Going with, and against, the tide

Sunday I crossed from Lough Swilly to Islay and was re-introduced to the challenges of serious tidal races–tides on the western coast of Ireland are not funnelled into narrow passes and so streams tend to be mild. Not so on the north coast or around the Western Isles of Scotland.

The wind had continued through most of Saturday, accompanied by heavy rain. Since Coral was lying to the tide and across the wind the rain wanted to blow down the companionway, so I had to shut everything up and stay below, waiting for the heaving around to stop. Then quite suddenly on Saturday afternoon there was a lull, one more heavy squall, and the quiet. The wind dropped, the rain fell back to a dribble then petered out, and slowly the sky cleared. Waves were still rolling down the Lough and coming round the headland to slop Coral around, but no longer were the tops blown off by the wind. But I was surprised to learn from Shipping Forecast that with little wind the seas tomorrow would be “moderate, becoming slight.” As I was bit fed up with staring at the same transit lines to make sure Coral wasn’t moving, I decided that if a favourable forecast was repeated in the early morning, I would leave to cross to Islay. It was.

I set off just after six in the early morning gloom, motoring toward Malin Head, watching the clouds over the hillside gradually clear, hanging around wispily in the gullies as the sun rose behind them. Malin Head can be a difficult headland, particularly when the wind blows against a big swell. The tides are complex in the Sound off the head, running between the Inishtrahull island and the mainland, and through the Gavan Islands. I had poured over the tidal diagrams in the pilot book as I attempted to get the pattern into my head, so I was pleased that I had got the timing just right, and was carried along east and north by a current of around four knots. It is a great feeling to catch the tide right and be carried fast where you want to go!

Once through the sound I set a course for Islay, now 35 miles north and east. With little wind I kept the engine running to complement the sails and had a lovely sail in sunshine and quiet seas through the day, making much better time than I expected.

But I was so busy being pleased with myself for getting the tides round Malin right, and so much enjoying the sunshine and Coral’s canter through the waves, that I forgot to think hard enough about the tides at the other end, around the Oa of Islay. I had worked out that they would turn north in the early evening. I was arriving late afternoon. It was springs and close the the equinox.

As we got closer to the Oa–which is a spectacular cliff formation up to 200 metres high–I realised that for all her cantering through the water, Coral was making little progress forward–six knots through the water but only three over the ground. “Too close to the headland,” I decided, and changed course to pass more offshore. But I had sadly underestimated the strength of the stream, which not only held Coral back but took her westward toward the shoreline and into the strongest current.

The sea showed all the signs of a tidal race: short, sharp waves; some tumbling over each other in whitecaps; patches of eerily calm where the water swelled up from deep below; undercurrents that seized Coral but the keel and swung her so off course, then lurched her back in the other direction. I knew races like this from north Brittany. What to do? I could retreat out to sea and wait for the tide to change, and would have done so in heavy weather. But in these calm conditions I could continue to make headway.

With the engine running at maximum revs, and the sails now able to take advantage of a freshening breeze from the east, I got Coral sailing at nearly eight knots through the water. But as I watched the coast, we were only creeping round. Slowly the coastline changed: distant headlands disappeared behind nearer ones; the coast head slowly unfolded. At times the GPS showed us we were only making two knots over the ground. But bit by bit, we made it through. The sharp white column of the lighthouse at Port Ellen came into view; the stream slacked, and it was no trouble to pick up the leading line and then the buoys that mark the entrance to the harbour.

Of course, I should have known. Of course, I should have checked my calculations. Of course, the pleasant weather after the gales lulled me into complacency. There has to be a bit a mea culpa in this account. I should have known better. Going faster can mess up your passage plan as much as going slower. But the shift from managing the Atlantic swell on the west coast of Ireland to these inter-island tidal races is extreme. It is not one you can just think about, it needs to be experienced directly. It is as if the sea was telling me, “This is what it is like around here,” offering a lesson that I need to heed as I continue north.


  1. stephenreneaux@aol.com says:

    Thank you Peter, gripping stuff – and very honest!

    Take care,


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