8. The Bay of Biscay!

The big day is here! 25th September 2015 – our departure day for our crossing across the Bay of Biscay. This is one of those notorious maritime areas that people always go on about, and we had heard horrific stories of Force 11 storms blowing through… So it was with some trepidation that we had checked and re-checked all the various weather forecasts for the next week, and planned our route! Everything still *looked* ok – nothing more serious than a Force 5, nice wind direction and otherwise quite reasonable. The first day or so would be motoring, as there wasn’t enough wind to warrant put the sails up (3 or 4kts from the wrong direction), but we didn’t have enough fuel to motor the whole way, despite the full tank and 6 full jerry cans…

So how did we get on? Obviously we survived, but what was it like??

We woke up earlyish, and we realised that we still had quite a bit to do! The previous day’s oil/coolant hunt had taken a big chunk out of our afternoon (OK, and the route back via town and the beer didn’t help)…. So the main thing was sourcing those, as well as a manual fuel pump to ease decanting fuel at sea. We also discovered that we had a *very* old Spanish courtesy flag, and no Portugese one whatsoever, so off to the chandlery it was! And Sainsbury’s to ensure we had adequate refreshments of the standard type for our triumphant arrival!

The next thing was to fit the dodgers. These are strong PVC sheets that go around the guard rails of the cockpit and afford some protection from crashing waves – if only we’d known we  had these for Dieppe!! They were not quite as difficult to fit as the netting, but almost as time-consuming, and our planned midday departure slipped rapidly away from us. However, Bella enjoyed some time with an amorous dog called Rusty – all good life experience I suppose. Eyes closed, thinking of England. Innocence gone.

We finally left the pontoon at around 17:00, which was high tide, so none of those pesky grounding issues that befell us on the way in! We refuelled. A lot. Jerry cans and all – the trip was to be just over 450 miles.

The last re-fuel before the off!
The last re-fuel before the off!
Leaving Falmouth
Leaving Falmouth

Then we were off! It was a beautiful evening – although windless – and we had a beautiful motor out of the Fal estuary and into more open waters. There were plenty of fishing boats around (we set our own lines up, but quickly proved that we were no threat to them by only catching a couple of pounds of seaweed), and the sun set beautifully behind the headland.

The open sea! We make it to the open sea just after sunset, although the moon is so bright so we don’t want for light. We have dinner (pasta – it’s all about the carbs!), and start the 3 hour rolling watches.

All is quiet until the AIS alarm goes off a lot – unfortunately while Jamie is sleeping off his watch – as we enter what is obviously a big cruise ship route…. This is an alarm on the chart plotter that tells us if it thinks we are going to get too close to any big (or other) AIS registered ships. They are mostly enormous commercial ships, or cruise ships lit up like Christmas trees though, so we couldn’t have missed them – although good to know that the system works! Luckily we don’t make contact…

Essentially, not much happens on watch in areas like this. The sea, even just offshore, is incredibly vast, and there is plenty of room for us all.

I came back on watch about 04:30. It was cooler, but not cold… Rather a bit damp. Jamie saw the moon set, but I was relieved to see that the only two constellations that I know (Polaris and Orion’s Belt) are out to keep me company! Polaris was so bright, it even reflected on the sea.

There was still no wind to speak of, but we hoped to try and sail later. Personally I had nothing against motoring the whole way on a fairly calm sea (!), but fuel levels take that option away from us.

The sunrise was quite stunning, and casts a gorgeous orangey pink light over us. The dewiness also lifts so it was pretty chilled just sitting and reading with a glance around every once in a while to check for big ships (or any ships for that matter). We were off the headland in NW France and entering the Bay of Biscay!!!

Jolly nice!
Jolly nice!

We had bacon and eggs at shift change to celebrate our arrival in French waters, and I went below for a rather good sleep! The last half hour of the three hour watch  always seems to be the worst.

By the time it’s time to come back on, the wind had picked up enough to sail! Free movement! There was, however, one snag…. The main halyard (the rope that pulls up the mainsail) had been a bit loose and had wrapped itself around the mast steps and – more annoyingly – the radar reflector near the top of the mast…. Note to selves: do not attach the main halyard too far in advance of wanting to utilise it to haul the main….
Jamie heroically volunteered to lose his mast-climbing cherry on the Bay of Biscay!!!

Jamie up the mast!
Jamie up the mast!

Having helped Mike (Brighton’s Yacht rigger) ascend many a mast, I was perfectly happy in my rôle of ‘holding a rope and not leaving the deck’… We got Jamie tied in and up he went like a monkey up a palm tree (he won’t like that comparison, but he looked about as home up there – on the assumption that monkeys are fine about scaling palm trees). He got the halyard untangled, while I kept tension on it (to stop it happening again), then he spotted a pod of dolphins! Lots of them, and big too! They certainly outdid the little things we saw off Cornwall! We got him down, then spent a while watching them play around the boat – there were 5 at this point, but by the time we had tidied up at the mast, they’d signalled their mates, and there were 10-12, all jumping and playing off our bow! Very cool to see them so close and actually in their environment! We discussed (briefly) jumping in to swim with them, before just cursing the fact that the GoPro wasn’t charged up!


So, within a few more minutes, we were actually sailing! Almost the first time in our trip to be honest, due to winds etc! We erred on the side of caution and stuck a reef in (maybe we have learned something?), but were still averaging about 5kts, on a nice comfy sea. For free. Which is the main point of being in a sailing boat to be fair!

Finally sailing!!
Finally sailing!!

