Monday 18 July 2016 Crossing the Bay of Biscay.
Whether justifiably or otherwise, in my mind the crossing of the Bay of Biscay had assumed monumental proportions. One pilot book recommends taking on extra crew for the crossing. All of them agree that it’s tricky. One old salt I consulted in Falmouth who’s crossed Biscay many times said “it’s always a mess”. All this, coupled with the fact that I’d yet really to get into the swing of things, prompted me to invite Nick to join me for the crossing. But his holiday ran out before a suitable weather window presented itself. So I reverted to plan A: just me.
Day 1 Tue 5 July 2016
My course across Biscay is predominantly southwest, followed by a day or two heading due south at the end. The weather forecasts have been dire for ages and I’ve despaired at ever getting away. Furthermore, the different forecasters have been disagreeing on the outlook, suggesting that there’s little certainty. At last, however, they now all agree that there will be a brief period of northwesterlies over the northern part of the route.
If I can use these to get south quickly enough to avoid the southwesterlies that are forecast to follow them then I’ll have mixed but mostly fair winds all the way to Spain with perhaps one day of light contrary winds to deal with. I’ll be perilously close to some southwesterlies immediately to the west and north of me and there may be some calm spells so this isn’t a great forecast but it’s much better than it has been for weeks. And the good bit is that there are no strong winds forecast by any forecaster for over a week. So I may be becalmed, I may have to motor, I may have to beat into some light southwesterlies, but it shouldn’t be rough. I decided to leave and sailed out onto a blue sparkly sea under a blue sunny sky.
Day 2 Wed 6 July 2016
I sailed about half the time over night and, as there was essentially no wind at all, motored the rest. The main thing though was that it was really cold! Out of the three annoying factors, the cold, the rolling of the boat and the engine noise, the cold was the worst. I wore two T-shirts, two fleeces, an oilskin jacket and a wooly hat and was still chilly.
By mid morning it had become a lovely sunny day but the wind was light and bang on the nose so I kept the engine on, keen to get south of the southwesterlies forecasted to set in to the north. I’m usually of the view that it’s a good idea to study the weather closely before departure but, having once left, just to take what comes rather than to be forever downloading weather files and obsessing over their contents. Nonetheless, I downloaded a GRIB file over the satellite link. There’s still no heavy weather in the offing but, contrary to the forecasts before I left, they’re now predicting contrary winds that I can’t avoid for much of the passage. Hey ho.
In due course a bit more of a wind sprang up and I was at last able to sail. It was glorious! The sea was blue and beautiful under a warm sun. That’s what it’s supposed to be like!
It was all over in a few hours though. The winds fell light again so reluctantly I turned the engine back on. Here’s the quandary: The engine is noisy. Life aboard is not much fun when it’s running. It’s tolerable, but not fun. Drifting along under sail is delightful but really slow. The trip would take twice as long as planned if I were to dawdle all the way, increasing my chances of getting caught up in heavy weather. What to do?
I can’t decide. I’ve spent much of the day in a mental fug brought on by too little sleep, too little food and, most of all, the engine dinning in my ears.
Day 3 Thursday 7 July 2016
I had a better night last night. For a start it wasn’t so damned cold. Also, I’m more relaxed now.
It’s been some time since I did this solo off-shore sailing lark and it’s taken a whileor me psychologically to feel at home out here.
Physiologically, I’m finding my sea legs now, too. I’ve had breakfast, lunch and a big dinner today. I’ve sailed with the engine off most of the time, which has been just glorious and, to put a cherry on the cake, some dolphins came to say hello.
There was lots of shipping, though. There isn’t an official shipping lane across Biscay but most ships go directly from Finisterre (the NW tip of Spain) to Ushant (the NW tip of France). I’ve drawn this unofficial lane on my chart and plotted my own course to the west of it. Nonetheless I still needed to avoid several ships that looked as though they were coming my way.
I bought Miles Davies’ album “Kind of Blue” just before I left Falmouth and I played it for the first time as I drifted along under sail in the gathering dusk. It’s so cool! I picked up the movie camera and filmed the scene in the cabin before wondering outside with the camera where I found the moon had risen and, right on cue, some more dolphins appeared. It couldn’t have been better staged in Hollywood. I’m beginning to enjoy myself.
Once I can figure out how to do it I’ll post the video here. It’s marvelous!
