Gallivanting (Slowly) in Galicia
Updated: Oct 17, 2021
That night we were woken by rain pouring in through the hatch straight onto our bed, thunder rolling and lightning flashing, while the anchor alarm repeatedly blared its nuclear panic button theme tune that Luciano has selected...
After the Biscay crossing we spent some blissful days in a marina in the historic Galician city of A Coruña - home to the world’s oldest working lighthouse dating from the First Century AD. Being able to live in a boat that bobbed obediently in its moorings rather than chucking us and all our possessions from one side to the other was a massive relief. Adding to our sense of the post-Biscay prize was being able to explore A Coruña, with its walled old city hosting distinctive upper storey white painted window frames projecting out into the narrow streets with lovely bars and restaurants down every random side street. They even sold non alcoholic beer (for Luciano) and we found vegan pistachio ice cream (for both of us!) One day we went to the beach. The white sand and warm temperature tempted us into the crystal clear sea. But it’s still the north Atlantic and still freezing!
After rushing to cross Biscay as soon as possible to avoid the risk of the Autumn gales, we felt we could slow down and take it easy. Maybe we relaxed too much. To be honest we hadn’t thought beyond Biscay, although we were aware the Portuguese Atlantic coast was fairly exposed. However, we found that the northern tip of western Spain has a number of little rivers to anchor in and even some islands that are part of an Atlantic national park that you need permission to go to. We applied for the permission and got it. To get to these lovely places we first needed to get round the edge of the northern coast where winds can be strong. Our fellow Irish sailors were also planning to leave on the same day, Monday and we agreed to meet at Camariñas, a river with very sheltered anchorage from all wind directions. “The weather’s going to get bad,” said the Irish girl, “even thunder and lightning from tomorrow”. I hadn’t seen that in the forecast. “Really?” I said, ‘which weather app are you using?” She looked sheepish and said “well everyone takes the mick, but I just use weather.com.” “But,” she insisted, “I do find it is usually more accurate than the others.” “Oh, right,” I said sceptically. I checked the apps, they all said ‘cloudy,’ so I didn’t worry about it.
I mentioned we had got lazy; we left nearly two hours after the Irish couple and progress was very slow. The wind was extremely light when we left in the morning, so we had to turn on the engine and just have the mainsail up. As the day progressed the wind picked up and we could turn off the engine and put up the genoa. It was on a day when the wind was changing direction, which made it very difficult to sail. Eventually it settled, but in the direction against where we were going, so we had to tack in a zig zag pattern. The winds were also very strong going round a headland and so we were going even slower. You can tell that Northwest Spain gets windy by the proliferance of wind farms that dot the coast. We realised we weren’t going to make it to Camariñas before dark.
Luckily northwestern Spain is a hospitable place and there was another river before Camariñas with a bay on each side to offer shelter from winds, depending on the direction. Camariñas is a developed place, very well sheltered, with marinas. Where we were headed was two villages (Corme y Laxe) either side of a river, which could be affected by swell. Plus the wind direction was going to change overnight and the almanac seemed to be suggesting that the good holding for anchors was outside the harbour breakwater. In contrast, the anchor symbol on the charts was on the side of the breakwater, which seemed strange as that would block the passage of the fishing boats. We nervously crept in; we weren’t too sure what we were going to find.
We were greeted by the smell of pine from the trees that rose up from the hills above a white sand beach and multicoloured houses. There was a tiny harbour with little fishing boats moored up, and reassuringly, there were two sailing boats anchored off the beach. Seeing other boats anchoring is always a good sign. We managed to anchor successfully and to brush off the paranoia that the tannoy announcements coming from the beach were admonishing us for anchoring in the wrong place; turns out they were for swimmers. We messaged the Irish couple and said we wouldn’t make it to Camariñas, but would try and see them there tomorrow. “Don’t forget there’s thunder and lightning coming,” messaged the Irish girl. “We’re just going to stay in the marina.” I checked our specialist paid weather app for sailing. ‘Chance of showers’. I checked a range of other websites and apps. They all said there was a ‘chance of showers’. Except for the Irish girl’s favourite weather.com, which showed thunder and lightning. Not far to Camariñas the next day, we thought; we will have to put on our waterproofs for the showers.
