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Sailing in Achill, County Mayo & Circumnavigating Achillbeg

19th November 2020
Sailing at Achill Sailing at Achill Photo: Illustration by Pete Hogan

When I first saw Clochmor, Achill, County Mayo, in the late 1960's it was as if I had walked into a Paul Henry painting. The Famine era pier, built from the local red sandstone, was intact. Currachs and tarred wooden boats were tied alongside or stored upside down. A fleet of old fishing boats called the pier home. The white cottage above the pier, the forlorn, abandoned coastguard station on Darby's point, even the billowing layers of stratocumulus clouds were somehow straight off his canvas from 100-years earlier.

Nowadays it resembles more a scene from the latest 'Mad Max' movie, crossed with a scene from that Kevin Costner 'Waterworld' one.

The tiny pier is still discernible under a pancake of cement. It has been extended in an L shape and covered in a layer of concrete, steel pilings, arc lights, and bulletproof bollards. The hinterland has been bulldozed into an extensive work area and car park which is permanently cluttered with an amazing collection of steel containers, junk, machinery, plastic tubes, anchors, coloured ropes, pallets, trailers, lobster pots, broken down vans, boats, fish cages, fish pumps and fish boxes. Oil storage tanks, nets, trawl winches, abandoned pilot houses, otter boards, chains and one or two yachts.

The new pier is home to a fleet of indestructible workboats built in the fjords of Norway. The extensive sand flats are used, with the help of the tide, to service the giant circular fish pen floats. Hardy fish farm workers, clad in hi-viz suits operate the cranes and loaders, fish pumps and winches in all weathers.

I love it. Happy as that proverbial clam in the mudbank. Having found a spot on the shoreline where I can park my two boats (Accolade and a 14 ft punt). It's not unlike being in an ultra-safe anchorage or a marina, only much safer.

I acquired Accolade, an ageing Jag 22, some years ago in an earnest attempt to interest my two then kids in the joys of sailing. That, unfortunately, did not happen, and she had lain idle on her trailer as we holidayed in foreign parts.

Accolade sits there; trailer well blocked up. I try not to let her get too dilapidated looking. I bail out the rainwater. I keep an eye on the brightwork, try and keep the interior ventilated and attack the green moss and lichen which tends to develop here and there. I make cups of cocoa on the stove, sit in the sun and keep an eye on the industrious fish farm doing its business at the pier, the workboats coming and going.

There is a thriving sailing scene in Clew Bay-based at Rosmoney near Westport. But out Achill way, there are few yachts. It's not a very hospitable location with strong winds, fast currents and few shore facilities. Angling is its main draw and the recreational boaters who do show up tend to be trailing ribs and motorboats of various shapes and sizes.

Achill Yawls racingAchill Yawls racing. Illustration by Pete Hogan

The exception, however, is the Achill Yawls, a thriving fleet of traditional open boats with a dipping lug sail which is based on the working boats of the region dating back to the time of Granuaile. The Achill Yawl Festival / Cruinniú Bádóirí Acla takes place each summer with a series of weekend races based in Achill Sound, Mulranny and Clare Island. Like the hooker races in Connemara, they have their own rules, such as a start from standing with sail down. I don't know if they observe the port/starboard rule, the rock on which international sailing is founded. Don't mention windward-leeward.

The Achill Yawls differ from the traditional boats of the Galway region in that they seem to prefer white sails as opposed to the romantic red. Also, they use aluminium spars which are a big break with tradition. This allows them to carry a huge spread of sail, making the sailing very exciting. The boats are open and use sand and rocks as ballast. Filling them with water in a gust is a distinct possibility.
July this year came, and the Covid lockdown was lifted. I rushed across country from Dublin to check on Accolade. It was looking highly unlikely that I would be invited to sail on my buddies boats in the Med or Galicia this year, so I decided to launch Accolade from its safe resting place. Staycation was the new right thing to do. The resident fish farm is very helpful in the matter of launching. I hitched a ride on a passing hi loader and in no time at all boat and trailer were deposited on the beach beside the pier at low tide. Off we floated on the rising tide and went alongside the pier. One of the local fishermen, with his truck hoist, volunteered to step the mast. All in a day's work and I was sailing. I couldn't believe my luck.

Launching at ClochmorLaunching at Clochmor. Illustration by Pete Hogan

The weather being settled, I betook myself and my boat out to the mooring located off the beach at Achillbeg. And there Accolade stayed for the summer.

