Fall cruise from Mayo to Donegal. Part 1: Clew Bay to the Inishkeas

Departing Clew Bay on the morning tide.
(Click on photos to enlarge.)

Confused seas off Achill Head.
On a beautiful Thursday morning in mid-October, we departed from Clew Bay on the outgoing tide. High tide was at 8 am and we needed to get out early to make the 50-mile trip to the Inishkeas. The sky turned an amazing purple, with the morning sunrise breaking through heavily overcast skies. The weather in Ireland had been miserable all summer, but October proved spectacular. Very little rain, not too windy, and not too cold. This morning, the forecast was for clearing skies and light winds in the morning, with wind dying out in the afternoon.

Sun trying to break through.
We hoisted the sails and made our way out of Clew Bay on a flat grey backdrop. The wind was northeasterly instead of the forecast southeasterlies, which was fine coming out on a heading of due west, but not so fine when the direction of travel turned to northeast around the corner at Achillbeg.

I was at the helm until Achillbeg when I caught a chill and turned the helm over to Alex. He soon started the engine and began motor sailing around the corner while I went below to read and warm up a bit. I started feeling a bit queasy, which is unusual for me. Suddenly, a wave of nausea overtook me and I ran up on deck. 

Westerly swell a good 12 feet high.
As I looked around I was horrified at the sea state which had been quite calm inside the Bay. Out here, there was a large swell coming from the west, a second swell coming from the south, and a light wind whipping things around from the northeast. I have never seen more confused seas. The water was undulating every which way as we rode up up up and down down down on the big swell. Worse even, the swell was hitting the cliffs of Achill head and bouncing back out, which it always does out here, producing an easterly cross swell. It wasn't swell at all. 
Alex turning green off Achill Head.

I have said this before and I'll say it again, this is one of the most uncomfortable and treacherous places I've ever had the displeasure of sailing. Alex was turning green as well, so we both took seasickness tablets and let the autopilot do its job. The swell did not subside until we reached the lee of Inishkea South several hours later. Thankfully, the seasickness tabs did their job. Lunch consisted of a granola bar, a banana and Activia, all I could handle 'preparing' down below. 

Geese flying out from behind Inishkea South.
Our first sighting.
The wind died as predicted and we dropped the sails to prevent damage to the now wildly swinging booms despite being sheeted in with preventers attached. That's the drawback of motoring not sailing. When motoring, the hull is flat against the sea bouncing and slapping against the waves. When sailing, the hull is angled and slicing through the waves, a thoroughly more gentle and pleasant motion. Not today.

A side benefit of heading north was experiencing the stunning coasts of counties Mayo and Donegal with some of the tallest cliffs in all of Europe. It may be uncomfortable at times, but it is spectacular. At this time of year the lighting and the sunrises and sunsets are awe inspiring. As we anchored in the waters between Rusheen and Inishkea South where the swell was minimal, the skies turned blue and the sun came out, changing the mood dramatically.

Gorgeous sunset over the Inishkeas.
In the deserted Inishkea islands we discovered that the barnacle geese, thousands upon thousands of them, had just returned from their arctic breeding grounds. At first we just photographed them alighting over Inishkea South. We decided we were too tired to go ashore but we'd stay a second night to spend a day on Inishkea North the following day. In fact we were so exhausted after the day of being knocked around in the washing machine seas, that we had dinner, read a few pages and promptly fell asleep. Maybe it was the gentle rocking of the boat that did it.  It's always soothing to return to the cradle.
Dinghy landing on the beach.

The next day, we were greeted by a spectacular sunrise that lit the sky in crimson and orange fire. We donned hiking boots and prepared cameras and a picnic lunch for a field trip.  We intended to walk the parts of the island we had not yet explored -- mainly the far western shore. We launched the dinghy and made our way to the beach landing just as a small trawler came in towing a currach.  He anchored just off the beach and took the currach ashore with all manner of construction gear. We posited that he was restoring one of the ruined cottages but we didn't want to disturb him. 

Geese on machair landscape. Ducks and a swan on the pond.

