The north-west coast is rugged and mountainous but has many sheltered bays, and varied and magnificent scenery. Many choose to make the direct passage from Erris Head to west Donegal, but Donegal bay provides a rewarding cruising ground in itself if you have the time. The west coast is fully described and illustrated in the new 2013 edition of the Irish Cruising Club S&W Sailing Directions, and the north coast in the E&N volume.
Clare Island to Blacksod Bay (27 miles)
This passage involves the rounding of Achill Head, which is best given a wide berth. While the tides are not strong, the mighty cliffs of Achill tend to intensify the wind, and the coast is completely exposed to the west. Keem Bay is an astoundingly beautiful horseshoe sandy bay, tucked into Croaghaun mountain, and in suitable weather makes a lovely temporary anchorage. Blacksod Bay, though on the mainland, is very remote. In 1944 the old weather station here supplied the key report that enabled the D-Day landings to go ahead.
Achill Sound is shallow and winding and crossed by a bridge which can be opened, but the combination of tidal and operational constraints makes the passage of the sound impractical. However there is a lovely anchorage at Kildavnet in the south sound, with visitors’ moorings
Blacksod Bay to Broad Haven (27 miles)
The islands of North and South Inishkea provide a fascinating stopover on this trip, and shelter for part of the way. A century ago there was a whaling station here and relics may be seen. After a disastrous storm in 1927, which drowned ten fishermen from here and 34 others on the west coast, the islands were evacuated in 1930.
Stay outside Eagle Island and well off Erris Head. There are visitors’ moorings at Ballyglass, in Broad Haven, a taxi ride from the town of Belmullet. An old canal there, joining the heads of Blacksod Bay and Broad Haven, is now sadly disused and crossed by a low bridge.
Ballyglass makes a good point of departure for a crossing of Donegal Bay, but a popular alternative is Frenchport, on the west-facing coast south of Eagle Island.
The coastal cliff scenery here is magnificent but there are few good havens before Killala Bay, 32 miles. The spectacular Stag Rocks, and stacks like Dun Brista, lie off the shore.
If conditions are suitable, Kilcummin, in Killala Bay, makes a good lunch stop, and there is anchorage at Aughris Point further east.
Sligo harbour has fast tides but is well marked, and there is a handy pontoon right in the middle of town. Sligo is the main town of the north-west and has good facilities, with plenty of shops, restaurants and pubs, and fuel and water readily available.
Sligo to Killybegs (27 miles)
The direct crossing is straightforward but in settled weather a visit to the uninhabited island of Inishmurray should not be missed. Inishmurray has remarkable monastic remains dating back to the 5th century. The island was famous for its poteen (illicit whiskey) and it was the shortage of sugar during WWII that caused its people to leave it finally in 1948.
The holiday village of Mullaghmore also makes an interesting stopover – it has a landing pontoon inside its breakwater. There are several pubs and restaurants, and a good boatyard. This coast is a world class destination for surfers – in winter, jet skis are used to tow expert surfers out to ride breakers up to 50 feet high.
Donegal Harbour is well-marked between sandbanks, and has an amazing, quiet and remote anchorage at Green Island, with visitors’ moorings.
Killybegs is Ireland’s largest fishing port and is sheltered in all weathers. Any maintenance issues on board can be dealt with here, and there are plenty of places to enjoy a night out.
Clare Island to Lough Foyle – thanks to Richard Timony
Thanks goes to Norman Kean of ICC Publications for contributions, editing and charts adapted from their publication “Cruising Ireland”.