Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Coast: Road trip

One of the reasons I enjoy writing this blog is to offer readers a glimpse of life from the unique perspective of a cruiser. Sailing northwards along Ireland’s western coast is slow going as there’s plenty of bays to explore, miles of coastline dotted with small villages with warm pubs. The weather plays a big part in the pace of our travel, as we are often holed up waiting for a blow to pass over or must bypass some areas to take advantage of good sailing conditions. Sailing this rugged coast offered us magnificent views that most tourists don’t see. The downside is that we don’t always have the opportunity to go ashore and see further inland beyond the small ports.

Whereas regular tourists generally have a couple of intense weeks to explore, eat out every night and join tour groups to see local places of interest, the cruising lifestyle is quite different. Although to some we seem to be on a permanent holiday, rarely do we get the chance to explore inland and even rarer, have to budget to blow on frivolous activities! But with the weather nasty for a few days, from Galway we took the opportunity to get off the boat to enjoy travel like regular tourists. So we hired a car for a few days to explore the region that we’d just sailed along. We had a little holiday!

With Blue Heeler safely berthed at Galway harbour, we arranged a small car from Enterprise Car Rentals and loaded it up with our tent and sleeping bags. Despite the fact that we don’t drive often nowadays we had no problem getting around as Ireland’s roads and road laws are so similar to Australia. Camper vans are popular in Ireland and in particular many park next to the Galway marina despite there being no facilities. Our plan was to take the back roads and pass through smaller villages and also visit some key landmarks. The trip took us through the counties of Galway, Clare, Kerry, Cork, Tipperary and Limerick.

Much of this trip was spent travelling along the Wild Atlantic Way -Allegedly the longest signed coastal road in the world (as stated on their website). Ireland is small but it would be easy to spend weeks exploring, but we only had a short number of days with a car and Blue Heeler would be moving up the coast with the next few days of fine weather.

With the promise of 5-6m seas (the same seas keeping Blue Heeler in the harbour) our first stop was to the Cliffs of Moher, which we’d sailed by in fine weather only a few days previously. The drive took us through The Burren; a 1500 hectare expanse of limestone covered with a smattering of flora. The Aran Islands a few miles off the coast are an extension of this barren geography. Hundreds of tourists all vied for position to peer over the edge as the view from the top of the cliffs is quite spectacular. The big swell caused the cancellation of all ferry traffic from the main ferry terminal at Doolin to the Aran Islands and there were definitely no yachts sailing out there that day!

Cliffs of Moher on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way

View looking north – Cliffs of Moher

Wild flowers on a small patch at The Burren

Continuing our journey, we headed south passing through Shannon, Bunratty and on to Limerick for a hearty Irish breakfast of sausages, black pudding, white pudding, eggs and proper thick streaks of bacon. Yum!

From the Cork National Monument

The troubled history of Ireland is well documented and most people are familiar with its past, particularly regarding the Great Hunger, also known as the Potato Famine. It’s almost beyond belief that between 1845 to 1854, the population of over eight million dropped by 25%. Many Irish left due to harsh conditions brought about through hunger and eviction by landlords, while over one million died from disease, often a result of starvation. They were already in a bad way, and the famine just made survival so much harder. Many of the towns we passed through were the worst areas affected with thousands of starved people buried in mass graves. After reading about this period in history it really is quite shocking how these poor people were treated.

Old stone cottage

Mass emigration during that period meant that many current Aussies, Canadians and Americans have Irish ancestry. During our road trip we did notice a huge percentage of American tourists, many I expect researching their heritage. There were plenty of Aussies too, but you’ll find them in most places! Wayne’s research has led him to believe his Great-great-grandmother (Johanna Murphy) on his mum’s side was from County Cork and left Ireland in 1847 at the time of the famine.

