quite a bit of discretionary cash, spending an average of €75 each on a day visit, and they’re an increasing tourism force to be reckoned with, to cater for and to court. Currently worth about €20m a year in direct spend nationally and the same again indirectly, cruise traffic to Ireland has doubled in the past decade. It’s up to about 250,000 visitors this year, with one third from the UK, and another one third from North America. Cork and Cobh get above a fair share of that tally. In 2013, (its busiest year ever), Cobh hosted 123,000 cruise passengers and crew from 62 ships and more are booked in for Cobh and Ringaskiddy for this year’s season, from end-April to October.

Port of Cork plans to grow the trade to about 80 ships a season, (Dublin had 100 ship visits last year), over the next four to five years, says its commercial manager Michael McCarthy, noting that “Cork harbour and Cobh is the only Irish port to have a dedicated cruise ship berth, and we’d like to add a second one, costing €8m in the next few years.”

It’s a fast-growing and lucrative market, with ships getting bigger, cheaper to travel on, and the age profile of passengers is going down. And, critically, 80% of passengers surveyed in the most recent (albeit 2010), Red C poll say that they plan on returning for longer visits in the near future. Some 20% say they’d return within 12 months, over 30% say they’d revisit within two years, and North Americans are most likely to revisit by ship — and Germans are the least likely to come back by boat. Different nationalities enjoy different features and more active pursuits such as harbour cycles, hiking and kayaking are needed for younger passengers and continental Europeans, suggests Mr McCarthy, citing the Red C poll which found younger Europeans “want more novel attractions than whiskey and castles”.

Ireland competes to draw cruise ships to its shores, so too do the various ports around here. Cobh competes with Waterford, Galway, and Shannon/Foynes, whilst Belfast and Dublin/Dun Laoghaire are currently investing significantly in cruise facilities. Cobh’s boast of having the country’s only dedicated cruise berth will go by 2016.

According to the major Red C poll, Cork is the port cited by most as their favourite and 33% of those visiting said Cork/Cobh had exceeded their expectations, the highest rating of any Irish port.

Cobh’s strong advantages play well with visitors who appreciate the harbour’s long maritime past, with 170 years of Atlantic travel from the days of the Sirius, the Titanic and Lusitania, to its natural beauty, dedicated cruise berth, rail link to Cork city and excursions to places like Blarney Castle, the city centre, Midleton’s distillery and Kinsale.

Now that broad appeal is set to have a major new ‘Spike’. With only fledgling facilities so far, but 1,400 years of habitation history (from monastic sanctuary to military and prison purgatory to rival Alcatraz), the 100-acre Spike Island in the harbour’s midst got 20,000 visitors in the past year alone, ever before a €4.2m investment to put it on every passing cruise ship’s itinerary.

Finding new energy by the sea

Dr Val Cummins, who spent her childhood and early adulthood rowing in Cork Harbour, now heads up IMERC, the Irish Marine and Energy Research Cluster

General view of the outer harbour looking east over Haulbowline Island and Naval Base, with Spike Island and Whitegate in the distance. There are hopes to provide a pedestrian bridge from Haulbowline to Spike in the future.

Tommy Barker hears from Dr Valerie Cummins about how a perfect alignment of stakeholders is driving the renaissance of the city’s harbour

Total immersion. That’s what Dr Valerie Cummins — academic scientist, harbour resident, and head of the Irish Marine and Energy Research Cluster (IMERC) – is known for.

And, to mark “a significant birthday coming up”, she’s tells the Irish Examiner, during a tour around Ringaskiddy’s Maritime college, she is going for total immersion in matters marine. Far from the ivory-towered academic stereotype, she’s to be plunged, in a simulated helicopter crash, into pitch darkness and icy water, and left to find her own way out. Beats a special birthday spa experience? Well, only if you are as infectiously enthusiastic about your job as she is.

There’s no denying Cork harbour’s beauty, diversity, and potential, Dr Cummins says, asserting that the harbour is on the point of renaissance:

“Today, we are at the dawn of a new era for Cork Harbour, through partnership we can realise a vision for the citizens of this island, overseas investors, visitors and sailors, to truly value the treasure of Cork Harbour as a world-class maritime quarter.”

The momentum to grow Ireland’s ocean resources, and draw in investment and jobs from overseas, is already there, says Dr Cummins or, just ‘Val’ as she’s generally known in this no-nonsense corner of the harbour.

She gestures to the €15m Beaufort lab being noisily built 100 yards away from her current temporary office at the Maritime College, and along with a further €28m for the inter-college marine renewable energy project MaREI, there’s €100m in state funds alone going into Cork harbour over two years, at Haulbowline, Spike Island and at IMERC as “an engine for innovation”, she proudly says.

Val Cummins grew up steeped in other parts of the harbour, living in Blackrock, spending hours on the river with Lee Rowing Club “and pottering around Lough Mahon with my father, in one of his many punts.

“I really didn’t appreciate the value of the Lower Harbour until I went to work on the Naval Base on Haulbowline Island. It was a privilege to be situated in an office right on the waterfront, to hear the bells of Cobh Cathedral across the way, and to observe the volume of shipping, ferry and boating traffic that enriched the scene.” And, living for a while in East Cork, with a boat moored at Aghada, “I began to appreciate the expansive, rural and tranquil value of that part of the harbour, too.”

“To truly value Cork harbour, one needs to become familiar with its intricate and diverse geography,” enthuses the woman whose primary degree was in marine geography and who’s an advocate of Integrated Coastal Zone Management — joined-up thinking on sustainable marine development.

Up to now, and despite its many claims to history, Cork’s harbour “has been under-explored, and inadequately appreciated by its citizens. However, there is a perceptible shift in attitudes towards it now.”

Fáilte Ireland have started to brand Cork City and Harbour as a priority destination, and she approves of the recognition for the first time, of the interplay between the two. Cork’s local authorities are headed in the same direction, on tourism and other fronts. The development of Spike Island as a major tourism destination saw 20,000 visitors last year, and this should grow to 70,000 from the thousands of cruise-ship visitors to the harbour, some 123,000 in 2013. To this initiative, Val Cummins name-checks the proposed expansion of the Port of Cork, remediation at Haulbowline, the Lower Harbour Energy Group’s €30m turbine project, the wonders of Camden Fort, as well as a vision for much-improved shoreline access, and water-based transport and tourism

“The public investment into the harbour to deliver these projects is remarkable, given the era of austerity in which we live. This injects the confidence required to stimulate and drive private sector funding. Working at the interface between research and industry, I see first-hand an increasing throughput of companies seeking to invest in the harbour, attracted by what is on offer in this growing maritime innovation hub”

Dr Cummins praises a new, holistic thinking and cooperation from organisations such as the local authorities, academic institutions, Port of Cork and Chamber of Commerce, IDA, Irish Naval Service, Fáilte Ireland and Meitheal Mara. Their passion or the harbour is uniquely in tune: “It’s like a planetary alignment, with a number of stars at the top of a number of organisations, all on the same trajectory.”

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