Around the Emerald Isle

If you happen to have a seaworthy boat anywhere on the southwest coast of Scotland or the coast of Wales or anywhere in Ireland itself, and you have a month or more in the summertime to go cruising, a circumnavigation of the Emerald Isle certainly warrants serious consideration. Having sailed from Nova Scotia to Scotland’s west coast, via Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands on our J-46 Cielita, we decided to go around Ireland in August and early September.

The first, obvious question is which way to go around. We received no end of advice on this subject, both written and verbal, but there seemed to be no clear consensus. After changing our minds several times, we finally decided on a counterclockwise circumnavigation. And as it turned out, we were extremely glad we did, for we had favorable winds almost the entire way around. Although this was probably due to blind luck, we liked to think that Aeolus had a hand in our good fortune.

We were forewarned that we would encounter big seas rolling in from the North Atlantic along the west coast and relatively calm seas but stiff tidal currents along the east coast, and in general these predictions both proved to be correct. But given the favorable winds we experienced on both coasts, there was nothing particularly troublesome about either the seas or the currents for a fast boat of our size. We were also told that the west coast would be wilder and have more spectacular scenery and more places to put in than the east coast; and this, too, proved to be accurate but did not diminish our enjoyment of either coast.

The weather in all Irish coastal waters can best be described as fickle. During the late summer months of our circumnavigation, the air temperature was generally cool, but not terribly cold by North Atlantic standards; and the humidity was high, with frequent rain showers that would appear and disappear quite unexpectedly. Weather forecasts were easily obtained by VHF radio, Navtex, weatherfax and grib files off the Internet; and as it happened, we experienced no significant gales during the four weeks we spent on the Irish coast.

Oddly, we found it sometimes a bit difficult to get diesel fuel aboard. None of the marinas are set up with fuel pumps, and on at least one occasion, we were reduced to lugging diesel aboard in jerry cans. Propane is also a problem in that it is impossible to find anyone to fill your existing tanks. The local custom is to turn in your empty for a full tank from the local distributor, but this assumes his tank will fit your boat’s fuel locker and fittings.

Navigation straightforward
Navigation in Irish waters is generally pretty straightforward, provided one is prepared to deal with the substantial tidal currents and well-marked shoals along the east coast. There are plenty of paper charts published by the British Admiralty, NIMA and Imray, among others. We relied fairly extensively (but not exclusively) on the excellent coverage of Maptech’s digital raster charts of the entire coast. We also made use of C-Map’s equally fine vector charts for our GPS chartplotter. Although we were glad to have radar available for those occasions when the cloud cover was low and visibility was limited by rain showers, we were never out after dark on this cruise, and we encountered relatively little thick fog and very little shipping.

We departed the Ardfern Yacht Centre on the west coast of Scotland, where the boat had wintered over, on August 12. After a night at anchor off the Lagavulin distillery on the island of Islay, we headed southwest for Malin Head and the northwest corner of Ireland, an easy diagonal passage of only 45 miles or so. On our trip around the Emerald Isle and back to Ardfern via the Firth of Clyde and the Crinan Canal, we covered a total of 1,126 nautical miles in 28 days for an average of about 40 miles a day, including three full lay days in Killybegs on the west coast, Crosshaven on the south coast and Dublin on the east coast. The cruise required no night passages, and our several crew changes were relatively easy to arrange.

Almost every cove in Ireland has a community or town associated with it, as do many of the islands. And the larger bays, like Dongle, Galway, Shannon, Dingle, Kenmare and Bantry Bays along the west coast, often have a number of towns and cities. Time did not permit us to visit them all, but we took a pretty fair sampling and were delighted to find that even the smallest of towns had at least one good pub, and often several! Along the north and west coasts we found few, if any, marinas. But many of the harbors have guest moorings, which, although a bit tricky to pick up, are evidently free to visiting yachtsmen.

By contrast, there were few, if any, moorings to be had along the south and east coasts; but there are a number of marinas, some of them very large, and all of them quite expensive. They were also very crowded and usually required an advance reservation of some sort.

Remote yet civilized
The west coast of Ireland clearly feels much more remote than most of the south and east coasts; yet compared to, say, Greenland or Labrador, it is well populated and very civilized. Having struck an uncharted reef trying to enter a small gunkhole on the north coast, we felt the need to have the boat hauled briefly to check for possible damage to our rudder. This was accomplished in the town of Killybegs in Donegal Bay, which happens to be the center for servicing the fishing fleet along this section of coast. There is no yacht yard and no Travel Lift in Killybegs, but we were able to arrange in short order for a crane to lift us out onto the town dock while a crew from the commercial yard attended to the minor repairs needed.

