Ireland's Inland Waterways Explored
A vacation on the inland waterways of Ireland can be everything - from relaxing to adventurous. From extremely comfortable to Spartan. From an exercise in splendid solitude to a cruise from pub to pub. It is whatever you make of it.
It might not be a vacation for everyone ... if you need the hustle and bustle of the city, the sound of traffic to help you sleep at night, then you won't like your time on a boat. If you need to see "all of Ireland" (usually meaning the highlights found in even the most basic travel guide), you might be better off renting a car. And if your kids have to be surgically separated from their video games and smartphones, they might find the whole exercise of slow travel on Shannon, Erne, Barrow or the canals ... very slow going.
But if you like the idea of the sound of waves gently lapping the boat while you drift off to sleep ... of seeing the milky way in all its glory without any lights interfering with your night vision ... of simply casting off in the morning and slowly making your way to wherever the boat takes you ... of spending quality time outside your normal reference frame ... than you will be absolutely taken in.
On the following pages you will find information that will help you along the way ...
Basic Facts About Cruising on Ireland's Inland Waterways
Taking a self-guided cruise on Ireland's inland waterways may sound like fun - but is it manageable for somebody with only basic (or even no) maritime experience? The short answer: yes, it is. But here are some questions you might ask yourself when leafing through brochures or surfing the web:
Do I Need Experience to Cruise on Ireland's Inland Waterways?
This is the first question usually asked - is it necessary to be a proficient navigator to do this? Not really. In fact you may head for Ireland from the deserts of New Mexico and be "captain" of your own boat within hours of arrival.
Except for certain age requirements (you have to be an adult), there are no pre-requisites to hiring and using a cruiser on the inland waterways. You need no license and no prior experience.
Isn't that ... well ... Dangerous?
Should you now wonder how people manage not to sink their boats, ram them into the nearest harbour wall or head off in Sinbad's footsteps (or rather wake) ... the company hiring you the boat (typically on a weekly basis) will provide an introduction to the technology and basic handling of the boat.
This may not be equivalent to the training given to people commanding aircraft carriers, but it will generally be enough to see you safely there and back again. With a bit of common sense and a "softly, softly" approach to things.
In addition it is worth noting that typical cruisers are not high-powered speedboats and that their handling is not very much different from the handling of a car.
So, if I can Drive a Car I Should be OK?
With the exception of brakes - there are none on a boat and you will have to learn how to slow down in time or use the reverse to stop. This all sounds more complicated than it is. Expect to bump into the odd obstacle anyway, most boats are carrying a huge number of fenders for this reason.
And here you learn your first nautical term: a fender is that bulky thing hanging on the side, more than often an air-filled ball, that will take the brunt of a bump.
So, Cruising is a Carefree Thing?
Yes and no - as you will be the master of your own boat, you'll also be the navigator, purser, cook and cabin boy (or girl). Which means that if you are too carefree, you may run into problems sooner or later.
The most important things to actually remember are
- to stock up on fuel and provisions early,
- how to tie a decent knot,
- how to handle the locks (if using canals),
- the dimensions of the boat and how they relate to depth markers and markers on bridges,
- where not to venture (some areas may look tempting but are off-limits for very good reasons),
- how to get weather information,
- when, how and where to fill the fuel and freshwater tanks,
- when, how and where to empty the septic tank,
- how to prepare for an overnight stop and
- what to do and who to call in an emergency.
Again, you will be given instructions on all of these before you sail (or rather motor) off into the blue yonder. If not - ask! And make sure that you are well provided with maps.
What Can I Expect from a Boat?
The owner or his representative will show you around the boat, the layout of which generally resembles a RV.
Beds (on larger boats there may be separate cabins) are used for sleeping and double as day furniture. The cruiser will have a toilet, small bathroom and pantry area. The actual controls are mostly in the main cabin, larger boats will have a "bridge" area (often doubling as a "living room", some even have an even higher "fly bridge" open to the elements.
Naturally space is at a premium, and so is privacy - cruising vacations are for very good friends or families only. Have a look at some of the typical boat sizes on Ireland's inland waterways here ...
