Alex and Daria Blackwell recently moved back to Kilmeena from their New Jersey home – but they didn’t take the conventional route
in the last decade of economic prosperity, many who had left these shores during the bleak days of the late eighties decided to return home to live in Ireland.
Alex Blackwell and his American-born wife Daria took that decision in 2008, deciding to vacate their New Jersey home of 12 years and relocate to Rosnakilly in Kilmeena.
But rather than queue up at JFK for a flight back to Shannon, the Blackwells took a less conventional route – they sailed their own boat all the way from Long Island Sound in New York to their new home in Clew Bay.
“That morning [August 17 last], when we arrived on Clew Bay was magical; we had streams of sunshine breaking through the heavy cloud cover and lighting the way between the mountains towards home. It didn’t really sink in with me for a couple of months what we actually had done it but it’s nice now a few months later to take a look at the map and relive the journey,” said Alex, who was born in America but moved with his family to Kilmeena when he was 14 years old.
Sailing across the Atlantic is something Alex had dreamed of ever since he was offered a two-week stint aboard the famous Irish Government training vessel, The Asgard.
“That was a magical experience, one that has stayed with me until this day and, really, sailing has been in my blood since that. I always had a dream of sailing across the Atlantic, I believe a dream is the most important thing you can have and even if it gets pushed down the list of priorities in your daily life, it’s still a dream and it can, at some stage, be fulfilled.”
That dream came true for Alex on August 17, when he and Daria docked in Clew Bay, 23 days after departing from Halifax in Canada on what can only be described as a treacherous journey.
“Sure, there were scary moments, it wasn’t the best summer ever as everyone on the west coast of Ireland knows, and we encountered plenty of storms. I remember one day in particular when we were roughly half way across the Atlantic and we had to turn back and head in the wrong direction after encountering rough conditions. I just said to Alex ‘I want to get off now’. I wasn’t afraid, it was because I was frustrated. But then we eventually got back on the right track, and I baked some cookies, and everything was fine again,” said Daria, encapsulating the ‘must do’ mentality needed to survive such a long stint at sea.
Leaving Kilmeena in 1988 for the States, Alex never envisaged being away for so long. Having qualified as a micro-biologist after attending university in his mother’s native Germany, Alex worked in various Clew Bay fishing industries in the early ‘80s, opening an oyster hatchery, as well as being one of the original directors of Clew Bay co-op in the early ‘80s. However, a chance meeting with an American businessman offered a change in career.
“I was working as a barman in Newport House at the time and after getting to know an American businessman who was staying with us, I took a chance and decided to move to the States for six months to help him with a research project. I ended up very much enjoying the printing and marketing work involved and ended up staying for 20 years.”
Although involved in the same industry, it was a chance meeting in a bar that brought Alex and Daria together.
“Alex had been working on a project for our medical advertising firm but I had never actually met him. However, one night I ended up having a meal at a bar after work and because all the tables were full and I ended up sitting at the bar, striking up a conversation with Alex - and we’ve been together ever since,” said Daria.
Now married 12 years, it was an initial mutual interest in sailing which soon led the Blackwells to begin chartering boats and sailing the American west coast as often as possible.
“We first started coastal cruising in the States, visiting many, many ports from where we were based in Long Island Sound and then we started writing about our experiences on a website, www.coastalboating.net, which is still widely used. We realised we both liked that travelling type of lifestyle, so we bought our own boat and began planning to go sailing around the world.”
Alex adds that, parallel to making that decision, the Blackwells decided it made sense to move their permanent base to the west of Ireland.
“We decided to build a house here in Kilmeena, up the road from my mother who lives in the well-known Ross House, and having taken turns coming home to see how the house was progressing, we decided to move home to Kilmeena permanently this year – and that’s when we decided to sail Aleria [their boat of four years] home to Clew Bay.”
Aleria, a 57-foot Bowman ketch, had already circumnavigated the world for its previous owner and Alex was comfortable with the idea of ‘her’ getting them to Ireland in one piece.