Day 4 Friday 8 July 2016
Apart from the first hour I’ve sailed with the engine off all day today, tacking back and forth into a headwind of anything between 10 and 17 knots. Aside from that and the usual navigating, cooking and making endless cups of tea I seem to have been quite busy. I syphoned the contents of both spare diesel cans into to main tank, tightened the engine’s drive belts, checked the oil and pumped out the bilge which seemed to have more water in it that I’d expect so I also spent a while looking for where it might be coming from. I didn’t find anything conclusive though.
Sadly, I seem to be developing a cold. Damn! I had one on the trip to the Azores a few years ago, too. Is this a coincidence? To brighten my day, however, a whale popped by. It’s hard to tell but it seemed to be roughly the same size as the boat.
When writing my diary I found I couldn’t remember how many days I’ve been out here. I had to go back a few pages to check. It’s amazing how quickly one switches into off-shore mode, living in one’s own little world.
Day 5 Saturday 9 July 2016
I only managed 50M made good in the last 24 hours although I sailed many more than that, as the chart shows.
In quick succession two cargo ships seemed intent on running me down. Both answered the radio and altered course though. Later I called a tug that was towing something big and going to get too close for comfort. He went away to consult his instruments then came back to me saying “ah yes I can see your little red light now” and altered course.
As well as the awkward motion, sailing hard on the wind means that the boat is heeled well over. I found that there was water on galley floor when I was heeled hard over to port. The bilge was full. I think the water, or at least some of it, is coming from the hawse pipe. I don’t normally bother to plug this as the decks aren’t normally awash, but then I don’t normally beat to windward in a force 5 for hours on end, either.
Four hours later the bilge was full again. Having previously seen a dribble of water coming into the engine bay from the cockpit lockers I heaved out their contents into the cockpit. The port one was dry but the starboard one, which often has water in it, contained more than usual. I pumped it out as best I could, surrounded as I was by heaps heavy stuff like the anchors that are normally stored in that locker, all shifting around as the boat rolled. I don’t know if the water’s getting into the locker and thence into the bilge, or into the bilge and, when I’m heeled hard over, from there into the locker via the hole through which the exhaust pipe passes. I suspect it’s the latter.
I’m receiving Navtex transmissions from both France and Spain at the moment. All the weather forecasts include the word “rough” which sounds scary but I think it refers to the big Atlantic swell rather than the local waves.
Today was not really a good day. My cold persists but has at least advanced to the next stage: I now have a cough and a sore throat. I ate little. I don’t know if my cold or the motion of the boat is affecting my appetite.
Day 6 Sun 10 July 2016
Just after midnight I reduced sail further as the wind had increase to a steady 21 knots from the southwest, and pumped out the bilge again. After a brief nap it all seemed much more frenetic outside. The wind was the same so I guessed the sea had got up a bit. I couldn’t see this, though, as the night was as black as a cat. I reduced sail still further, to just the staysail and double reefed main. That’s better! The Navtex forecast is for SW 5 to 6.
In the early morning the breaker for the cabin lights tripped and would not reset. It’s tripped before but has always reset after a while. As it’s been intermittent the fault has been hard to trace. So although being plunged into darkness didn’t improve my day at least the fault remained constant so I could find it and fix it. The breaker itself was to blame so I replaced it with two others with half the lights on one and half on the other so that a similar failure in the future would not affect all the lights.
The wind has shifted so that for the first time this trip I can actually sail my course without tacking. Initially I was still under staysail and double reefed main but when the wind fell back to 18 knots I hoisted a reefed yankee as well.
Day 7 Mon 11 July 2016
I began to think about my arrival. Of course, I’ve not learned any Spanish. I find learning languages hard so I put it off in favour of just about anything. My last plan was to learn the basics on the way across but, well, I’ve been a bit busy. So here I am, with Spain just below the horizon (I hope!) and only able to say “hello” in Spanish. Should I go straight to an anchorage? That would be easiest and would not require any talking. But I think I should check in with the authorities and it’s the marinas that arrange that. I decide to try phoning a marina and hoping they speak English but all I get is “you have dialled an incorrect number”.
It’s a lovely day and the sea is beautiful with a huge Atlantic swell rolling under a boiling sun. The wind dropped so I hoisted the cruising chute for a while. Then, when the wind died away to nothing, I motored the last few miles and called the marina on the radio from just outside their entrance. To my relief a friendly voice answered in English and offered to come and take my lines. So at 20:35 I tied up in Marina Coruña after a six-day passage. I’ve had contrary winds that seemed either to be too light to sail in or force five. And I’ve had some issues to deal with. But they were all dealt with and I’m pleased with that. I’m also pleased that I seem to have arrived in good shape. When I got to the Azores a few years ago my brain was so fried I spent a couple of days just gazing vacantly into space. This time I feel fine.