There are disadvantage to the compact size - boarding a boat can be a daunting task at first, moving about on a boat often requires the ability to squeeze through tight spaces while the earth moves (it doesn't - the boat gently rocks). You do not have to be a circus artist, but you will have to get used to the physics and physical layout.
Do I Need "Sea Legs"?
Glad you asked - the risk of seasickness on cruisers is minimal. Though you might like to invest into some over-the-counter medication or natural remedies if you are prone to travel sickness anyway.
I am Flying to Ireland - How do I Get to the Boat?
Boats need water, planes need runways - and in most cases there is a considerable distance between the two. Most boat hire companies are (naturally) located near the inland waterways. These are not located near the main airports of Ireland.
Some sort of transfer will have to be arranged - with a rental car being the least desirable option. Why? Because you will have to pay for either a costly pick-up after abandoning the car at the marina ... or have to pay a rental fee for having the car waiting for your return.
Most cruiser operators will be willing and able to arrange transfers for you. Most of these take the form of a bus picking up a group of passengers ... which may mean some delay between touchdown and actually leaving the airport.
What is the Best Season for Cruising on Ireland's Inland Waterways?
The main season for cruising on the inland waterways of Ireland is from roughly Easter to September.
Outside this season bargains will be found easier and not all companies are fully booked months in advance. The mild climate and fairly stable weather of Ireland are well-known, so why not take a cruise outside the main season? You will have more peace and quiet, less waiting at locks, no noisy neighbours at the marina.
On the other hand you may have to heat the boat, pushing energy costs up. And not all supply stations may be open. Daylight will be shorter in supply, fogs are more likely and even some ice may form. Also bear in mind that you will more than likely get wet and cold occasionally.
If this does not detract from your idea of a good time, go for it!
Irish Waterways Cruising - the Ideal Holiday for You?
Before you book a vacation cruising on Ireland's inland waterways, you might want to ask yourself - is this a vacation style for me at all?
If you are an outdoor-sy type and have some trips camping or in a RV under your belt, it would be easier to say "Yeah, sure, go ahead!" Rental boats in Ireland are, all in all basic but comfortable.
But if your holiday style tends to be more sedate or if the word "cruising" conjures up images of all-inclusive luxury, you might want to take a reality check here. To be honest - cruising on a rental boat might not be for everyone. There are some considerations to take into account before to commit to this vacation idea. Let us take a look at the pros and cons first ...
The main pros for a cruising vacation on the Irish inland waterways are:
- You are totally independent of any schedules and can make your own plans.
- You are truly (and literally) off the beaten track most of the time.
- You get to see some of the parts of Ireland that are only accessible by boat.
- Cruising means self-catering and thus can save money.
- You can enjoy undisturbed peace and quiet for long stretches of time.
- You will enjoy the immediate, unfiltered communication with Ireland's nature.
- Your cruiser is your own space, your personal fiefdom without outside intrusion.
On the other side there are some cons:
- You will have to work out your own schedule, taking things like service stops and secure overnight mooring into account.
- You will encounter the occasional crowds of cruising enthusiasts and even run into "traffic jams" at some locks and service areas - the Shannon-Erne Waterway for instance can feel like a downtown communte at times, only with better vistas.
- Unless you hike or take a taxi, you will not see anything but the immediate environs of the inland waterways - which might become frustrating.
- Some shops within easy reach of the inland waterways demand outrages prices even for basic foods.
- You will be very alone and totally left to your own devices occasionally.
- You will not be able to escape the elements.
- You are confined to your cruiser and the absence of maids and other personnel will mean that you not only have to fill water and diesel tanks, but also to empty the septic tank.
If you compare the pros to the cons you will notice that, basically, they are always two sides of the same coin - ultimately you will have to decide which side is "your side".
Now to another consideration ... who are you travelling with? Enthusiasts will tell you that cruising is a holiday for everyone - is this true? No! There are some special considerations, even if you do not aim to check off all the best sights of Ireland:
- Families with Children
A cruising vacation can be the ultimate family getaway. You will be spending lots of quality time together and kids might try new skills and hobbies, from observing nature to operating a lock (under adult supervision). Or enjoying a fish supper right through from baiting the hook to biting into the sizzling fresh salmon.
