Whichever way you go, and however long you take, sailing around Britain and Ireland is always rewarding, says Miranda Delmar-Morgan
Sailing around Britain and Ireland and into its nooks and crannies is always an interesting endeavour. You get to know it from the seaward perspective and as sailors we get a privileged view of the UK’s many beautiful coastlines.
Want to learn more about sailing the British Isles? Get Yachting Monthly’s Sail The British Isles book from Amazon.
The Jurassic Coast never fails to lift my spirits; Northumberland has long sweeping beaches with vast castles, and the Aberdeen coast is a vibrant colour combination of dark red cliffs with a green clothing of vegetation.
The west coast of Scotland has deep inlets with a backdrop of spectacular hills and all the coasts of Ireland and Northern Ireland have beautiful scenery with distant hills.
As a passing visitor you get acquainted with areas you never normally visit and observe the change in people’s speech and mannerisms. You can do this trip several times and it will always be different.
There are so many beautiful places it is impossible to list them all. Harwich is quaint and other-worldly, Wells-next-the-Sea is wonderful, Whitby, home to Captain James Cook and inspiration for Dracula, is vibrant. Anchoring at Lindisfarne and listening to the seals grumbling all night is an other-worldly experience.
The wildlife gets better and better the further north you go and there are several large gannetries and bird reserves. The off-lying islands, such as the Farne Islands, Holy Island, the Shetlands, Orkney, St Kilda, Rathlin, Skomer, Iona, Staffa, the Shiant Islands, the Scottish sea lochs and all of the Hebrides provide so much interest that you can’t possibly hope to visit them all in a single season.
The question of east or westabout is also difficult to answer. Westerlies will make rounding the Lizard and Land’s End from the east difficult and the Longships a lee shore. There is no port of refuge until Milford Haven or Newlyn, though you can anchor below St Ives and below Stepper Point off Padstow if there is no northing in the wind.
Much will depend on what the weather is doing on the day you want to leave. If the weather is set against you for the next week, whichever coast you start from, you must accept that you will either have to wait, or that you must start in the other direction.
The eastern side of Ireland and Northern Ireland provides sheltered sailing in westerlies and once you are north of Rathlin Island the Inner Hebrides provide countless sheltered anchorages. If you have gone westabout you might never make it up to Cape Wrath and beyond because you have tarried too long en route.
The east coast is very different, but many of the towns there are well worth visiting, the entrance to Berwick Upon Tweed with the three bridges and a thousand swans is spectacular.
Whilst there are many inlets providing shelter on all sides of the UK, when you look closely you start to realise that the number of genuine all-weather harbours with 24- hour access are few and far between, and deep water inlets like the Dart, or the Scottish sea lochs or the embracing enclosure of Plymouth Sound are a rarity.
There are considerable stretches of our coasts with no safe havens. Many destinations have sand bars, and marinas have sills or locks. You need to be mindful of them and aware of not only the boltholes but also the traps. A woman we met in Port Ellen on Islay one year had been stuck in Clew Bay on the west coast of Ireland for 10 days. Her crew demanded to be rowed ashore, and she got very low on food and water before she could escape.
Sail to your limitations
All those aspects will have a bearing on your passages. When Edward and I did extensive trips on our Three-Quarter tonner, Polar Bear, we would sometimes arrive quite tired after a 12-hour, 60-mile passage, and needed a day to recover.
In our Najad 390 we can cover 80 miles in 12 hours and be fresh enough to be able to carry on the next day. The heavier boat has an easier motion, and we can liven things up with the spinnaker in the right conditions.
So your boat’s size and weight not only have a bearing on how fast or slowly you travel but also on how fresh or tired you are on arrival.
It is possible to get from the bottom of the country to the top in a fairly short time (3 or 4 days) if you are well crewed up. It is a different challenge if you are only double or singlehanded and you want a decent night’s rest in sheltered havens so that you are fit for the next day.
Most cruising sailors want to enjoy the delights ashore because that is the point of cruising. Whilst we usually reckon on one long or overnight passage on each side of England it is possible to do the whole thing whilst day sailing on long summer days if you want to.
A good planning exercise would be to decide which destinations you particularly want to visit and those which will provide a safe haven if suddenly needed, with some idea of the distances between them. Your primary consideration is not so much ‘what time will you leave?’ but ‘what time do you want to arrive?’ and, more to the point, what will the tide be doing when you get there?
If there is a sand bar, a sill, or a lock to negotiate you will need your height of tide calculations to hand and be confident that you can await a rise of tide safely in the approaches. A delay en route from entanglement with a lobster pot for instance might well mean you miss the entry to your destination and you will need an alternative safe haven.
The tide plays a major role in this and you need to note any tidal gates, slack tide, and the time the tide will turn foul.
You also need to assess stopovers which could become a trap. We were charmed by Wells-next-the Sea last year, but in onshore winds the entrance with its shifting sands is dangerous. Having got safely in you could well get stuck there if strong northerlies suddenly piped up in the North Sea.
