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Where to Sail in the West of Ireland

15th October 2009
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Where to Sail in the West of Ireland

Shannon Estuary – and from Dingle to Slyne Head

At over 100 kilometres long, the Shannon estuary stretches from the western edge of Ireland at Loop Head to east of Limerick city and beyond.

No other waterway brings so much to Irish lives: up to 40% of our energy supplies; Ireland’s second-largest airport; it’s second-largest cargo port; a 10,000 student university – all on the banks of the estuary.

The Shannon Scheme has been bringing electricity to tens of thousands of homes for over 75 years; long before ‘Green Energy’ was heard of in Ireland. This massive award-winning hydroelectric project, producing 85 megawatts of power, was one of the most important building projects ever undertaken in Ireland.

However, it’s not only the ferries and hydroelectric power that are benefiting from the estuary – it seems that all around its banks, people are turning back to face its waters. Limerick’s Riverside City project, initiated during the Celtic Tiger, has helped bring Limerick back to the water.

Four rowing clubs from the city have made this area a main centre for their sport in the country; Kilrush’s development is also encouraging to those who wish to spend time on the water; and Shannon Airport sees approximately three million people pass through its gates on up to 26,000 flights – a forcus for tourism, business and employment since 1946.

The estuary itself, the only one big enough to accommodate Capesize ships (too large for the Suez or Panama Canals), is not only a driving force behind Ireland’s economy but home to the Shannon Dolphin Foundation which allows tourists and locals to dip into that environment from Carraigahold pier. On the Kerry side, Ballybunion’s lush golf links (established in 1893) have entertained up to 100,000 golfing tourists each year.

Limerick city, because of it’s strategic placing, owes it’s origins to the Shannon waters, as from there, smaller boats could access the heart of Ireland while the estuary opened up trade foutes into Europe and beyond. The history of what became known as King John’s Castle is long and fascinating, and Bunratty Castle, built around 1425 a few miles downriver, can attract up to 350,000 visitors each year.

The clutch of islands in the middle of the Fergus estuary – Canon Island, Coney Island, Horse Island and Scattery – were once home to a vibrant, bilingual community fishing and farming around the estuary. Scattery was first used as a monastery site in the sixth century, though the monastery didn’t survive Elizabethan times and it’s population declined steadily after 1881. Because of it’s isolation, the monastery founder St. Senan thought it ideal for his needs – legend has it it forbade any woman to live or land on the island.

Kilrush in Co. Clare is where island residents moved to – making the short journey across the estuary to what once was a small market town but is now the estuary’s marine leisure centre. It’s here that most people learn how to sail on the waterway, as the marina is home to an adventure centre and the area’s largest fleet of racing yachts. So popular is this marina that plans have had to be drawn up to double it’s capacity.

Sailing has a long and proud tradition in these parts: Ger O’Rourke and his yacht Chieftain emerged from these shores, as has Conor O’Brien (left from Foynes in 1923, the first amateur skipper to sail a yacht around the world); and the Knight of Glin who starts the September race.

Brandon Bay, on the north side of the Dingle peninsula, is completely open to the north but reasonably sheltered from the south-east through south-west to north-west. A decent pub with a good bar overlooking the bay provides victuals and refreshment when needed. Mutton Island has sheltered anchorage though no facilities. Kinvarra, small and sheltered, requires some careful pilotage but is good for provisioning. If you make your way to Galway you can enjoy the beautiful city – recent stopover point for the Volvo Ocean Race – with it’s pedestrianised centre. Galway’s sailing club is at Rinville – they may have moorings available though you’d be three miles from any facilities.

Aran Islands – the three: Inishsheer, Inishmaan and Inishmore – are made of limestone and of varied geology. Inishmore is the largest with a secure and sheltered harbour at Kilronan, ferries from the mainland, a supermarket, some restaurants and bars and bicycle hire at the quay. The ancient ford of Dun Aengus is worth a visit: dating from approx. 800BC, it was built as a deterrant to invaders and it’s vast semi-circular structure is quite impressive. The two smaller islands – Inisheer and Inishmaan – do not have safe anchorages.

Continuing up the coast there’s the Greatman and Kiggaul bays – small and requiring a delicate touch if mooring; and St Macdara’s Island at the entrance to Roundstone. Less than half a mile across, it boasts one of the earliest of European churches – a tiny monastery dating from the 6th century. Roundstone itself is a pretty village with shops and restaurants – worth a visit.

From Kinsale to Dingle

It’s generally accepted that the scenery is stunning: rolling hills, coastal cliffs, and substantial mountains. There’s three large inlets which provide havens no matter the wind direction: Dunmanus Bay, Bantry Bay and the Kenmare River. There’s also a mass of islands, lyrically named Roaring Water Bay, which would provide days of sailing experience. With prevailing south-westerly winds, the weather can change rapidly but is normally warm because of the Gulf Stream. Of course, this being Ireland, you could leave port early in the rain but by lunchtime be basking in the sunshine. Excellent Coast Guard radio stations will keep you appraised of changes in weather patterns.

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How to sail, sailing clubs and sailing boats plus news on the wide range of sailing events on Irish waters forms the backbone of Afloat's sailing coverage.

We aim to encompass the widest range of activities undertaken on Irish lakes, rivers and coastal waters. This page describes those sailing activites in more detail and provides links and breakdowns of what you can expect from our sailing pages. We aim to bring jargon free reports separated in to popular categories to promote the sport of sailing in Ireland.

