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A Foggy Sail from Strangford Lough to Bangor!

We spent most of our 7 hour passage from Strangford to Bangor in fog….not what we had intended!

Sadly the time had come to leave one of our favourite anchorages ‘Killyleagh’ and head further up the coast of Northern Ireland. But just like when we had planned our arrival into Strangford, careful planning needed to go into our exit, the tides can flow fiercely here and significant overfalls occur at the entrance to The Narrows.

Our Passage Plan

Our pilot guide, the Imray Irish Sea Pilot by David Rainsbury, advises those heading northwards up the Northern Irish coastline to be at Portaferry to stem the tide just before high water. This then allows you to catch much of the north going tide (around 4 hours) in the Irish Sea. It also means an exit through The Narrows at slack or just at the start of the ebb.

E-Oceanic also states ‘there cannot be a delay with this exit or it could lead to an encounter with significant overfalls off the entrance to the narrows.’ This is because you have the outgoing ebb tide from Strangford meeting the north going tide in the Irish Sea. The website also advises to check the prevailing weather conditions as strong onshore winds, and in particular a south-easterly, will result in standing waves. As the ebb tide is so strong it is not possible to turn back against it and as a result you would get pushed out into the overfalls. The problem is when you depart the Portaferry area it is not possible to see or know what the sea state is like at the bar!

High tide in Strangford for our departure day was 11.04. We therefore set a departure time of 10.00am, but no later than 10.15am, to allow us approximately 45 minutes to get across from Killyleagh to Portaferry for just before high water.

We set our waypoints as follows with our destination for the night being Ballyholme Bay, just to the east of Bangor:

WP1: 54°19.344N 5°30.553W Bar Pladdy South Cardinal
WP2: 54°24.221N 5°22.662W South Rock
WP3: 54°39.426N 5°31.912W Copelands
WP4: 54°41.254N 5°35.724W South Briggs/Cove Bay
WP5: 54°40.920N 5°38.540W NE of Ballyholme Bay

The forecast was for sunshine and a bit of cloud with 3-5 knots from the south-east/east. Of course the south-east direction was not ideal for exiting however from speaking with locals who sail these waters all the time, and the fact that conditions for the previous few days were very benign, we were confident that such a low breeze shouldn’t be an issue. We were advised to turn as soon as possible at the Bar Pladdy buoy and make a course for South Rock.

Our Actual Passage

We awoke at 7.00am to this…

A foggy start!

Yep thick fog surrounded the boat with visibility extremely poor! It will ‘burn off soon’ we said. But at 10.00am it was still very heavy, albeit you could just about make out the sun attempting to shine through.

It was impossible to know if the fog was just where we were; would it be clearer over the other side of the Lough or out at sea? We decided to raise the anchor and hop onto a nearby mooring buoy to wait for a little longer. Visibility was slowly improving and there was still time to catch the ebb tide out, although we were very aware of the fact that the longer you wait the faster the tide runs, the less tide you then have going north and the increased chance of overfalls at the entrance.

By 11.00am we could see a bit more. At this point another couple of yachts arrived in Killyleagh from across the Lough. We kept an eye on AIS and could see three vessels departing from Portaferry and making their way out; was it clearer over there? At 11.30am we made the decision to make our way across the Lough, hoping that the visibility was only restricted to where we were. If we got across and it was still poor we would pick up a mooring buoy close to Strangford.

As it turned out by the time we reached Portaferry visibility was relatively good again. However it was now an hour after high water so the tide was ebbing, although we were on neaps. The forecast for the forthcoming days was changeable and we really needed to start pushing north. We made the decision to proceed with the passage.

We encountered a few patches of unusual water activity by Routen Wheel but nothing of any concern and made our way out to Bar Pladdy where we made our turn immediately after the cardinal. The sea state was like glass however there were still some lingering patches of fog/sea mist, but visibility was ok and the wind was light.

Approaching Bar Pladdy Cardinal

Four vessels, including us, were showing on Vessel Finder as making the passage. This gave us a little reassurance that we weren’t the only ones who decided to make this run that day!

But by 1.00pm the fog had filled in again and visibility was down to just a few hundred metres. Fortunately the sea state remained calm and there was no wind. We continued under motor with no sails.

The fog returned!

Despite fog being one of the worst things a sailor can get caught in we actually found the experience rather soothing. Yes it is very eerie and you’re constantly listening and watching but there’s a stillness in the air; a calmness! Fortunately our passage was taking us east of South Rock before it was a straight route up to Copelands so there weren’t any tricky navigational hazards, apart from getting through Donaghadee Sound. We were not in a main shipping area, we had radar, three electronic charts and even internet to allow us to use our Boat Beacon app and monitor Vessel Finder and MarineTraffic. We did however notice how disorientating it can be and how the boat seemed as though she was constantly ‘heading up’ to starboard; she wasn’t but you can see how easily you could quickly go off course as you try and over correct something that isn’t actually happening! Luckily our autopilot kept us on course and we recorded and marked our position much more often as a back up.

Just before 5.00pm we reached Donaghadee Sound, which takes you inside of Copeland Island. The channel is marked however it was a little more difficult for us to see:

Can you spot the channel marker?

As we exited the sound the sun finally started to break through and more of the coastline became visible, although Acra, a cargo ship, looked rather ominous sitting at anchor in the mist!

‘Acra’ sitting in the mist!

By the time we were approaching the North Cardinal by South Briggs it was becoming a rather pleasant evening and we had caught up with some of the other vessels we had spotted earlier on AIS.

North Cardinal ‘Briggs’

We dropped the hook in Ballyholme Bay, Bangor at 6.15pm in position 54°40.237N 5°38.926W. Our total distance was 33.8nm and it had taken us just under 7 hours, most of which was in fog! It had certainly been a new challenge for us; being in fog for so long, and one we don’t care to repeat any time soon but in a way we’re proud of how we handled the situation and subsequently arrived safely at our destination. Downside is we didn’t get to see any of this beautiful stretch of coastline!


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