Consider the weather sailing around Britain and Ireland
This leads me on to discuss the weather. Apart from the Met Office we have a plethora of sailing apps available. The advantage of forecasts from the Met Office is that the data has been assessed and interpreted by a meteorologist.
The apps, wonderful though they are, have quite often not had human input and they can err by a whole wind force. The answer is to draw your own conclusions from all the information available and don’t just depend on one source.
When the Met Office issues a forecast they are covering a full 24-hour period. So whilst you might see a shipping area smothered in red ink and think you shouldn’t leave port, there may well be a weather window for a passage before a strong wind actually arrives.
Alarmed by the red ink you sit tight only to find the whole day is quiet before that weather materialises and you have missed a passage opportunity. To give the Met Office their due, they will usually offer Imminent, (within 6 hours,) Soon (between 6-12 hours) or Later (after 12 hours) to give you some indication as to timing.
The clock starts ticking from the start time of the period for their prediction, and not when you heard it repeated some time later on the VHF.
Sea states can get very lumpy in wind over tide conditions, particularly at pinch points. The Dover Strait, North Channel and St George’s Channel can be violent and chaotic.
The Minch can be dangerous and the Pentland Firth is a notorious no-go area much of the time. However, they all have brief periods of slack when it is possible to cross them without mishap.
You need to assess the weather, tides and time and exercise your judgement all the time; no wonder we arrived tired! Headlands such as Portland Bill need a good offing if you are to get clear outside the race whose position will shift to the east or west depending on the direction of the tide.
Cape Wrath is dangerous in wind over tide conditions, and needs a wide berth, but when calm it is possible to pass inside Duslic Rock.
Tides around Britain and Ireland
On the south coast, the tide ebbs west to Land’s End and floods east to Dover. Across the Thames Estuary it ebbs NE and floods SW. The tide splits at Dover, and as the Channel ebb turns west, it also ebbs N/NE into the North Sea.
Going eastwards you can take a full flood to Dover, and then the new ebb starting north eastwards from North Foreland, giving you another fair, but falling, tide to take you north across the Thames Estuary. Once clear of the Estuary the ebbing tide swings around the Norfolk coast and meets a counterflow
at The Wash, making the timing of an entry into Wells with an adequate rise of tide quite tricky to get right.
Land’s End is a critical turning point. The tides run hard, and, just as at Dover, a well-timed northbound passage with a departure from Newlyn can give you a prolonged favourable tide as you catch the new flood at Land’s End running towards the Bristol Channel, but beware of an inshore counter current.
An inshore passage can be used inside Longships, leaving Kettle’s Bottom Rock to the west in calm conditions.
Passages between Ireland and England are dictated to some extent by the traffic separation schemes at Land’s End, the Tuskar Rock off Rosslare, and The Smalls. Crossing the St George’s Channel from Arklow to Fishguard or Milford Haven avoids the TSS schemes.
The tides inside the Arklow Banks run phenomenally hard and give you a terrific lift but don’t be late at Wicklow Head for entering Wicklow, nor at Carnsore Point if you want to get into the charming Kilmore Quay. You may have to leave early and ‘push’ the last of a foul tide in order not to be late at
the other end of the day.
In the Irish Sea the tide floods north to Dublin.
At the same time it may be ebbing out of the Bristol Channel. Meanwhile, north of the Isle of Man it ebbs north as the water chooses its route north or south of the island to get to the Atlantic, so it is complicated!
Crossing the Thames Estuary
There are entire books about the multitude of passages, which can’t be abbreviated here. Reeds Nautical Almanac has some excellent passage making notes. The Imray C1 chart gives you a clear overview which a chart plotter can’t match.
Some general advice is that you should obviously avoid shortcuts in shallow waters, such as the Medusa Channel south of the Orwell River, in strong onshore winds.
When heading north or south you will invariably have to cross the tides at certain points, and care is needed if you are not to get set onto the banks. You need up-to-date charts and to watch the buoyage carefully. The buoys get moved as and when the sand bars shift and won’t necessarily pop into view exactly where you or your chartplotter expect them.
You need a general feel of the channel you are in and a mental image of the ground beneath you. Knowing where the deeper water lies is useful when you find a buoy has been moved. You should then be confident that your course adjustment will have you passing it on the right side.
Favour the deep water channels if you are new to the area, even if they mean a longer passage. Whilst it is preferable to try and cross on a rising tide that isn’t going to work if you are heading north as a favourable tide will be ebbing.
How to deal with obstacles sailing around Britain and Ireland
Windfarms are an obstacle but they are patrolled by safety boats who will intervene if they are not happy with your course. You can also expect to encounter high-speed craft running service engineers back and forth, particularly from Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth.
