Leaving England: Crossing the Channel and the Bay of Biscay
Updated: Oct 22, 2021
"Biscay is the ordeal that sailors from northern Europe have to endure to reach the happy hunting grounds of the Med or Caribbean in their next life"...
I must confess to some trepidation about this stage of our trip. So far our journey hadn’t taken us out of our comfort zone. When we brought our boat back from Cardiff to Southampton last Summer it was our first time in charge of a boat on our own with my stepdad Andy helping out. We practised sailing and anchoring then and did one night passage but as there were three of us we could do our nightwatches in pairs. Our furthest distance offshore was ten miles to Lundy Island in Devon. That pirate outpost of yore already felt a long way from the mainland! Crossing the channel to France meant a journey of more than 100 nautical miles and solo nightwatches and a busy channel of fast moving container ships and ferries that will probably not see you and are not able to take rapid evasive action in any case. This means you have to be the one to avoid them, which is not that easy when you travel at five knots and they travel at over 20.
Although we had only arrived in Falmouth the day before, we saw that the weather and sea state was going to be very calm the next day and wanted to take advantage of it. We had to time our departure to coincide with arriving at the beginning of the inshore channel called the Chenal Du Four at two hours before high water. The Chenal Du Four is the route taken by smaller boats to avoid the traffic separation scheme for the big container ships as they round the northwest corner of France. Brittany has extremely strong tides and that’s why we had to try and time our arrival there so that the tide would be with us and not against us. We calculated we should depart Falmouth at noon on Thursday 26th August after filling up with fuel. We put up our sails and practised heaving to, which is a technique you use to stop the boat in stormy weather, or if you just want a lunchbreak in the middle of the ocean. We were semi successful at this on our first attempt. The wind was very light so we started motorsailing but realised that if we were to tack, we would not make our arrival time at the beginning of the Chenal Du Four. So we brought the sail down and motored. Our autopilot only works in a very calm sea and this was it. The sea was undulating, smooth as silk, gently rocking us from side to side; the surface only broken by the splash of playful dolphins performing alongside us. We were able to relax and enjoy the sunshine.
Our excitement at reaching the 12 mile limit of UK waters and entering international waters for the first time was only slightly marred by Luciano’s discovery that water was coming in through our rudder shaft. This was something we thought had been fixed before we left. We had Matusadona lifted out of the water and a new rudder bearing moulded by an old guy who used to work on Moody boats back in the 1980s before they ceased manufacturing. Luckily it is only a trickle, but the rudder is sited right near our batteries - also new and we didn’t want the water ruining our only source of power - including our means of starting the engine. Luciano resealed around the bearing and we will have to monitor if that works.
For a crossing of more than a day we had to do shifts at the helm so we could take some time to rest so we could be alert on our nightwatches. We did four hours each in the daytime and three hours each overnight. I thought I would find it difficult to stay awake on my own in the dark; but there is nothing like five container ships heading towards you at the same time, all abreast of each other, to keep you wide awake. We have three ways of detecting other vessels at night. One is radar and we set an alarm to go off when another vessel entered within a four nautical mile radius of our boat. The second method is AIS (Automatic Identification System) that uses satellites to track those boats that have an AIS transponder. Luckily larger ships all have this, but not all yachts or smaller fishing boats will have it. The third way is to use your knowledge of the different lights carried by different types of vessel and from that work out if they are passing you on their port (left) side, shown by a red light, starboard (right) side, shown by a green light or coming towards you (red and green plus white if they are motoring or two white lights if they are longer than 50m; or moving away from you (a white light). Fishing boats and other types of boats also have other configurations. As container ships travel at more than 20 knots and are not very manoeuvrable, we have to notice and think about what evasive action we need to take while they are still some miles away from us. This can be complicated if there is more than one of them coming towards you, or if they change course. With five boats coming towards us at once, I had to decide which ones we would be able to pass in front of and which ones we would have to aim for them to pass in front of us. Often you can’t take this action until you are already in front of the others, which you must pass at a right angle to ensure you are in their path for the least amount of time possible. At night you can only see an array of lights passing disturbingly close past you.
Then when your shift is over you have to be able to trust that your fellow crew members; in this case, my equally inexperienced husband; can also successfully execute these manoeuvres so that you can get three hours sleep and be alert enough to do the same again on your next shift. My second night shift ended at 6.00am and the sun came up as I handed over to Luciano. I slept for an hour and a half before I had to wake up again to help Luciano navigate the Chenal Du Four, an inland route between a range of islands on the northwest corner of Brittany and the mainland. We had to be careful to stay within the channel markers as rocks are strewn outside the buoyed passage and the tide moves incredibly fast. By this time we were feeling good as we had successfully made it through the night and past the dangers of container ships and were nearing landfall in France. As we started to near the marina in Brest, where we had to go to do our immigration checks, the tide reversed and we started going incredibly slowly. Every time we looked at our ETA on our chartplotter it said 2.5 hours to go! Eventually we made it in. Brest is a port of entry where we had to go through customs, not just dash to an anchorage. It has two huge marinas but is also home to busy commercial and naval ports. We were extremely tired and a little confused about where to go and in the end the harbour mistress pointed us where to go with the dinghy. We docked successfully and after securing the boat, grabbed our documents to go and check into the marina and through customs including the cats.
