Donegal has many miles of coastline, some of which are 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 retain most of their original features. An example of such is a cottage on Owey Island that can be rented out, but which has no main 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 must not 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’ and should give 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. Another good bet is 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.
James O’Donnell is a member of the British & Irish Canoe Association and is a fully insured and up to date sea kayak guide and instructor with rapidkayaking.com. He has spent the last 16 years exploring and paddling the Donegal coastline and offshore islands, which has given him a great awareness and understanding of this wild, natural environment with its marine and bird life. James offers fantastic opportunities for kayaking in Donegal and along the Wild Atlantic Way. A keen competition paddler and recent British surf kayak champion, he is also involved on a local level offering leadership and mentoring to community kayak clubs in his aim of advancing and promoting the spirit of kayaking.