Further north there are oil and gas platforms to add to the mix. Some are in build and not even fully charted. There are also thousands of lobster pots, notably off Arbroath and Gourdon. They are a major hazard all around the UK, particularly when they are not flagged and they get towed under by a strong tide. It only takes one to ruin your day, your cutlass bearing, or even your engine mounts!
The Orkney and Shetland islands are cruising grounds in their own right. They have ancient archaeological sites, and were the centres of huge naval activity during both world wars. They are low lying though, with less shelter, and are subject to much stronger winds.
The Broch of Mousa and the Out Skerries are well worth a visit, and Stromness, Kirkwall and Lerwick are all charming little towns. If you want to
claim you have truly circumnavigated the UK you will have to leave not only Muckle Flugga but also the off-lying Out Stack, north of Unst, to the south and the spectacular St Kilda to the east.
Across the top of Scotland the Kyle of Tongue and Loch Eriboll can provide shelter before or after rounding Cape Wrath. If the weather has been unsettled then the divert option of the Caledonian Canal is a useful and interesting alternative for getting between the Scottish east and west coasts, but strong winds funnel down it.
The further north you go the more self-sufficient you need to be, with adequate ground tackle, but a well-found boat with a competent crew can spend many happy weeks cruising around our amazingly varied coastline. You can return home with scenic photographs, a great sense of achievement and a promise to yourselves to do it all over again next year.
Planning your sail around Britain and Ireland
The main ports and harbours on our chart have been selected for offering all-weather, 24-hour deep-water access for small craft and some yacht facilities. There are many others that could be included, though many may not be safe at LW or in strong onshore winds and are not included on the chart.
On the Forth, Edinburgh has no facility for visiting yachts at all, and Port Edgar Marina is very shoal, though the mud is very soft. Fife’s East Neuk has no deep water harbours and the Tay is short of good yacht facilities. Yachts are actively discouraged from entering Aberdeen.
The entrances to Wick and Whitehills (North Scotland) both have 90º turns to port, and Ballycastle, Northern Ireland, has a turn of 180º. All are dangerous in strong onshore winds.
Wicklow, Irish Sea, is safe to enter but has no pontoons; you can lie on the wall. Arklow, also in the Irish Sea, can be dangerous in onshore winds; the marina is tiny. There is a long pontoon outside but turning is constrained by yachts on trots. The first marina to port is full of local yachts but might accommodate you on the wall in extremis.
Harbours on the Isle of Man are constrained by locks.
Weather sites, Apps and info
- PassageWeather.com – seven-day predictions, global coverage
- XCWeather (iOS and Android)
- Windguru.cz is useful for comparing predictions for all the relevant weather models in your area, giving you some confidence if they all agree in their predictions
- Predictwind.com is for inshore and coastal use on any device. The Offshore version is for ocean crossings and has satellite communications
- iGrib (iOS) only for Grib files (GRidded Binary) for downloading Grib files for specific areas
- Met Office. Its Inshore Waters forecasts are particularly useful for coastal-hopping
- yr.no is hosted by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation in collaboration with the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, and covers the Shetlands very well
- Savvy-navvy.com has charts, tides, wind and weather information
- Windy.app (the blue version) only available on iOS and watch OS
- Marinecall by telephone: +44(0)845 610 1800 to talk to a weathercaster
- www.met.ie the Irish met office. Useful sources of information
- Captains’ Mate App, CA
- Imray Explore App
- Royal Cruising Club
- Pilotage Foundation
- Reeds Nautical Almanac
- Reeds Nautical Almanac (Bloomsbury) for useful passage notes
- Crossing the Thames Estuary, Roger Gaspar (Imray)
- UK and Ireland Circumnavigator’s Guide, Sam Steele (Adlard Coles)
- Imray offers the most useful set for yachtsmen, but you’ll need individual charts as the chart packs do not cover the whole coast
- For an overview of the entire British Isles use Admiralty Chart INT 160
- Admiralty Leisure Craft Folios cover everywhere except the west coast of Ireland, the Orkneys, Shetlands and the Sutherland and Caithness coasts
- Antares charts – created by and personally surveyed by Bob Bradfield, these highly detailed large-scale charts are for the nooks and crannies of the west coast of Scotland
- Navionics Boating App (UK, Ireland and Holland)
Sources of data with different providers are useful in filling in each other’s blank spots. I have O2 on my mobile phone and an EE Sim card in a 4G mobile data unit and between them we had good coverage around the UK.
Note: We may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site, at no extra cost to you. This doesn’t affect our editorial independence.
Pick up a copy of Sail the British Isles book from Yachting Monthly
From the makers of Yachting Monthly comes this essential guide to sailing around the UK and Ireland. Every iconic location in the British Isles is covered here, from peaceful ports like Dartmouth to sailing hotspots such as the Isle Of Wight. Perfect for planning a long weekend getaway or an ambitious break on the waves, Sail The British Isles is perfect for any boating enthusiast who is itching to discover their next adventure.
Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.