17 Jan 2022

The incredible power of the ocean that draws us there again and again

Column: A view of Donegal by journalist Siobhán McNamara

Rossnowlagh SMCN

Winter high tide at Rossnowlagh

It wasn’t surfing, swimming or even the prospect of a walk on the beach that drew sea lovers to Rossnowlagh on a recent Sunday afternoon. 

The traffic on the Rossnowlagh road from the Ballintra crossroads felt more like an August Bank Holiday than early January. I had a sense even at that point that this journey was going to be well worth the effort - and judging by the yellow registration plates, many of my fellow motorists had travelled from quite a bit further away than I had. 

The beach was completely covered by the tide and there was a chill wind driving the waves inshore when I arrived. I’d brought the dog along for the spin and she was not impressed to find that her favourite beach had disappeared (though she did still get her walk along the footpath).

Scientists tell us that a wave doesn’t stop when it reaches the shore. Instead, its energy is transferred and it keeps going.

There was certainly a powerful energy in the air as dozens of people took their positions to watch this force of nature from car parks, dunes and other safe vantage points. 

There were few straight lines to be seen at the turning of the tide; cresting waves all seemed to compete for space, a photographer’s delight as they crashed against the rocks, throwing plumes of spray into the air. 

Every now and then a surprising gust of wind caught a wave side on and rather than crash, it’s white crest rose higher and higher as if in sheer exhilaration.

And yet, against the huge roar of the Atlantic and the tumultuous, foaming water in front of us, there was an incredible stillness and serenity amongst those who stood watching.

The excited screech of a child or the occasional ‘oh wow’ was all that was said. But there was a unity of purpose and appreciation that had no need for words. 

It was a reminder too that this wonderful stretch of coast - our fantastic natural playground - existed on her own terms and was not to be underestimated. Everyone was keeping a safe distance on higher ground.

It made me reflect yet again on how much the sea plays a part in our lives, even on days when all we can do is stand there, captivated by its power.

The same tides that had us mesmerised in Rossnowlagh were also being viewed elsewhere in the county. And in Port Arthur, Gaoth Dobhair, residents were left in no doubt as to the force of the waves. The high tide left behind a boulder, sitting on the pier at Port Arthur. It has been attracting a lot of attention on social media and on our news website 

It is no surprise really that we are so drawn to the sea. It shapes our land and our lives in countless ways. 

Our coastline here in Donegal has everything from steep cliffs, sea arches and sea stacks carved by the battering force of the waves over millions of years, to inlets where ‘softer’ land has been worn away.

Our beautiful golden beaches are also formed by sea’s power, grinding quartz and other material down to tiny components deposited on the more sheltered spots along the coast - though anyone who has walked a beach on a winter’s day knows they often don’t feel particularly sheltered!

A few years ago I spent a week on Achill Island on a family holiday. We visited Dooagh Beach which had suddenly reappeared the previous year, having disappeared 30 years earlier in a storm. It was quite something to stand on a beach and to think that it had been deposited there in its entirety, overnight, just a year earlier.

I’m glad we saw it on that visit because a year later, it completely disappeared again.  

The sea has been our means of carrying people and goods around the world long before there was air travel or even road and rail. Its marine life has provided ways to feed us and to make a living, be it through fishing or modern day tourism.

It is also a big part of our recreation, for adventurers and adrenaline seekers who like expedition kayaking, coasteering, surfing, sea swimming, kite surfing and much more to those who enjoy more serene activities such as beach walking, canoeing or the occasional dip on a summer's day. 

These pursuits all have well documented physical and psychological benefits. Whatever draws us to the shore or on to the water, there is a good chance we will leave feeling renewed and refreshed.

The sea engages all of our senses - from the rising, falling timbre of the crashing waves; the water, spray or fresh breeze on our skin; the taste of salty air on our lips; the wonderful fresh smell of the fresh sea air, and the stunning sights of the sea in all her moods. 

Small wonder then, that a visit to the sea can have such a profound, positive effect. It can completely change our mood and our thoughts, whether we go there alone or with family or friends.

Sometimes I drive to the beach in the morning and just sit there for a few minutes, drinking a cup of coffee that I picked up en route. Some days the sea is calm; some days it roars. Either way, it is both humbling and empowering, and I leave feeling centred, balanced and ready for whatever the day has in store. 

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