Canal Boating In Ireland

By Ann Dermody

Although I was raised in Ireland, I'd never seen the heartland of the country by boat. So, when a pretty significant birthday poked its way onto the calendar at the start of this year, a trip on the Shannon-Erne Waterway seemed like the perfect place to start the celebration.

If the map of Ireland were a human body, the River Shannon would be its spine, albeit a wiggly, slightly-left-of-center one. Running from Limerick estuary in the southwest, it's navigable all the way to Belleek (home of the basket-like white china) in the northwest, thanks to the opening of the Shannon-Erne Waterway almost two decades ago. The section I'd signed on for was Portumna to Carrick-on-Shannon, a 75-mile one-way trip with Le Boat — operating as Emerald Star in Ireland — with five locks and two lifting bridges, known as the Celtic Cruise. While 75 miles don't seem very far, the fastest these boats go is 5 or 6 knots, so if you space the week out, that translates to about three hours of cruising a day, giving you plenty of time to explore the surrounding countryside.

Photo of sailing down the Shannon-Erne Waterway

Virtually every village and small town you tie up in has a shop, a pub, a church, a restaurant or two, and something of historical significance — that will generally be something large, made of stone, and very, very old. With that in mind, you'll soon slow down and get into a pattern of contemplating the scenery while navigating, planning your next meal, what pub you'd like to visit, and which gigantic old stone you'd like to see next.

My crew for the first four days was all women — school and college friends I've known since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. None of them had spent any time on a boat, but they're a "have a go" well-traveled lot, so I wasn't unduly worried. Or at least I wasn't until one of them arrived on the dock for our Portumna departure in six-inch heels, and another had just had her hair cut and blow-dried. Needless to say the heels never saw the light of day after that first afternoon, and the hair has yet to recover. That didn't stop us from causing something of a stir in one of the marinas, however. The old dock master, after asking who was driving and realizing that I was, inquired, "Are there no lads onboard, then?" — but delivered in a charming Irish way as to be minimally patronizing. He escaped with a disdainful, "Well, we don't have to lift the boat over the locks, do we?"

The second leg of the trip, from Rooskey to Carrick-on-Shannon, I was joined by my sister and her three small children, Luke (7), Ivan (5), and Rachel (3), making for an altogether more hectic, but no less enjoyable, holiday. Overly briefed by my sister on how they'd have to listen to instruction, and wear their life jackets at all times, maybe even in bed, they spent much of their few days aboard giving military salutes and saying "aye aye, captain" whenever I spoke. The importance of monastic sites was quickly replaced by the proximity of playgrounds and pizza shops for this part of the journey, and the trip scored high on those markers, too, I'm happy to say.

This was my first time aboard as the official "captain." While I'd spent almost two years and 10,000 miles cruising through various parts of the U.S. and Central America with my late husband, I only occasionally docked the boat, and like many boaters, I suffer a bit from docking anxiety, particularly when there are other people's boats around to bounce off. But the mechanics and handling of these cruising barges are not something most people need concern themselves with, and the addition of a bow thruster makes things much simpler, too. The boats go very slowly and after a day, you'll be feeling pretty confident in your boat-handling skills. I wouldn't exactly say we were a polished crew by the end of the week, but we were certainly looking a lot slicker, despite a couple of surprising deviations: "No, Clare! You have to take the line with you when you jump off!"

The added good news (for those who are anxious) is that you'll rarely, if ever, have to reverse into a slip. Mostly you just come alongside at stone jetties or piers (what we like to call docks in Ireland). In the bigger towns like Athlone, or Carrick-on-Shannon, you'll bow in at the marinas. That all said, the very first day on the boat, we had to reverse into our slip at Banagher just as it was getting dark and it seemed as though every boat on the Shannon had arrived before us. There's probably good reason all the boats keep their fenders out at all times, even while underway.

