Winter can be the best part of the year for kayak surfing on the Atlantic coast of Donegal, below is some footage from a November kayak surf at a completely deserted Dooey beach. Not only is the sun shining but the water temperature is pretty good and some nice waves coming into the beach.
Gola Island (Gabhla) is a mid-size island 2km from the mainland of Gweedore (Gaoth Dobhair) in N.West Donegal. Uninhabited since the 1960’s its peak population of approx. 169 people lived on the island in 1911-1926. Gola’s lost way of life and heritage remains in the form of stone cottages with original examples of Gabhla longhouses (the island’s vernacular cottage architecture). Although some buildings are derelict they are rich in history and people are starting to return to the island and renovate houses as holiday homes with the aid of recently installed mains electricity. During the summer months the population can swell up to 35 people or more and visitors can relax with refreshments from the cabin shop and admire the views.
With its tranquil beauty Gola is starting to attract many visitors from walkers, cliff climbers, artists, photographers, birdwatchers and those interested in ecology. A short paddle over by kayak or boat ride on the the regular ferry ‘The Cricket’ which leaves from Magheragallan (Machaire Gathlan), Gweedore will take you to the island from Easter and throughout the summer months. Gola, one of the more accessible islands boosts many natural features including pebble/sandy beaches offshore islands, sea stacks and caves.
Highlights include a big sea arch ‘Scoilt Ui Dhugain’ at the North side of the island along with a memorial to islanders lost at sea. At the southern end near ‘Port na Crin’ there is a harbour and the old school, this area attracts many different varieties of seabirds. On the western side of the island there are fine examples of sea cliffs, sea stacks and caves. The popular ‘Twin Cave’ Buttress is about 20 metres (66ft) high of granite rock facing the Atlantic. The highest point on Gola is Knockacullen at 690 metres. Another highlight facing due west onto the Atlantic is the beautiful sandy beach – Traigh Mhachaire na nGall. Gola has spectacular views of other nearby islands and of the mainland including ‘Errigal Mountain’ in the distance. The best time to visit the island is when there’s some movement on the sea as this makes the the island seem more alive and is well worth exploring.
There are many approach routes to Gola Island from any suitable get in location (slipway or beach) between Bunbeg harbour and Bun an Inbhir harbour. A one way trip from any of those two points gives a great opportunity to take in all the islands in the Gweedore group in one memorable trip. A more simple trip can be had from leaving Magheragallan and then a straight forward paddle across to the harbour on the east facing side of Gola Island. This eliminates any tidal planning and tides at this point are fairly weak. Magheragallan is subject to swell and the rocky beach and the slipway at Maghergallan can encounter some dumping surf, and obviously beware of strong offshore winds when planning a return trip from Gola island.
If you are a proficient and well equipped paddler doing the round of the island you would need fairly settled conditions as the south, west and north sides of the island are swell magnets and the back of Gola is subject to lots of movement so careful planning of the prevailing conditions is a must.
Paddling highlights include.
The paddle around Gola is quite contrasting from pristine sandy beaches to rocky shallows on the eastern side, then cliffs, caves, sea stacks as you go around the Island and great views back to the mainland and the other Donegal Islands.
There is a shelf of rocks between the offshore Torglass Island and Gola on the south side of Traigh Mhachaire na nGall bay ( Magheranagnll on os map and chart ) which gives a splendid inside passage into this beautiful bay with its west facing sandy beach which is a possible landing place on the western side of the island. On the northern side of the bay there is a sea tunnel well worth exploring if conditions allow which has a tight corner so day light is not visible through to the opposite side.
On the northern side of the island tucked into a small cove and not easily found from seaward is the impressive Scoilt Ui Dhugain sea arch and it’s possible to paddle through it if the swell will allow. The arch can dry out around low water.
Enjoy your visit whichever way you travel to Gola Island. We will be reviewing our next Donegal Island soon and hope you will come along with us.
James and Angela.
Donegal is a great place to be a kayaker with a huge range of stunning coastline from cliffs to unspoilt offshore islands, pristine beaches and practically hundreds of lakes and fast flowing rivers that makes Donegal a playground for paddlers. It’s also a great place to surf, it has plenty of swell generated by the Atlantic ocean which means lots of waves hitting onto our unspoilt, coastal beaches and reefs. Added to Donegal’s normally mild winters means that you could actually surf all year round.
