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Stormrider Guide to surfing Ireland - Donegal Bay

Ireland, EUROPE

Surfing Ireland at The Peak, Roger Sharp


+ Uncrowded reefbreaks - Rainy climate and cold water
+ Powerful swells - Windy conditions
+ Predominant offshores - Big tidal ranges
+ Cool people - Fairly pricey

NW Ireland (Eire) is one of the most consistent surf destinations in Europe and Donegal Bay has become the epicentre of surfing Ireland, since it is an area blessed with several world-class waves.

The prevalent airflow from the SW and a mainly north-facing aspect, open to most Atlantic swells, means the low-lying coastline that passes through Counties Donegal, Leitrim, Sligo and Mayo is a true surfer’s paradise. Perfect surf geology shapes triangulated reefs, rivermouth sandbars and assorted beachbreaks, evenly distributed around the bay. Bundoran is a regular international competition venue for both small and big waves. Further west, Easkey’s consistent limestone reefbreaks are as popular as ever with travelling surfers.

When to Go

Donegal Bay is so flexible it can fire at any time of the year, while September to November remains prime time. There are two standard weather scenarios, the most likely being that a low pressure system will travel E-NE across the Atlantic and hit Ireland, giving anything from 6-20ft predominantly W swells, producing sizeable surf on the north-facing beaches. Winds will start off as offshore from the S-SW before clocking around to the W, then NW and N, blowing out the bay. If a high pressure system establishes itself over the north Atlantic, (known as a blocking anticyclone), the storms are forced into higher latitudes, passing over Iceland towards Norway, yet the north-facing spots in Donegal Bay can still pick up the resultant NW-N swells. Dominant winds are SW-W year-round and are often in the F5 (30km/h+) strength band, although summer’s frequently shifting breezes will be lighter. The tidal range can reach 4.8m and most spots will be stable for two hours at low tide and high tide. Never underestimate the tide factor.

