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Finn Mullen gives a spot guide to Streedagh beach in NW Ireland, which offers wave and flat water sailing just metres apart in scenic surroundings.

WORDS – Finn Mullen // PHOTOS –Darragh Gorman / @lighthouse.industries, Katie McAnena.

Northwest Ireland may have sprung into the spotlight of surf media in recent years because of its abundance of world-class waves, but alongside its bone crunching breaks lies some more user-friendly spots too. One of which is Streedagh Beach, 20 minutes drive north of Sligo town and nestled at the feet of the Dartry mountain range, which provides the scenic backdrop for its long golden sands. From a windsurfing perspective, what makes Streedagh so appealing is that its north to northwesterly facing aspect makes it cross-shore in west winds that batter the rest of the surrounding coast, and that away from the waves, it also offers a safe flat water lagoon at high tide, just metres from the surf.


And if that doesn’t interest you enough, Streedagh’s sands have a tragic past. It is on these shores that sailors from the Spanish Armada were shipwrecked by storms in September 1588, with over 1000 dying, and to this day the remains of the La Lavia, La Juliana and the Santa Maria de Vision remain there, protected by an order that prevents diving or exploration of the wreck sites without government permission. They had been part of a 130-ship strong force intent on invading England before they were repelled and chased up its east coast. That prompted an order to return to Spain by their commander, but North Atlantic storms meant a large number of the ships floundered off the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Artefacts have been washed up or recovered from excavations and there’s a nearby visitor centre in Grange (spanisharmadaireland.com), a monument as you enter the beach area and annual local festival, all dedicated to the Armada. If you see the remains of a wooden boat at low tide, don’t get too excited though, as that is what is known as ‘The Butter Boat’, which is actually ‘The Greyhound’, a coastal trading boat out of Whitby in Yorkshire that travelled regularly between Britain and Ireland, which sank in a storm in December 1770, with only one of the 21 people on board surviving. If all that isn’t historic enough for you, then even more ancient is the many fossils on the rocks at the southern end of the beach!


In modern culture, Streedagh’s scenic sands have been used in the movie ‘Calvary’ starring Brendan Gleeson, and more recently the ‘lockdown’ hit TV show, ‘Normal People’, which was the most-streamed BBC series of 2020 with 62.7 million views! In ‘Normal People’, Streedagh is the setting for Marianne and Connell’s romantic walks in the dunes, overlooked by Ben Bulben, a large flat-topped mountain, often compared to Cape Town’s Table Mountain. The mountain also features in W. B. Yeats’s poem, ‘Under Ben Bulben’ and the famous poet is buried in nearby Drumcliffe.


Amongst such historic and inspiring settings, Streedagh is an attractive destination whatever the weather. But if you want to windsurf then you’ll want to know more about when this beach works! Streedagh is port tack cross-shore in a westerly wind, becoming more cross-off and gustier as the wind backs to the southwest and more cross-on and cleaner wind as it veers to the northwest. Southerly is dead offshore and it can be windy in this direction, but comes with all the dangers of an offshore wind. Northerly is bolt onshore, but due to the curve of the bay, there can be a little bit of an angle for a jump or ride at either end depending on the exact wind direction – NNW is port tack and NNE is starboard tack. NE, East and SE winds are less common in the area, but provide starboard tack sailing from cross-on to cross-off, though can be quite gusty coming off the mountainside. Locally west winds can come in a little less than forecast as they come over the headland, whilst north winds come in stronger with a clean run across the bay.


As for waves, NW swell is best, but like most beach breaks, you don’t want a huge swell that can close out and anything over 3 metres can get spicy! If the swell has a more westerly component than the size can be reduced as it has to wrap around, and in that respect can offer some respite in bigger swells. The beach works best in a groundswell, but strong winds can push a wind swell in, just don’t expect much bite to it and the more onshore winds offer the best potential for any bump up. The break itself is a punchy wave that can jack up quickly on the banks offshore and is more suited to riding than jumping. It can and has claimed many a mast, so beware of being too brave if it’s looking ‘thumpy’. Out the back, an offshore reef can work in bigger swells, but isn’t without risk given its location. Otherwise Streedagh is a regular beach with the normal hazard of rips and just a bit of shorebreak to contend with and the odd exposed rock at the southern end in the shallows opposite the car park. These rocks appear mostly after big winter storms expose them, and disappear as the beach fills back in with sand in calmer times.


Generally if there is any size to the swell at Streedagh I would use a slightly bigger board than usual to help punch out through the break. As for the flat waters of the lagoon, that needs a big 3-metre plus tide to happen. You have to be careful of the lagoon’s depth, but when it’s full it can be deep enough to foil. There isn’t a huge local windsurfing scene, but most days you can be sure of some company by the friendly local windsurfers or kitesurfers.

There is plenty of free parking by the beach, just watch out for big tides that can flood the car park, in which case you just park further up the approach road and walk in. In summer the beach can be busy on good weather days, but otherwise there is lots of room for everyone. There is plenty of grass to rig up on, just watch out for dog poo!

There are lots of accommodation options locally, and if there’s no wind, surfing is very popular at Streedagh, as is walking along its 3 km length, and a nearby horse-riding school offers beach riding. Alternative sailing locations nearby are Rosses Point, Lisadell Estuary and Mullaghmore for flat water and Strandhill and Rossnowlagh for waves.


What makes Streedagh unique for me is it’s stunning backdrop, cross-shore conditions in a west wind that lash the mostly west facing coast nearby, and the novelty of having safe flat water just a few steps away from roaring surf. Whether its having family fun in the summer, or riding waves in the winter, it’s a really versatile beach that always gives some sort of reward and a worthwhile stop if you’re touring Ireland’s west coast.


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