But you will have to make your young ones aware that there will be no stops at Chucky Cheese's, just a few TV channels (if at all), no Playstations (unless you bring a ton of batteries), no mall and certainly no long phone-calls to friends at home (unless you are prepared for gigantic bills).
And you will have to be prepared to spend time 24/7 together in confined space. High-maintenance teenagers and their parents might not be ideal candidates for a cruising vacation. Other families are bound to enjoy it with a little preparation and consideration. Bring lots of games and reading matter.
The easy, naturally flowing style of a cruising trip should apply to seniors who are looking for some different time out. And who are prepared for some outdoor discomforts. Judging from the amount of people aged over 50 to be found on boats every summer this must be the ideal holiday.
You will, however, have to be reasonably mobile (you have to negotiate the tight confines of the boat, disembark at moorings and work locks) and should not have any medical condition that might make immediate intervention necessary and likely - if you are living with a well-controlled condition you should be okay).
"Just us two on a boat, romantic long sunsets, no neighbours ..." Yes, it sounds like the perfect honeymoon. With loads of quality time involving just the two of you.
On the other hand cooking for yourself, shopping for supplies, keeping the boat reasonably habitable sounds like a trial run for married life at home. If your idea of a honeymoon includes loads of pampering, do not consider a cruising vacation, you'll have to pamper yourself.
And always bear one thing in mind - cruisers advertised for couples are not generally known for luxurious sleeping quarters and king-size beds. My advice would be to combine a week on a cruiser with some nights in an excellent hotel for a honeymoon with a difference.
Shannon, Erne, and Other Navigations on Ireland's Inland Waterways
There are several possibilities to enjoy a cruising vacation in Ireland - and most of these are connected.
But a word of caution: when waterways are connected, it does not necessarily mean that you can actually use these connection when cruising. At least not on a hired boat. Irish boat rental companies, both in the Republic and in Northern Ireland, will generally rent out a cruiser on the condition that it is used only in a predefined area.
Most will provide a boat suitable for and cleared to be used on the Shannon or Lough Erne. The Shannon-Erne Waterway (SEW) connects those two large bodies of water and all three (Shannon, Erne and SEW) are considered as a safe zone.
But the Grand and Royal Canal, both connected to the Shannon, will generally be off-limits.
Even though, do not worry ... there is enough to see and a typical trip will see you running out of time before you run out of corners to explore.
The main locations for cruising are as follows:
- The Shannon Navigation
Basically a complex network of lakes and rivers with some canals added, "the Shannon" (as most people call it for short) offers seemingly endless routes and a number of high- profile attractions like Clonmacnoise right next to the water. The Shannon has its humble origin in the Shannon Pot, the navigation proper starts in Lough Allen and finally ends in the Shannon Estuary below Limerick. Rental boats will have to stop well above Limerick, though, Killaloe and Ballina are the limit.
The Shannon Navigation is linked to the Grand Canal near Banagher, to the Royal Canal at Richmond Harbour, and to the Shannon-Erne Waterway near Leitrim. All parts of the Shannon Navigation are in the Republic of Ireland.
- The Erne Navigation
This second major navigation, often simply (but wrongly) called "Lough Erne", mainly consists of the River Erne and Upper as well as Lower Lough Erne between Belturbet and Belleek, with the town of Enniskillen marking the connection between the two (note that the lower portion of Lough Erne is actually the upper one on your map - this is due to the naming after the flow of the waters).
There is no connection to Donegal Bay and the Atlantic any more, but a connection to Dublin (via the Shannon-Erne Waterway, the Shannon Navigation and the Royal or Grand Canal) would be possible. Most parts of the Erne Navigation are in Northern Ireland, only the very southern end reaching into the Republic of Ireland.
The Erne Navigation is ideal for first-time boaters in that it only sports one lock (at Enniskillen ... and even this is open most of the time) - on the other hand both parts of Lough Erne can have challenging conditions in bad weather.
- The Shannon-Erne Waterway
This system of lakes, rivers and canals connects the Shannon and Erne Navigations between Leitrim and Aghalane, using no less than sixteen locks over just forty miles. "Fast progress" is not a term used here and you might find yourself joining a caravan of boats in high season.