The smaller gaggle of geese.
One of the larger gaggles of geese, estimated at 1000 strong.
Lead formation.
One of the largest gaggles of barnacle geese we witnessed.

A natural fissure on the north island.
We tried to be very quiet as we walked across the middle of the island.  We were hoping to come across geese grazing on the machair fields and we didn't want to startle them. The first we saw of them was on a ridge in the distance. It was like the ridge had a scalloped edge but it was moving ever so slightly. Sure enough, it was a flock of barnacle geese feeding on the ridge.  We made our way loosely in their direction, crouching low and walking along stone walls to remain unobtrusive. Suddenly, a huge flock lifted off from a field in the distance on the other side of the ridge. As the flew over the ridge, the flock on the ridge lifted off and joined them. They flew a circle over the island and settled in a new field not far from their original ground. They were here to stay. I estimated there were about 1000 geese in that flock alone. 

Alex being inconspicuous.
We walked quietly and startled a small group of geese in a small square walled field.  Then we noticed a flock feeding in the distance beyond a pond. In the pond was a group of ducks and a lone swan. We couldn't tell the species of duck from that distance, but the geese and the swan were unmistakable.

We managed to snap a few shots until the shutter click spooked the swan and he took flight. Alex caught his take-off on camera. With his ascent, the geese took off as well.  Again, I estimated there were about 1000 in the flock.  They flew out and then turned and flew directly overhead. We lay on the ground and clicked as they flew over us. 
Barnacle geese overhead.

Shortly after that, a third flock again 1000 strong took off from a field at the very tip of the island and did a circle again. As we were able to track the position of the three flocks, we knew they were distinct gaggles. Later that day, we spotted a fourth gaggle about half as large so our estimate for the day for the North Island alone was about 3500 geese. We'd never seen so many birds in one place at one time. 

We walked over to a sandy inlet surrounded by a rocky shore and heard a seal lamenting but could not spot him or any of his friends on the rocks. The swan was now swimming in the salt water inlet where a grey heron stalked stranded fish and crabs left behind by the outgoing tide. Tiny sandpipers flitted across the sand as a pair of curlew called overhead. A seal slid into the water and swam out the inlet alongside the swan. What a privilege to witness such a live show.
Swan taking off.

We stopped to photograph some of the remarkable archaeological remains of prehistoric, early Christian, and Norse settlements. The light was particularly good for photography. Then we stopped for lunch in the perfect spot with soft raised landscape to sit on facing a stony promontory leading out to sea. The sun was warm on our backs as we feasted on sandwiches, fruit and water.

Adding a stone to the offerings pile.

We managed to walk the circumference of the entire island despite both soles of my hiking boots parting from the rest of the shoes. All in all it was a very fine day.  One couldn't ask for more. 

Goose feathers everywhere.
The tide still had not come back in enough so we took off our shoes and rolled up our trousers. We carried the dinghy to the beach and pushed it out just over the swell. The dinghy ride back to the boat was uneventful. A kayaker passed us by and landed on Inishkea South. We noticed he had a tent pitched in one of the abandoned homes. We hadn't even known he was there the night before. 
Floats everywhere.

The workman from Inishkea North packed it in at 5 o'clock and soon after the light show began. The sunset punctuated the day with a brilliant display. The night was a most amazingly clear one with stars and galaxies visible in the blackness of a deserted island with no light emission but that glowing from the instruments on our boat that still remained on. The one thing that would have made it even more amazing -- an aurora borealis display -- did not appear that night. We'll save that one for another night in Donegal. 
One of the three Baileys.
The village is in the distance.
Carved slab in a church ruin dedicated to Colmcille.
Rather flat landscape with stunning views of the Belmullet peninsula.
Crosses in what appears to be a graveyard.
A dwelling and church ruin attributed to Columcille,
also known as St. Columba.
Beautifully carved slab.
A cross slab with typical base that incorporates white stone.
Lots of flotsam, too.
Beautiful sand beaches.
The deserted village.
The beach.
Aleria anchored off Rusheen which once had a whaling station.

Part 2: Inishkeas to Teelin and then on to Killybegs

Spectacular painted sunrise over Belmullet.


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