The packed 2013 sailing season sees the usual regular summer leagues and there are regular weekly race reports from Dublin Bay Sailing Club, Howth and Cork Harbour on Afloat.ie. This season and last also featured an array of top class events coming to these shores. Each year there is ICRA's Cruiser Nationals starts and every other year the Round Ireland Yacht Race starts and ends in Wicklow and all this action before July. Crosshaven's Cork Week kicks off on in early July every other year. in 2012 Ireland hosted some big international events too,  the ISAF Youth Worlds in Dun Laoghaire and in August the Tall Ships Race sailed into Dublin on its final leg. In that year the Dragon Gold Cup set sail in Kinsale in too.

2013 is also packed with Kinsale hosting the IFDS diabled world sailing championships in Kinsale and the same port is also hosting the Sovereign's Cup. The action moves to the east coast in July with the staging of the country's biggest regatta, the Volvo Dun Laoghaire regatta from July 11.

Our coverage though is not restricted to the Republic of Ireland but encompasses Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the Irish Sea area too. In this section you'll find information on the Irish Sailing Association and Irish sailors. There's sailing reports on regattas, racing, training, cruising, dinghies and keelboat classes, windsurfers, disabled sailing, sailing cruisers, Olympic sailing and Tall Ships sections plus youth sailing, match racing and team racing coverage too.

Sailing Club News

There is a network of over 70 sailing clubs in Ireland and we invite all clubs to submit details of their activities for inclusion in our daily website updates. There are dedicated sections given over to the big Irish clubs such as  the waterfront clubs in Dun Laoghaire; Dublin Bay Sailing Club, the Royal Saint George Yacht Club,  the Royal Irish Yacht Club and the National Yacht Club. In Munster we regularly feature the work of Kinsale Yacht Club and Royal Cork Yacht Club in Crosshaven.  Abroad Irish sailors compete in Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) racing in the UK and this club is covered too. Click here for Afloat's full list of sailing club information. We are keen to increase our coverage on the network of clubs from around the coast so if you would like to send us news and views of a local interest please let us have it by sending an email to [email protected]

Sailing Boats and Classes

Over 20 active dinghy and one design classes race in Irish waters and fleet sizes range from just a dozen or so right up to over 100 boats in the case of some of the biggest classes such as the Laser or Optimist dinghies for national and regional championships. Afloat has dedicated pages for each class: Dragons, Etchells, Fireball, Flying Fifteen, GP14, J24's, J80's, Laser, Sigma 33, RS Sailing, Star, Squibs, TopperMirror, Mermaids, National 18, Optimist, Puppeteers, SB3's, and Wayfarers. For more resources on Irish classes go to our dedicated sailing classes page.

The big boat scene represents up to 60% of the sail boat racing in these waters and Afloat carries updates from the Irish Cruiser Racer Association (ICRA), the body responsible for administering cruiser racing in Ireland and the popular annual ICRA National Championships. In 2010 an Irish team won the RORC Commodore's Cup putting Irish cruiser racing at an all time high. Popular cruiser fleets in Ireland are raced right around the coast but naturally the biggest fleets are in the biggest sailing centres in Cork Harbour and Dublin Bay. Cruisers race from a modest 20 feet or so right up to 50'. Racing is typically divided in to Cruisers Zero, Cruisers One, Cruisers Two, Cruisers Three and Cruisers Four. A current trend over the past few seasons has been the introduction of a White Sail division that is attracting big fleets.

Traditionally sailing in northern Europe and Ireland used to occur only in some months but now thanks to the advent of a network of marinas around the coast (and some would say milder winters) there are a number of popular winter leagues running right over the Christmas and winter periods.

Sailing Events

Punching well above its weight Irish sailing has staged some of the world's top events including the Volvo Ocean Race Galway Stopover, Tall Ships visits as well as dozens of class world and European Championships including the Laser Worlds, the Fireball Worlds in both Dun Laoghaire and Sligo.

Some of these events are no longer pure sailing regattas and have become major public maritime festivals some are the biggest of all public staged events. In the past few seasons Ireland has hosted events such as La Solitaire du Figaro and the ISAF Dublin Bay 2012 Youth Worlds.

There is a lively domestic racing scene for both inshore and offshore sailing. A national sailing calendar of summer fixtures is published annually and it includes old favorites such as Sovereign's Cup, Calves Week, Dun Laoghaire to Dingle, All Ireland Sailing Championships as well as new events with international appeal such as the Round Britain and Ireland Race and the Clipper Round the World Race, both of which have visited Ireland.

The bulk of the work on running events though is carried out by the network of sailing clubs around the coast and this is mostly a voluntary effort by people committed to the sport of sailing. For example Wicklow Sailing Club's Round Ireland yacht race run in association with the Royal Ocean Racing Club has been operating for over 30 years. Similarly the international Cork Week regatta has attracted over 500 boats in past editions and has also been running for over 30 years.  In recent years Dublin Bay has revived its own regatta called Volvo Dun Laoghaire Regatta and can claim to be the country's biggest event with over 550 boats entered in 2009.

On the international stage Afloat carries news of Irish and UK interest on Olympics 2012, Sydney to Hobart, Volvo Ocean Race, Cowes Week and the Fastnet Race.

We're always aiming to build on our sailing content. We're keen to build on areas such as online guides on learning to sail in Irish sailing schools, navigation and sailing holidays. If you have ideas for our pages we'd love to hear from you. Please email us at [email protected]

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