There are many interesting cruising destinations within a few hours sail of Cloghmor. The most obvious, easy and handy, is the main harbour of Clare Island. About 5 miles away, it has a good anchorage or moorings, or it is often possible to go alongside. There is refreshment to be had in the hotel or the community centre. There is a beach and the romance of the ancient Granuaile Castle overlooking the harbour. But it is busy, with ferries and fish farm vessels coming and going.

The Harbour,  Clare IslandThe Harbour, Clare Island. Illustration by Pete Hogan

Further south are the harbour of Ronagh and the beach resort of Old Head. Ronagh is a busy ferry port and car park but nothing else. Old Head has a wonderful beach, a drying pier and there is quite a clutter of local moorings and speed boats. It's a fair old walk into the village of Louisberg from either location. On the other side of the bay is Mulranny with a host of facilities. But it can be a bit exposed to the prevailing south-westerlies.

Inner Clew Bay with its famous island archipelago is all very well, but I find that any time I wander in there in a yacht, I invariably go aground. On a falling tide. Then there is the uphill slog to get back west when the tide finally releases the captured vessel.

Lifeboat at anchor in AchillLifeboat at anchor in Achill

Turning to the north from Clochmor there is the small maze-like harbour of Purteen on Achill Island and that gem of a beach, Keem Bay, usually sheltered. Beyond there lies the splendid Achill head and points north.

One might think that Achill Sound itself would be a logical route to the north. But it is shallow and strewn with big clumps of growing seaweed which are difficult to avoid. For obscure reasons, the newly constructed, opening bridge, mid-way along the sound, never opens! If you don't believe me, try it. The body of water to the north of the bridge includes the aptly named Bulls Mouth for which the Admiralty pilot gives a possible spring rate of 8 knots. It is a pity that the route to the north is barred in this way. The large expanse of water in the shelter of Achill Island, including the island of Inishbiggle would make wonderful extra cruising grounds. One could even sail all the way to the rear side of Mulranny.

To the south, the jewel in the cruising crown, the island of Boffin, is an easy days haul from Clochmor. This seems to be the destination of choice for the numerous boats of the Westport fleet. Boffin has everything, a safe harbour, good facilities, beaches and craic. Nearby Inishturk is a bit exposed as an anchorage.

About the same distance from Achill and just as rewarding is the Killary. Relatively few yachts seem to bother exploring its further reaches. Slightly further south is High Island, difficult of access but with a wealth of monastic relics and history to rival the more famous Skelligs. Cleggan and further south, Clifden, complete the range of destinations north of Slyne Head. I have never sailed into either but have always enjoyed visiting the busy Cleggan by road.

Map of Blind SoundMap of Blind Sound

The most unusual jaunt I took this year was to circumnavigate Achillbeg island. Indeed I think I can claim to be the first, and probably the last, proper yacht to achieve this foolhardy honour. My copy of the Irish Coast Pilot dates from 1954. (Tenth Edition) It describes Blind Sound, the channel separating Achillbeg Island from Achill Island as: 'a narrow channel which is navigable by boats with local knowledge' and adds 'except in a heavy sea' My current edition of the Irish Cruising Clubs Sailing Directions for the South and West Coasts, the gold standard for a cruising guide to the west coast, ignores Blind Sound altogether. Rightly so.

I have circumnavigated Ireland, I have circumnavigated the world. I have circumnavigated Dalkey Island, Lambay Island and The Aran Islands. But I had never circumnavigated Achillbeg. The problem lies with Blind Sound, the narrow neck separating Achillbeg and Achill Island. Having traversed Blind Sound many times in a 14-foot punt and by kayak and having perused its layout in all states of the tide and weather countless times over the years, I could claim to have some local knowledge. It is a horrendous place. One should not go anywhere near it in anything claiming to be called a yacht.

There are rocks all over the place and the tide rips through at about six knots. So I have always been tempted to give it a go, but never had the nerve.

But conditions were Ideal. Two guests were staying, Owen, a keen kite surfer and his wife Elaine. Would they like to go for a sail? I asked after brunch one day. We set off shortly after high water and with an, unusual, east wind. Owen steered. The tide was about an hour after high water so would be pushing us through as we approached from the Clochmor side. I stood on the bow and indicated the course direction to Owen on the helm. Elaine on the main sheet.

