Ireland's inland waterways, with that magical chemistry of water, nature and fresh air, are a beautiful way to see the country.
Unlike sailing on the sea, the scenery is constantly changing and there is so much to see that you might just spend all your vacation on board!
As you meander peacefully around river bends, along canals with their beautifully engineered bridges and locks and through beautiful lakes dotted with islands, the cares of the modern world can very easily just slip away.
You’re far too busy keeping an eye out for otters, the magical blue flash of a Kingfisher or that village pub you were in last year, the one owned by the beautiful older woman who is on first-name terms with half the writers, artists, musicians and judges in Ireland.
That of course is the attraction of inland waterways - you can sail for hundreds of miles but are never far from shore-side comforts.
More good news for the would-be boater is that you don’t need much in the way of experience nor do you need to own a boat. There are plenty of boat hire companies who will get you on the water in whatever level of luxury you desire, or can afford. They’ll also teach how to go boating safely and confidently.
The River Shannon
The River Shannon, the longest river in Ireland, is the backbone of Ireland’s inland waterway system and is navigable for over 120 miles.
Cruising these waters is one of those life-changing experiences that brings people back time and again. The Shannon has it all really – quiet backwaters, ancient monuments, fantastic fishing and scenery that will knock your socks off. It flows through lakes and around islands, passes busy towns and quiet villages all of which have their own particular charms and places of interest.
There is a special thrill in mooring up (that’s sailor’s talk for parking) at a waterside pub or restaurant, to enjoy good food and the company of like-minded people in some of the best pubs and restaurants in the country. The Shannon has many such establishments along its shores and these could in themselves be the making of a fine nautical/ gastronomic adventure.
The Shannon-Erne Waterway
The restoration of the 40 miles of river, lakes and canal that make up the Shannon-Erne Waterway was completed in 1994 and was for many reasons an historic event. It was one of the first ever cross- border projects and proved that people from both sides of the border could, working together, achieve great things.
The politicians from both sides looked ridiculous on the opening day as they posed for photos in pinstriped suits aboard holiday cruisers but the restored waterway is a huge success. It has brought business and people into rural areas that were literally dying of neglect.
For many boating enthusiasts Lough Erne is “the real thing”. It is navigable for about 50 miles from Belturbet in Co. Cavan right through to Belleek in Co. Fermanagh. The Upper Lough with its thousands of islands is serenely beautiful while the Lower Lough is fringed by mountains.
The major town en route is Enniskillen which is on an island in the channel between the two loughs.
The Grand Canal
The Grand Canal was built in the 18th century as a trade route between Dublin and the midlands and, via the Shannon and Barrow navigations, to the rest of the country. The first boat traveled its length of 84 miles in 1804.
Because the canal crosses the Bog of Allen it presented major challenges to its builders but they persevered and the canal remains as one of Ireland's greatest engineering achievements.
Useful Web sites for anyone interested in taking a break on the inland waterways in Ireland:
www.waterwaysireland.org ; http://www.iwai.ie/
Sailing Holidays in Ireland
“Thank God we’re surrounded by water,” is a famous line from the rebel song by Dominic Behan. “It’s a sure guarantee that one day we’ll be free,” it continues.
Well, Ireland is free now, still surrounded by water and has a rich tradition of seafaring both for pleasure and for profit.
The Irish coastline is dotted with small and often picturesque fishing harbors which have days been adapted to cater for the needs of the leisure sailing fraternity.
There are sailing clubs all around the Irish coastline and most offer sail training. The Irish Sailing Association (http://www.sailing.ie/inside/default.asp?pageId=75) is the best place to organise proper training in all types of boating.
Founded in 1720, The Royal Cork Yacht Club (http://www.royalcork.com/ ) is the oldest sailing club in the world. “Cork Week” is one of the major social and sporting occasions in the international sailing calendar. The famous Fastnet Race, from Cowes to the Fastnet Rock off the west Cork coast and back also attracts worldwide attention.
Sailing along the rugged Atlantic coast of the west of Ireland is a very special experience but not one to be taken lightly. Thousands of wrecked vessels along the seabed bear testament to just how fickle and changeable the weather can be. Safety is paramount at all times on and around the water.