Other spots I would recommend visiting along the west coast include Achill Island, Killary Harbor, Inishbofin Island, the Aran Islands, Dingle, Valentia, Sneem and Glengarriff. And after rounding Mizen Head at the southwest tip of Ireland, the trip out to the famous Fastnet Rock is well worth the few extra miles, if the weather is half decent. Our favorite gunkhole along the entire Irish coast turned out to be a place called Barloge Creek on the south coast just east of the town of Baltimore, where we found relative seclusion, beautiful scenery, a marvelous sea cave and reversing rapids leading into Lough Hyne, a large and deep tidal lake and bird sanctuary.

The biggest yachting centers along the south coast are at Kinsale and Crosshaven. The latter is near the mouth of Cork Harbor and is the site of the Royal Cork Yacht Club and Marina, as well as the large Crosshaven Boatyard. Although it is certainly possible to take a yacht up the River Lee to the city of Cork, it’s rather a long way, and it might prove difficult to find a place to park your boat when you get there. However, a trip by car from Crosshaven into Cork is well worth it for those wishing to see the sights of Ireland’s second largest city.

Close call at Kilmore
East of Crosshaven along the south coast there are relatively few good places to put in. We were told to avoid Waterford and to head for the tiny harbor of Kilmore, some 70 miles east of Crosshaven and just west of Carnsore Point at the southeast corner of Ireland. The entry into Kilmore proved to be somewhat hair-raising, in that we had thick fog with less than 100 feet of visibility, following seas, no detailed charts, very little water under the keel, a cross-current running, only two of us aboard at the time and no local knowledge. At the critical moment when we needed to make a 90° turn to port to enter a narrow gap in the breakwater and enter the protected lagoon within — and avoid going on the rocks — we found the entrance partially blocked by a largish fishing vessel tied up to the end of the breakwater, past which we were barely able to squeeze!

The southern half of the east coast, from Carnsore Point up to Dublin, also has few good places to put in. Furthermore, this stretch of the coast is characterized by strong tidal currents, often in excess of 3 knots, and extensive shoals running parallel to the coastline. In addition, one must be alert for shipping traffic entering the Irish Sea and bound up St. George’s Channel for places like Dublin and Liverpool.

We were told to avoid trying to go into Wexford, and a glance at the chart shows why. There are extensive shoals on the approach and almost no water inside. So we were directed to the town of Arklow, about half way up to Dublin from Carnsore Point, where we found a berth at a pontoon in a very narrow and crowded harbor.

No reciprocal privileges
On a circumnavigation of Ireland, the city of Dublin is, of course, not to be missed. There are two large marinas that provide easy access by train to the city itself, one on either side of Dublin Bay and quite some distance from the city itself. The larger of the two is at Dun Laoghaire (pronounced “dun leeryâ€�). Here there is a huge marina inside an enormous man-made harbor on the south side of Dublin Bay, which is, among other things, the home of the Royal Irish Yacht Club and the Royal St. George Yacht Club. We found the former quite snobbish and the latter very gracious. But don’t expect to get any free dockage on account of reciprocal privileges. The yacht clubs in Ireland have little if any dockage, and the marinas are operated quite independently and very clearly for profit.

We took a lay day at Dun Laoghaire and boarded the nearby train into Dublin for a day of sightseeing, which included such things as Trinity College, the Book of Kells and the Guinness Brewery, and where we met up with incoming crew.
Further on to the north, we spent a night in a small marina in the tiny harbor of Ardglass before sailing on to Northern Ireland and into Strangford Lough for a look around this huge basin south of Belfast filled with tiny islands and many boats. The entry and exit through the narrows must be carefully timed, because the tidal stream runs at more than 7 knots in places. We were going 14 knots at times!

Our final stop in Northern Ireland was at Bangor, where we found a berth in another large (and expensive) marina. For a variety of reasons, we decided not to go on into Belfast, but instead headed out across the North Channel for our return to Scotland and a few days of cruising around the Firth of Clyde and a transit of the Crinan Canal back to Ardfern. For those voyagers with a summer month to spare and a good boat, who are seeking to circumnavigate something on the other side of the pond, the trip around the Emerald Isle is well worth exploring. If you happen to like beautiful scenery, friendly people, interesting history and good beer, Ireland is an excellent choice.

Ned Cabot is a retired physician living in Boston who has sailed in Atlantic Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Scotland and Ireland.

By Ocean Navigator