Ireland is known as the Emerald Isle for a good reason. It is probably the greenest land I’ve ever seen. Acres of bright green fields divided up into small parcels of land divided by metre high rock walls covered in prickly blackberry bushes. In the past these small tenements offered poor tenants the chance to grow small crops, usually potato as this vegetable provided a good yield for a small plot and could keep a family fed. Along our journey through towns and villages such as Limerick, Tralee, Dingle, Killarney, Bantry and Skibbereen are ruins of stone cottages and miles of rock walls – reminders of the tragic past.

Our trip took us through Ireland’s first national park – the scenic Killarney National Park which includes McGillycuddy’s Reeks, at 1,000m the highest mountain range in Ireland. A popular place for hundreds of tourists and tour buses.

From Killarney we drove through the quiet side roads, leaving the motorway to the buses and tourists. For the evening we ended up at a small village of Glengarriff where we pitched our tent at the caravan and camping park. The weather wasn’t so cold but we were the only ones in a tent! I think it’s been five years since we last used our small two-man tent, and it wasn’t long before we had it erected, inflated our Thermarests and fluffed up our down-filled North Face sleeping bags which we bought in San Francisco 26 years ago (still going strong!). The village of Glengarriff is 2kms from the camping ground and there are a couple of pubs and eateries. A big feed, a pint of stout and a red wine for afters, then we were back to our little tent and snuggled in for the night.

Next morning after shaking off the raindrops from the tent, and sitting in the warmth of our car while the tent dried in the morning sunshine, we packed up camp then drove through the village of Ballylickey at the western end of Bantry Bay, then through Skibbereen, along to Clonakilty then Timoleague where we stopped to take more photos (I had learned at this point not to take photos of every castle, every abbey and every green paddock!). From Timoleague we drove through to the port of Kinsale then on to Cork for lunch and a wander around.

From Cork we took the back roads through Ballyhooly until we reached the town of Tipperary. Wayne had a pint at the pub while I had a coffee before grabbing some goodies from nearby Aldi. We decided to return to the boat that night as it was only two hours drive away, and the next day we wanted to travel through the Connemara area to the northwest of Galway. So much to see!

Peat bog

Connemara lowlands

The Connemara National Park is almost 3000 hectares of mountains, bogs, forests and lowlands. Taking a slow trip along the coast road we detoured at one point to view the expanse of peat bogs – wetlands made up of dead plant material. Large patches of the bog are dug and the blocks stacked to the side to dry out. Once the moisture has gone, the peat is compressed and turned into briquettes which are then used for domestic fuel.

Killary Harbour

About 20kms from Galway is Rossaveel, where punters can catch ferries out to the famous Aran Islands. There’s also a small harbour here for yachts, but not much else it seemed. From here we passed through Roundstone, Ballyconneely, passed by the island of Inishnee (Hi Jim and Kathy!) and had a look at the anchorage at Killary Harbour.

O’Malleys Bar…

To the west the touristy town of Clifden is 70kms away from Galway and we (plus a hundred other tourists) stopped at the very popular Walsh’s Bakery for a steak and stout pie then took a stroll through the drizzle. A pub named ‘O’Malleys’ had us singing the bawdy O’Malleys Bar lyrics by Nick Cave!

Kylemore Abbey, Letterrack, Connemara area

Onto Letterfrack stopping for views of Kylemore Abbey (another tourist hotspot), then circling the beautiful Connemara National Park in the rain before following the eastern coast of Lough Corrib, the largest lake in Ireland.

Before returning to Galway, we made use of the car and stocked up on groceries. Here is where the holiday ended. As Galway marina has no laundry facilities (in fact no facilities), nearby at the Texaco service station is an outdoor laundromat – a couple of washers and a drier. While it rained outside, I sat and waited in the car as 8kgs of clothes washed, spun and dried within an hour.

And just like that our short holiday was over. Within a day or two the wind had eased and the tide was high – it was time to leave Galway and head to the Aran Islands then continue our voyage along the north-west coast of Ireland.

