Light fantastic

Is the promise of phosphorescence really enough of a reason to get into a kayak in the cold dark of an Irish night and launch into the Atlantic? Anthea Milnes decides it is

On a dark autumn evening, a small convoy of cars winds its way from Maria's Schoolhouse in the village of Union Hall, down a deserted stretch of road, to the little harbour of Castletownshend in West Cork. The cars come to a halt on the pier and shadowy figures, dressed in what look like spacesuits, emerge and huddle together in the gloom. It's not a sinister assignation, however, just a night expedition from Jim Kennedy's Atlantic Sea Kayaking school. My friend has lured me here with the promise of phosphorescence. Right now, though, it's hard to believe that the light effects caused by phytoplankton scaring off predators are worth venturing out into the Atlantic for. Unfortunately, now that I'm trussed up like a Teletubby in a waterproof suit, it's a bit late for second thoughts.

"Jeez, it's dark out here," Jim says in his lilting bass voice. I laugh weakly, hoping he's joking. He passes me another item of waterproof clothing, telling me it's a "spray deck", and kindly refrains from laughing while I try to do it up between my legs before working out it's supposed to cover the well of the kayak. He's obviously trying to come down to my level: "That's the sea, there, behind you, Anthea," he points out.

We push off and shoot across the bay towards the trawler on the opposite side, Jim paddling while I sit in state in front of him. Colin, in the trawler, has just returned from a day's angling, and there is an exchange about the number of porpoises, herring and sprat in the local waters, about the humpback that hasn't been seen for about a month, and the eight or so almost-tame minkes. I wonder to myself if whales can turn over kayaks.

Meanwhile, the eight other kayaks have all been launched and Jim whisks us back across the bay to tell everyone to "pair off". The kayaks travel in twos and watch out for each other.

We head out in the direction of the blinking light that is the Fastnet Rock lighthouse, the kayaks cutting smoothly through the calm waters. The rhythm of the oars is hypnotic, and my anxieties about hypothermia slip away as I realise how warm it is so close to the water. An hour or so later, we head back inland to Rineen. My eyes are now attuned to the shades of silver, grey and black around me, and my ears can recognise the croak of the herons and the sound of trickling streams.

To search for the elusive phosphorescence, Jim steers us off to one side, into an area of deep shadow. "Look," Jim says, pulling up smartly by the cliff-side and dragging his oar through some seaweed. The strands come to life and emit showers of sparkling light. "Like Tinkerbell's fairy dust," he adds; a surprising simile from someone so sturdy, but it is a magical sight. And as an otter slips into the sea and the moon rises over O'Donovan Castle, I think that next time we come I might actually learn to paddle.

Anthea flew courtesy of Aer Lingus (0845 9737747, www.aerlingus.com), currently offering a fare of £69 return to Cork from London Heathrow. She stayed at Stanley House Bed & Breakfast owned by the Brosnans on Colla Road, Schull (00 353 28 28425), from £20 per person.A two-hour trip with Atlantic Sea Kayaking costs IR£20 (£15.60), including all equipment (00 353 28 33002; www.atlanticseakayaking.com). Accommodation is also available at Maria's Schoolhouse (00 353 28 330022), which has dorms and en suite doubles from IR£8 (£6.20) per night. Two days car hire with Europcar (0845 7222525; www. europcar.com) costs from £77.

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