Down to the sea
AS the wind had died, so had the waves. Now they no longer marched in angry lines, or crashed furiously upon the coast. Instead, what was left of them eased tiredly with a hushing sound, caressing the sand, wrapping languid through the boulder-strewn shore, tipping casually into rock pools where Beadlet anemones blindly explored the influx of water with reaching tentacles and hermit crabs scurried back and forth in their endless search for food.
Our visits to the seashore almost always coincide with these periods of better behaviour. Yet when I was at Roonagh Quay last week the water was a frenzied mass of white as far as the eye could see. The tide was up, driven to new onshore heights with the wind at its tail. The rocks were all but obliterated by the dense clouds of spray that blew roaring as each wave broke like the one before it. A dozen or so great black-backed gulls soared with consummate ease with their heads to the wind. The storm was no trouble to them; they revel in the heart of a good gale.
The power of the sea is immense. Marine scientists have measured the power of a striking wave at more than six thousand pounds per square foot. Thus, a powerful wave might strike a pier such as the one at Roonagh with a cumulative force of several million pounds. And not only that, but at the same time as this immensely destructive force is receding, so a continued series of similar blows are already on their way.
Little wonder, then, that man-made piers and harbours suffer greatly when the sea turns on them in fury. The town of Wick, on the North Sea coast of the Pentland Firth, has long been visited by waves of outrageous size and strength. A century and a half ago the harbour there was destroyed in a storm. Not to be outdone, the locals rebuilt it, adding a massive breakwater to make sure the same thing wouldn’t happen again. But in 1877 a freak wave swept ashore, wrenched the harbour from it foundations, breakwater and all, and carried the entire lot away with it. The end stone of the breakwater was estimated to weigh about 2,500 tons, but even this was no match for that one wave.
Thankfully, such instances are rare. There are times, though, when we do well to stay away from the sea. Some time ago I was fishing a night session from the pier at Enniscrone. I had planned to finish an hour after high water, soon after midnight. Long before that the wind picked up and drove a heavy swell directly onto the pier; not only did I soon get wet, conditions were becoming uncomfortable. When I packed up and tried to leave I found my way barred, as a large quantity of stones varying in size from pebbles to small boulders a foot and a half across were being thrown over the twenty-foot high sea wall. There was nothing to do but wait for the waves to recede, which they did about three hours later.
Over the New Year I went down to Mulranny to see what birds might have been blown inshore by the wind. At half tide a light swell was washing into the back of the pier there, and pouring through fractures in the concrete where previous repairs were being proved inadequate. We could hear loose rocks being rolled around under our feet as the sea swept in and out. So it was no surprise to learn that the pier eventually collapsed and is currently cordoned off and awaiting further attention.
We didn’t wait long there for a cold wind appeared. Before we left a skein of light-bellied Brent geese came to land and feed on the salt marsh, cropping the grass with their toothed bills. When they first arrive in this country the Brent are shy, being generally unused to human company. But give them a month here and they become quite tolerant.
These must be the least celebrated of Irish geese. Though they are with us for a third of the year they are smaller and fewer in number than the greylags and Canada geese that congregate in other parts, and less evocative than the Greenland white-fronts, the gabbling of which haunts remote winter hilltops. Yet what splendid birds they are, stately, regal, comically pompous. We watched them fly in ahead of another ocean storm, bellies light against the grey of the sky, tipping the wind with dark wings.