Written after the trip ...
A couple of days before the trip I phoned the Belturbet Base of Emerald Star to tell them we were aiming to arrive at 15:00. [Their literature suggested 16:00 but it was the beginning of October and we wanted to get away by then to get somewhere before it was dark] In the event after having breakfast with our daughter, we reached the depot at 13:55 when they should have been shut, but they opened the door and welcomed us!]
It was a slack time of the year; we felt we were the only people arriving that day. They showed us an instructional video, accepted a Visa for our deposit of IR£200 and another for our Groceries and the 40 Unit card for the locks and service areas on the Shannon-Erne Waterway and then a pleasant young man showed us how to work the boat, the "BALLYFARNON STAR" - we waved out ICCs at him (we happen to have passed the basic exams for yachtspeople required in some countries but in neither Ireland nor the UK) so he did not take us on a trial run as he would have done if we were complete beginners. He also showed us the charts provided.
The local grocer, who left a nice hand written note to thank us for our custom, had the groceries we had ordered aboard - the milk and butter, bacon, beefsteaks, cheese and saussages were in the fridge. Our first impressions of the boat, the Town Star type we asked for, were excellent. I have never seen such a clean and tidy engine compartment, and the bilges were - and remained - virtually dry. The finish by Brooms of Brundall in Norfolk was very impressive. It is just right for a couple. It was also as secure as any boat we have ever been on - which is not saying very much but was slightly reassuring. Security turned out not to be a problem in this part of the world anyway!
Once we had stowed our gear and set out, our first problem was that the marker buoys on the chart did not correspond with the markers on the river, so we very soon hesitated not knowing where we were. The second problem was that the chart we were provided with was an 8:7 enlargement of the planner we had already been sent and added no additional information - though it was obviously a slightly different edition because it varied a little at one or two places, which edition was the more accurate was a toss up: sometimes one was correct; sometimes the other.
For Lough Erne we later found a good chart based on the OS Map of the area (obtainable from Stanford's, Longmarket, London for £3.50) which had soundings and much more detail - such as a river inlet which was not even marked on the maps of Lough Erne we had been given! The charts were very pretty but not as accurate as we are used to, and the waterway lacks Kilometre (and half Kilometre) Markers which we have found helpful in the past.
We decided to head directly for the Shannon-Erne Waterway rather than spending a day on Lough Erne first and aimed for Corraquill, the first lock. This was very slow work as the speed limit was 5 km/h. The only boat we met on the way was two girls - Gill says they were women and I would not have called them boys but men if they had been male, but I thought they were young and would certainly have called them boys -fishing; they later passed us at great speed with their outboard motorboat making quite the worst wash we encountered and certainly endangering the banks of the river.
Somebody had started to build a marina just before the river divided for the first lock and as it was not marked on our chart and we had worked out we needed the first turn to Starboard - Right - we ended up in a dead end. When we got back on track the light at the lock was green showing the gate was open in our direction. There was no other traffic around so we decided to go in, moor up to the side of the lock, and both go and inspect the automatic system. With this in mind I climbed up the ladder in the lockside and put a permanent mooring round one of the bollards.
An officious gentleman came and cast it off. This got my goat because it is the custom for people never to touch the mooring lines of a vessel; if even high ranking officials such as harbourmasters think the lines are unsatisfactory for some reason then they ask the crew to move them in the way they suggest. I naturally retied what I considered to be very satisfactory moorings - having earned my living as a huffler I can assure you they were professionally done - whereupon this officious gentleman promptly undid them again. Since he also announced that he was an official of the Shannon-Erne Waterway, I suggested he was a lock-keeper but he told me he was not but that he would tell me what to do. I felt at that stage it would be more politic to do what he wanted however crassly he seemed to behave. He seemed incapable of understanding that it was not our intention to pass through the lock before we both understood how it operated, and insisted that Gill stay aboard - where she could not see what she should do - while I worked the lock by pushing the buttons as instructed by him. He treated us both like complete idiots approaching our first lock and not knowing a thing about it - perhaps we seemed like that to him - but when you have been going through locks (and working automatic ones at that!) for over 50 years and have been travelling without sleep for 500 miles, he was not the person to encounter!
