River and estuary sailing: 10 of the best cruises in the UK and Ireland

Sailing upstream is a magical experience. Our experts choose 10 enchanting rivers and estuaries to explore in the UK and Ireland

When the weather is fine you know it’s the time for messin’ about on the river.’ Who are we to argue with folk singer Josh MacRae?

Luckily, there are a plethora of rivers and estuaries to choose from in the British Isles, with options to suit all boats, even those that can’t take the ground.

Rivers and estuaries are magical and varied places.

There are wildlife havens, like Newtown Creek on the Isle of Wight; historic waterways, like the Medway, and charming rias like Cornwall’s Fal Estuary.

Discover the delights of cruising up river with our suggestions…

Tayport harbour with yachts moored against pontoons

Tayport is a drying harbour. Credit: Dennis Hardley/Alamy Stock Photo

Tay Estuary for Perth

Recommended by Sarah Brown

The Tay is the largest volume river in the UK with some 5000 sq km of catchment draining much of the southern highlands and Perthshire, and so the estuary and river are impressive for their scenery, wildlife, tides and shifting sands.

Navigable with care all the way up to Perth (shipping goes this far too so keep an eye out behind you), there are plenty of warnings about fluctuating river levels and floating debris to watch out for, but the challenge of the sail is rewarding and Perth itself is filled with history, good food and cultural opportunities aplenty at the outstanding Perth Theatre.

The Tay and Earn Trust (www.tayandearntrust.org) have pontoons at Perth but if you decide to stay in the outer estuary then Tayport provides good shelter in the drying harbour in soft mud, although the top of the harbour dries early on an ebb.

River and Estuary Cruising – Getting there

There is a strong tidal entrance where you should expect stronger ebb flows after heavy rain inland.

From the south, route well offshore to avoid the Abertay Sands before following the buoyed channel. There is less obstruction when approaching from the north.

The Forth and Tay Navigation Service (www.forthports.co.uk) covers the river up to just past the railway bridge (VHF Channel 71).

Also listen out for Dundee Harbour radio on VHF Channel 12 for any potential ship movements.

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For first-time visitors to Conwy, it is best to approach on a rising tide, a few hours before high water

For first-time visitors to Conwy, it is best to approach on a rising tide, a few hours before high water. Credit: Howard Litherland/Alamy Stock Photo

Conwy River, North Wales

Recommended by Jonty Pearce

Tucked into Conwy Bay south of Great Orme’s Head winds the River Conwy, giving access to the historic town of the same name.

A massive castle and 12th century walls stand guard on the riverbank where a triple barrier of the Grade 1 listed Stephenson tubular railway bridge, the Telford suspension bridge, and a modern road bridge halt further upstream passage.

The town is a maze of streets packed with pubs, shops, and restaurants; yachts can berth at the town quay, floating pontoons, or in one of the marinas.

Boats that cannot take the ground need to secure a marina berth; the Conwy River is best navigated with at least half a flood tide under the keel.

Pilotage on the river is dependent on conditions and the tide. Channel buoys mark the shifting estuary channel out to the fairway buoy.

River and Estuary Cruising – Getting there

The approach from the north rounds Great Orme’s Head into the shallower water of Conwy Bay; don’t follow the coast round, instead head 215°T for 3 miles to locate the fairway buoy.

From the south and the Menai Strait, although clear water can be seen, the direct route is blocked by Dutchman Bank and Lavan Sands. Detour round Puffin Island before taking a course of 115°T for 3.5 miles to the fairway buoy. 15 channel markers lead up to the town.

A rising tide a few hours before HW in calm conditions is sensible for a first visit.

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Kilrush Marina is a good base for exploring the estuary and is accessible at all states

Kilrush Marina is a good base for exploring the estuary and is accessible at all states. Credit: Geraldine Hennigan

Shannon Estuary, Ireland

Recommended by Norman Kean

Most yachts sailing round Ireland head straight from Dingle to the Aran Islands, missing the Shannon.

