A cruise on the Shannon in 1995

Map of Ireland  Eyles familyA few years ago a group of OCSG members from Cumbria cruised on the river Shannon. There were nine of us; seven adults and two children, four canoes plus sailing rigs, camping gear, clothes and food packed into two cars for the journey, crossing on the HSS from Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire.

The trip was Kevin Leahy's inspiration; his Irish heritage gave him an affinity with the people of Ireland, their music and especially their Guinness. Cruising rather than racing was always his main interest and in the company of friends, he thought there was no better way of spending a holiday than combining all the things you most enjoy! The rest of us had done enough family holiday cruising to look forward to this longer trip and the chance to see a different country with large stretches of inland water. The Shannon has 170 miles of navigable river and loughs. Lough Derg is 35 miles long and 5 miles wide in places.

John and Janet Eyles with Charlotte their daughter sailed a Reynard Cruiser (just less than 17 ft long) with a 5 ft outrigger, set 4 ft out from the centre of the boat which gave them a great deal of added stability. They steered by means of a side mounted rudder and there were two small buoyancy tanks in each end of the hull with hatches which provided small dry storage spaces. Their rig was one of John Bull's Solway Dory cruiser rigs with roller reefing, which was very versatile in the strong winds we encountered. Since the trip they have made some major alterations to both the canoe and the rig. They have done away with the outrigger, removed the thwarts and stretched the beam of the canoe to 38 inches. They now have a ketch rig with two masts, a main and mizzen, both of which have roller reefing.

Dave Stubbs & Oliver PoskittDave Stubbs has a 17 ft clinker ply canoe that he built himself. He said, "It is decked over 6 ft at the bow and 4 ft at the stern with hatches in each deck. All my gear was carried in these hatches and I found this really reassuring in case of a capsize. I have two side buoyancy tanks, built into the canoe and these allow me to right the canoe virtually dry after a capsize having first pulled out the mast. It only takes a few seconds to be back into a dry boat. I have twin asymmetrical bilge boards, fitted through casings attached to the inside of the buoyancy tanks. These are less in the way when sitting out or paddling and are much drier than leeboards which used to throw water in over the side when the boat was heeled over. My sail was a fully battened Burmudan on a track with two sets of reef points giving 44, 32 and 26 sq ft. This worked well most of the time but I wished I had a deeper reef for running in a force 5 to 6".

Kevin & Jenny LeaheyKevin and Jenny Leahey said, "Our boat is a Selway Fisher Wren, length 16 ft, beam 3 ft, built from a kit supplied by Tyrone Boats, Northern Ireland and then kitted out for sailing. It has two side and two end buoyancy bags. The sailing rig is a ketch rig with a mizzen half the size of the main, 30 sq ft main and 14 sq ft mizzen carrying American sprit booms. Because of its low centre of effort it is very good in wind but unresponsive in still air, however we find that it is well worth the compromise".

Strip planked Prospector


We (Dave, Jan and Oliver Poskitt) sailed our own boat; a strip planked Chestnut Prospector, which we built with a friend a few years ago. The rig is a balanced lugsail with a bamboo yard and boom and a shortened windsurfer mast. The sail has two full-length battens and two lines of reef points. We steer with a rudder and push pull tiller. We use side buoyancy bags and no end bags. Dave uses twin leeboards for racing but these are very much in the way for cruising so for this trip we fitted an offset daggerboard case over against the port buoyancy bag. This was a good compromise for cruising; although it was not as efficient as a central daggerboard, it didn't get in the way of gear storage. It was lighter and less complicated than twin bilgeboards though not as efficient to windward. It was also much lighter and simpler and had fewer bits to lose than the twin leeboards and didn't get in the way of paddling. The boat behaved very well even though we were so heavily laden. (I was constantly amazed at how little stuff everyone else seemed to have!)

We sometimes felt as though we were over canvassed when running on the river in strong winds as you can tell from the picture! A small jib (10 sq ft perhaps) would have been a nice alternative to the fully reefed mainsail. We were so impressed with Kevin's mizzen that we also plan to fit one of about 10 to 15 sq ft. It would be really good to be able to stop with the boat head to wind especially when hoisting or lowering the mainsail. For most of the trip we sat in normal paddling positions in the ends of the boat to allow room for storage in the middle, however when we did move to the centre with gear in the ends, it greatly increased the feeling of security.

Shannon mapWe planned to begin at Killaloe at the south end of Lough Derg, sailing northwards with the prevailing wind. Our concern about where to launch and leave the vehicles evaporated as we found we could use the wooden jetties at the marina and leave the cars free of charge in their compound. While we were preparing to go, a gentleman, who was restoring a Rob Roy canoe took an interest in our boats. This set the scene for the trip; all along the way we met with hospitality and interest in what we were doing.