Partly because it is not usually allowed on other waterways, but it was on this one, we stopped for the night at the mooring stage immediately after the lock. I must say that wherever we had been before free mooring was possible at most places along the towpath, and the charts told you where it this was impossible and/or dangerous. On the Shannon-Erne Waterway there is no towpath, the banks are completely unsuitable for mooring and the charts tell you the places where you can moor; mooring is however free.
All the mooring places we came to were really excellent with bollards of just the right size beautifully placed. The locks - some 16 of them - were simplicity itself to operate, small compared with most of their continental counterparts, but quite the best behaved set of locks we have encountered; there was not a dud one among them. Our only complaint was that after the high point the locks which led down to the Shannon had no ladders in the side of them like the locks which came up from the Erne which meant that you had to pick up or put down whoever had worked the lock at the jetty on the low side and although it was possible to work our from the chart whether we were to go up or down at the next lock, their was no indication given as to the extent of the rise or fall. At many of the mooring places there were really good, standardised, Service Blocks - worked by the same card that worked the locks - which provided showers, toilets, laundry facilities, disposal for chemical toilets, "Pump Out" which we did not need, and water which we did.
The whole waterway which was very well planned and built with the aid of a substantial grant from the European Community, is a joint project between the North and the South - we knew some of the moorings and locks were in each but on the waterway there is no border! It has only been open some three years, but we were learned that in the first year some 11,000 boats had used the waterway - apart from the British and the Irish, there were Germans, French, Austrians, Swiss, and many others; we met some Australians who had come together to do it as part of a much longer stay in Europe too
On our second night we stayed at Haughton's Shore, and on the third we reached the mooring at Keshcarrigan - The start of the highest reach of the waterway. All the locks either lead up to Keshcarrigan or down whichever way you look at it. There is good walking, and "Finn McCool" a giant figure in Irish mythology is supposedly buried there as well. It has several shops with a Post Office in the General Store. At various times we found people who had been serving in one shop working in the place next door; it's that sort of village. We also picked up a free copy of the "Shannon - Erne Guide" published by Fiesta Publications of Dublin. This was very detailed with plenty of good, useful, adverts.
On the Saturday evening we were joined by our daughter, who came with us the next day to Carrick-on-Shannon and then back to Keshcarrigan. We had to get back to where we had started with her because she had parked her car there.
In the literature about the boat it had explained that there was a 220 or 240 volt socket for Razors but that this was the only power point on the boat and that no other electrical equipment could be brought: it also said there was a radio aboard. On board we actually discovered that the radio was a car radio/cassette player so we quickly got the tapes out of the car, and there was a 12 volt socket. Most boats do have a 12 volt socket, but, unlike the standard 12 volt socket which has a cigar-lighter type plug to which we can fit my razor, a light, our mobile phone, and a very small colour TV, this 12 volt socket was substandard, coming out of a three round pin 5 amp 240 volt socket.
Fortunately we were able to buy a plug and flex for this in the first village we came to and with the aid of the crocodile clips and flex I had brought were able to use our electrical equipment. The most useful was the mobile phone. Although there were stretches of the river where we were completely out of range, we were able to link up with the Irish Network for long stretches between Carrick on Shannon and Leitrim, and at Keshcarrigan with the UK Vodaphone network. Both my mother in Brighton and my daughter in Belfast were able to get hold of us there. TV reception was varied, but we were able to get RTE everywhere (which belied the advice we had picked up along the way that RTE stood for Reception Terrible Everywhere!) and apart from at Keshcarrigan - where we wanted to watch the last episode of a Taggart serial - BBC or ITV.
Emerald Star's instructional video had put great emphasis on the problems of not flattening the battery by using the fridge and the heater which were electric for long periods when the engine was not running, This meant that the fridge could not be used the whole time but only intermittently - every other boat we have been on had a gas fridge with a safety device that only allowed gas to pass when it was lit; this could be left on like any other fridge the whole time. Many mooring places on other waterways have plugs so that a boat may tap into the mains supply and if heating is to be used it is while moored at night when the engine is not usually running, so this would be an improvement on the system provided.