This is a pity, since the estuary is a lovely cruising ground between rural shores. It is also an important commercial port, but the shipping scarcely disturbs its peace.

The town of Kilrush on the north shore has a marina behind a lock gate, offering perfect shelter, and there are many anchorages.

The muddy creeks of the tributary rivers offer opportunities for exploration.

The prettiest of these is Paradise, on a winding channel at the confluence of the River Fergus. Paradise House, now a ruin, was the home of William Henn, who challenged unsuccessfully for the America’s Cup in 1886 with his cutter Galatea.

The 31m yacht had a draft of 4m, and of course no engine, yet Henn sailed her up to Paradise, through a labyrinth of shallow channels.

River and Estuary Cruising – Getting there

The mouth of the Shannon is 40 miles from the marina at Dingle in west Kerry, and 150 miles from Cork harbour.

The south-west coast is a fabulous cruising ground in itself, and the Shannon estuary offers a tranquil and gentle contrast to the cliffs and ocean swell.

The tide at the two-mile narrows south of Carrigaholt runs at up to 4 knots and can raise overfalls, but the streams are less in the upper reaches.

The marina at Kilrush is an ideal place to winter a boat, and Shannon airport is a short bus ride away.

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Visitor swinging moorings and a pontoon are available at Lawrenny Quay

Visitor swinging moorings and a pontoon are available at Lawrenny Quay. Credit: Drew Buckley/Alamy Stock Photo

Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire

Recommended by Jane Russell

There is no doubt that Milford Haven is aptly named.

At the far south-western corner of Wales, facing out to where the Bristol Channel meets the Celtic Sea, it is an important and busy commercial harbour for the largest of tankers, yet it is also a wonderful, natural cruising haven, with all-round protection from winds and swell.

Much of it lies within the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.

Anchor at Dale and explore this stunning coastline of craggy headlands and golden sands.

Then head up the estuary to one of the marinas at Milford Haven or Neyland, or continue under the bridge into the River Cleddau. Enjoy a meal at Lawrenny Quay or glide on into another world of tranquility under wooded banks.

With shoal draught or dinghy there are several days of exploring to be had further upriver, far from the reach of Atlantic storm.

River and Estuary Cruising – Getting there

Milford Haven is well-marked, but stay outside the deep-water channels, keep watch for ship movements and beware the wash from working tugs.

In strong south-westerlies avoid Middle Channel and Chapel Rocks between the two entrance channels.

In these conditions the ebb can also create dangerous seas close to St Ann’s Head – head for the edge of the East Channel where it should be a bit quieter.

There are some protected habitats within the estuary where anchoring is not allowed. Download the Leisure User Guide at www.mhpa.co.uk.

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Yachts moored at Instow on the Bideford EStuary

Only boats which can take the ground can moor at Instow. Credit: MH Coast/Alamy Stock Photo

Bideford Estuary, north Devon

Recommended by Jonty Pearce

The combined estuary of the Rivers Taw and Torridge opens into Barnstaple Bay over the notorious Bideford Bar.

Once past the buoyed channel leading to Appledore the River Torridge heads 2 miles southwards to the market town of Bideford, passing Appledore to the west and the village of Instow to the east.

Alternatively, shoal draft craft (or tenders) can turn north-east off Appledore and take the flood tide up the 6-mile winding River Taw to the attractive town of Barnstaple, though local knowledge is needed.

Passage southwards beyond Bideford is limited by the old bridge, but the town quay welcomes announced yachts and gives access to the town’s attractions.

Appledore offers good shops and pubs, and pretty Instow is worth a visit. The whole area dries, apart from Appledore Pool, therefore it’s not for boats that cannot take the ground.

Be aware 90m ships might make the passage to Bideford.

River and Estuary Cruising – Getting there

As with all shallow bars and estuaries, timing and good conditions are the keys to a safe entry.