- The Grand Canal
The Grand Canal connects Dublin's Southside with Ballinasloe and is, in theory, navigable up to the Shannon near Banagher. At the Dublin end sea locks open into the Liffey and Dublin Bay, though the Grand Canal Docks are "end of the line" for most boats.
- The Royal Canal
Running between Dublin's Northside (once providing the water for Jameson's Whiskey via the Blessington Street Basin) and Richmond Harbour on the Shannon, the Royal Canal is, again in theory, fully navigable. On the Dublin side access from the Liffey depends on the tides (the sea lock not having been restored). There is also the none-too-minor problem of a very low rail bridge in the Dublin Docklands that is only opened on very rare occasions ... and will prohibit passage by all but extreme low boats.
- The Barrow Navigation
A lesser known but highly attractive area to cruise on, running between the Grand Canal and New Ross. The Barrow can be extremely shallow in summer.
There has been extensive talk about bringing the Ulster Canal back into use - this project seems to have entered hibernation (and might be considered cancelled until further notice) since the economic downturn of 2008. Currently the ways alongside the Ulster Canal are being redeveloped for walking and cycling, a much more affordable and sensible project.
One also has to mention Lough Neagh here - there is a lot of boating activity on Ireland's largest inland body of water, but this is not for amateurs. To all intents and purposes Lough Neagh can be regarded as "open water", not an easily navigable inland waterway, and thus is not a free-for-all.
A Typical Day on Ireland's Inland Waterways
On Ireland's inland waterways, on a boat in general, there is no such thing as a "typical day". Because when you are spending your self-guided vacation on a cruiser, in whichever region of the Irish waterways system, there simply will be no fixed time for anything (exceptions being the times to pick up and hand back the boat, obviously). And even the best laid plans of men and mice tend to be influenced by the weather, the wind, the available spaces at marinas.
But let us go through what could be described as the norm.
Unless you are rudely awakened by inconsiderate neighbours or ducks clamouring for a treat, you get up when you want to. Mind you, the neighbours do not have to be inconsiderate or downright rude to get you out of bed. At many marinas in high season boats will have to share berthing places overnight. So if you are tied together and one wants to leave, the other will be jolted. What is more ... if your own boat is not secured to the marina itself, you'll really want to make sure you are tied up safely before heading back to your lie-in.
After that ... breakfast. And then you are okay to head off with the cabin in any state of disarray you like (or can just about bear). This is a self-catering journey, no maid, no cook, no room-service. On the other hand you'll want to have your more delicate stuff safely stowed away before you start the engines ... spilled milk in a tiny cabin is a recipe for olfactory disaster.
Mentioning "starting the engine" - you'll also have to check the basics. Which would be fuel, fresh water and the state of your waste water tank. Fill the first two up if you need to (and it is always a good idea to head off with the fresh water tank full, the diesel tank at least half full). And empty your waste water tank if it starts to fill up - you really do not want to have this backing up on you.
Depending on your interests a "typical" day will then be spent ... just cruising on a lake, maybe trying to catch some fish for dinner, maybe mooring somewhere to stretch your legs on land and explore the vicinity. You can do this on any lake. But if you really want to go places, you might consider heading for the rivers and canals that connect the lakes.
On these you may have to make your way through some locks. Always check when these locks are actually in operation. And do tend to come early - nothing worse than a traffic jam of a dozen or more boats and the lock-keeper going on lunch break. Or home.
If you are heading for an attraction like Inis Rath, Devenish Island, Clonmacnoise or Athlone Castle, do check opening times as well. And be aware that others will head here too and that convenient berthing places might be limited. And, what is more, the early bird does not always get the worm ... some other boaters might have stayed over night and will leave late, after touring the local attractions. So try to find a balance between too early (when the sleepover crowd is still there) and too late (when all the other boaters arrive).
Later you'll also have to find a place to spend the night - depending on your wishes and needs. Does your fuel need topping up? Do you want to spend the evening in a pub? Or can you face another night all alone, just you, your crew and the sunset (plus assorted midges and ... almost always ducks)?