O the glamour of living on a yacht! That night we were woken by rain pouring in through the hatch straight onto our bed, thunder rolling and lightning flashing, while the anchor alarm repeatedly blared its nuclear panic button theme tune that Luciano has selected. As I was trying to get towels to dry the soaked bedding and stop the deluge of water coming through above us, Luciano yelled that we had bigger things to worry about, that the anchor was dragging. He was pulling on his sailing waterproofs to get outside and check what had happened. I realised he was right and followed suit. We went outside, lightning flashing around us and rain pouring. Anchors work by digging into the seabed. Sand and mud tend to have better holding than seaweed, gravel or rocks. Importantly you need a length of chain lying along the seabed which weighs the anchor down and stops it pulling out. You need five times the length of chain for each meter of depth you are anchored in. In the UK you also have to allow for the rise of tide and let out extra. The tidal range in northern Spain was negligible so we hadn’t needed to worry about this. You also have to be careful not to be close to other boats or rocks or other objects so that as the boat moves round according to the wind, you won’t hit anything. When setting the anchor alarm, Luciano had allowed double the length of the anchor chain we had let out to account for a 180 degree swing in the wind. When we went up, we saw that we had indeed swung 180 degrees and were now facing out to sea rather than facing the beach. He adjusted the alarm to give a bit more leeway but it still kept blaring. Then I saw that the depth had dropped from 7.5m the night before to 4.5m. In my groggy sleep deprived state I couldn’t get my head round this as I was convinced I had read Spain was not very tidal. Then I realised that because we had swung to the beach side, we were now in shallower water. This meant less of the chain was vertical reaching up to the boat and more was horizontal on the seabed, accounting for a wider swinging circle. We stayed up there to check that no bearing on land was moving to show we were dragging and checked the coordinates on the chartplotter. They seemed stable. Satisfied we were not dragging we went back down to deal with a soggy bed.
Water was continuing to seep through the hatch. I had left it open a crack before going to sleep for ventilation, but had closed it as soon as I realised the water was coming through. This hadn’t stopped the water coming in, though. However much I was wiping the ceiling with towels, I still kept getting dripped on. Hatches and portlights (windows) on a boat are an ever present source of leaks. We had already removed and resealed a particularly leaky portlight before we left, which had not been 100% successful. We knew that this hatch above our bed was a bit leaky but kept it covered with a hatch cover. However, this appeared to be insufficient for the thunderstorm. I got out of bed again and put on the sailing waterproofs to go outside. The lightning flashed. I grabbed a large tarpaulin from the boat and covered the hatch with it, wedging it under the dinghy and some heavy ropes to stop it blowing away. I was afraid of being struck by lightning and quickly dashed back down again. Both sides of the duvet were now soaked. I threw it on the floor, lay towels on the bed and got out a sleeping bag. Luciano decided to take his chances in the drier living room.
The lightning continued to flash. Gone are the days when I would try to scare my mother by playing on our metal climbing frame in the garden in the middle of a lightning storm. I am much more of a wimp these days. Knowing that you are essentially living inside a capsule surrounded by electricity conducting seawater and that your mast is a giant lightning conductor, means you don’t feel quite as safe as you do at home on land. The fact my Atlantic Crossing guide also has a chapter dedicated to lightning strikes on boats also demonstrates the regularity with which this happens. Somehow I was able to sleep that night and when we awoke the next morning, the boat had not been struck. It was pouring with rain though, so we waited until the afternoon before proceeding the short distance to Camariñas.
It may have been a short distance, but those wind farms and its position on the edge of the Bay of Biscay should have reminded us that it wouldn’t be easy. It looked like four and a half hours on the chartplotter at an estimated speed of four knots - a conservative estimate, I thought. We started OK. We put up the sails and were on a close reach of 60 degrees to the wind to get out of the bay we were in and round the next headland. The wind was in the mid teens. As the afternoon wore on the wind steadily increased to consistently in the early twenties and gusts of up to 28 knots. The waves were getting bigger. As we rounded Cabo Vilán, our speed had dropped to less than three knots and we decided to bring in the genoa and turn on the engine. This seemed to make no difference, so we also brought down the mainsail. This also seemed to make no difference; we had the same set of rocks and lighthouse alongside us for hours. We decided to put the mainsail back up. I turned the boat into the wind and heard Luciano exclaim. The sail had only gone a little way up and the halyard, the rope which lifts the sail up the mast, had somehow got tangled around our radar reflector. We inched towards Camariñas.