Customs was a short walk away from the marina. We rang the bell and no one answered. We rang all the bells and no one answered. Eventually some passing workmen managed to get us inside the building. “Sorry, customs is closed until Monday”. In the end we decided to stay in the marina a bit longer. We wouldn’t be able to fight the tide in a dinghy if we were anchoring and the marina was nearly half the price of one in England. We had to install the bilge pump too and do some other boat work before crossing Biscay. A hot shower and 16 hours of sleep did the trick and we could complete our errands in Brest at a relaxed pace with a couple of espressos on the way.
Crossing the Channel was a breeze compared to the Bay of Biscay. This was the part of the trip I had long been dreading and why we were rushing to prepare our boat to get across quickly. The best time to cross is between May and July; after that time you can face a long wait to get the right weather conditions to cross. It was now the end of August. The Bay of Biscay is notorious for shipwrecks and although the actual sinking of ships is far less likely nowadays due to more accurate weather forecasting and the fact that sailing boats now have engines, it is still a difficult passage. There is an extended continental shelf surrounding the coasts of western France and Northern Spain. This shallow water leads to large waves and breaking seas as the whole force of the Atlantic Sea rushes into the Bay. The weather window is everything when crossing. You do not want to cross when the wind comes from the West as this means the wind has built up across the whole of the Atlantic making for dangerous seas. Weather forecasting is much improved now, but there are still unpredictabilities, especially some of the winds which come rapidly over Northwestern Spain. We were considering whether to take a more experienced skipper with us for the passage given our complete lack of experience; most insurance companies insist on a minimum of three experienced crew. In the end we decided against it as we thought the crossing would be traumatic enough for the cats anyway; they are not partial to strangers. Plus we had had several out-of-budget expenses already for the boat. One of the skippers we considered had previously crossed Biscay in a forecast of an Easterly wind Force 5 on the Beaufort scale, 17-21 knots ‘a fresh breeze’ This unfortunately turned into a westerly Force 9, 41-47 knots, a strong gale, during the crossing. Another sailor we had met at our marina in Southampton had crossed four times, twice with good weather as predicted; the other couple of times the weather turned very sour.
Choosing the right forecast is not easy; you can’t go when the wind is too light as you will run out of fuel if you need to turn on the engine for too long; but you may not get the perfect conditions of 15 knots of wind from the east. In the end while at Brest we decided to go with the forecast we had; an Irish couple on the boat next to us were going to leave on the same day. The wind was predicted to be coming from the east for the next few days, although it was predicted to be a little stronger than ideal - up to the 25-27 knot range at times, before dropping light 4 days later and then turning west. We realised we should just leave with the forecast we had; you have to bite the bullet and so we just went for it.
Biscay is the ordeal that sailors from northern Europe have to endure to reach the happy hunting grounds of the Med or Caribbean in their next life. You go through hell for three days and nights to reach the sunlit southern climes you’ve been dreaming of all those years while saving for your boat. Let’s focus on how we were lucky first. The weather forecast held - we had winds of between 16-27 knots from the North east or East for the whole three days and nights of the crossing. We still had to live with the fear that it might turn at any time, but it did in fact hold. Another thing that worked out well was the sea sickness pills (thanks mum!) - they really worked. We needed them. The waves were massive, easily more than four metres. What makes Biscay difficult compared to say, the Atlantic is that the waves are not big smooth rollers that you gently bob up and down on, but huge churning rushing breaking inconsistent spasms. We have an autopilot; which sadly does not work in large waves. It is far too slow as the wave flings you across 90 degrees to the wind, to correct the course, so the headsail crashes with a bang to the other side of the boat. As we don’t yet have a mechanical wind vane to steer with, we had to steer by hand for three days and three nights in these huge waves. This is made even harder by the fact that our helm is incredibly stiff as we had to have a new rudder bearing made, as water was coming in. Until it loosens up, we need to use a lot of force to turn the steering wheel. Given the physical exertions of steering, we had to take one hour watches only, sometimes two hours in the daytime. So for three days and three nights we were either at the helm trying to steer to stay on course, at the correct angle to the wind for the sails to stay on the right side of the boat, avoid fishing boats and to avoid the boat being beam on (sideways) against the waves as this can increase your chance of capsize in large seas. While we were off watch we had to try and lie down and get some rest. Trying to do anything in that washing machine other than lie down or be on the helm would lead to certain nausea. Each time we went down below we had to remove our safety line, lifejacket, sailing jacket, sailing trousers and wet shoes and reverse the process when we went back up. We had to set an alarm to go back up as the person on the helm could not leave it for a second.