“She’s 30 years old and she loves the ocean, although close to shores she has a deep keel so it can be difficult. But we both had every confidence in her, the three of us were a team. Our final preparations took just a couple of weeks but, mentally, I think we had been preparing for this for years. We also took all the relevant courses and got certification and we are both licenced captains now.”
Of course, you have to be totally self-sufficient while at sea for a long period; anything you want to eat or drink has to be on the boat, and that includes water.
“We needed to plan for at least six weeks – just in case something happened.”
So on July 1, Alex and Daria set off initially on a coastal passage which took them out of Long Island Sound in New York, which had been their base, via Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Maine in the northeastern United States. They then continued along the shores of Nova Scotia in Canada before setting off from Halifax into the great Atlantic unknown on July 25.
“We had a beautiful trip up the coast, encountering scores of whales, and dolphins cavorting all around them almost daily, and we saw countless sea birds.”
Once out on the Atlantic, Alex and Daria sailed double-handed with assistance from their autopilot and wind vane, alternating watches of four to six hours. They navigated via radar and GPS Canadian amateur radio operator and weather routing specialist, Herb Hilgenberg (see panel), who helped them make their way around the numerous gales and storms they encountered at sea and that drenched Irish coast in the wettest August on record.
Meanwhile, back in Kilmeena, Alex’s family waited patiently, but nervously. They had one particularly stressful day.
Kirstin and Peter MacDonagh, the Blackwells’ sister and brother-in-law had heard of a vessel in distress on the high seas off the coast of Ireland and, knowing the Aleria was reportedly nearing that position, they immediately contacted the Malin Head Coast Guard to inquire about the vessel.
“After the call the Irish Coast Guard contacted the Canadian Coast Guard in a brilliant act of international cooperation. The Canadian Coast Guard called Herb Hilgenberg who knew Aleria’s position, having spoken with us just a few hours before. Herb informed us on our next scheduled call and called the Irish Coast Guard, reporting our position as 500 miles southwest of Fastnet Rock and making good progress towards Clew Bay. Everyone was relieved that we were still on course.”
The Blackwells reached Clew Bay on August 17 and anchored for just a few hours off Clare Island to await a favorable tide prior to heading in at last. They had ridden in on a gale pushing to make Clew Bay before yet another strong storm overtook them from behind.
“We travelled well in excess of the distance we initially anticipated overall, running up some 3,800 miles on the clock, but every mile was worth it once we got to Clew Bay. I had promised my mother I would be home to celebrate her 75th birthday in September and she actually took out her own little boat into Clew Bay to meet us. Naturally there were tears and cheers – and a celebratory glass of wine.” The Blackwells anchored and hoisted the ‘Q’ flag at 07:00.
Now, some ten weeks after the memorable journey, the couple are looking forward to the future.
“It may sound like a retirement of sorts but we are by no means ready for that yet – it’s more a ‘rewirement’ I think. We plan to do a lot more writing having released a book, ‘Happy Hooking – the Art of Anchoring’, just before we left the States. We moved most of our belongings back from the States in a container. We even brought our car with us, leading to rumours around Westport that we actually brought the car with us on the Aleria! Not true.”
Alex has enjoyed renewing acquaintances with many people in the Westport/Newport area since moving home but plans are already afoot for the Blackwells’ next sailing adventure.
“We hope to do a lot more trips and plan to sail the Mediterranean in the spring. It’s a thousand miles from hear to the Med but we are looking forward to the trip. That’s the beauty of sailing, it allows you to see so much. We dock, take off our bikes and travel in land but we always have our apartment to go back to. If we fall in love with a particular place, we can stay for a month, if we hate a place, we can just move on to the next port.”
After spring, the Blackwells will be back to Kilmeena for summer, and from there they have no plans. But Aleria will be waiting in Clew Bay, awaiting another challenge.
“Sailing the Atlantic was a dream come true and whatever happens in the future, we will always keeps that fresh in our memories,” adds Alex.