After careful packing, at last we were on the water. It was a cautious start until we became used to the feel of the heavily laden canoes and sailed an enjoyable first leg in rapidly freshening conditions, towards Lough Derg. At teatime, as we were getting hungry, we found a grassy meadow amongst the reeds to make camp. After some initial misunderstandings, the farmer even moved his bullocks but we were never sure if it was for our benefit or for their safety! A tot of whisky, strains from Kevin's harmonica and wonderfully quiet evening, rounded off the day nicely.

We woke on the second day to wet and windy weather. Showers and squalls were coming over from the west all day with small interludes of bright sunshine. The morning was chilly so packing up and loading was brisk and we were soon away, paddling hopefully, some with masts up in expectation. As the waves steadily increased and paddling became more strenuous all the masts came down and it was quite an effort to keep the heavy canoes heading into the squalls. It would have been nice to have gone as far as Holy Island, two miles northwest of Aughinish Point, but rounding the headland we realized how exposed we would be crossing Scarriff Bay in this strong westerly wind. Instead we hopped round the corner into a sheltered bay for an early lunch and to wait upon the weather. Some of us explored, Kevin and the children made bows and arrows (which later proved to be very useful) and the rest went to sleep. Eventually a lull tempted us out again but it was short-lived: the full force of the wind against us, and the choppy water made paddling very unpleasant. Janet's eagle eye spotted a perfect meadow for camping and so we decided to call it a day and hope for a better one tomorrow. The farmer's wife here gave us fresh, warm cows milk and informed us of the proximity of Guinness just up the hill. The whole group went merrily to bed that night in spite of the lack of progress. We had come only nine miles since Killaloe, but so what, this was a holiday!

Holy islandWe joined the tourists admiring the wonderful stone carvings of the monuments on Holy Island where the settlement dated from the 7th century.  The round tower on Holy island was the first of several round watchtowers that we saw, built by monks as places of refuge from Viking raiders. The door was 10 ft above the ground, making them virtually impregnable.

The strong wind, blowing force 5 at times, forced us to continue in short hops. From Holy Island there was a short run across to Mount Shannon, where from the harbour walls we could see white horses out on the lough. Stowing our masts and sails we resigned ourselves to paddling until we found another campsite.

gear for three peopleNext day, with a fresh north-westerly, we were optimistic about making more progress. It was cool so we were up and away by 9.15. Packing was getting more efficient as everyone became used to the routine of dismantling tents, stuffing bags and loading canoes.This is the impressively small and tidy pile of kit that the Eyles packed into their canoe each day, along with the three of them!

We reefed again, it was becoming a habit but with the wind still from the southwest we would be setting off on a beam reach close to the west shore of the lough. At last we were covering the distance and after a couple of hours decided that as we were going so well, we would continue across Coose Bay. It would be about four or five miles to the north shore and for a long windward crossing like this we were concerned about getting separated. We chose a prominent green patch on the far shore to aim for and set off. We need not have worried as all the canoes behaved well in the waves; Dave Stubbs and Oliver were skimming over them and keeping dry; the Eyles looked steady and safe with their outrigger and Kevin and Jenny got into their stride after a bit of bailing from the bow.

on the river bank at mid-dayAs we beached the boats at mid-day, the sky cleared and the sun came out to dry Jenny off!After a lazy lunch we set off with renewed vigour, happier now that the exposed stretch was over and we were really moving along. The lough narrowed at this point and we thought there was an advantage in sailing nearer to the east side because the river was in that direction.About two miles from the head of the lough Kevin and Jenny suddenly went ashore with a broken rudder. As we followed them we found ourselves on a very rocky lee shore with waves threatening to pound the boats. Kevin was able to fix his rudder temporarily while we considered what to do. 

On exploration we found we were only five hundred yards from a little harbour just round the point belonging to Gortmore Boat Club. A tentative enquiry led to an invitation to camp there. This hospitality along with the facilities was too much for us, we decided to stop. Besides we had had another good day and were content to leave the head of the lough until tomorrow.

The promise of better weather next day held good and after exchanging good wishes with our boat club friends, we set full sails for the short run across the bay to the river entrance. The following wind proved to be stronger than we had anticipated from the shelter of the harbour and we had to be careful as we approached the confines of the river. Our friends had given us information about where to get maps and which bridges were too low for our masts. The one at Portumna was too low, so after dropping the masts, we paddled along the canal towards the town. Leaving Kevin and John to mind the boats and to buy better maps at the Cruiser Hire Office, the rest of us walked the mile or so to the shops for fresh food supplies. Emerald Star produce a fold out navigation guide to the Shannon which was much more useful to us than the 4 inch to the mile OS map we had brought with us and it was pretty enough to put on the wall afterwards.

