Windsurf Round Ireland

Submitted by jono on 17 Dec 2016.

A meeting with Rob Henshall - pioneer solo expedition windsurfer

Yesterday I met Robert Henshall - the pioneer of solo expedition windsurfing - a man whose existence I first became aware of over twenty years ago. He got a too-brief mention back then, in Boards windsurfing magazine, for having solo windsurfed Ireland. That feat stuck in my teenage mind, and became the foundation of my belief that windsurfing round Britain unsupported was a reasonable and feasible proposition. Without the inspiration of Robert's windsurf round Ireland, I might never have made it to the start line of windsurf round Britain.

In the years - actually decades - between reading about Rob's achievement and setting out on my own first expedition I occasionally searched for more details, but always drew a blank. I'd forgotten the name to search for and googling provided no leads or even corroboration of my distant recollection.

So it was a real closing of the loop moment to finally meet the man, who had been kind enough to identify himself via a short message whilst I was windsurfing round Britain.

We met in pub in Ardara, Donegal, Ireland. Impressive country round there.

It was also a fascinating experience. Like meeting my own reflection. Not in a physical sense but in terms of shared understanding. Here we were - face to face over pints of Guinness - hearing from each other of experiences that could have been our own. Our communication required minimal description and our understanding - reconstructed from memories and emotion of great intensity - was seemingly precise. And when Rob explained his motivations, and the personal significance of achieving his goals, these could have been my own. He could have been mind-reading my thoughts.

Rob's windsurf round Ireland was his third time round. For him it was about completing the trilogy by kayak, Laser dinghy and finally by windsurfer. So by this time Rob knew the terrain. He also got round quickly, meaning that he at times threw caution to the wind: twice he crashed through his sail at sea, his possessions were lost - to be delivered back to him only by a following sea, and he ended up becalmed in the black of night. But he always had a back-up plan and found solutions to his predicaments. He also camped every night - no Local Contact Network for him. That was part of his deal with himself about how it should be done.

Rob Henshall on his 1992 Round Ireland Windsurf Rob Henshall on his 1992 Round Ireland Windsurf

I asked Rob to bring photos of his journey. There aren't many - his 1992 rounding was pre the digital revolution. But he did bring the one above. He also handed me a short account that appeared in Boards windsurfing magazine the following year. Many parts resonate with my own round Britain experiences, particularly the dry throated fear before a difficult leg, and the deep serenity that came from ultimate completion. With Rob's permission - and a sense of pride and honour on my part - his account is reproduced below:

Rob Henshall's windsurf circumnavigation of Ireland Rob Henshall's windsurf circumnavigation of Ireland


Everyone has a dream. every windsurfer a goal - a plateau to overcome, something to aim for in their personal sailing. lt could be to sail back across that bay without falling in or to sail on a sinker; or to carve that perfect gybe - for me it was to sail 'solo' unaccompanied. unsupported by land or sea around the coasts of Ireland. When at length that challenge, that dream has been accomplished, then there is tremendous sense of achievement and personal fulfilment - a sense of inner calmness and proudness that can only be obtained by the person who in the first place sets themself a goal or a challenge.

This was to be my last and final watersports challenge. In 1981 I solo circumnavigated Ireland by Kayak and during this long and arduous adventure my mind would drift relentlessly, pondering over other possible adventures. Having just learnt to windsurf l dreamt of the possibility of one day windsurfing around Ireland - never in a 'blue moon' did I actually expect to achieve this dream.

In 1990 I was still setting myself personal challenges in different sports so off I went in my Laser to once again solo circumnavigate Ireland, a trip which was to prove very mentally taxing, due to a few major overdoses of adrenalin and endorphins! Again during this adventure I dreamt of windsurfing the same course made good! After two successful trips and still having a lust for the sea and adventure I just had to complete my ultimate goal in windsurfing, I just had to complete, or attempt, the trilogy of unique totally solo adventures.

Ten years ago my experience wouldn't have been enough to see me through nor would the equipment available have made the trip feasible. However nowadays, my goal I felt was possibly realistic, with modern products and developments in windsurfing technology what better sponsor for my trip than Du Pont whose products notably 'Kevlar' are numerously utilised in board and sail manufacture and 'Neoprene' of course in wetsuit fabrication. My other main sponsors were Bic Sport Ireland based in Dublin and Aquatics Extreme in Antrim. Having in my personal sailing for years used ‘Bic’ gear they seemed to be my other obvious approach for support.