Timoleague Abbey


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Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Coast: Baltimore to Galway

Some people say we are bold (or crazy) to sail across oceans. However, coastal sailing is a different challenge. There are strong currents and tides to consider, weather from the wrong direction, deadlines to reach anchorages before nightfall, and most of all – land to avoid! After sailing over 3,500nm from the warm Caribbean to the chilly south coast of Ireland we knew that we would have to pull out all our tricks to successfully sail the rough west coast of Ireland. This exposed and rugged coast is regularly smashed by the cold ocean and the coastal drive is known as Ireland’s ‘Wild Atlantic Way”.



After nine nights at sea, we arrived in the wee hours of Monday 10th at Baltimore at the southern end of Ireland in County Cork. As it was still night we couldn’t see the Fastnet Rock, except for the light from the lighthouse. Also known as the “tear-drop of Ireland”, the Fastnet Rock was so-named as this was the last thing impoverished Irish in the 1800s would see this on their way to a better life across the Atlantic.

During our few days at Baltimore a variety of weather from cold to warm, overcast to blue sky, plus a couple of days of stiff north-westerly winds kept us either holed up from the rain or enjoying a sunny walk along the bay greeting cows along the way.

Baltimore’s harbour master is friendly and after we interrupted his morning tea of scones and jam, he gave us the run-down on the village. He can also arrange for Customs to clear us in. There is no laundry in town (service in Skibbereen) but there are showers at the back of the harbour masters building. A small supermarket is in the village for essential items. Before we left Baltimore we fuelled up from a truck at the dock, arranged through the village supermarket.

Welcome to Ireland!

There are a few pubs in the village – Bushes Bar was the first place we stopped in Ireland for a pint of Guinness and a roast beef and hot mustard sandwich. Waterfront restaurants serve huge pizzas and fish and chips, and on a sunny day the place is packed with tourists. A walk to the Baltimore Beacon aka “Lot’s Wife” takes around 20 minutes and offers stunning views of the craggy and ocean smashed coastline and the open entrance to the bay across to Sherkin Island.

Baltimore harbour has an active sailing/rowing community. As we’d arrived during school holidays the village was filled with energetic young people waiting for their turn to sail their dinghies or row their boats. Each day we would hear a ‘thump’ against the hull only to find one of them had tacked directly into us sometimes snagging their tiny mast to our shrouds!

Coruisk and Blue Heeler, Baltimore

Coruisk arrived at Baltimore the same day as we did, so over the subsequent days so both crews enjoyed a few meals, a few pints and a day trip to Skibbereen to celebrate Emma’s birthday. Bus Éireann, Ireland’s popular bus network, has buses to Skibbereen throughout the day; the stop is just outside the harbour-master’s office. From Skibbereen there are buses to Cork and beyond. Skibbereen is famous for the wrong reasons. During the famine in the mid 1800s, thousands of poor souls perished in this southern town. But nowadays, Skibbereen has plenty of food to offer passing tourists with many restaurants and bars and pokey shops to browse through. Most importantly there’s a Vodaphone store to buy your pay-as-you-go internet SIM cards!

From top to bottom, Ireland is merely 260nm in length. But with all the bays, islands and peninsulas to explore, the coastline is over 1500nm (around 3000kms). It was time to go exploring!

Bere (Bear) Island

Sleepy village of Rerrin, Bere Island

North Atlantic weather rolls in fast so it pays to be aware of the forecasts. The Irish Coast Guard reports regularly on VHF referring to wind speed using the Beaufort Scale, which is not generally used in Australia. Usually only one day’s forecast is announced probably because the weather can rapidly change. Tides in this part of the world are a relatively small 2-3m and again we are reminded to keep vigilant. Sailing here is similar to sailing on the west coast of Tasmania, but it is less remote that Tassie. We still rely on our weather grib files for this region. Another good source of information is the Reeds Nautical Almanac which we bought online before arriving here.

Bere or Bear Island

From Baltimore we motored through the northern channel known as The Sound, using the ebb tide to flush us out into Long Island Bay. Leaving Crookhaven to north we rounded the most south-westerly point of Ireland with great views of the suspension bridge at Mizen head. Six hours and 33nm later we entered from the east the northern side of Bear Island where we picked up a free visitors mooring (one of two available), just outside the channel markers at Lawrence Cove.