Aside from the general anxiety and exhaustion of the sailing, we had a couple of other moments of minor panic. The first was soon after we entered the French side of the Bay. We turned off the engine and were hurtling along under reefed genoa(headsail) and mainsail at a rate of 7-8 knots. When you turn off the engine you also have to switch the battery to domestic battery only so you don’t drain your starter battery. You also have to close the engine seacock. Seacocks on a boat are the holes in the hull necessary to either bring in seawater (to flush the toilet or to cool the engine) or to drain water out (such as the sink). While on passage you try to keep these closed to avoid water coming on board the boat. In the case of the engine the seacock must be open while the engine is on in order to stop it overheating. When Luciano went down to shut the seacock, he noticed the propeller was still spinning rapidly. Why was this when the engine was turned off? Did this normally happen? We had never noticed it before. We waited to see if it would stop, but it kept rapidly spinning. He checked the stern gland which prevents water coming in from the propeller - it was hot. We thought of all the worst case scenarios. That the propeller was somehow continuing to use all our fuel and we wouldn’t have any left to enter the marina in Spain; that the spinning propeller would overheat and cause a fire; that if we opened the sea cock without the engine being on, that it would flood the boat. We looked in all the manuals for troubleshooting guidance. Lots of information about an engine failing to start but nothing about the propeller spinning independently. We considered going back. In the end we made use of our Iridium Go, which allows us to make satellite telephone calls on our phones. We called one of the people who has helped us so much on our journey to get going.
If you’ve been working on a project recently that requires skilled labour; maybe some home renovations or repairs, then you will know all about the twin effects of Brexit and the pandemic on finding anyone to do anything. Steve from a company called Aquawaves in Southampton has been our lifeline. We’ve had so much trouble getting people to work on the boat or to even communicate with us. He always answers his phone; has given us so much free advice on how to complete some of the works on the boat ourselves alongside completing the more specialised works himself and he has never once sounded impatient with our many phone calls and questions. Anyway, our phone a friend in this case was Steve and he answered. “Completely normal if you are sailing fast for the propeller to keep turning. You can stop it by putting the gearstick in reverse.” At once we had reassurance and a solution. Phew.
The next incident was on the second day. We could see a large ship indicated on our AIS heading towards us. We had to try to pass in front of it on one side or the other. Deciding what to do was complicated by the strong winds and huge waves. If we sailed at a certain angle to the waves we were going beam on or we would have to gybe (pass with the wind behind us on one side to the other and change the genoa from one side of the boat to the other.) We were indecisive and slightly panicking. I ended up spinning the boat in different directions. The genoa was flapping madly. We decided to furl it in and turn on the engine to make it easier. But because I had spun the boat the lines had got tangled and we couldn’t furl in the massive flapping sail. By this point we had lost interest in the approaching ship and were instead focused on what to do about the sail. We managed to furl it in most of the way with just the end flapping and the lines tangled. We wondered what we were going to do. We ran the risk of the sail whipping out in the wind overnight and us losing the sail or the furling pole. We also couldn’t be using the engine as we had to watch our fuel and the mainsail alone wouldn’t give us enough power, as most of the power comes from the headsail. Luciano then remembered that we could use our storm jib. This is another headsail that is bright orange, smaller and stronger, that you use in a storm. Lucky we decided to have it made before we left. Moments like these make you remember why everyone keeps banging on about the importance of having back ups and back ups of back ups of everything on a sailing boat. In the end though, we didn’t need it. A heroic Luciano clipped into the jackstays (safety lines) and went up to the front of the thrashing boat with the genoa lines. I stayed on the helm and simultaneously inched out the genoa, locking it with one hand on the cleat to ensure the whole sail didn’t whip out. He painstakingly unwound the lines around the sail. I had to be careful to keep the boat pointing at such an angle to the wind so the sail would fly out ahead of him and not into him on the boat. Eventually this teamwork prevailed and we had a functioning genoa again.
“But how were the cats?” I hear you ask. Poor creatures. I think they had adapted to the routine of sailing in the day and stopping at night in relatively calm conditions. They had the full roller coaster treatment for three days and three nights without the knowledge of how much longer it was going to go on for. Chocolate basically stayed in one spot the whole time, I think he was too scared to move even to get his food. I got worried that I hadn’t seen him eating and took a bag of treats and fed him from my hand as I lay supine in the bed. He wolfed down the whole lot. Suki was more mobile and we would see her sliding across the floor, trying to judge how to jump over fallen cushions without the waves causing a misjudgement and miaowing her protest. It is safe to say that they enjoyed Biscay as much as we did.
On the last day I emerged for my 2.00am watch to find the wind speed indicator showing 7 knots and a completely flat sea. After 355 nautical miles we were arriving in A Coruña in Galicia, Northwest Spain. I have never been so pleased to arrive anywhere and I cannot think of anything I have done that has been harder than this. After a welcome sleep, we celebrated that evening with the Irish couple and their friend who had arrived in A Coruña the same morning as us. Our sailing friend and mentor, Peter, had given us a bottle of champagne before we left and told us to drink it when we arrived somewhere significant. This certainly felt like that moment; the part of the trip I had been most worried about and was as difficult as I had feared, was over - the rest from here should be plain sailing (!)