While you really don't need to worry about docking ahead of time, feel free to work yourself into a panic about the Irish weather. The oft-touted saying, "If you don't like the weather in Ireland, just wait 10 minutes," is possibly the truest thing you'll ever hear. On one of our approaches to a lock, just as the lockkeeper turned the light green for us to proceed, the heavens erupted in a torrent of sheeting rain and wind. There wasn't time to switch to the inside steering station and avoid being pulled into the weir while doing it. Once in the lock, the rainstorm had turned into a bright warm sun and resplendent rainbow, and I noticed with some amusement that my left side was drenched while the right was bone dry. But that was really the extent of our rain while underway, and even if I'm somewhat biased, there really is nothing nicer than the Irish countryside under a sparkling sun after it's been freshened by a soft rain.

At 224 miles long, the River Shannon narrowly beats the Severn in the U.K. (which is 220 miles) for the title of longest river in the British Isles. It runs between or through more than a third of Ireland's counties, 11 in total. Because the Shannon is a river, not a canal, you can't anchor, except in the larger lakes like Lough Ree, where you'll need to watch the weather before attempting to cross.

There are other things on the river you'll have to watch out for, too, narrow parts of the channel where it's easy to go aground if you're too busy watching the heron that just landed in the rushes, and not your chart. For the most part, the markers on the Shannon are red and either black or green. Heading away from the sea (upriver), you keep the red markers to port. The black markers are currently being replaced by green ones by Waterways Ireland. The current is particularly swirly around low-lying stone bridges that are usually a couple of centuries old, and not forgiving in the slightest to noggins, even American ones in baseball hats. At one such bridge in Rooskey, the lockkeeper (who also bicycles up the half-mile or so to operate the lifting bridge) insisted we could go under without his having to open it, despite the glaring sticker beside the helm specifically saying our vessel needed this particular bridge open. "Ah, no, you'll be fine," he insisted. "Just remember to duck, and you'll be grand." Duck we did, and cleared it with several inches to spare. 

Ann Dermody is BoatUS Magazine's managing editor.

— Published: December 2012

Know Before You Go

For the Celtic Cruise, you can start in Portumna or Carrick-on-Shannon. If you're relying on public transport from one or the other, Carrick is probably easier to get to. In Carrick, the wonderfully efficient manager John Beirne and his friendly staff will be happy to help you arrange transportation, as will the equally friendly ones in Portumna. If you're using your own car and are on a one-way cruise, they'll drive it to your destination for a fee. To give yourself a head start, or if you'd like to practice a bit with the person doing your orientation, ask for an early checkout.

As you'd expect, castles abound. There are championship golf courses close to the waterways, ancient religious sites, and beautiful scenery. Best of all perhaps, in spite of what you might hear, the land of a thousand welcomes is still very much alive in the friendly locals you'll meet along the way. For more detailed highlights of each stop, see the rest of the story here: Highlights Of The Celtic Cruise

Cost: Le Boat has three bases in Ireland, operating as Emerald Star. Their fleet is in great shape. We had a modern 45-foot cruiser, Elegance 20, that sleeps six, with three cabins, three heads, a well-equipped galley, large sundeck up top, dual steering stations, and huge bow for sunbathing — which we actually got to do in Ireland. In Ireland you also get a TV with limited channels, which has a built-in DVD, handy with small ones aboard.

The rivers Shannon and Erne and surrounding lakes are an angler's paradise, well-stocked with salmon, pike, bream, tench, and perch. You'll need to buy a license at the marina for around 7 euros for the week. Smartcards for pumpout stations are also available here, as are lock cards for the self-operating ones, though there aren't any self-operating ones on the Celtic Cruise. Instead have a bunch of 2-euro coins ready; that's the fare for each lock and bridge. The cost is technically 1.50 euro, but it's traditional to let the lockkeeper keep the change.

A one-week charter on the Elegance Plus, above, in April 2013 is $2,328. Two cabin boats that sleep five start at $1,455.80 for the same week.


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