The Irish Sea – the complete route

route across the Irish Sea

route across the Irish Sea

After leaving Scotland we crossed to Ireland and then on to the Isle of Man and across to Wales. We have spent the last week tacking against the wind and yesterday we rounded St. David’s Head and finally left the Irish Sea. This segment of the journey we travelled some 360 nautical miles which takes our total to date with Scotland to 1000 nautical miles. Heidi is now a seasoned sailor.

Our route since arriving in Ireland can be viewed at GPSies.


We were assigned the only mooring deep enough to hold us and twice a day we could watch the surrounding boats coming to rest on the mud and sand around us. Most of the yachts in the harbour were bilge keelers specially designed to stay upright while sat on the bottom.

The first day we rowed across to the harbour wall and walked the hundred meters to the Ffestiniog Railway. This is a narrow gauge railway that heads up in to the hills and ultimately to the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. The trains are driven by steam engines and the route very scenic. This was Heidi’s chance to see something else of Wales than sandy beaches and holiday homes. Blaenau used to be a center for slate production so we headed into the hills to look at the post industrial landscape above town and explore a bit. The town itself is doing its best to become a tourist location but there is only so much you can do with piles of grey slate and 200 days rain a year. We broke the return journey half way to take a walk through a Welsh rainforest.

Blaenau Fffestiniog

Blaenau Fffestiniog

On the second day we caught another more conventional train to Harlech and visited Harlech Castle. Since Neill’s last visit thirty years ago they have built a visitor center which explained the building and history of the castle. A quick course in British history for Heidi. Norman conquest, War of the Roses and English civil war all in 15 minutes.

The next morning we planned on leaving but revised our schedule because of Storm Hector. With gale force nine forecast we stayed hidden in Porthmadog. Even so we saw over 20 knots on the anemometer so we were both glad to still be in harbour. The dinghy ride from the yacht club to the boat was exciting.

The next day we left on the high tide to continue our journey south.

Lleyn Peninsula

From Holyhead we headed south and anchored off Porth Dinllaen. This is a long beach and a village all owned by the National Trust. When you visit Dinllaen with a car you have to stop at a car park (and pay for it) then walk across a golf course and down to the beach carrying everything you need. In the evening you pack up and do it all in reverse. In a boat, you sail into the bay and then anchor in about four meters of water and enjoy the view. The pub is only a dinghy ride away.

All the weather forecasts agreed that there would be no wind for another 24 hours so we left the boat at anchor and walked up the nearby hill Garn Boduan. It is only 250 meters high but stands alone and we would have had amazing views if there hadn’t have been such a heat haze. As it was we could still see Artemis at anchor some five kilometers away. On the summit there are the remains of an iron age fortified settlement. We used one of the hut remains to shelter from the breeze.

In the night the wind came up as expected which soon built up a decent swell but made for great sailing the next day. We motored out of the bay and then sailed all the way round the peninsula to the buoy off Porthmadog. Downwind we were averaging seven knots and then back up wind still managing five. Great sailing with Chiara the wind monitor doing the work.

Porthmadog channel buoy

Porthmadog channel buoy

It became obvious that we were easily going to reach Portmadog before the high tide so we contacted the harbour master who was kind enough to assign us a mooring and send us the most up to date sketch of the entrance channel including a list of corrections. We felt very adventurous as we navigated from buoy to buoy watching bearings and depths and with as little as 40cm below our keel.

A dinghy motor

When we bought the boat, it came with an Avon inflatable dinghy. Unless we overnight at a marina pontoon, the dinghy is our connection to land. It came with two paddles which are fine when there is little wind, little current and not too far to the beach. A few times we have stayed on board because we haven’t been sure we will reach land and in Plockton we were stuck on land unable to reach the boat. Luckily the crew of a training yacht saved us with their tender.

On arriving in Wales we found the largest Chandlery we had seen since Ardfern and they had a small outboard motor just like we had been searching for. Out came the Visa card and on to the dinghy went the motor. We tested it in the harbour and today used it to for the half mile to the pub at Porth Dinllaen. At about 3 knots we are now much faster than with “Neill power”.

water resupply

water resupply

We have been going to marinas when we need diesel, water, electricity or a shower. For diesel and water we now have canisters which we can take with us when we take the dinghy to land. We are going to become expert at begging tap water. Electricity mostly comes from our wind generator and solar panel. So now we just need it to get warm enough to shower on deck 🙂

TT Races – Isle of Man

We had finally had enough of feeling our way from port to port in thick fog so in the morning we got up early, switched on the motor and all the gadgets and set off for the Isle of Man. We navigated briskly across the busy entrance to Belfast Lough and then gingerly through the Donagadee Channel using radar to avoid buoys and unseen boats. Next we set a course of 125 degrees magnetic and spent the next four hours watching the radar. At least Neill did. Heidi baked onion bread and cleaned the metalwork.

A few times we saw crossing or approaching boats on the radar but in the mist we only saw one for real. Finally, only six miles from the Isle of Man, we came out of the mist and in to sunshine and cloudless blue skies. We radioed ahead to Peel Harbour asking for a berth and he sounded very stressed and busy. He said to call again when we reached the outer harbour and we could have a berth if some one left.

On reaching Peel we were called in to the inner harbour and were stunned to be greeted by thousands of people, a live band and a huge street party. Every berth in the harbour was full and on the walls, boats were rafted four deep. And on every boat there was a party. We asked if every Sunday was like this and were told that today was “mad sunday” at the start of the TT races. One week a year and we had hit it on the nose.

