"Ireland's somewhere ahead there. Look out for it," said my partner, Peter Maxwell, as he disappeared below, leaving me on watch. Such navigational precision! Mithril, our 50-foot Van de Stadt steel ketch, tramped along. Fred, the autopilot, clicked and whirred, leaving me free to check the sails and sniff for land.
Another long cruise was drawing to a close for us. A circuit of the Atlantic that had encompassed North Africa, Brazil, and the Caribbean was ending with our longest sea passage to date: 40 days direct from Cuba to Ireland. I altered course around Tuskar Rock, the sentinel of the southern Irish Sea. Trimming the sails to the fresh westerly breeze, I dodged coastal fishing fleets and ferries to England and identified the yellow looms of the east-coast towns we passed. Toward the end of the watch, the sea became dark and empty, and I had time to relax and muse about the fact that my destination now was the same as it had been for my first "offshore" voyage when I was 16.
That landfall was the culmination of a sail-training program on Carlingford Lough, where the Mourne Mountains sweep down to the sea. It's only four miles across the lough, but from our lowly positions in the cockpit of a 14-foot sailing dinghy, Carlingford was almost invisible ahead, and the Mournes towered Himalaya-like behind us. I remember the silence of the sea-no traffic or people, just the breeze in the rigging and the chuckle of the steady waves.
We moored at an ancient quay under Carlingford's medieval castle. As I shakily stepped onto that slimy granite pier, I felt as Neil Armstrong must have when he first set foot on the moon. We rolled into town like rollicking pirates in port after months at sea, shouting and skipping with unbridled joy at our achievement. The sailing instructor herded us into a cafe, where he bought us shepherd's pie and hot tea. I can still smell that wonderful pie! Is it any wonder I wanted to run away to sea?
Now, many years later, Mithril, when not cruising, has a berth at the head of Carlingford Lough, and it still makes my heart leap every time I see the familiar outline of the Mournes emerge from the morning haze at the end of a cruise. No matter the length of the voyage, landfall is just as exciting now as it was that first time. Is that the aroma of shepherd's pie wafting on the last of the offshore breeze?
Irish Shepherd's Pie
1 pound lean ground beef or lamb
2 to 3 medium onions, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
Olive oil, for sauteing
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon paprika
1 tablespoon dried parsley
12 ounces pre-made brown gravy
(from jar or mix)
4 large potatoes, peeled
4 to 5 tablespoons butter
1 to 1 1/2 cups milk
1 cup cheddar cheese, grated
Fresh chives, if available, for garnish
Brown beef or lamb and drain fat. Set aside. Saute onion, and garlic in oil until onions are translucent. Add meat, seasonings, and gravy. Stir and simmer for 20 minutes. (The mixture should be thick enough that the mashed potatoes don't sink into it.) Set aside to cool. Boil the potatoes until soft (about 20 minutes) and drain. Replace in cooking pot and add butter; when melted, add milk a bit at a time and mash to make a fairly soft consistency. Place meat mixture in a greased baking dish and top with a layer of potatoes. Fluff the surface up into uneven peaks using a fork. Sprinkle with cheese. Bake at 350 F for 30 to 45 minutes or until top is crusty and slightly browned. Garnish with chives. Serve with steamed vegetables. Serves four.