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Sailing from Scotland to Ireland – The Challenges and the Rewards

21 Jul 2016

Sailing to Scotland by hopscotching along the west coast of Ireland to Skye and back provides an opportunity to drop anchor in many enticing harbours along the way. But before you make your maiden voyage, there are a few challenges to consider.

Weather plays an enormous part, as its changeable nature makes for dangerous sea conditions – often there’s nowhere to hide on short notice, as the scores of sunken ships can attest. Finding an appropriate weather window for a transit around headlands can be tricky.

Good seamanship is essential, and sailors have to be prepared for anything the seas and the skies throw at them, so it is important to plan your itinerary where possible. The Marine Blast app is a very useful tool indeed for listing marinas, pontoons and moorings in the MalinWaters. It is advisable that every vessel transiting these waters has to be self-sufficient, with enough fuel, food, and water to ensure a smooth passage throughout the MalinWaters.

And the tidal variation can be 15 feet or more, creating challenges for navigation and for anchoring – but sailors who grow up navigating the waters off the west coast of Ireland and along the Cool Route as it is known, can sail just about anywhere in the world.

The northwest coast of Ireland is rugged, majestic and forbidding, with dizzyingly high cliffs. Sliabh Liag and the western shore of Donegal along the Wild Atlantic Way make for a treacherous lee shore against which ocean swell collides with immense energy. But drop anchor in picturesque Teelin or Killybegs with its new marina, and you’ll have access to these stunning cliffs from above.

The Irish coastline is dotted with islands that are variously either inhabited or not: some never having been, while others were abandoned in the 1900s when island life became intolerable. Arranmore, Gola, and Tory Island are a few potential stopping points, steeped in ancient history.

In contrast, the west coast of Scotland consists of islands and lochs that create an almost lake-like region where ocean swell is much less of a factor. Ports are close together and marinas are strung among them at short distances, which makes it easy to tie up in a slip with access to shore amenities and services including fuel, food and water – particularly handy if the weather deteriorates. A great place to start in Scotland is Islay, with its string of distilleries to visit just a short hop across from Donegal or Northern Ireland.

The topography of Scotland varies from low-lying sandy islets with wide expanses of beaches, to towering mountainous islands formed by volcanoes. Geometrically-shaped basaltic columns stick up out of the sea, and densely-forested lochs are fringed by collapsed calderas. Geologically, it’s a truly fascinating place.

The biggest challenge to navigating the Scottish waters is the rapid flow of currents between islands where water heaves up from great depths to shallows, creating some of the world’s biggest whirlpools and tidal races with huge standing waves. Yet, the tidal variation is only a foot or two in many harbours.

It can be a heavenly place for cruising, especially by charter boat when time is limited to a short holiday. In many cases, you can start out in one harbour in the morning, stop in another for lunch and to wait out the change in current, and continue on in the afternoon. You soon pick up the rhythm of the tides and get into the flow of things.

In many anchorages in Scotland there are few if any people: but the anchorages in Ireland often offer an ancient village with a warm pub and a friendly reception. Traditional music wafts over the harbour, making your arrival a little like entering a portal to a different era. Larger Scottish villages are more often associated with marinas and more recent developments. The amenities are truly welcome, with access to services as well as fine dining, gourmet delis, laundry facilities, and chandleries, but the ambiance is quite different – more modern than traditional.

Where the Irish coastline is dotted by houses typically strung along the main roads in classic ribbon development, made brilliant green by cleared fields where sheep and cattle graze; the coast of Scotland features clusters of human development between which are vast tracts of darkly forested wilderness. It is truly astonishing how very different these two lands have become over the passing millennia.

What binds these two lands together is their shared history. Prehistoric peoples, Celtic roots, early Christian saints, Vikings and Normans have all left their marks. These lands are both rich in historic significance, natural beauty and personal warmth. The best thing to do is to sample them for yourselves. Oh, and of course, the most important thing to sample is the whisky in Scotland, and the whiskey in Ireland – decide for yourself which one you prefer, with or without the “e”.