Live music at Peel Harbour

Live music at Peel Harbour

The next day we caught a bus to the race course and were given a tip by a local about a great view point through a farmyard and across two fields. Here we watched amazingly crazy motorcyclists racing down closed roads just missing the stone walls on each side. The speed was unbelievable and the noise unbearable. Neither the photos or videos we took do the craziness of this event justice.

We walked back to the village, ate a monster ice cream and then took the bus back to town, visted the castle and went shopping – all the time with the sound of one of the thousands of motorbikes here on holiday in the background.

Slowly a pattern is emerging. This is the third time we have arrived for “the big once a year event”. Tobermory, Rathlin and now Peel. If we actually had a plan, it would be a good one.

Irish mist

We left Ballycastle planning a quick sail south taking full advantage of the tidal stream and then to drop the anchor south of Belfast Lough. We had however forgotten about Irish mist.

After rounding the first headland the visibility began to drop and soon we were cut off from the rest of the world and sailing in our little pool of existence. Occasionally a seabird would appear and just as quickly disappear. It all sounds very romantic but it is actually not such a great feeling. Seeing a hundred meters ahead of you and not knowing what is beyond is actually quite frightening.

The mist in Ballygally

The mist in Ballygally

Luckily we are 21st century sailors so we have two charts and two independent chartplotters that use GPS to tell us where we are and what else is out there. We also have an AIS system that transmits the position of larger boats in the area. We have an active radar reflector that tells the radar on other boats where we are and we have a radar of our own that shows us other objects. We also have ship to ship radio so we can call up approaching ships and ask if they have seen us. It all sounds great but it doesn’t change the fact that you are permanently sailing in to a wall of nothing.

Each day we sail a bit and then the permanent staring into the grey nothingness gets to us and we seek a bay to anchor and recover. As soon as the visibility improves, we are off again and shortly after we are once again surrounded by mist and hear only the foghorns of huge ships further off the coast.

Now, after three days, we are anchored at Antrim County Sailing Club and waiting for the visibility to increase enough that we can cross the shipping lane to Belfast.

Crossing to Ireland

From Lochmaddy we continued our journey south anchoring in a stunning Loch on the Isle of South Uist and mooring just off the pontoons in Castlebay (Brian, a friendly local, lent us his mooring after warning us about the bad ground for anchoring). The next night we anchored off the white sands of Vatersay Bay in clear water and sunshine.

Leaving the Outer Hebrides from the Isle of Vatersay, we then “island hopped” our way south passing Iona and anchoring off the Isle of Gunna and in Inner Loch Tarbert on Jura. We had to leave Loch Tarbert at four in the morning to catch a tidal stream that washed us through the Sound of Islay at 11 knots. 11 nautical miles in one hour. Amazing how fast you can go if your calculations put you in the right place at the right time.

Our plan was to spend the night in the marina at Port Ellen on the Isle of Islay. We arrived there in a 20 knot wind and found the marina full. Luckily we have learned to rely on our anchor and we, and an american boat, rode out the storm anchored just off a beach in the bay.

The crossing to Ireland was only 20 miles but took some detailed planning. Based on the phase of the moon (height of tide), where the moon is (time of tidal flows) and the projected wind, we calculated that the optimum time to leave was 13:30. This meant that we would be pushed west in to the Atlantic for three hours and then back in to the Irish Sea for two with a net result that we would land at Rathlin Island. We also had to take in to account that we would be crossing a traffic separation scheme (motorway for ships) which we should do as fast as possible.

First Guinness in Ireland

First Guinness in Ireland

We left as planned. We sailed directly south and drifted west as planned. We were halfway across the TSS when the wind dropped to nothing completely contrary to all the weather reports. So there we were becalmed halfway to Ireland watching for approaching oil tankers. An hour later and we gave up and motored the last miles to Rathlin Island, the marina, a Guinness and some irish folk music in front of the bar.

So now we are in Ireland and it is finally shorts and T-shirts weather.

The “sailing team”

There are the two of us on board – Heidi and I. So obviously everything has to be done by one or the other of us. That is not such a problem until we do a long journey when one of us has to be at the tiller (stick at the back that you push from side to side to steer) all the time leaving the other one to do “everything else”.

Luckily we have help on board. We have an autopilot that we can connect to the tiller and set to a fixed course. It is a hydraulic cylinder and a bunch of electronics that eats power from our batteries. We call this “crew member” Steven (named after a great mechanic in Ardfern). This device is great for the occasions when we have the motor on, generating electricity, but no use when sailing – which is what we mostly do.

We also have a Monitor Windvane. This is a truly amazing device that detects changes in the wind caused by the boat turning off course. It uses these tiny changes to move a paddle in the water and the power created by this to move the tiller the correct way to compensate. It does this constantly without any electronics, hydraulics, noise or whatever. This device is a “she” and we call “her” Chiara. Neill and Chiara are learning to get along. Mostly she will do what he wants but sometimes she takes a long time to do it and sometimes she just flatly refuses to follow his instructions unless he changes the sail settings. She is slowly getting Neill properly “trained” and Heidi only occasionally has to calm Neill down.

"Chiara" the Monitor Windvane

“Chiara” the Monitor Windvane

Occasionally things get really “tight”, particularly entering hidden anchorages. “20 degrees to port until we pass that covered rock then starboard stemming the flood until the small cliff then immediately hard port on a heading of 330 degrees”. It is like the scene in Hunt for Red October when they are avoiding seamounts underwater. These are the times when only a Heidi is good enough on the tiller

Together the four of us are doing a good job until now.