The Lawrence Cove Marina is tiny, but there were big yachts like ours too so it must be deep enough. A short walk into the village of Rerrin we found O’Sullivan’s pub where we had a pint of Murphy’s and watched the locals as they watched Gaelic Football on the telly. It was just like watching an Aussie Rules game back home! Back on board we loaded the dinghy on deck and settled in for the night.

Valentia Harbour and Knightstown

We departed Bear Island through the narrow western entrance on the ebb tide with a couple of local fishing vessels taking the lead. As the weather was mild and calm, Wayne thought it was a good idea to motor through the Dursey Sound, between Crow Head and Dursey Island (the most south-westerly island in Ireland). Across the Dursey Sound a cable car 21m above shuttles punters across to Dursey Island. Our mast is around 18m so our mast had plenty of leeway. We arrived at slack tide with hardly any wind and a light swell. Despite all this, the incoming swell still made me nervous as it crashed on the rocks to each side of us.

Situated between Dursey Island to the south and Valentia Island to the north are the famous Skellig Islands. Famous due to the monastery perched on the top of Great Skellig. Built hundreds of years ago, this is a popular visit for tourists, but we were happy enough to sail by this day as we can’t anchor there.

Knightstown, Valentia Island

Eight hours, 45nm, a dozen dolphins and plenty of puffins later, after rounding Valentia Island, we arrived at Valentia Harbour at Knightstown. Apparently whoever had planned to build the marina ran out of money sometime after the GFC. So it’s a cheap place to stop with plenty of free dockage inside or outside. Depths are fine and we had no trouble docked on the western side of the inner harbour. The small village here is known as Knightstown and a regular ferry service runs across to the mainland or across to the Skellig Islands and across to the mainland. There is a small shop, a cafe, and other touristy places to see and the Royal Valentia Hotel has pints of Guinness and good food for tourists. We could have stayed longer here and caught the ferry across to the mainland and a bus to Cahersiveen, however a strong blow was expected soon and we decided to head to Dingle Marina to ride it out. I don’t think this harbour would be ideal in a strong NW blow.


Dingle Marina

From the harbour at Knightstown we had a good 15nm sail across Dingle Bay to the dredged channel into the Dingle Marina. I’d phoned ahead to book a berth and we were welcomed by marina manager Peter who took our lines and gave us the run-down on facilities.

One of Fungie’s friends!

Dingle is one of the main tourist centres in Ireland with plenty of things for tourists to spend their money on. There is the famous resident dolphin “Fungie” and plenty of boats to take punters out to see him. I think there were a million people there during our stay! We are not used to being surrounded by so many bustling people so we diverted into the nearest pub to avoid the crowds! Speaking of pubs, there are over 50 pubs in Dingle, each with their own charm, nightly live music, and copious amounts of Guinness, Murphy, or the local brew. One pub in particular, O’Flaherty’s Bar on Bridge Street, is not only famous for its photos, newspaper clips and republican paraphernalia, but also its traditional Irish music and a small beer garden. Publican Fergus Ó Flaithbheartaigh pours a good beer!

Plenty of pubs in Dingle

Recommended to us by at least two locals is the small restaurant Anchor Down. Not far from the marina, this cosy restaurant serves delicious fresh fish meals.

Back at the marina, we took the opportunity to clean up and replenish, since we hadn’t had the opportunity since leaving the Azores. There are showers (token), a nearby Supervalue supermarket to stock up with fresh meat (and yummy cakes!), and a laundry service nearby the Texaco (near to Supervalue).

As expected, the weather turned nasty, blowing 40kn into the marina (and apparently up to 50kn outside – brrr). With our Webasto heater on inside it wasn’t long before condensation dripped from each window. As soon as the weather cleared we left the marina and motored the short 6nm distance to Ventry Harbour where we grabbed a free yellow visitor mooring. The moorings don’t always have lines attached so it’s always a little tricky to grab the metal shackle with the boat-hook and thread it. Wayne managed to reach down from amidships and hook a line.