Surf Spots

Muckros is the spot to go when NW’ers are destroying the rest of Donegal Bay. Beachbreak peaks in small bay are best at low incoming on a swell with W in it. Deepest into Donegal Bay, Rossnowlagh is always smaller and less powerful than surrounding breaks, with friendly rolling close-out walls and lines of whitewash perfect for the fleets of beginners that frequent the 3km strand. Occasionally has some nice peelers and is often the only option in big, onshore swells. The south end rip can hold up some lefts and rights and it’s always better from mid to high. As famous for its place in Irish surf history as it is for its waves. Check out the memorabilia clad walls of the Surfers Bar or grab a Guinness at the Smugglers and meet some Irish legends. Lessons and hire available. Tullan Strand is a swell-magnet, ultra-consistent beachbreak, with a good low-tide wedge off the cliff at the southern end forming nice peaks for the local crowds. Big winter swells can scour out the sandbars and closeouts are prevalent up the beach so high tide is better. Rip along the bottom of the cliff is a handy conveyor belt out back. Lots of learners in the shorebreak. Famous, flawless A-frame known as ✪“The” Peak, since it offers a choice of a longer, high-performance, racy left wall or a shorter, slower, rip-bowl right. The cadence on the left is sweet with the odd pitching section until it gets beyond double-overhead and the sections come too thick and fast, making the deep channel paddle-out on the right far more attractive. Lower incoming tides are the go and any E wind round to S for the lefts, but it can be fun with onshore crumble offering hits and ramps. Always very crowded, unless it’s big, so know your ability and surf with respect, among the locals who all know each other. Beginners and intermediates can surf the sandy bit of Main Beach and rippers can pull in at Inside Left over the low tide slab. Look out for rocks, urchins, rips and poor water quality after rains (always!). To the east of The Peak in Bundoran Bay is 3D’s, a spring high tide only reef. Spitting left and right barrels over a barely submerged slab for bodyboarders and tube freaks only. Heading west out of town, Pampa is the exposed headland at the end of Bundoran’s bay. This is a serious wave for expert barrel riders as it sucks up heavily on the vert take-off and rifles off cylindrically over an unfriendly, incongruous reef. Easy enough to launch off the rocks but getting back in is tricky at size, which it handles with aplomb. The best locals have it dialled and don’t take kindly to blow-ins who get out of their depth. Black Spot is the last break in Co Donegal on the next protruding point after Pampa. Pulls in the swell to an exposed peak that barrels hard on the quick low tide lefts, before pushing tide brings more manageable, longer rights, but still quite hollow. Tullaghan Right is a fairly fickle, high tide only, right reef/point. Can be dangerously shallow over the uneven, bouldery reef, especially when it’s small. Safer depth when bigger but then the wave can be powerful and punishing. Quality Tullaghan Left rolls down the boulder point in big swells from the W-NW and is perfectly happy if the SW’ers are blowing. Even more sheltered is Mullaghmore Strand, the place to go on stormy big swells for variable size and quality beachbreaks. Perfect for longboarders and beginners in the lee of the headland and more push at the E end. Ireland’s premier big-wave spot is Mullaghmore Head, where a savage, shallow, lefthand reefbreak produces massive tubes for those fearless or crazy enough to try and ride this most challenging of big waves. Handles any size swell, but needs to be well overhead to break clear of the exposed rocks and it’s only surfable on higher tides. Handles a bit of SW wind so makes the most of big winter storms, but a bumpy face spells disaster. Has been paddled at size, but is usually a tow-in spot and jet-ski support is crucial for safety with the proximity of the rocks. Streedagh Strand is a banker for average beachbreak peaks when the SW’ers blow-out Bundoran. Doesn’t handle too much size but will be bigger and more powerful at the E end on pushing tides. Other good waves in the area. Strandhill’s popular, reliable beachbreak sees a variety of options from hollow split peaks in the middle of the beach to Bluerock - a long righthand boulder point at the north end and more waves towards the southern end rivermouth. Uncrowded Dunmoran Beach is a good option for beginners/intermediates when the swell is up. Sheltered from big swells and SW winds. Consistent but rarely epic, Easkey Right can throw out some serious tubes but normally it’s a long, whackable wall. W swell and low tide is best, attracting a decent crowd year-round. There are plenty of alternatives in the immediate vicinity. Easkey Left is even more popular since it works on all tides and any swell. Handles plenty of size, which ramps up the currents and SW winds are no problem. Nice drop to cover-up or coping and bends back over the shelf with a shreddable shoulder. Pollacheeny Harbour entertains a rarely seen righthand tube, breaking over boulders, with two sections breaking on either side of the harbour entrance channel. Long, fast, powerful and incredibly fickle. North of the pier at Enniscrone, a fast, hollow righthand pointbreak breaks over a sand-covered reef. High quality wave but needs a solid N swell to fire, as the swell window is limited and it is often blown out. Inishcrone has seaweed baths, a surf school and a beginner-friendly beach popular with kiters. Kilcummin Harbour deflects a powerful lefthander that breaks hollow and heavy at size and gets better the bigger it is. Can handle a W wind, but best on SW. Popular when other spots are maxing, so gets crowded. Respect the locals, the currents, the wave and avoid the unforgiving rocks on inside. Lackan Bay catches empty peaks along a scenic beach, with good shelter from W winds. Bunatrahir Bay provides deep shelter for a left reef north of the harbour on the west side of the bay. Needs the unlikely combo of a N swell with S winds to get going so low consistency spot that’s rarely crowded.


dominant swell W -N W -N W -N W -N W -N W -N
swell size (ft) 6 5-6 3-4 2-3 4-5 5-6
consistency (%) 20 50 50 40 70 30
dominant wind S -W S -W SW -NW SW -NW SW -NW SW -NW
average force F5 F4-F5 F4 F4 F4-F5 F5
consistency (%) 54 44 47 59 51 54
water temp (C) 8 9 12 16 13 10
wetsuit 5/4 5/4 4/3 3/2 4/3 5/4

Travel Information

Ireland is known as the Emerald Isle for good reason – the land is very green, thanks to the amount of rain it receives. If the rain begins to get you down, then bear in mind the local saying “It doesn’t rain in the pub”. Despite the British Isles northerly latitude, it is not that cold because of the Gulf Stream’s warming effects. It rarely snows in the winter and freezing temperatures occur only at night. However, winter is a hardcore time to surf in Ireland requiring a thick 5-4mm wetsuit, boots, hat and gloves. Summertime sees warm, sunny periods between showers and long daylight hours. A 3/2 steamer is ideal in summer and early autumn. Historical min/max of 8.1/16.1ºC (47/60ºF) measured in Bundoran for Mar/Aug.

Lodging and Food
Ireland is not a budget destination. B&B’s will cost at least $50/dble. AirBnB can be better value. Bundoran Surf Co and TurfnSurf have lodges. There are campsites everywhere, but Ireland’s wet climate can make this a miserable experience. Filling meals can be had for $20.

Nature and Culture
Western Ireland is a stunning patchwork of lonely valleys, lakes and low mountains, scattered with cottages and old castles. Irish culture centres around the pub, where drinking Guinness and listening to traditional music can be shared by all. Check out the Surfer’s Bar in Rossnowlagh, Maddens Bridge Bar in Bundoran and the McGowan’s in Easkey to name just a few.

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