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Ireland Winter Sailing – Thoughts and Resources

We realised that we forgot to write about the excellent, but slightly challenging, sailing along the North and east coasts of Ireland between Ballycastle and Killybegs. It’s a spectacular coastline with some beautiful anchorages and we think this area should be on every sailors bucket list – But it is not the easiest place to sail. 

North Atlantic swell can be a problem. Particularly when this interacts with strong tidal currents, wind driven waves and lots of headlands, but with some careful planning and observation of the weather, including what’s happening in the Atlantic further offshore, it can be a pleasant sail.

We are no Erik Aanderaa so avoid sailing out in 40 knots of wind (while writing this we are in harbour with 40 knots of wind and gust up to 60 Knots) and as it is winter, the winds are stronger and the Atlantic swells can be very big. 

The more challenging areas on this coastline are around Fair Head, Rathlin Sound and Malin Head where tidal currents can reach 6 Knots at springs. Overfalls (breaking waves and violent turbulence) caused by wind against tidal currents, and tidal currents against swells can make these waters treacherous.

Resources we found indispensable in our passage planning

  • For information on anchorages and harbours we had a hard copy of the Irish Cruising Clubs Ireland sailing directions onboard. We also found eOceanic’s online information for anchorages and harbours to be extremely valuable for Ireland.
  • For tides and tidal currents we used our go-to app Imray Tides Planner. We made very good use of Predictwind for departure planning and routing and found the ocean and tidal currents and the detailed wave routing to be very accurate for these coastal waters.
predict wind wave information
We were in Harbour at this time.
  • We also use TimeZero’s IBoat App on iPads as our secondary navigation system and we find this far superior to Navionics. Recently we have been reviewing the built in weather subscription models and whilst we don’t find them to be as accurate as predictwind, they have a neat feature called Dynamic Mooring. This gives an at-a-glance view of anchorages and harbour conditions for any time over the next few days by way of red, amber and green Icons.

Our experience of sailing these waters

Steve is an experienced navigator and likes to plan, so when we sailed from Derry towards Killybegs, we had a beautiful day sailing in moderate winds with some dolphins visiting the boat. At times we had 3-4 knots of current helping our progress! We timed the passage to be optimal for rounding Malin Head using Inishtrahull sound approximately 2NM off the headland and experienced very little turbulence.  

We had a good day sailing and decided to wait overnight at Inishbofin Island, where we found a anchorage that gave us good shelter from the wind, but was a little exposed to the Atlantic swells, so the night was a little bumpy. But it was a beautiful place and we are very used to anchoring in exposed locations.  

The next day we headed for the next headland, Bloody Foreland, so named because of the colour of the rocks in the evening sun. The sailing just got better. The current is less of a problem on this part of Donegal’s coastline. We had planned several options to anchor among the islands along this coast, but the wind and weather were with us, so we decided to continue into Donegal bay and headed for the first protected harbour as the wind was set to increase overnight. We decided to use one of the mooring buoy’s in Teelin Harbour to sit out the strong winds overnight.

The following day the wind had dropped and we motor sailed the few miles into Killybegs Harbour in some big short 3M following seas.

Time is running short in order for us to meet our Viking Route schedule. You will have read in our recent post about technical gremlins that we have had a few delays and as ever we are at the mercy of the weather. So we have decided that rather than continuing south and getting stuck somewhere in Ireland, it was time to return north in order to hit our deadline of being ready to depart Scotland for the Faroe Islands by the end of April.

We left Killybegs and had another couple of nights on a mooring buoy in Teelin Harbour, waiting for the weather. We planned to experience a few different anchorages on the return.

After some stormy squally weather, rainbows and expected building swells, we arrived in the shelter of Cruit Bay after dark. Arriving and anchoring at night is always interesting as you watch intently for the inevitable lobster pots as you approach the land (there is always one dead ahead!). Then you have to orient yourself by comparing what you see on the chart and the lights and dark shapes you see around you, whilst keeping an eye on the depth. It’s also amazing because it can feel completely remote and isolated in the dark and the shore and rocks look as if they are very close. Then when the sun is up the next day, you realise you are much further from the shore than it looked like in the dark, and you next to a pretty little village or an industrious fish farm. 

The next day we had a wet and raining day which made the dramatic cliffs in the area look even more dramatic. We pushed on as we wanted to be anchored close to the infamous Malin Head so we were ready to round it the next day with the tide in our favour.

Just after sunset we dropped anchor in Mulroy Bay near Ballyhoorisky Island. This gave us good shelter from the wind and swell. We were close to a place called Manslaughter Beach and tried not to think too much about the name and what had happened there while we slept!

The weather the following day was optimal for an overnight sail all the way to Ballycastle with a rounding of Malin Head around 22:30-24:00 for the optimal current. But this gave us a beautifull night sail with 18 knots of wind on a reach and at times 4 knots of current with us! We were flying!

The moon came up over the horizon around 02:00 and the good sailing continued, but we knew the tide would turn before just reaching Ballycastle and the final stretch would be a battle. With the harbour in sight at 06:00 we had over 3 knots of current against us. The wind died and feeling very tired we were just about to drop the sails, when we were hit with almost 30 knots of wind and a rain squall. Such an uncomfortable end to a perfect nights sailing.  

Rathlin Island

Last time we went to Ballycastle, we missed going to the little island Rathlin a short sail from here. Steve had been there last time he sailed in Ireland and he really likes the place. So when we decided to sail back towards Scotland we got a chance to stop here.

It is a really cute island with 3 light houses and some cafe/restaurants and a bar. We had a really nice dinner at the hotel, which is a building from sometime in 18th century. Their Italian chef makes a mean tiramisu, which we really enjoyed.

We also had a few pints at the local bar, which is very local and friendly.

We were enjoying the slow island life and had planned to visit the upside down light house and the café that was only opened in the weekend, when we looked at the wind and found that a storm was arriving. We were watching this closely and had decided to head back across to the protection of Ballycastle Harbour. As we were preparing to leave the friendly harbour master told us, that the Ballycastle harbour master had called and advised that boats to head there for more sheltered waters.

Final Thoughts

What we really became aware of sailing these waters was the lack of all weather sheltered harbours that Snow Bear could get into with her 2 meter draft. We also experienced how quickly the big soft swells that had been building all the way from America could quickly could turn into unpleasant seas in bad weather. We felt very isolated at times with only the occasional fishing boat on the horizon, but then I guess it’s still winter for many.


  1. Stephanie Smith
    Stephanie Smith

    I am not a sailor but loving your observations about the journey and discoveries you are both making, even some of the technical stuff.
    With Irish roots (and Scottish/English) some of the place names are familiar, including Rathlin Island (where, apparently, I DNA connect to some ancient bones)! Hope you aren’t hammered too much by storm Kathleen on the Irish/East Scotland side. Safe harbours and safe sailing too!

    1. Steve Bradley

      Thanks Stephanie, always lovely to get comments and feedback.. we are sheltered from the storm in Ballycastle 😊

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