Whatever you choose - the only constraints to all this are in your contract with the boat's owner. The most important obviously being the need to hand the boat back at it's base at an agreed date (and time). Trying to navigate sixty miles of waterways at full throttle to make it just in time is a very bad idea.
So essentially part of your day will be taken up with basic planning. Where and when to refuel, where to shop, what distance to cover and finally where to spend the next night.
By the way - getting into a sensible and safe position for the night is not just a matter of killing the engine and coasting to a halt. You'll need to be tied up safely, or anchored in a good position. And remember as well as beware: when darkness falls on the Irish inland waterways, around 95% of them are in utter darkness.
Trying to navigate by the stars is another bad idea.
How to Safely Enjoy Ireland's Inland Waterways on a Boat
Cruising on the Irish inland waterways may be regarded as one of the safest and most tranquil ways of enjoying a trip through Ireland. The wide expanses of the Shannon, the Erne and other popular waterways available, the relatively slow speeds the boats themselves are capable of and the generally good handling characteristics of the boats available for hire in Ireland minimize the risk of severe collisions.
But accidents do happen.
Fender-benders are par for the course (fenders on boats are the air-filled bumpers on the side, to lessen the effect of too-fast contact with other boats or walls and moorings). Take it slow and you'll be okay.
Also be on the look-out and consult your maps, another fairly regular accident happening is a boat running aground in shallow water.
Fires on board are relatively rare and can mostly be contained by automated systems or with on-board equipment, just take care with the kitchen appliances and heaters.
The most tragic and in all cases avoidable accidents are drownings. These are almost always due to the non-wearing of life jackets (when somebody accidentally falls overboard) or the whole "crew" jumping in for a swim without means to re-enter the boat. Having said that - death is a rarity on the inland waterways and far more tourists loose life and limb on dry land.
Crime is largely unknown on the inland waterways themselves, the sparse police presence is an indicator of this. But opportunistic crimes in harbours and at popular mooring places happens - boats are not very secure against a "smash and grab" raid while you are away, so don't leave any tempting valuables in sight. There also is an occasional problem with simple hooliganism along the inland waterways, stones thrown at boats from bridges for instance.
In case of emergency, help is generally a phone-call away ... but may take some time in arriving. Police and rescue boats are a rarity on the inland waterways, fireboats are unknown - so it would be wise to prevent accidents rather than having to call for help.
Safety precautions to bear in mind are, however, minimal:
- The wearing of personal floatation devices is advisable for kids at all time and for adults at least during mooring or the operation of the locks.
- Children should be made aware of all dangers and, at all times, be kept under fairly close supervision - going overboard while trying to pet a passing duck is not unknown. If a personal floatation device is worn, this usually results in nothing more than a fright, some swallowed water, a good wash and maybe some tears.
- The company you source your boat from will advise you of any waters that are off limits. Ignoring this advice is like driving a rental car from California into Mexico - it can be done, but you are not insured and breaking the contract.
- "Don't Drink and Drive" holds true for boats as well, refrain from alcohol when you are at the helm. Unfortunately the beer-guzzling "captain for a week" is a reality too often, with whole boats manned by whiskey-swigging bachelor parties running aground not unknown.
Common sense has to prevail on a boat.
If something looks dangerous, do not attempt it. If a storm brews, do not head for the middle of Lough Erne. If your fuel runs low, head for the nearest service station. And never, ever jump overboard for a refreshing swim before you have thought about how to get back onto the boat.
Your First Shannon Cruise Made Easy - an Itinerary
Ireland's main inland waterways are suitable for boating enthusiasts to explore - but the choice between the actual parts seems bewildering and many a traveller has been driven to extremes by the wish to see "everything".
Trust me, there is no joy in going full tilt boogie (well, as far as these comfortable, but rather docile boats can do that) down the Shannon or Erne, just to check off another attraction barely glimpsed.
No, holidaying on a cruiser is about having enough time to enjoy, about exploring, about relaxing. Not about the new world record. So keep calm and plan in small dimensions.