Dingle to Galway

Leaving Ventry Harbour we motored west passing through the swirling currents of the Blasket Sound. The best time to run this course is at slack tide. But we didn’t want to miss out on seeing the hundreds of seals on the beach of Great Blasket Island and the hillside ruins, so we detoured for a view before heading north towards Sybil Point. From here we sailed north-east using the most of the flood tide to cross the Ballybunnion Bank and enter the Shannon River estuary to the anchorage at Carrigaholt, 52nm from Dingle Marina. Initially we grabbed what appeared to be the only tourist mooring, but after re-checking the tides in the area (5m) we realised we wouldn’t have enough depth at midnight on the mooring. So we dropped the lines and anchored in deeper water on a sandy bottom.


After a calm night, we left very early the following crisp morning and motored 10nm around Loop Head then had a wonderful sail passing through the south sound between Doolin Point and Inisheer in the Aran Islands.

Along this stretch of coast are The Burren and the famous Cliffs of Moher, a UNESCO Geopark with the Aran Islands to the west. Rising to around 200m above sea level, these imposing cliffs offer stunning views from aboard. Speckled on the ridge of the cliffs are hundreds of people all looking down on our tiny vessel. The Burren is a 1500ha slab of limestone famous for its bleakness and despite its lack of topsoil, its flora. To ensure we caught the flood tide and reach the Galway Harbour tidal lock at top of the high tide we motor sailed the final 20nm, arriving at 5pm. There are visitors moorings outside of Mutton Island if your timing is out.

Cliffs of Moher

Galway Harbour isn’t fancy although with planning permission yet to be granted, Galway should have a magnificent new waterfront and marina in the coming years. There is a tidal lock which opens two hours before high tide then closes at high tide. This means there is only two chances to escape each day. We entered at 5pm with still an hour or so of flood tide. There are floating finger docks and we managed to find a vacant one. Despite each berth having plaques indicating each has a berth owner, the marina office told us to take whatever was available, so we did.

Galway Harbour and Marina

The Marina has no facilities, not even a toilet block. But they do have a pump-out station and the nearby Harbour Hotel offers showers for €5. Ten minutes walk away is a self-service washing machine and dryer, located outside and next to the Texaco, opposite the cemetery.

And so, the cooler climate has taken its first casualty. After five years our starter battery called it quits. In Galway, Battery World has what we need so we have a new one on its way.

Fortunately our visit coincides with the Galway International Arts Festival. Around town are plenty of buskers, fire-eaters, painters, and sculptors each with a cap out for a coin or two. Those million tourists from Dingle are also here and they’ve each brought a friend! This place is packed with tourists! Once more the crowds were too much for our simple life (why does everyone walk so fast?), so we ducked into the nearest pub we could find (didn’t take long) to enjoy a quiet brew and listen to the beat of a bodhrán teamed with the melody of an Irish flute. Sláinte a chara!

Once again the weather will turn sour along this Wild Atlantic Coast, so rather than beat into big seas and battle strong winds, we’ll keep the boat at Galway while we hire a car and have a look at Ireland from the inside.

Until then…

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Nth Atlantic – Azores to Ireland, Arrival 10 July 2017

The Baltimore Beacon “Lot’s Wife” at the entrance to Baltimore, Ireland

The last leg of any voyage is typically a race to reach harbour before dark, or to slow down to arrive in daylight hours. The latter was the case for us.

Sunday was almost perfect sailing conditions. The morning sky was blue for a change, as most of the days have been grey, heavy and drizzly. But by lunchtime the sky turned grey, heavy and drizzly. To slow us up we put two reefs in the sails and plodded along with 18/25kn westerly winds making the ocean quite lively.

Fastnet Rock and Lighthouse – the most southerly point of Ireland – photo credit

By 3am we passed Fastnet Rock to port and had another 10nm to reach Baltimore Bay. Still a little dark to enter, we hove-to, had a coffee and waited for the morning light. By 5.30am we entered the bay. To starboard overlooking the entrance is the tall white conspicuous tower, Lot’s Wife. I’ll have to learn more about the history of this landmark.

