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Sailing by the Stags

For a few short months, every summer, sailing vessels from far-flung shores cruise Mayo’s Wild Atlantic waters navigating the many islands, stacks, rocks, and hidden reefs that make our coastal waters so beautiful to admire but a treacherous world for the unprepared sailor.

Calmer than usual weather this summer brought up by warm air currents from Africa created ideal conditions for pleasure sailing vessels to explore Ireland’s west coast from Malin to Mizen, safely cruising near land to enjoy the breathtaking scenery of clifftops, sandy coves and delightful islands.

At night, those mariners cruising for pleasure never miss an opportunity to lower the mainsail and drop anchor in one of Mayo’s pretty harbours that stretch from Kilcummin to Killary.

Safely moored, the crew can explore the coastline on foot or bicycle and share a drink with some of the friendly locals, echoing a bygone time when the sea linked coastal communities all around Ireland by boat.

For the yacht’s crew, it’s a rest from the demands of plotting,  navigating and sailing a safe passage through Mayo’s dangerous off-shore waters that can never be taken for granted even on the calmest summer day when a sudden swell could push a vessel perilously close to the towering cliffs.

I watched one of these passing yachts sail slowly between the Staggs of Broadhaven and the cliffs on a glorious day this summer. It moved serenely under its billowing sail in an easterly direction towards Downpatrick Head.

Mediterranean scene

It was an idyllic Mediterranean like scene along the wild and rugged coast of a North Mayo wilderness of heather and bog.

The Swedish registered yacht, Altair AF Skaftoe, anchored at Kilcummin harbour, Co Mayo, (21.7.2018) on its trip south down the West coast of Ireland. Photo: Anthony Hickey
The Swedish registered yacht, Altair AF Skaftoe, anchored at Kilcummin harbour, Co Mayo, (21.7.2018) on its trip south down the West coast of Ireland. Photo: Anthony Hickey

In the still air, only the soothing birdsong and the distant screech of seagulls were to be heard as my thoughts turned to the allure of the open sea and the freedom sailing the high seas evokes.

From where did this yacht embark on its odyssey around the coast?

Most vessels sail north-about around Ireland coming from ports as far away as Germany, France, the UK and even the USA. The Round Ireland Yacht Race and similar challenges see the vessels staying well out beyond the horizon as speed and not sight-seeing is the skipper’s priority.

As I watched its slow progress, the yacht seemed tiny against the towering pyramids of the Stags and the endless Atlantic ocean stretching out to the shimmering horizon under the midday sun.

I wondered what the view of the cliffs looked like for the helmsman or woman steering a safe course beneath North Mayo’s skyscraper cliffs.

The view was never more eloquently and evocatively described than by Yachtsman and writer, Wallace Clark.

Recalling the voyage in his yacht Wild Goose by the Stags of Broadhaven in the early 1970s, the Co. Derry man painted a most colourful and imaginative picture.

“We had lifted the Stags just after passing Downpatrick, a group of tiny triangles like the tips of antlers set close together on the skyline,” he wrote in his book ‘Sailing Round Ireland’.

Wallace Clark’s prowess as a yachtsman was matched by his obvious love of words describing the crags, stacks and islands of this part of the North Mayo coastline as…”a collection of broken rock which looks like a giant sculptor’s scrap yard.  Knights on horseback, lawyers in their wigs, elephants, camels lay in drunken array, amid huge rectangles with vertical markings which made you understand what Homer was getting at in the Odyssey when he sings of the great stone looms on which the sea nymphs weave their cloth of gold, marvellous to behold.”

By Anthony Hickey

Follow writer and photographer, Anthony Hickey, as he travels around his native Co. Mayo, Ireland.