Watch out for overfalls off Bull Point at the north of Barnstaple Bay and off Hartland Point to the south, and aim to approach the freeway buoy no earlier than 2 hours before HW.

Avoid entry in fresh onshore winds and in any significant swell, and follow the buoyed channel and leading marks until past the Pulley starboard buoy and Grey Sand Hill dunes.

Turn to port along the line of moorings for Appledore Pool.

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Trelissick House on the banks of River Fal, Cornwall

The upper reaches of the River Fal offer quiet anchorage, including overlooking Trelissick. Credit: Roy Perring/Alamy Stock Photo

River Fal, south Cornwall

Recommended by Jane Cumberlidge

The Fal Estuary, Carrick Roads and the river to Truro make this the third largest natural harbour in the world.

At 34m deep it can accommodate big ships which are often laid up in the upper reaches. With its towns, villages and numerous creeks this is a fascinating cruising area to explore.

Defended by castles on opposite shores, Pendennis and St Mawes, this was an historic safe haven. Superyachts often berth on the outer arm at Port Pendennis.

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Ferries shuttle locals and tourists back and forth across the estuary.

In Falmouth be sure to visit the National Maritime Museum (www.nmmc.co.uk) then try the Wheelhouse Crab and Oyster Bar (01326 318050).

Further up in Restronguet Creek the Pandora Inn (www.pandorainn.com) is a classic meeting place.

Near the King Harry ferry, the sweeping lawns of Trelissick House (www.nationaltrust.org.uk) come right down to the shore.

On the tide you can get up to Truro with its wonderful cathedral and pannier market.

River and Estuary Cruising – Getting there

The mouth is a mile wide and can be approached at any state of tide. Be sure to avoid Black Rock in the middle of the estuary, there is also a red buoy just east of the rock.

St Anthony Head lighthouse stands quite low down on the east side. It’s best to use the east channel if entering at night.

There’s a host of marinas, mooring buoys or anchoring possibilities to choose from on the Fal.

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England, Devon, Dartmouth, View of The River Dart from Kingswear (Photo by: Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Beyond Dartmouth and Kingswear, the Dart becomes quieter, with plenty of creeks to explore. Credit: Getty

River Dart, south Devon

Recommended by Ken Endean

The Dart Estuary is not the longest in the West Country but is easy to navigate for the whole way from mouth to tidal limit, with moorings and access to the shore at several places and enough variety to entertain a crew for several days, whether for a planned inland excursion or if trapped by bad weather.

Dartmouth and Kingswear have good shoreside facilities and two marinas plus various other pontoon moorings and some space for anchoring.

At the upstream limit, Totnes is another substantial and historic town, with alongside berths, although the river here dries at low water.

The middle of the estuary epitomises rural Devon, with the river meandering around rolling hills and cutting steep, tree-clad slopes.

There are two picturesque villages, Dittisham and Stoke Gabriel, with visitor moorings, landing stages, pubs and shops.

It is also possible to make a high tide excursion up Bow Creek to the Maltsters Arms (www.the-maltsters.co.uk).

River and Estuary Cruising – Getting there

The Dart is a popular destination for yachts heading west across Lyme Bay.

The Mewstone and some other detached rocks lie to the east of the entrance but most are well marked.

Within the estuary, off Dartmouth, pilotage is more complex, with moorings of all kinds, two ferries, plenty of commercial traffic and fairly strong tidal streams.

Further up river, life becomes quieter but large excursion cruisers run frequently and need clear fairways, so take care when anchoring.

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Newtown Creek and River, Isle of Wight

It is best to enter Newtown Creek on a rising tide. Credit: Peter Bruce

Newtown Creek, Isle of Wight

Recommended by Jason Lawrence

Owned by the Natural Trust and located 5 miles west of Cowes, Newtown Creek is a favoured anchorage and haven for those looking for shelter and peace from weather or Solent activity.

It is probably one of the best anchorages in the Solent and as such can be very busy on summer weekends.