The anchorage at Baltimore is shallow, but we were fortunate to arrive at the top of a high spring tide which gave us plenty of depth to poke around looking for a suitable place to anchor.

End of voyage fair!

Now it’s 6am, the anchor is set, the heater is on, and I’m about to whip up the traditional end-of-voyage breakfast of bacon, eggs and hot coffee. Today we expect to see Brian, Dave and Emma from Coruisk arrive later today and I further expect we’ll all go out to celebrate and have a Guinness or two!

Our sail from Australia to Ireland took a while, but we eventually made it. And I’m glad our North Atlantic passages went well with some of the best sailing we’ve had for some time. We’ve so much to explore in Ireland and I cant wait to get ashore!

Our position is: 51*29N 009*22W at 0500UTC
Distance to go: 0nm

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Nth Atlantic – Azores to Ireland, 8 July 2017

The grib files for this area haven’t been as reliable as previous voyages. The North Atlantic weather patterns are more changeable than say the South Atlantic, as they are influenced by weather coming across from the U.S. and along the Gulf Stream. We have no idea what weather is happening outside the scope of our voyage – usually a 500nm radius is all we need. Historically though the weather at this time of year should improve with less gales than other times of the year.

Cargo ship half a mile ahead. He altered course to pass ahead.

Blue Heeler maintains course while keeping out of path of ships

Thursday had us motor-sailing again as winds dropped to less than 10kn from the west. By afternoon with wind dropping further to a paltry 4kn, we furled the sails and motored. At this point the blanket of fog crept in reducing visibility to a mile or so. Not such a problem nowadays with AIS and radar seeing what our eyes can’t see, but it still pays to be vigilant. Radars don’t pick up whales or weather buoys, and AIS doesn’t pick up vessels with no AIS! The rest of our trip should be light winds and seas less than 1.5m. By 3am Friday we had the sails winged out and engine off. A good day with unexpected 12-15kn westerly winds giving us a good boost towards our destination.

So happy with our cockpit curtains! They keep the cold and rain outside, leaving us to enjoy sailing in relative comfort. We haven’t yet had to wear the wet-weather gear, but that will change I’m sure!

I’m writing this at 2.30am on Saturday morning and it’s chilly with the sea water temperature now down to 17degC. With 12kn from the NW and flat seas we are moving along at a good rate. Unlikely to arrive Sunday night, and may have to slow down a tad to arrive in daylight on Monday morning. Despite an 80% moon, the low cloud diffuses much of the glow so that’s a shame. Our clocks are now on UK summer time (UTC+1), now sunset is around 11pm and sunrise around 6.30am so it won’t be long before daybreak and a hot chocolate. Maybe a bowl of porridge too!

Our position is: 48*45N 14*25W at 0130UTC
Distance to go: 254nm

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Nth Atlantic – Azores to Ireland, 5 July 2017

Already halfway into our trip; it’s so much shorter than the last voyage! Out here, sounds of jars tinkling, wood creaking, blocks straining, wind generator whirring, and blue ocean slapping against the hull are familiar. Although the ocean is colder than before, and will get much colder. Unfamiliar sounds, such as a squeak, may indicate a problem somewhere but can be easily rectified with a squirt of lanolin oil. Now and again a bird flies by, or a whale’s spout blows in the distance, but otherwise we are alone.

All alone out here…

Last night though another yacht sailed by and called us on the VHF to say hello. The crew of S.V. Pipistrelle know a couple we know from our time in Indonesia and Malaysia (Ann & Chris if you’re reading!) – it’s such a small world!

Tuesday’s weather was an uncomfortable close reach as NNW winds gusted up to 30kn at times, but generally stayed between 22/25kn. We had little option but to head further east than we would’ve liked to maintain a good course. Twenty four hours later the wind backed and eased, the sails unfurled, the course altered and we continued on our merry way towards Ireland.

Our position is: 45 24N 19 15W
Distance to go: 535nm

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