17th December

Where is Ireland's marine leisure infrastructure?

Norman Kean, marine consultant, author and editor

Ireland has some of the finest sailing waters in the world, yet its marine leisure industry is hugely underdeveloped. But trying to invest in it is usually a bureaucratic nightmare. Planning guidelines are vague; planning decisions are made in a knowledge vacuum, and foreshore licensing can take years and cost fortunes.

The Government report: Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth shows a sign of good intention, but so often in maritime matters, the devil is in the detail and the agencies of the State just don’t seem to get it.

Schull - was ever a marina more needed? Planning permission has been granted, but many challenges remain. Photo Geraldine Hennigan

Schull - was ever a marina more needed? Planning permission has been granted, but many challenges remain. Photo Geraldine Hennigan

By ‘marine leisure infrastructure’ I mean visitors’ moorings; pontoons; piers; harbours; slipways and – at the top end of the scale – marinas of (say) 50 berths and more.Here are some key points about marinas in particular:

• they’re not necessarily profitable. A marina smaller than 200 berths has a struggle to remain viable as a stand-alone business

• they provide the nucleus for a lot of economic activity. The annual Reeds Marina Guide carries adverts for 43 different types of businesses - everything from pubs to haulage contractors. Marinas create jobs

• they are (at worst) environmentally neutral. They don’t cause pollution; they don’t disrupt wildlife and they aren’t noisy or dirty. And despite the previous point, they seldom look busy with people.

 Peace of mind

Marinas are convenient, safe and secure places to keep a boat; but for sailors they aren’t tourist attractions in themselves. Few people will sail miles out of their way, or tackle a challenging headland, simply to visit a marina.

Day-to-day visiting boat numbers depend on these factors, more or less in order:

• volume of passing yacht traffic

• location close (but not too close) to other large communities of leisure craft

• ease and convenience of access from seaward

• local attractions and amenities within walking distance • marina facilities Kinsale (for example) ticks all the boxes - and does indeed receive many hundreds of visiting boats each year.

But a marina in Westport (for example) would see very few; however it could be amply justified by actual and potential local demand - and there is another market. Overseas visitors to Ireland are welcomed with open arms.

But there are only three ways for them to cruise in Irish waters:

• sailing their own boats to Ireland. From Great Britain, that can be a challenge for many. From France, it’s at least a 48-hour ocean passage. From anywhere else, it’s a lot further. Not everyone’s cup of tea

• chartering a boat here is quite difficult, since the available boats are few, largely because of Ireland’s inappropriate and draconian regulations

• Basing own boats in Ireland.

This is the most promising opportunity of all, and one where a coordinated overseas marketing programme could yield good and lasting results.

Coastline diversity

The east and south coasts ― benign in summer, nearest to Britain and France and with closely-spaced harbours, offer the scope for a string of marinas ― not only for permanent berth holders but ports-of-call for boats on voyages long and short. The west and north coasts, exposed to the swell and with sparser populations and challenging headlands, offer tremendous wilderness sailing.

There is no need for a ‘necklace' of closely-spaced marinas on the whole coast, to facilitate sailing all the way round Ireland. Not many people have the time or the inclination, and for those more intrepid sailors, an overnight marina berth is not a necessity in any case.

There are many beautiful places around Ireland which, let’s face it, should simply be left alone. But some locations are obviously ideal for marina development.

Maritime journalist W.M.Nixon has made an eloquent case for Dunmore East as a key landfall port for yachts. I might mention Schull, Bantry and Westport, but there are many more, and there needs to be a considered and consistent national strategy for this.

Let’s identify those places where marinas would be necessary, justified and beneficial. Let’s do it in a way that is well-informed, objective and transparent. Let’s involve people who know what they’re talking about. Let’s have the planning process reflect the realities of geography, weather and the marina business. And let’s have no more decisions made by parish-pump conspiracy and endorsed by expensive, but inexpert, international consultancies. And let me offer a definition of marine leisure.

It is essentially an active outdoor pursuit. Its participants interact with the sea. They are not merely spectators. They are at least prepared to get wet, and many of them specifically intend to. The cruise liner business and the Wild Atlantic Way are worthy projects with huge potential, but – dear Failte Ireland – do not confuse them with marine leisure tourism.

For the typical cruise liner passenger, the sea is merely the means of moving his hotel from place to place. 

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