We continued to sail for the next 150 NM, the wind turbine and solar panel provided our power now that the engine was off, and the autohelm doing its job perfectly. The wind turbine made some pretty weird noises, but it’s always nice to have something to fix, isn’t it?! The sea was breathtakingly vast, and we barely saw any other vessels. Sunrises, moonrises etc, but no more dolphins. It was really peaceful without the engine on too, and we settled easily into our watch routines. We are in the Atlantic Ocean! This is more like what we thought things would be like!

About half way, the wind started picking up, and it was crossing the waves, so sailing the direction we wanted to go either meant waves broaching us (a bit dangerous if they were to get bigger) and us having to constantly helm which is incredibly hard work (both physically and mentally) when it’s like that (the auto helm doesn’t like those sorts of conditions – and neither, come to that, do I), or tacking in and out of where all the large ships seemed to be routing. We were in Force 5 winds, with broaching 4m waves over our sides, pets that were freaking a bit, and to be honest, unsure what the best course of action would be at this point… I don’t mind admitting that I was getting pretty apprehensive by then, and this quickly decreased into not being able to produce and verbalise a rational thought – a situation Jamie dealt with admirably, I must add! On went the engine again and we motor-sailed until the autohelm decided it didn’t like the wave/mainsail combo either. Luckily I had pulled myself together by this stage (!), so it was down with the main and back to straight motoring. We were also, we confess, getting a bit bored, despite the fear (!) and the ‘let’s just get there’ mentality kicked in – and yes, in the full knowledge that even ‘just getting there’ involved at least another 48 hours’ on the boat! We hope that from the point at which we arrive in La Coruña, things will be a lot less pressured… The time limits will be gone, and we can happily day hop or overnight sail our way from there, thus the ‘just get there’ mentality should – we hope – dissipate fairly quickly. I imagine vast amounts of Galician seafood will help us relax into it too!

We dipped the fuel tank with the special calibrated stick, and found we have used less than we’d feared following the incident on the leg to Plymouth. The fuel stick is invaluable, so we planned to make a spare just in case anything happens to it. We topped it up with 10 gallons from the Jerry cans anyway (via our excellent new hand pump – so much more pleasant than one of us having to perform an old school siphon!), and we kept running at constant revs with the idea that we could dip again in a few hours and get a rough idea of how much we were using. Unfortunately, as we were putting everything away the valuable special calibrated stick met with a bit of an accident with Jamie’s foot… Should have made a spare…!

We did a running repair to the stick with a cable tie (the best fix after duck tape and WD40) and some whipping twine, and vowed to make a new one when we get to Spain!

The weather relentlessly continued to be the same for the next 36 hours – banging waves and winds up to Force 7 (it was like being en route to Dieppe again, and you’ll remember how that worked out for us!!). However, we were half way across the Bay, and the closest bit of land was about 150 miles away, so we had to keep pressing on! We tried to pick the most comfortable angle to the waves, but that was no mean feat, and watches had suddenly gone from relaxing affairs where we produced some nice hot food and caught up on some reading while watching for dolphins (and other ships…), to constantly checking and changing headings and protecting ourselves from the next wave. We got quite good at that telltale bang that would preceded several gallons of water crashing into the cockpit and all over us…. Unfortunately Bella didn’t, and got regular soakings, which she hated only slightly less than being left downstairs in the cabin alone!

The unpredictability of the constant movement was getting to us; we were battered and bruised from falling into stuff. There was no let up at all, we had the lee cloth up in our watch berth, but constantly being pushed into it, followed by being slammed back against the sofa and back into the lee cloth again meant that we weren’t getting a good sleep when we were off watch. Coupled with the constant rumble of the engine which, although improved since fitting the acoustic insulation, is still like sleeping next to a heavy duty tractor. We had ceased being able to cook a decent meal, despite the gimbles on the cooker, because the restraint bar (that stops us falling into the cooker) had come off, so it became too dangerous to have hot water and open flames around with the pitching and rolling! This meant our eating suffered as we reduced ourselves to water, digestives, crispbreads and tracker bars! Our oilskins, gloves, hats, etc were getting soaked on every watch and couldn’t dry them in time for the next watch, and putting cold, wet gear on gets tiresome and morale-sapping fairly quickly. The toilet had also stopped flushing out effectively, and when we tried to counter this with bleach, it turned into a foaming volcano of bubbles. Every trip to relieve ourselves became fraught with slip hazards and disgust, and only marginally better than risking any other methods of toiletage. Everything was getting to us. We start to forget that we are doing this for fun.

The final night was a particularly long slog – mentally and physically, topped off when we had to do some running repairs to the engine at dawn, which was Jamie’s final straw and low point of the trip. Luckily things that we had done before, but cold comfort when we were still 50 miles offshore and we were dispatching silent prayers upstairs that *this time* the engine would turn over…. The relief when it did finally fire was palpable!

The end was, at last, in sight as the sun came up on the 29th! Still a painfully long way though, and the distance just never decreased as fast as we wanted it to!

The final approach!
The final approach!

However the moment finally arrived – Land Ahoy! Spain!!!!!!!
We were concerned about our fuel situation as the engine had been fighting waves the whole time over the last couple of days – we had decanted all 6 Jerry cans by this point – so we stuck the Genoa up and sailed in to La Coruña with our courtesy flag up, and the Royal Ensign flying proud!!

La Coruña Marina... Finally!
La Coruña Marina… Finally!

The marina staff (Marina Coruña) came to escort us in and show us our berth, but unfortunately they didn’t tell us that was what they were doing, so we ended up doing a few several-point-turns before we were safely alongside! The marina staff were really friendly and efficient and we were booked in quickly. Facilities are great, and the city looks lovely, so we’re off to explore and enjoy a few days of rest!

We’re in Spain!!!!!!!!!!

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