Past the big red beacon marking the entrance to Achill sound we whizzed, the tide against us but the wind pressing us on. The tide splits, and we picked up the stream ebbing out Blind Sound. Then, under the power cables running across to the lighthouse on Achillbeg. Owen, an electronic wizard, was a bit worried. I assured him that we would have enough room, and luckily we did! Then the serious bit. Standing on the bow, I could see the giant boulders slipping by underwater and the overfalls. Bit of a veer to port and then we were through. One for the record books. We hardened in the sheets and tacked back past the lighthouse. We felt like a group of mountaineers who had just conquered a new route on Everest.

At the end of Summer I hauled Accolade out again with the help of the fish farm, blocked up the trailer, and that was that. The country has gone into lockdown again; my sailing now consists of following the Vendee Globe on the computer. I keep a weather eye on the storms tracking into Achill and hope for the best. I look forward to returning next Summer. Maybe I can circumnavigate Achill. Stay safe.

Published in Island News
Pete Hogan

About The Author

Pete Hogan

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Noted Dublin marine artist Pete Hogan, who sailed solo round the world in his gaff ketch Molly B in the 1990s, is a regular contributor to Afloat on a wide range of sailing subjects. 

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Ireland's offshore islands

Around 30 of Ireland's offshore islands are inhabited and hold a wealth of cultural heritage.

A central Government objective is to ensure that sustainable vibrant communities continue to live on the islands.

Irish offshore islands FAQs

Technically, it is Ireland itself, as the third largest island in Europe.

Ireland is surrounded by approximately 80 islands of significant size, of which only about 20 are inhabited.

Achill island is the largest of the Irish isles with a coastline of almost 80 miles and has a population of 2,569.

The smallest inhabited offshore island is Inishfree, off Donegal.

The total voting population in the Republic's inhabited islands is just over 2,600 people, according to the Department of Housing.

Starting with west Cork, and giving voting register numbers as of 2020, here you go - Bere island (177), Cape Clear island (131),Dursey island (6), Hare island (29), Whiddy island (26), Long island, Schull (16), Sherkin island (95). The Galway islands are Inis Mór (675), Inis Meáin (148), Inis Oírr (210), Inishbofin (183). The Donegal islands are Arranmore (513), Gola (30), Inishboffin (63), Inishfree (4), Tory (140). The Mayo islands, apart from Achill which is connected by a bridge, are Clare island (116), Inishbiggle (25) and Inishturk (52).

No, the Gaeltacht islands are the Donegal islands, three of the four Galway islands (Inishbofin, like Clifden, is English-speaking primarily), and Cape Clear or Oileán Chléire in west Cork.

Lack of a pier was one of the main factors in the evacuation of a number of islands, the best known being the Blasket islands off Kerry, which were evacuated in November 1953. There are now three cottages available to rent on the Great Blasket island.

In the early 20th century, scholars visited the Great Blasket to learn Irish and to collect folklore and they encouraged the islanders to record their life stories in their native tongue. The three best known island books are An tOileánach (The Islandman) by Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Peig by Peig Sayers, and Fiche Blian ag Fás (Twenty Years A-Growing) by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin. Former taoiseach Charles J Haughey also kept a residence on his island, Inishvickillaune, which is one of the smaller and less accessible Blasket islands.

Charles J Haughey, as above, or late Beatle musician, John Lennon. Lennon bought Dorinish island in Clew Bay, south Mayo, in 1967 for a reported £1,700 sterling. Vendor was Westport Harbour Board which had used it for marine pilots. Lennon reportedly planned to spend his retirement there, and The Guardian newspaper quoted local estate agent Andrew Crowley as saying he was "besotted with the place by all accounts". He did lodge a planning application for a house, but never built on the 19 acres. He offered it to Sid Rawle, founder of the Digger Action Movement and known as the "King of the Hippies". Rawle and 30 others lived there until 1972 when their tents were burned by an oil lamp. Lennon and Yoko Ono visited it once more before his death in 1980. Ono sold the island for £30,000 in 1984, and it is widely reported that she donated the proceeds of the sale to an Irish orphanage

 

Yes, Rathlin island, off Co Antrim's Causeway Coast, is Ireland's most northerly inhabited island. As a special area of conservation, it is home to tens of thousands of sea birds, including puffins, kittiwakes, razorbills and guillemots. It is known for its Rathlin golden hare. It is almost famous for the fact that Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, retreated after being defeated by the English at Perth and hid in a sea cave where he was so inspired by a spider's tenacity that he returned to defeat his enemy.

