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Crossing to and from Northern Ireland from the Clyde

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What is the route?
This is a useful set of notes to aid Scottish and Irish sailors to cross the North Channel the strait of water that resides between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Why sail this route?
Northern Ireland has a beautiful unspoilt coastline that is very close and highly accessible to Scottish sailors. The uncrowded Northern Irish waters offer a host of interesting coves, small harbours, friendly yacht clubs and some of the best marina facilities in the country. All benefit from beautiful countryside immediately ashore and Ireland’s legendary hospitality. However tidal streams are very strong, just off Torr Head the ebb tide can attain a speed of 9 knots, and the direction and velocity of the tide should be the central feature of any navigation in this area. With tides like this, a few minutes spent planning can save hours at sea. This set of notes outlines the best times and locations to make the optimal North Channel crossing.

What are the navigational notes?
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The above plots are not precise and are indicative only.

Crossing to or from the Clyde involves navigating the North Channel where spring tides can be in excess of 3 knots and the weather highly changeable. In favourable conditions this can be a fast, exhilarating crossing; in bad conditions, it can be a long thrash and even dangerous.

In particular south and southwest of the Mull of Kintyre can be very dangerous in strong winds, especially when southerlies meet the east going tide. The Admiralty Tidal Stream Atlas “Firth of Clyde and Approaches” NP222 should be consulted. It is essential that you study the tidal atlas and weather forecast, paying particular attention to the effects of wind against tide. Tidal information is also available from the tidal diamonds Greenock A to the south of Sanda Island, Belfast A off Torr Head and Belfast B north of Tornamoney Point.


The obvious starting/finishing points in the Clyde are Sanda Island or Campbeltown. If strong headwinds are encountered, an alternative anchorage may be found at Cushendall, Red Bay, Carnlough or Glenarm, which are nearer and sheltered in westerly winds.

Heading West

Shape a course to take full benefit of the strong tides but aim to arrive off Fair Head no sooner than 4.5 hours after high water Dover in order to avoid the worst of the turbulence. Note that there can be a strong counter current along the shore west of Fair Head and, if heading for Ballycastle, it may be worth keeping well out before approaching the harbour.

The direction and velocity of the tide should be the central feature of any navigation planning in this area. The tidal streams in Rathlin Sound run up to 6.5 knots at springs. For those approaching from the south the roughest water may be experienced between Fair Head and Torr Head where just off Torr Head the Ebb runs up to 9 knots during Spring tides. However, if the tides have been well studied and embraced, a well-found yacht should have no difficulty sailing this area in conditions up to Force 4 or 5.

Heading East

The ideal time to leave Ballycastle or Church Bay Rathlin is just before Low Water Dover in order to transit Rathlin Sound and move past Fair Head at slack water. This also gives the full extent of the favourable tide to cross the North Channel and enter the Clyde. Aim to pass 3 miles south of the Mull of Kintyre especially in strong southerly winds. Be aware that a dangerous race can exist in the last 2 hours of the west going stream off Sron Uamha (otherwise known as Deas Point) located a mile and a half east-southeast of the Mull of Kintyre; position 55º 17.300’N, 005º 45.700’W.


Given reasonable weather conditions this can be a fast passage if advantage is taken of the tide. If fresh or strong winds are blowing opposing the tide, a confused sea can rise rapidly, especially south of Corsewall Point position 55º 00.400’N, 005º 09.500’W


Aim to be off Ailsa Craig around 5 hours after high water Dover. This gives an hour of fairly slack water to make progress before moving into the North Channel where tide turns south around Low Water Dover. This gives a total of 7 hours to complete the 40 miles to Belfast Lough.

A shorter crossing can be made if the journey is split and the departure point for the crossing is Loch Ryan.


Aim to be at the mouth of Belfast Lough at High Water Dover to take full advantage of the north going tide.


The Coastal Description ‘Malin Head to Strangford Lough coastal description’ provides an overview of the Irish coast that will be encountered. Southbound vessels should select the eastbound sequenced description; northbound vessels should select the westbound sequence; both contain the same information.

Listed Waypoints

Church Bay initial fix , 55° 16.971' N, 006° 12.176' W
This is approximately half way between the 'Drake' Wreck South Cardinal Pillar Light Buoy Q (6) +LFI 15s and the western shoreline of island’s southern leg. It is within the white sector of the harbour’s sectored light and is approximately half a mile south-southwest of the entrance to Church Bay, Rathlin Island.

Ballycastle Harbour initial fix, 55° 12.460' N, 006° 14.100' W
This is approximately 150 metres east of the lit northern end of Boyd's Breakwater.

Glenarm initial fix, 54° 58.330' N, 005° 57.020' W
This is located 300 metres directly north of the Glenarm marina entrance.

What is the best sailing time?
Sailing season is May to September, with June and July offering some of the best weather. Nevertheless the incidence of gales in June and July are on average two days of winds each month of winds up to force seven. So you may be either held up or having a blast depending on your sailing preferences. Ireland is not subject to persistent fog statistically complete days of persistent fog occur less than once in a decade.

What weather information is available?
Weather information available from our Irish information page. If you're looking for shelter, facilities, or a type of location along this coast, use our find resources tool.

Are there any security concerns?
Never an issue known to have occurred sailing off the Irish coast.

With thanks to:
Jim Williamson, Yacht Splashdown.

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