Once secured it is possible to take the dinghy up to Shalfleet Quay, walk to the pub, or explore the river and scenery. Bird life abounds and you might be lucky enough to see a seal or two.

There are plenty of walks stretching through the nature reserve, with dinghies often seen pulled up on the beach.

At low tide, the mud flats open up and a peace descends allowing a connection with nature.

With a shallow draft boat it is easier to find solitude in the reaches of Newtown River or Clamerkin Brook.

River and Estuary Cruising – Getting there

Approached by a narrow channel through the shingle banks, the creek opens up to allow some pilotage up Newtown River or east towards Clamerkin Lake.

Mooring buoys are available with the majority in Newtown River; it is possible to anchor in Clamerkin Lake especially for those with shallow draft.

The tide can run fast through the narrow entrance and with the shallow nature of the anchorage it’s always good to arrive on a rising tide.

Shalfleet has a pub and small village shop, about 1.5 miles from the anchorage.

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Upnor, Rochester, Kent, UK. A yacht leaves Chatham Marina and sails into the River Medway and past Upnor Castle.

The Elizabethan fort of Upnor Castle is just outside Chatham Marina. Credit: Andrew Beck/Alamy Stock Photo

River Medway, Kent

Recommended by Nick Ardley

The River Medway is a relatively small river which once housed two naval dockyards and was an industrial powerhouse.

Bricks, cement and barges were major industries, and the remnants can still be seen today. Sail the river to Rochester bridge, beyond if able.

Numerous creeks provide quiet solitude at anchor.

Medway Yacht Club (www.medwayyachtclub.com) has moorings and a friendly clubhouse. Rochester, and all of its historical delight, is a bus ride from Chatham Marina.

The old Historic Dockyard Chatham (www.thedockyard.co.uk) makes a fantastic day out.

At Queenborough, visit the museum and enjoy a history walk. A train stop away is the UNESCO listed Sheerness Dockyard (www.sdpt.org.uk).

The true delight of the river is its numerous water-filled creeks in which to anchor. Stangate and Sharfleet are the most popular. Seals and a profuse myriad
of waders will delight.

From Stangate, Lower Halstow’s old barge dock and a friendly village pub can be reached. Marvellous!

River and Estuary Cruising – Getting there

From the north, head down the Swin, crossing the main shipping channel. From the east, sail along the north Kent coast and Swale or from the tidal Thames, navigate in accordance with Port of London guidance (www.boatingonthethames.co.uk).

The river is ideal for pottering and it is worth exploring the Swale too.

The best bases are at Queenborough Harbour (www.queenborough-harbour.co.uk), which has moorings and alongside berthing, and Chatham Marina (www.mdlmarinas.co.uk).

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PXREP1 Derelict boats lie on the mud at Pin Mill.

Pin Mill is little changed since Arthur Ransome cruised here in the 1930s. Credit: Bill Allsopp/Alamy Stock Photo

Rivers Orwell and Stour, Suffolk

Recommended by Jane Russell

These two connected Suffolk rivers are a lovely, self-contained cruising ground.

From one to the other, going down with the ebb and up on the flood is rewarding, whichever way the winds bend.

Upstream of the cranes of Felixstowe, the gentle, open banks of the River Orwell become more wooded as the river captures you in its embrace.

There are several marinas to choose from, but lovers of Arthur Ransome will know that the heart of this bustling river lies at Pin Mill with its pub and boatyards, its barges and barge blocks.

From Halfpenny Pier at historic Harwich the River Stour leads west into Constable country, totally encompassed within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

This is a river of serenity and sunsets, best savoured at anchor to the sound of the oystercatchers.

River and Estuary Cruising – Getting there

Harwich entrance is straightforward but stick to the small craft route just west of the main channel and keep an eye out for container ships and smaller coasters.

Pick up a visitor mooring off Pin Mill or anchor off the small beach. Don’t try to get onto the hard at the bottom of the tide!

There is usually a vacant mooring at Wrabness, but you can anchor anywhere on the Stour, outside the channel.

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