No. The Aran islands have a regular ferry and plane service, with ferries from Ros-a-Mhíl, south Connemara all year round and from Doolin, Co Clare in the tourist season. The plane service flies from Indreabhán to all three islands. Inishbofin is connected by ferry from Cleggan, Co Galway, while Clare island and Inishturk are connected from Roonagh pier, outside Louisburgh. The Donegal islands of Arranmore and Tory island also have ferry services, as has Bere island, Cape Clear and Sherkin off Cork. How are the island transport services financed? The Government subsidises transport services to and from the islands. The Irish Coast Guard carries out medical evacuations, as to the RNLI lifeboats. Former Fianna Fáíl minister Éamon Ó Cuív is widely credited with improving transport services to and from offshore islands, earning his department the nickname "Craggy island".

Craggy Island is an bleak, isolated community located of the west coast, inhabited by Irish, a Chinese community and one Maori. Three priests and housekeeper Mrs Doyle live in a parochial house There is a pub, a very small golf course, a McDonald's fast food restaurant and a Chinatown... Actually, that is all fiction. Craggy island is a figment of the imagination of the Father Ted series writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, for the highly successful Channel 4 television series, and the Georgian style parochial house on the "island" is actually Glenquin House in Co Clare.

Yes, that is of the Plassey, a freighter which was washed up on Inis Oírr in bad weather in 1960.

There are some small privately owned islands,and islands like Inishlyre in Co Mayo with only a small number of residents providing their own transport. Several Connemara islands such as Turbot and Inishturk South have a growing summer population, with some residents extending their stay during Covid-19. Turbot island off Eyrephort is one such example – the island, which was first spotted by Alcock and Brown as they approached Ireland during their epic transatlantic flight in 1919, was evacuated in 1978, four years after three of its fishermen drowned on the way home from watching an All Ireland final in Clifden. However, it is slowly being repopulated

Responsibility for the islands was taking over by the Department of Rural and Community Development . It was previously with the Gaeltacht section in the Department of Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht.

It is a periodic bone of contention, as Ireland does not have the same approach to its islands as Norway, which believes in right of access. However, many improvements were made during Fianna Fáíl Galway West TD Éamon Ó Cuív's time as minister. The Irish Island Federation, Comdháil Oileáin na hÉireann, represents island issues at national and international level.

The 12 offshore islands with registered voters have long argued that having to cast their vote early puts them at a disadvantage – especially as improved transport links mean that ballot boxes can be transported to the mainland in most weather conditions, bar the winter months. Legislation allowing them to vote on the same day as the rest of the State wasn't passed in time for the February 2020 general election.

Yes, but check tide tables ! Omey island off north Connemara is accessible at low tide and also runs a summer race meeting on the strand. In Sligo, 14 pillars mark the way to Coney island – one of several islands bearing this name off the Irish coast.

Cape Clear or Oileán Chléire is the country's most southerly inhabited island, eight miles off the west Cork coast, and within sight of the Fastnet Rock lighthouse, also known as the "teardrop of Ireland".
Skellig Michael off the Kerry coast, which has a monastic site dating from the 6th century. It is accessible by boat – prebooking essential – from Portmagee, Co Kerry. However, due to Covid-19 restrictions, it was not open to visitors in 2020.
All islands have bird life, but puffins and gannets and kittiwakes are synonymous with Skellig Michael and Little Skellig. Rathlin island off Antrim and Cape Clear off west Cork have bird observatories. The Saltee islands off the Wexford coast are privately owned by the O'Neill family, but day visitors are permitted access to the Great Saltee during certain hours. The Saltees have gannets, gulls, puffins and Manx shearwaters.
Vikings used Dublin as a European slaving capital, and one of their bases was on Dalkey island, which can be viewed from Killiney's Vico road. Boat trips available from Coliemore harbour in Dalkey. Birdwatch Ireland has set up nestboxes here for roseate terns. Keep an eye out also for feral goats.
Plenty! There are regular boat trips in summer to Inchagoill island on Lough Corrib, while the best known Irish inshore island might be the lake isle of Innisfree on Sligo's Lough Gill, immortalised by WB Yeats in his poem of the same name. Roscommon's Lough Key has several islands, the most prominent being the privately-owned Castle Island. Trinity island is more accessible to the public - it was once occupied by Cistercian monks from Boyle Abbey.

©Afloat 2020

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