Wild Atlantic Coast – Northwest Ireland

Sailing the west coast of Ireland takes a lot of patience as well as time. Every few days a blow will come in from the west, or south, or northwest making even planning short passages difficult.

Sailing deep within bays only means that at some point you have to come back out the same way, usually with the wind against you. From Galway to Northern Ireland we enjoyed a variety of sailing, ducking in and out of harbours to avoid blows. Here’s where we sailed:


Galway to Inishmore, Aran Islands, County Galway

At some point you just have to take the best weather forecast to escape. The lock at Galway opens two hours before high tide and closes promptly at high tide, so we had little option but to leave no earlier than 11.30am on 2nd August. Our destination: Aran Islands, 25nm to the west. We knew we would have a headwind, but at least it was less than 10-15kn (F4). Making the best of the conditions, we tacked, tacked again, and as the ebb tide flowed against the westerly breeze, the seas chopped up making headway slow and lumpy. This was the best day to leave, as the following day promised 20-30kn (F7) winds from the east, before backing to the south west for the rest of the week.

After six hours we reached the mooring field at Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands. There were a few free visitors moorings and usually as we’ve found, most are empty. Not many yachts travel this coast.

You might wonder how we know where the moorings are. We have a couple of resources – Reed’s Nautical Almanac is really the only guide we have. ActiveCaptain reviews along this coast are few due to the lack of cruiser activity, so I’ve added a few of my own reviews for sailors contemplating sailing this coast.

Wayne living on the edge, Inishmore, Aran Islands

Wednesday’s blow from the east did eventuate, so we stayed aboard as Blue Heeler splashed around in the seas coming in from the east. On Thursday with a soft 10-15kn wind from the SW we went ashore. There is some room at a floating dock for smaller yachts and here is where we tied our dinghy. At the harbour are two bike rental places, so we each grabbed a bike for the day and went for a ride around the island.

The island is only 10kms long, and within an hour or so of gentle cycling passing a seal colony along the way, we reached the famous primitive circular ruins of Dun Aengus at the edge of a 100m high cliff. Archaeologists are uncertain as to the purpose of the site, and believe it may have been constructed for religious purposes perhaps around 1000BC.

The island is divided by miles of rock walls; small parcels of green paddocks some with a horse, or a couple of cows, or a donkey or two. After a couple of hours looking at more ruins, we returned to the village, had lunch at Joe Watty’s bar, and bought a few things at the Spar supermarket. The islands are also famous for the Aran jumper made from thick off-white wool knitted in cable patterns.


Aran Islands to Inishbofin, County Mayo

Again with light wind from the NNW, we had no option but to beat north. After a few hours we could veer east and sail. The entrance to Inishbofin is extremely narrow so following the lead light and the charts was critical. Too far to port the light shines red; too far to starboard the light shines green; white light – straight ahead! Gun Rock to the east gets very close, but at half tide we had 10m under the keel at this point. Once through we turned to starboard and motored the short distance anchoring in 4m south of the new pier and north of Port Island. Checking the tides in this shallow anchorage is also very important.

Ruins at Inishbofin

Inishbofin to Ballyglass, Broadhaven Bay

Up early just after high tide we motored out again following the white lead light. Heading west then around the shoals we had a better angle to sail north towards Broadhaven. By 8.30am the sails were full and by 8.45am I’d whipped up a batch of bacon and eggs and hot steaming coffee and we settled in for a long 60nm day. The wind was light so we had to motor for a couple of hours. Eventually our course veered north so at this point we could motor sail, but only when the wind increased upwards of 10kn. The final few hours we had a great sail.

Turning east for the final leg of the trip the wind was up at 15-18kn so we sailed up to the Broadhaven lighthouse before pulling in the genoa, then a little further in we furled the main. To the north of the fishing dock at the small beach are three free visitors moorings.

Once again we remained aboard while a 20/30km SW blow passed over.

Ballyglass, Broadhaven Bay to Killybegs, County Donegal

The distance to Killybegs from Ballyglass is 60nm so to make sure we reached Killybegs at a reasonable time, we motor-sailed with 15kn winds behind us. The swell around 1.5m carried us into the wide mouth of Killybegs Harbour, home to a fleet of huge fishing vessels. Superbly maintained and worth millions of dollars, these vessels only work three months of the year as they meet their quota of fish for the region.