The instructional video also emphasised the dangers of gas which is heavier than air on a boat so the tap had to be turned on and off at the cylinder each time it was used; in view of this it was surprising that the gas cooker did not have the safety taps that only allow gas to pass if the flame is lit! Water was heated by heat exchange from the engine, which means that by morning it is tepid and not so pleasant to shave in - a gas heater with proper safety devices is a much better arrangement.
To compensate for these shortcomings, the toilet and shower facilities were the best we have come across on a boat. The toilet in particular was the right size, the right height and easily accessible. The lighting in the accommodation was good; easy to read by. The cooking and eating facilities were excellent, and pots, pans. tin-openers, etc provided just right. The plates, glasses and cups were of good quality, but, oddly, in sets of five. The duvets were both of good quality and very warm. Apart from clothes and washing materials everything else we needed was provided.
The mooring at Keshcarrigan where we spent three nights was very busy. One night every berth was occupied and the last boat in had to double park alongside "Gertie" - a converted barge with full bar facilities (sadly shut when we were there in October)! When we first arrived my wife was on the bow rope and I looked after the stern; while we were doing this, half a dozen ducks made straight for our stern, climbed aboard and before we had finished were actually into the accommodation! They provided us with a great deal of fun when we fed them with stale bread and other goodies.
As we got nearer to Carrick the speed of the hire-craft and their wash increased. Although we were never in any danger, I think that the speeds and consequent washes were among the worst we have encountered and certainly no common courtesies, such as slowing down when passing another boat, or a moored vessel, or a fisherman, seemed to be observed by anybody apart from us - if a boat wasn't going too fast it was usually either an Emerald Star Vessel or one from Riverside Cruises. The boats we saw from other companies all seemed to be excellent; the ones from Carrick Craft looked very manoeuvrable, and if you like a traditional canal-barge type boat the ones from Riverside Cruises were well turned out too, but it was October and, although their accommodation was spacious, they did not seem ideal as there was a lot of liquid sunshine and their steering was by an exposed tiller.
We left Keshcarrigan on the Monday morning and because it rained most of the day we went straight along the canal - which is really a series of short narrow stretches linking a chain of loughs together. By late afternoon we were on Upper Lough Erne, the sun had come out, the water was flat, there was a wind-farm on the horizon and we were entranced. We simply had to stay at the island of Inishcorkish. It was marked on our charts as having both a pub and a restaurant.
That night we were the only visitors at the "Teach a Céili" (The Friendly Calling House) which is run by John and Sheila Reihill - the only human inhabitants of the island. The mooring was excellent; we were greeted by a black and white dog who led us up to the house. John had been born on the island as had his father after his grandfather had settled there over a hundred years ago. We were alarmed at the pricey menu we were shown, but they provided an excellent "ad hoc" meal and, when it came to settling up John suggested a lower price than the menu had suggested - not everything on the menu was available at that time of year - while his wife thought an even lower one was fair. Allowing for the cost of transporting everything to the island and the excellent cooking, the pricing was good value and should we ever pass that way again we would (a) go back and (b) not be cheated!
We paid in English pounds but John said he took any form of currency except credit cards and that in particular Eurocheques were very useful; his speciality is the Irish Coffee after, but we did not feel like that and he did not press us. By the time we went back to the boat it was pitch dark however John had a surprisingly powerful torch which he shone down the path in front of us and we climbed aboard without any problems except that the black cat had found us and as we opened the door of the boat shot in ahead of us. Gill is allergic to cats, so we put the cat out - it's difficult trying to explain to a cat that there's nothing personal involved and before I could shut the door she was back inside again. The persistence lasted for some time, she obviously enjoying the game, but eventually we won and the cat spent the night looking in at us. If it had not been the memory of Gill's itching and sneezing we would have willingly let her in, it was such a heartrending performance!