So on the afternoon of 26th June with gear all accumulated, rucksack on back- and large dry bag strapped to the front of my Bic Bamba, with little fuss I gingerly set off on & run from the Royal North of Ireland Yacht Club on Belfast Lough occasionally pumping my 6.5m2 cam ++ rig in a gentle breeze. I could hardly believe that I was setting out to try and achieve my ultimate ambition. What an absolute lunatic - had I a death wish or what? I was to get married in October - how selfish could I be? The questions that I'd ask myself, the doubts that I had were numerous in quantity and complexity - yet I know from my past experiences that if I achieve that goal, that challenge, which I'm setting myself, then positive feelings of well-being and achievement etc etc will far outweigh any negative feelings of selfishness.

Every day was an adventure in itself, everyday a challenge and each day before setting out my stomach would be pumped full of adrenalin and my mouth dry no matter what the weather. Huh - the weather - my major problem. l had had thoughts of lovely Force 4's reaching up to 100 miles maybe in a day my journey only taking perhaps a few weeks - alas the weather was at times to be my downfall and at times to be my saviour. I was travelling in a clockwise direction from Belfast down the East coast, the first few days with little wind till crossing Dundrum Bay - the wind picked up to about Force 5 but unfortunately l couldn't see more than about a couple of hundred yards so with compass bearing set and noted in relation to the wind I was off planing for the first time into the mist with my compass ignorantly tucked under the straps of my Dry Bag sitting secretively on top of my metallic stove! As I nearly ran aground way way into Dundrum Bay some 45º off my intended course I thought how stupid of me not to have detected that huge windshift! I wasn't aware of my stupidity until sailing again in nil vis in very light winds off the West Cork coast aiming to reach Derrynane from Dursey across the Kenmare River 3 where again after hours of sailing I was 45º out - a huge deviation but as a result had the pleasure of camping on Inish Farnard a small deserted island.

Another major problem I was to encounter was sailing downwind in strong winds - initially off Howth Head. With the increased water-line length of the-board due to the weight of all my gear, along with the ever-changing wind strength and apparent wind, due to the circular wave action of the swell, it was very difficult to maintain balance, that is, if I ever managed to bear away onto a run in the first place. In strong winds broad reaching was the answer, however the stronger the wind the harder it was to bear off a reach onto a broad reach let alone a run. Off the south-west coast, ten miles out to sea in force 6 and resulting 20 foot swell with a disintegrated mast foot and the balance of a surfer after fourteen pints of stout I pile-drived the lower panels of my sail once too often with the resulting consequence of a five day delay for repairs in Dunquin, ‘Far and Away’ country, just inside the beautiful Blanket Islands. It was one of those days that when you eventually make landfall, you’re glad to be alive.

No wind of course was as big a problem and equally dangerous. Sometimes I would have to sit for hours whistling for it, praying for it, hoping that when miles out to sea wind would eventually take me towards my day’s destination. Whenever seas were calm and there was the slightest hint of a breeze then I could pump quite effectively but when there was a swell or chop and no wind then the sailing was diabolically difficult, balance was impossible.

Anyway, I didn't take a day off until l got to Schull in West Cork a place often visited and acquaintances re-met. l daren't and couldn't attempt to round Mizan Head in a Force 7-8 so took a day off cooling my callouses and trying to regain a massive weight loss with my hands cupped around pints of ‘the black stuff’!

Whilst sailing around Ireland in my Laser l experienced the most frightening event of my life to date - being stuck 20 miles out to sea at 2:00am in the morning with no wind and a sea mist as thick and as black as pitch nearly being run down by a tanker wasn't really my idea of fun – so when night fell and my balance was away in the swell after a long days sailing at the mouth of Dursey Sound l was only half prepared though terrified for spending a night on my board drifting with my feet glowing in phosphorescence as l sat waiting for some wind as the tide drifted me through the sound. At about 12:30 the wind picked up and l managed by navigating by sound to make landfall or rather rockfall at Garnish Point by 1:30am. Luckily I'd been there twice before. Half an hour later, having pitched camp cold wet but relieved, it was blowing a full gale! Someone is looking after me again, I thought, as on my other trips or was I just lucky time after time?

I had good days though to remember - crossing Dublin Bay and Cobh Harbour at a blistering pace; cruising in glorious sunshine from Clare Island and up Achill Sound with the tide; chasing Porpoise in a glassy calm Rathlin Sound, sailing with Sunfish, dodging and running between fins of basking sharks; talking to the seagulls and of course eventually getting home on 9th August after what in retrospect was an ultimate epic experience, with the last four days averaging only a force 1, a trip of a lifetime, the completion of a unique trilogy of solo adventures, to the firing of the cannon as I crossed the finishing line of the Royal North or Ireland Yacht Club, to my tears and their applause.

Goal setting is an answer to fulfilment in life but for God’s sake set realistic goals!