Amid the pummeling and deafening roar of the breaking waves, I could hear a deeper rumble of the swells hitting the cliffs. The swells. Damn it! They had been there since the crossing of Lough Foyle that morning. I hadn't paid any attention to them. They lifted and rolled under the ranks of standing waves, confusing them, tossing them aside, then rebounding and turning the sea into a riotous panic. There was nothing to do but hang on and try to ride it out.
My breathing was shallow and rapid, my heart pounding wildly. I had to calm down or panic would take over. I took a couple of deep breaths, concentrating on my breathing and letting my shoulders drop. Some of the tension let up and my chest muscles relaxed. I reached for a wave with the left paddle and changed to a low brace as the boat was thrown over from a wave on the right. Another breath. A smooth exhalation, then out of the low brace and reaching forward for the next stroke. I focused on a ten-yard circle around the boat, watching individual waves, trying to guess how they would hit, and backpaddling or sprinting, depending on when I thought they would break. I timed some perfectly, flying over the transparent crests, two-thirds of the boat out of the water, rocketing into the sky at a thirty-degree angle. A split second later, the bow was buried in the following trough, and I could hear the roar of the wave breaking behind me. Other waves I mistimed completely, crashing into a trough and looking up just in time to tuck and take the wave over my head.
For the first fifteen minutes I worked the boat through the seas, judging distances, changing course, aware of how far the next band of standing waves was and how best to approach it. I moved further out into the tidal stream to miss a series Of breakers, then angled back in toward the cliff.
Somewhere between the Causeway and Benbane Head, I spotted the red pilothouse of a fishing boat rolling wildly in the sea ahead. We were on opposite courses, a hundred yards apart and closing rapidly. The sound of his engine was muffled when he was half-hidden in the troughs, then suddenly louder and straining as the boat lurched into full view. Between crest and trough I caught a glimpse of the fisherman, hands firmly on the boat's wheel, leaning sharply into each violent roll. As we passed, I saw him lean over the wheel and stare in disbelief. The wipers repeatedly cleared the window of spray and framed the look of shock on his face. He stepped to the side window, leaning through the lowered top half. My boat climbed sharply, then slammed down. I let go of the paddle and waved with one hand, desperately wanting to grab the shaft again but holding my hand high, hopefully sending a message that I was okay. The antenna on the pilothouse slashed the air as the boat rolled from side to side. The last thing I wanted to see was him reaching for the radio. He returned my wave with a shake of his head that I had seen dozens of times. With hand still high, I whispered a plea, "Please don't call." In seconds, our sterns crossed. A half minute later, I chanced a look over my shoulder. He was nowhere in sight.
The closer I was swept to the headland, the steeper the seas became and any pattern to the breakers was lost. Time and distance began to blur with each new drenching and the sensory overload of breakers hissing, rumbling, and slapping into each other. Gradually the thought process that is linked to vision, the ability to see what is ahead and come up with a plan, was eroded. I tried to hold on to the mental picture of the waters but lost that as well. I was still warm, reasonably dry, and strong. I just couldn't see or think fast enough to counter the waves slamming in and driving the boat in three different directions: up, sideways, and surging forward.
I closed my defensive circle around the boat to the length of a paddle, exhaled with each wave breaking over me, and mentally pulled in tighter. This was the roughest water I had ever been in, a new physical limit whose boundaries I didn't know. I slipped into survival mode, turned my mind inward to ward off the panic that,was just below the surface, and let my reflexes take care of staying upright. "Stay calm'. Breathe deep." Another sickening launch into the sky was followed by a drop that I was braced for. The image of a child's wooden toy broke through my concentration. It was the small figure of a clown with a round weighted bottom. No matter how hard it is knocked over, the little figure rights itself. the red nose and smile rocking back and forth, always coming upright. "Weebles wobble but they don't fall down." The commercial jingle played over and over in my head. It was absurd to be thinking of a wobbling clown when around me the seas were stirred as if by the giants of old: how dare a craft as fragile as mine mock the legends and try to slip past the Giant's Causeway? Humor didn't belong in the near panic of the moment, but there it was-a clown and a new mantra that I couldn't get out of my head.
I don't know how long the seas threw me side to side, burying the boat, then tossing it in the air at will. judging from the map and the speed of the tide, the passage beneath the Giant's Causeway and around Benbane Head could not have lasted more than forty minutes. It felt ten times that. When the tide finally pulled me from the last of the standing waves, my legs and arms were quivering. I was weak, nauseated. I headed toward a finger of rock that broke the rush of the swells and formed a tiny harbor below a white cottage. ...