An Charraig Aonair — The Lonely Rock

Off the south coast of Ireland sits one of the most iconic landmarks in the sport of sailing.

fastnet rock
The 72-foot schooner Windjammer reaches past Fastnet Rock on a perfect summer day.Cathie Kerr

It was one of those truly magical days with a light breeze blowing, the sun shining and a gentle swell rolling. Numerous visits from pods of bottlenose dolphins really topped off the day. My husband, Ashley, and I had spent the past six weeks sailing down the west coast of Ireland and had experienced all sorts of weather: wind from every direction, light and heavy, cold and overcast, and even a few summerlike days.

This section of the coast takes the full force of the westerly Atlantic gales and is characterized by rocky cliffs, numerous headlands and outlying islands. Remote fishing villages and small island communities abound and make for interesting exploring. All along the way, we encountered the warm hospitality and ever-present humor that the Irish are renowned for, with just about every pub providing live music accompanied by delicious beer and food.

It was time to turn the corner and head east along the south coast. We had earlier sailed close by the large isolated rocks, first the Bull, with its tall, weather-­battered lighthouse and ruined outbuildings, and then the Cow, with its breeding colonies of gannets. In the distance loomed the famed Fastnet Rock.

Fastnet, Force 10, by John Rousmaniere, kept jumping into my mind. I had read this book many years ago and never anticipated that one day we might also round this iconic rock. Located some 9 miles southeast of Mizen Head (the most southwestern point of Ireland's mainland), the 75-foot-high schist rock covers an area of 360 by 180 feet at low water.

The lighthouse, commissioned in 1904, was one of the most ambitious feats of lighthouse engineering ever undertaken at the time and was constructed of 2,000 interlocking granite blocks. At approximately 175 feet high, it stands bold and proud. It looked stunning, but for those participating in that fateful Fastnet Race in 1979, the sight would have been a very different one. For many, struggling to round the rock was difficult enough, for others, merely struggling to stay afloat and alive was their greatest challenge. After rounding the rock, we tipped a dram of malt whiskey into the ocean in memory of those 18 sailors and rescuers who lost their lives, then made for North Harbour on the island of Cape Clear 41⁄2 miles away.

Again we encountered the hearty Irish welcome and friendliness that we had experienced throughout our cruise down the west coast. All of these small communities are very welcoming to seafarers, and we thoroughly enjoyed our experience in Ireland. As we left Cape Clear to head farther east, we bid farewell to An Charraig Aonair, the Lonely Rock.

For those who emigrated en masse to America in the 19th century, this was the last they saw of their beloved Ireland — hence the nickname “Ireland’s teardrop.”