Sailing is full of ups and downs. Have you ever seen the end of a rainbow? As we rounded the misty entrance to Camariñas, the sun appeared and a perfect tiny vibrant rainbow materialised, each end standing glowing on the sea beside us. Our speed increased and we entered Camariñas and anchored without problem. The next task was to untangle the halyard. This meant climbing the mast. I’ve only done this once before, at our marina in Southampton. I had forgotten to lock off the strings holding the lazy jacks (the bed of canvas which lies along the boom in which the sail is supported when it is sleeping). When we lifted our new mainsail to try it out, we couldn’t bring the sail back down. This is very dangerous if the wind increases and you have a fully powered sail up in a marina full of expensive boats. We realised the end of the line for the lazy jack had got jammed in the mast when the sail was lifted. I had to climb to the top of the swaying mast during the final of the Euros with the sound of cheering echoing through the night. Now it was time to climb it again. As the halyard was the line tangled, we couldn’t use that to winch me up. The spinnaker halyard, which is for the spinnaker sail, which you use when sailing downwind, had also got tangled with the halyard. This left one remaining line which runs up our mast and only goes up halfway. A dry, greenish rope of dubious age. I tried not to think about it. I strapped into the bosun’s chair and Luciano winched me up with this rope. I managed to untangle the halyard and was safely winched back down again.
If you are still reading, you can stop now. I feel the need to confess our most stupid and inexcusable mistakes in the last week, so I’m sliding them in at the end of the post in the hopes not everyone will get here. Dumb and dumber moment number one: having arrived in A Coruña, we decided to be diligent and take care of our equipment. Putting on the instrument covers, the winch covers, the steering wheel cover and the sail cover. Making the most of the freshwater in the marina to rinse everything of the corrosive salt water it had become encrusted with. One of the things that can become corroded with sea water is the metal CO2 cartridge in your automatic life jacket inflator. Once they become corroded it is safer to keep it for practising and replace it with a clean one. Let’s blame my jumbled brain on the shaking it got during the Biscay crossing. I dunked the lifejacket into a bucket of freshwater with the aim of preventing this corrosion. It instantly inflated, as it is supposed to do on touching the water. Annoyed at what an idiot I was for wasting a CO2 cartridge, I then panicked as I saw the aerial of the personal AIS alarm pop up and the light start flashing. We both installed personal AIS alarms in our life jackets so that we can be found by our own or other nearby boats on the AIS if one of us goes overboard. It, too, is automatically triggered when immersed in water. It was now sending a distress call to all nearby ships. I frantically fumbled to switch it off. Frustrated, I inserted a new CO2 cartridge into the lifejacket, but I had forgotten to first unscrew the firing cartridge, so when my fingers froze, I realised I had just wasted a second new CO2 cartridge!
Amateur week didn’t stop there. You may remember from blog post one that our outhaul cable which stretches the sail along the boom had snapped en route from Dartmouth to Plymouth. We had paid a company to drill out the rivets which attach the boom to the mast as this is the only way to remove the old cable and thread the new cable through. One of the first warnings we had received from a skipper who gave us a couple of lessons when we went to pick up our boat from Cardiff was to always put a figure of eight knot on the end of any line. This is important for the reefing lines and the genoa lines and the mainsail halyard. Losing any of these lines can mean failure to retrieve a sail or other mishaps. When you reef a sail, you reduce its size according to the strength of the wind. At the mast you attach an eyelet part way up the sail to a hook on the boom, so the whole sail isn’t hoisted. Along the boom you pull on the equivalent reefing line so the end of the sail is raised at the same height as the mast side of the sail. Thus you keep the triangular shape of the sail, but it is smaller in stronger winds. As we left A Coruña on our way to Camariñas, we had both sails up. Mainsail in full, as the wind was light when we left. As we proceeded however, I heard Luciano cry out “Oh no, we are so stupid”. We had just paid nearly £400 to have the boom removed and the outhaul cable and some other components replaced. Now we had forgotten to check after these remedial works if the reefing lines still had the figure of eight knots at the end of them. Turns out the third reefing line hadn’t and had gone inside the boom. No easy way of retrieving it without removing the boom.
So we’ve made some stupid mistakes and we still haven’t installed our new automatic bilge pump. I’m personally amazed we made it through the Bay of Biscay. We’re going to try and up our game before we cross the Atlantic...