We had planned to make Enniskillen the next day but our intention to a get an early start was frustrated by the fog that greeted us when we woke up. The sun broke through and we finally got under way at about 1030 after it cleared but it was late so we contented ourselves with aiming for Carrybridge. We invariably take a hygrometer and a thermometer on holiday with us - this time we took two of each - so we can accurately say that while the temperature ranged between 45o and 60o F, the humidity was 95% every morning - the highest we have ever recorded, anywhere - but dropped down to just over 40% when the sun came out. We found the "liquid sunshine" as we learned to call the rain was probably more frequent than it would have been in Southern England or in France where we usually go in the Autumn, but then we don't go boating in October for the good weather and have some pretty good clothing. Emerald Star had recommended rope-soled shoes, which we had, but after wearing them on the first afternoon and getting the our feet soaked, we both reverted to our (green) rubber boots, which were much better suited for the prevailing conditions.We usually travel with a complete range of clothing - in canvas bags rather than cases - but neither of us had to use our winter woollies; the problem was wet rather than cold! In summer it would have been different.
After Carrybridge we continued on a circular tour round the islands, discovering on the way that a turning off along a river (the Arney) was not marked on our chart. It led to a dead end, so we had to turn round, and were then faced with the problem of going on a bit of the lake which from our chart could have been out of bounds - we were so uncertain we stopped and asked the right channel from a fisherman. Eventually we recognised the Inishmore Viaduct which was marked on the chart and discovered to our relief that we had been in deep water all the time.
In case there was another fog the next morning we played safe by steaming right past Crom Castle where we had planned to spend the night, and moored opposite the Emerald Star base at Belturbet. I usually swab the decks every morning, but the wet weather had precluded this - fortunately - however on that last day it was fine enough to do it before we went across the river to turn the "Ballyfarnon Star" in.
We were naturally worried about our IR£200 deposit on the boat, because although we had caused no damage, we knew it would be our word against theirs and they held our Credit Card Voucher. In the event this was handed back to us without any questions when we paid what we owed for the diesel fuel we had used in our 50 hours of engine use - not all moving as some of it was keep the batteries charged so we could used the heater and the fridge when we were stationary. Diesel was IR 40p a litre which was very good. The total for the whole trip - we had also topped up with fuel at the Emerald Star base at Carrick-on-Shannon - was less than IR£40 which seemed very reasonable, especially since places we have gone to in France charge by the hour, which means fast, high consumers gain, and slow economical people like ourselves who take twice as long to get anywhere lose. The only other extras were the Lock Card which cost us IR£20 and our food. Emerald Star also gave us another copy of the video - we had let our daughter have the first one - so although we had not actually taken any photos and the postcards we had found in the shops along the way had been poor, we went away with a nice souvenir of our trip.
I suppose that the nearest waterway we had been on that compared to the Shannon-Erne Waterway was the River Sarthe from Le Mans to Solesmes which has no commercial traffic and small locks. If you like commercial traffic then the Irish Waterways are not for you, but they do have quite a lot of pleasure craft as well as long stretches where there was nothing, and it is possible to choose between Lough Erne say which is open, has lots of islands but no locks and where beginners could find their feet, and the waterway connecting that to the Shannon which had 16 locks (each way). There is not much to see in the way of churches and cathedrals, castles etc like there are on many of the waterways we have been on, but the towns or villages all had much better shops than equivalent sized places in England or France, the general tone seemed to be pro-european [which we like] and we enjoyed the walking - apart from the fact that most other waterways have towpaths which provides flat good walking, but this had none.
I am sure that there are many other excellent companies operating along the waterways we travelled on:
Apart from Emerald Star, whom we liked, we also noticed, in no particular order:
One bonus which surprised us both was that everybody spoke English and drove on the left. We are used to holidays where people drive on the right and speak a foreign language. I think on the whole we prefer it when people are really foreign but it did make for a relaxing holiday. It's not really relevant but I am allergic to Guinness, and since Gill had not tasted it, she ordered one at the first pub we had a meal at: Curry and Rice (with chips) - the Beef in Ireland was excellent too. It was duly allowed to stand for the prescribed length of time on the bar and then brought to her. She drank half of the glass before deciding she did not like it. We wondered what they made of somebody who walked out of an Irish Pub leaving a half finished glass of Guinness.