Killybegs has a floating dock for cruisers to tie up to, all very new and computerised.  As Monday was a bank holiday we tied to the floating dock (again plenty of room as not many yachts up this way), and the next morning the Marina Manager, Gerard, came to see us. Cost was 2.00€ per metre per night plus electricity and water. Seems this is the going rate for many small marinas along this coast.

Killybegs is a small town and despite the marina having no facilities, you can get laundry done at “Ship Shape” laundry services, buy groceries at Spar, have a haircut and one of many hairdressers/barbers, or go out for dinner at one of the many pubs.

Killybegs, Ireland

Killybegs to Arranmore, County Donegal

After two nights at Killybegs we left to motor 6nm to Teelin Bay and grabbed one of the three free visitors moorings. This would give us a head start on the next day’s trip to Arranmore.

The trip to Arranmore from Teelin Bay is only 36nm but the forecast was for strong SW winds that same evening and we wanted to be out of the weather by lunchtime. From Teelin Bay this stretch of coast is known as Slieve League, apparently one of the highest sea-cliffs in Europe.

As we rounded the north of Arranmore, the wind had already increased to 27kn and the seas grew bigger by the hour. Arranmore also has three free visitors moorings and we grabbed one and again holed up for a couple of days waiting out a 25-30kn SW blow.

Arranmore to Ballymastocker Bay, Lough Swilly

The next leg of our journey in County Donegal took us from the island of Arranmore some 42nm to Lough Swilly. Passing around Fanad lighthouse, we sailed a further 5nm into Lough Swilly to grab one the few visitor moorings at Ballymastocker Bay on the west coast of Lough Swilly.

That afternoon the VHF was abuzz with activity; the news that a diver was missing from 2.30pm that afternoon about 16nm north of us. This area is well known for wrecks of steamers and minesweepers torpedoed in WWI and WWII. That afternoon the Lifeboat vessel from Lough Swilly, fishing vessels and a helicopter searched for the missing diver. The next day we learned that the diver didn’t make it to the top and was found at the wreck at the bottom some 65m below the surface.

The beach at Ballymastocker Bay is quite beautiful. Unusual to see such a nice beach in these parts. The views from the anchorage are fine, but very exposed to the east and south.

Now, picking up a mooring can be a little tricky as many of the free moorings have no line attached. We have two methods; as Wayne drives close to the mooring I lay on the deck, reach down and thread our mooring line through the shackle on top of the mooring, then Wayne drags the mooring line to attach at the bow. Not easy to do in rough weather!

If there is a line attached to a mooring it’s usually fairly light. Another trick we use is to grab the thin line, tie it up short on the bow cleat, then with the aid of a heavy lead fishing weight on the end of our mooring line, I dangle it and thread it through the shackle so we can hook it and drag it through and tie-up, then repeat on the other side. Seems to work but if there’s an easier way, do tell!

Lough Swilly to Portrush, Northern Ireland

From Lough Swilly we passed through Inishtrahull Sound between the island of Inishtrahull and Malin Head the most northerly point of Ireland. Once we’d sailed by the entrance to Lough Foyle, we were officially in Northern Ireland, leaving the Republic of Ireland and the Wild Atlantic Coast behind us.  From this stretch of coast the large Atlantic swells ease as they roll towards the Sea of Moyle, the narrow gap between northeastern Northern Ireland the southwest Scotland.

About one mile out of the touristy Northern Ireland town of Portrush was a strong smell of fish and chips! The entrance to the harbour is easy in fair weather. Wouldn’t like to try it with a NW swell. Once tied up Wayne got the lowdown on the facilities then asked the harbour-master if there was anything else we needed to know. He leaned over and quietly advised “You might want to take down that Republic of Ireland flag”. Oh, yes, oops!  Quickly Wayne removed the Republic of Ireland courtesy flag and hoisted the British red ensign.

Welcome to Northern Ireland!



About blueheelerhr39

Sailing the world aboard Blue Heeler
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2 Responses to Wild Atlantic Coast – Northwest Ireland

  1. DeGarisCatLady says:

    Thanks for the news! That edgy photo of Wayne on the ledge is awesome.
    Go well, Alan and Kathy


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