Can you surf a kayak? You surely can! Any type of kayak can surf, it’s just that some surf a lot better than others. If your kayak is bulky, heavy or has a lot of volume it might be a struggle to get a lot of performance out of it, but it still would be fun to try. The best kayaks to use on the waves are the high tech lightweight composite competition kayaks like the high performance ( HP ) short boat which features a flat bottom sharp rails, short tail and fins and the international class ( IC ) long boats that are hard carving surf machines, but both of these types of kayak take some time to master and are relatively expensive to buy.
If you’re new to surfing and just starting out, it’s a good idea to pick a quiet, safe beach where you won’t get in any other water users way, then it will be easier to stay within your own comfort zone. Have suitable clothing for cold water immersion like a wetsuit, wear a buoyancy aid and a helmet which is a must for kayak surfing
There is a definite history to paddle surfing in Ireland stretching back to the 1980’s with regular competitions taking place involving surfkayakers and waveskis run by the likes of the Ulster Paddlesurf Club and Paddlesurf Ireland with both clubs sending teams and individuals to National and International competitions over the years. The biggest competition in Ireland is the Irish Paddlesurf Open event held every year at Easky (on the left hand reef break), Co. Sligo with paddlesurfers attending from the UK and Europe alongside the best Irish surfers.
This year (2017), Ulster will be the venue for the World Surfkayak Competition (20th-28th October) based in Portrush, involving the best teams and individual kayakers from around the world. The event is being organised by the Canoe Association of Northern Ireland. This event offers a great opportunity to see the finest paddlersurfers in the world competing against one another in both the team and individual heats whilst executing radical and dynamic moves on the waves. At the event three paddlers from Donegal Sea and Surf Paddlers Club (based on the rugged NW coast of Donegal) will be taking part and are being supported by Rapid Kayaking. The three Donegal paddlers are James O’Donnell, Kieran and Denis Mc Dyre. All three have competed in the past at national and international events and we wish them well in their endeavours at the 2017 World Surf Kayak Championships.
The west Donegal coastline is full of holes. Most are in the form of caves and sea arches (not to mention a few tunnels thrown in for good measure). Take the sea arches; there are a lot of them dotted around the coast and islands of Donegal. Hundreds in fact that are fairly undocumented, with only a few being in any way known about. I’m just scratching the surface here by pointing out some of my favourites that I have come across on my travels. Most are coastal and attached to the mainland or islands, but there are also lots of free standing sea arches as well. Let’s start with a few Donegal Island arches.
In no particular order:
1. Oileán Glas is an island that sits of the SW side of Arranmore Island. It is steep sided and its SE corner is cut by a huge deep archway that brings you through the island and out the other side to the open Atlantic: amazing! In fact Arranmore has a lot of arches and I will go into more detail in an upcoming overview of the island.
2. Off the coast of Gweedore, amongst the Islands, is the gem of Umfin Island. At the back of Umfin is the Cauldron, a barren rocky area of cliffs and ledges where the Atlantic gets seriously churned up in any swell. The breakers are swallowed up by the high, narrow, archway which juts out into the ocean. It’s easy to walk out to this archway and stand on its summit. At the top of the arch there is a hole, conveniently placed to allow a glimpse at the churning water below. Umfin is also almost cut in two by another lovely archway near the rocky landing spot; so walking across this archway can link one side of the island to the other.
3. Tory Island has some mammoth archways one of which cuts through the Anvil, which is a long finger of rock that juts out from Tory Island close to its north eastern tip. Dramatically situated and purely formed, it’s like a gateway to the island’s rugged northern side. For paddling through this archway you need to get your tides right as it dries out on low water!
4. Owey Island’s big archway is a stunner and is nestled on the Islands eastern side in a small shallow bay surrounded by rock pinnacles and sea stacks. One of these sea stacks has an ancient face on it that looks out towards the mainland, always watching Errigal mountain in the distance. If approached from the south the arch is hidden from view until the last minute.
5. The magical Inishdooey Island, is the middle Island passed on the way out to Tory from Magheroarty on the ferry. Inishdooey has a fine, tall, narrow, and elegant hidden archway that is tucked into a cut on its eastern side; although it can be quite hard to find from the sea. It can be tricky to get through, especially at low water or in any swell. The Island is also home to an amazing huge collapsed cave which resembles a amphitheater, open to the sky (pictured in the previous blog post). A must visit Island.