At six o'clock we reached Meelick Lock and were holding on to a nicely restored steel refueling vessel while locking through when her owners, Viv and Tim invited us on board for tea. Their friendliness and hospitality had to be seen to be believed and so did the inside of their boat! It was lovingly fitted out with varnished wood, brass and velvet. What impressed me were the matching red china mugs - enough for everyone. We made ourselves at home exchanging stories like old friends as the tea flowed from a huge blue teapot and plates of cakes and biscuits were eaten. So comfortable were we that one and a half hours passed before we got up to go. The evening had become perfectly still and calm so we paddled gently upstream to find an island where at last it was remote enough to build the campfire Oliver and Charlotte had been waiting for. Later that night round the fire we were tired but in good spirits after such a wonderful day.

Fending off the horsesThe horses that shared our island became bolder by morning, nibbling our tents while we took them down. This morning we packed the canoes while they were on the grass and then launched them down a muddy slipway into the river, this was much easier that wading knee deep into the water to load a floating canoe.

The very gusty northeast wind made beating to windward difficult in the narrow river with boats continually coming past. We could ignore most of them but there were one or two that did not seem to appreciate that we needed the whole river for tacking. We reached Banagher harbour for lunch after only a frustrating three miles. However, the wind veered behind us and increased with strong gusts making the afternoons sailing much more exciting. Even fully reefed it was pretty alarming and we were spilling wind at times; we decided that we needed a small storm-sail. Kevin with the mizzen on the main mast and John with his roller reefing were well under control. By 5 o'clock we had made up for our slow start and arrived at Shannon Bridge in search of a cup of tea. We were able to put up our tents in a field by the bridge and with Guinness and Irish music at the Village Tavern this was Kevin's perfect day.

Bank Holiday Monday in Ireland was wet and cold and anyway, after a week of sailing we needed a break and the weather gave us the opportunity. We showered, shopped and spent the day in the tents reading or sleeping. Next morning, after a very cold night it was still dull but dry and breezy from the northwest. We set off, reefed again, sometimes beating or close reaching following the winding river. The new maps made crewing more interesting and we were able to plan where to stop. Today we wanted to visit Clonmacnoise, the site of an ancient monastery and centre of Irish learning and craftsmanship, founded in the 6th century. Arriving by river we could appreciate why such a site was chosen; the prominent hillocks and ridges (Eskers, formed by retreating glaciers) give a natural vantage point over the surrounding low lying land. At first I was just grateful to get out of the wind for a bit, but as we walked round those ancient stone monuments, looked more closely at the fascinating carving and heard the story of the founder, St Finnian, the atmosphere began to have its affect on all of us. At any rate, that evening, the wind had died and we camped again on an island (Inchinalee); we were very quiet and as we sat watching the sky turn pink as the sun set.

We set off on Saturday morning with considerably reduced loads for an overnight camp. Dave Stubbs even left his tent behind, determined to try a traditional bivouac. By the afternoon we found our deserted island, except for goats, explored a little and made camp. There was a gentle offshore breeze and the canoes were still in the water, pulled a little way up the beach as we unloaded. I think I was the one to take out the last bag from our boat and we were all occupied in a fairly leisurely way when someone looked up realising that the Prospector was drifting away. There were shouts and a mad scramble for the remaining canoe as the two men paddled after it. It had gone a surprisingly long way in such a short time, drifting sideways to the wind at a rate of about 3 knots. Thank goodness we were not alone or we might still be there!

After that, the two Daves sailed off again, not wanting to miss a moment of the warm sunshine and perfect light breezes while Oliver and I sunbathed and collected wood for the evening fire. Later we cooked sausages, onions and eggs and ate them with lots of bread. It didn't rain so Dave stayed warm and dry overnight in his bivouac and the fire stayed in; we stirred up the ashes and had toast for breakfast. This was our last day; it was overcast, cool and breezy so we decided to visit the sailing club before going back to the campsite. As we approached the river we caught sight of three distinctive little sails; the others had the same idea. By now the Regatta had finished and most boats had gone but there were two permanently moored barges that were quite big enough to live on board in style. One of the owners came over for a chat and Kevin bought a copy of "Silver and Green" from him, a book about an Englishman's journey on the Shannon in 1945. After lunch and a long laze in the sunshine we set off for afternoon tea at a popular spot called Hodson Bay. There was a last exciting reach back to the campsite where the waves, hitting us broadside on, were big enough to slop into our canoe. The others had sensibly kept to the shoreline for a more comfortable ride.

Camping at sunset


Later, celebrating our last evening together over a wonderful meal in an Italian restaurant, everyone was enjoying themselves in their own way. The trip had been like that; even though we had different tastes and did not enjoy the same things we all had our favourite moments and we will go back again one day to finish the trip.