Although I am allergic to grain, which rules out Beer and Whiskey, I am not allergic to apples so I asked if they had any apple based drink. They said rather apologetically that they only had "Cidona" which was non-alcoholic. I had a pint of that, and as we sat drinking our Cidona and our Guinness I had time to absorb the atmosphere. There at the bar were pumps for Harp, and Guinness, AND BULMER'S VINTAGE CIDER, which in Ireland presumably is not apple based! Since one of the reasons Emerald Star are so well set up is that they are a Guinness Group Company, the freeby as you sail away from the base is a relaxing glass of the stuff! We had our explanations ready ....
Would we go again? YES! Would we recomend it to our friends? We have!
(In conclusion I add that neither my wife nor I have any connection with any of the companies we have mentioned; we are just a couple of travellers who happen to like waterways ...)
We received an interesting email from our reader Robert Smith, Montreal, Canada, after his trip to Ireland during August 1999. His report as an update to our story - thank you, Robert!
I just read thru your adventures from when you travelled in Ireland, and really enjoyed your story.
My family and I have just come back from our trip to Ireland during the month of august (high season as you know) so our Shannon cruise was slightly different.
We had the same boat as yours, from Portumna however, and rented it for a four night cruise, I was not sure that i could handle a cabin cruiser by myself etc.. but that worry was quickly dispelled by my wife's cousin who has a sailboat in Dublin. He came along with his young son for the first day just to keep an eye on me and all went well.
I grinned when I read about your encounter with that lock keeper, our annoying experience was with the owner of a pub in Mount Shannon who overcharged me for the drinks we ordered. We had specifically gone back to that town (sort of a pilgrimage from the first trip we had done on the Shannon some 15 years ago with my wife's uncle). So to be ripped off by the new owner of the pub was rather annoying, luckily the only fly in the ointment for this trip. Oh yes, there was a small problem with the wiper arm on the windshield of the boat coming off, so I brought it back to Portumna on our way south to Scariff, and an electrician from Emerald Star line shattered the whole windshield when trying to tighten the arm, that took three hours to change, but it got done and I didnt loose my deposit .. !!
One part I want to mention was that this year's boat trip was basically a complete success since I had tried to rent a boat three years ago from another marina near Athlone, but had abandonned the idea after feeling completely unable to handle the particular model that was offered. That boat as it turned out was the exact model we had rented with my wife's uncle for our honeymoon in 1986! At the time her uncle Bill, (who has since passed away) and who was extremely familiar with the Shannon and had built boats himself, who had captained the boat for us, had considered that boat to be the worst one he had ever taken!
And here I was, years later, trying to handle that model as my first experience, it turned out to be a disaster, I did not feel confident and went back to the marina and returned the boat. My daughter Julia who was nine at the time, was most disapointed and so, this year renting the boat from Emerald Star line was a way to make it up to her and my wife.
This is one of the problems of trying to rent from a boat company that has models that are old and worn out. This is not the case with Emerald Star Line who's fleet has been carefully maintained. However, the only problem I might mention with the service we received from Emerald Star line was that on "checking in" at the correct time, the boat was not ready ! Even though we had called from Dublin before to advise them of our arrival time. At the Portumna facility, the employee at the counter informed us that we would have to wait an hour and a half, since the boat was not ready, but that since we were the first to check in for a Town Star model, we would have the first boat ready. This turned out to be untrue since while waiting for the video presentation to start, we saw a family who's car was parked near ours, load up a town Star and depart!
It was only after my wife's cousin David (who does not suffer fool's lightly) had spoken directly to the manager that we were promised a boat in fifteen minutes. this may seem trivial to be upset about waiting but if you have spent time before you arrive in Ireland planning out where you are going to travel, and HOW LONG it will take, it is important to get going the first day at a reasonable time, so you are not navigating in the evening.
And yes, we also noted that there was at least one error in the navigation map given to us by the company when it came to a major marker in Lough Derg, so pay attention to what marker you just passed.
Thanks again for your great story,