6. At Glencolmcille, just north of the signal tower on Glen Head, sits the Sphinx arch; located in a sublime bay of grey and green cliffs. It’s a many faced god and takes on different guises when approached from different angles. It can take on the appearance of a cat-like creature ready to pounce on it’s prey, especially when approached from the south close to the cliffs.
7. Horn Head is an amazing place to paddle with many fine arches and caves. My favourite is an arch-come cave which cuts off the last corner of the journey before the Horn Head bay. It takes you out into a deep, dark cut with a big cave opening on its opposite side; you feel as if you are hemmed in on all sides by towering cliffs: sublime!
8. Crohy Head has an iconic freestanding arch which has appeared in many a dreamlike photograph. It’s set in a bay strewn with boulders and rocks in a super shallow area. It’s complemented by a huge double archway only a short distance away which is an added bonus.
9. The Doorway Arch is situated due south of Loughros Point, part of a small island with a square archway at the entrance to an enchanted bay. It’s the southern entrance to the Slieve tooey coastline which is a mecca for sea kayakers in Donegal. We always say that this doorway leads into another world resembling something out of the Lord of the Rings films.
10. The Transformer and the Guillotine are both situated along the Slieve tooey coastline – the stretch of coast between Loughros Point and An Port. Slieve tooey has more sea arches, sea stacks, caves and waterfalls then you can shake a stick at. One of the many archways along this cliff-bound coast that always catches my attention, is the Transformer arch. You can see the resemblance to a transformer from the picture. Also pictured is the Guillotine arch (you can see where it gets its name from the picture). Remember please, don’t show too much neck when passing through the Guillotine!
Donegal has many miles of coastline some of which is fairly remote and challenging. West coast weather can also be unpredictable at the best of times so a good understanding on how the current weather conditions will affect the sea is the key to planning any trip. Sometimes those big headlands can do us a favour if for instance the wind and swell are from the north, you could hide out over at Slieve League or into Donegal Bay. If the conditions are from the south, head north to Horn Head and beyond, it can work within reason!
Donegal also has it’s fair share of islands. They come in all shapes and sizes some of them are populated but there are many that are uninhabited or only have a fleeting summer population. Sometimes landing onto one of the these islands is like stepping back in time as most island houses have been renovated as opposed to being newly built and still have most of their original features an example being a cottage on Owey Island which can be rented out but which has no mains water or electricity and only an outside toilet and bath at the top of a field! Most other islands have been left to the elements and their houses ruins with only shadows of what island life would have been like in days gone by. Another island example is Inishdoey on the way out to Tory Island which has some amazing ruins of a monastic 6th century settlement of Saint Dubhtach.
Paddling the Donegal islands and coastline also brings you into contact with its varied wildlife mainly seals, dolphins, basking sharks, porpoises, otters and plenty of sea birds. We also mustn’t forget that at low water opens up a world of small sea creatures and I have paddled many times into crystal clear sea caves and channels lined with starfish, sea anemones and urchins clinging to the rocky shelves. Many areas of the Donegal coastline are dominated by high cliffs such as Slieve League (one of the highest sea cliffs in Europe) these sections of coastline have been inundated with caves of all sizes, depths and noise levels. There are also hundreds of sea arches carved out by the unforgiving ocean again ranging in size and statue from the extremely narrow to the gigantically huge. Some of the best examples to be found are the Doorway arch the ‘Transformer’ and ‘La Guillotine’ besides many more stretched out along the remote and stunning Slievetooey coastline. If you are up for a challenge and are brave enough there are a couple of islands that you can paddle right through such as Oilean Glass off Arranmore Island and the stunning Umphin Island located off the Gweedore mainland. The through cave on Umphin is called Uaimh tonn which translates as the ‘wave cave’ which gives you some idea of what you’re up against. If you happen to be paddling after heavy rain waterfalls appear that drop down to the sea in curtains of water from the heights above that you would never get to see otherwise.
If you are not blessed with kind settled conditions there are still lots of great paddling to be found in more sheltered spots such as the fjord like bays of Swilly and Mulroy or another good bet the archipelago of islands around Burtonport. Whatever levels of fitness and time you have on offer there are plenty of options for you to experience and explore.
Owey Island Cottage hostel for rentals contact Niall 087 7129343