But how should the novice start? Well, by choosing the right boat and the right area, combined with the right time-frame. And my suggestion for two out of three would be the Shannon and a week. So here is a sample itinerary for such a holiday, assuming you start off with a boat in or around Athlone. Which is, more or less, in the middle of Ireland and in the middle of the Shannon waterway. So handy ...
Here is the travel suggestion for your first tour on the inland waterways of Ireland, day by day:
Day 1 - Arrival, Transfer, Checking In
On the first day, most travellers will arrive in Ireland (and most of these by plane, flying into either Dublin or Shannon airports). From here a transfer should have been arranged, in this case you'll be picked up by a coach and then driven to the marina.
Checking in then involves all the usual details - plus an introduction to the boat. Pay attention, you'll need to grasp the basics of boat handling before heading off!
After all this excitement you might want to simply lie down or, if you feel energetic, cast off and go. For a relaxed start, staying at the marina is an option. And there might still be shopping to do - unless you pre-ordered provisions (possible at many boat hire companies), you'll have to get at least the basics in. And stow away your belongings (not always that easy on a small boat). And so on.
Day 2 - Casting Off, Southbound
After a good night's rest and getting used to the boat, it is time to get used to handling the boat. Fire up the engine, head south and ... encounter your first lock in Athlone. A big lock, easily handled. But an important step in learning the ropes, so to say. Afterwards it'll be plain sailing.
By midday you should have reached the magnificent monastic settlement of Clonmacnoise, time to stretch your legs and explore this important medieval monument. Afterwards, continue south and head for Shannonbridge, where you stay for the night. You can do some shopping here or visit a pub. Then retire ...
Day 3 - Enjoying the Shannon
This day is given to leisurely exploring the Shannon, stopping now and then if you like. Continue south and in six easy hours you'll have reached Portumna, the next overnight stop with some facilities. Or enter Lough Derg and make fast at Terryglass.
And if you want less busy surroundings ... Castle Harbour west of Portumna has a castle nearby and a forest park with relaxing walks.
Day 4 - Take Your Pick (Well in Advance)
Now many boat hire companies offer one-way rental (at a price) ... and if you have this, you might simply want to explore Lough Derg for the next days.
If you have to return to Athlone, spend the fourth day cruising on Lough Derg and either go the whole way down to Killaloe (where, generally speaking, all cruisers have reached the southern limit of the Shannon waterway as defined by the hire conditions) or return to the berth at or near Portumna. Allow about seven hours to reach Kilaloe from Portumna. It is a long way even in favourable conditions.
Day 5 - The Long Way Back Starts
Your general direction at this moment should be north. You might want to cut it fine, you might want to have a relaxing cruise, but here are the facts - from Portmuna to Athone you will need eight hours at least, from Killaloe you should plan no less than 15 hours. Just about possible around the summer solstice. But a real challenge.
So split the way back into two, enjoy an easier pace and pick any of the marinas or other overnight spots on the way.
Day 6 - North of Athlone
By the end of the day you should have passed the lock at Athlone and reached Lough Ree. If you have allowed enough time, you might even cross the whole lake and arrive at Lanesborough for an overnight stay. To give you a ballpark figure - it'll be around three hours straight from Athlone to Laneborough, passing a lot of islands (so you need to be vigilant).
Day 7 - Exploring Lough Ree
Your last (full) day on your cruiser should be relaxing, wherever you spent the night. Head out onto Lough Ree, explore this huge body of water, enjoy the landscape, have a look for the Lough Ree Monster. And when evening draws near, slowly head towards Athlone again, maybe spending the last night moored in Hodson Bay.
Or, if your tastes are more urban, make for Athlone and enjoy the night-life of the town. It does not compare favourably with Paris, London or Rome, but there are a number of pubs and restaurants you might like to explore. And maybe Athlone Castle will make a good museum visit.
Day 8 - Good Bye
It is time to head for the boat hire company, to check out, to get your transfer to the airport, to fly home. Or to continue travelling in Ireland, whichever you choose. But your boating days are over.
For now, at least ... because many a visitor comes back for a second bite, maybe a third or fourth ... cruising seems to be quite addictive. And there are other rivers, lakes and canals to explore ...