We have crossed the Bay of Biscay, making A Coruña, Spain, on October 1. The trip was 361 nautical miles, done in two days and nine hours.
We had written that we had hustled across the English Channel and then rounded the Breton coast to Camaret because a weather window appeared to present itself. Weather windows can be few and far between at this time of year. Or non-existent. We did not want to miss a green light. Or maybe it was flashing yellow. It certainly wasn’t red. Let us explain.
We would be sailing south-west across the Bay. The forecast was for several days of steady winds from a narrow east and east-north-east sector. If that forecast held, the wind would be aft of the beam but not completely astern, giving Leander good thrust without leaving her wobbly.
But the wind strength was another issue. It was forecast to be between 25-30 knots for several days on end. Winds that strong would build up big seas. If the direction held, though, we would be sailing downhill. And because the winds had already been blowing from the same direction for a few days, and there were no major systems out in the Atlantic, the seas would not be confused, with the dominant swell coming from one, favorable direction only.
This appeared favorable, but we were concerned about possible changes in direction or intensity. The Bay is known for its “sudden, severe storms and its strong currents,’ with autumn being a particularly dangerous time. If the winds moved closer south, we would be in for a pretty violent sail that would take a long time to complete. We had gotten it slightly wrong in the Channel crossing, and were beaten up as a result. We were admittedly on tenterhooks, because the stakes would be higher in the Bay of Biscay. We would need to start out by sailing 30 miles due west (to get around the Ile de Seine and the connected Raz de Seine, with its four-five knots of adverse current that couldn’t be timed for our long voyage) before we turned south-west toward our target. If we then decided that, heck, this isn’t really to our liking, we’d be too far committed to turn back easily – 30 miles from our departure point with a 25-knot headwind discouraging a return.
This green/flashing-yellow light was lit for a departure the day that we arrived in Camaret. Deep sigh. We wouldn’t have minded having been stranded here a bit longer! Brittany is beautiful, Celtic, historically interesting, and filled with an exceptionally welcoming populace. We’d be glad to exchange some of those ten days when we were stranded in, Cuxhaven, Germany for some more time here. We didn’t want a weather window to present itself so quickly. But here it was.
We began to prepare for an a.m. departure. But by the end of the day, we realized that we weren’t really ready. Not only in terms of logistics but psychologically, too — this was just too quick. The Bay of Biscay would be a challenge. Could we have just a little more time? Because the forecast seemed to permit it, we decided to wait another day.
The extra day also gave us the opportunity to better provision for the trip. Meals can be hard to prepare if the seas are up. Sima made rolls, cakes, egg and chicken sandwiches for lunches, and pasta and other snacks for the kids. For dinners, we would have pizza and Quiche (we are in France, after all).
The extra day having fortified us, we left at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, September 29, and said a sad au revoir to France.
The wind was 15 knots at the start, and from the ENE. We motor-sailed with the jib only out, keeping our speed up to get as far possible before the current shifted against us, which it would do in the early afternoon.
We got around the Ile de Seine, through the Chaussee de Seine (or “Seine Passage”) in the early afternoon, and began to head south west toward La Coruña, now some 325 miles away. The apparent wind was a little further aft than we would have liked, almost directly astern. (We were here reminded of a simple but sometimes overlooked rule: If the wind is forecast to be ahead of the beam, the boat’s speed will move the apparent wind even closer to the bow. Conversely, if the wind is forecast to be aft of the beam, the boat’s speed will shift the apparent wind further aft. Hence, on our trip across the Channel, we found wind that had been forecast to be just forward of the beam to be closer to our nose than we would have liked, and here, going downhill, we found the wind further aft than we anticipated.)
The optimal sail set for sailing down-wind is to set the sails wing-and-wing, making our fore-and-aft rigged sloop operate more like a square-rigger. This is done by sheeting out the main sail as far as possible to one side (and securing it with a preventer), and using the spinnaker pole to hold the jib in place on the opposite side. But we were hesitant to set this up because if the wind did shift more easterly in the middle of the night, it would be difficult for us, as a husband and wife crew with two small children, to struggle with our over-sized spinnaker pole in big seas under the fore-deck light.
So we ventured forth with just the jib out. The winds did pick up, as forecast, blowing at a steady 25 with gusts to 30. And the seas did grow big as we got out into the Bay. But it was downhill. As the Breton currents died away,giving way to the relatively current-less open Bay of Biscay, Leander settled into a comfortable six to seven knots.
We had read that the Bay would be filled with wildlife, and that proved to be the case. A pod of about a dozen dolphins joined us at the end of our first day, and played about the boat for hours. We later had a visit from a swallow, an unusual sight so far out to sea. And we frequently saw diving gannets, an exceptionally good-looking and graceful bird, as they knifed into the sea after fish.
We also made a new discovery on the late-night nutrition front. If we boiled water and put it in a thermos at the end of the day, it would stay hot most of the night. Into that we mixed some ready-made creamy soup packets. Oh boy did those hit the spot. They provided nourishment and warmth and made all the difference in the world when the temperature dropped with the sun.
The trip wasn’t all roses. Leander got pooped on the morning of our second day, when Sima was up on watch in the cockpit, with the kids keeping her company. To get “pooped” on a boat means to take a wave — typically a breaking wave — over the stern. (The phrase relates to the aft-most deck of ship being called the “poop deck,” which in turn derives from the old French and then Latin term “puppis,” for stern.) Boats can get pooped when the combination of a big following wave and the boat’s own wake combine in just the right mixture to pull the breaking wave up onto the boat. Or sometimes the right wave can do it on its own.
I was sleeping down below when I heard a violent crash. But to describe the sound as a single “crash” does not do it justice. A few years ago, we wrote about the wave collisions on passage from New Zealand being like car crashes. This was more like a “house” crash! Imagine lifting a house 15 feet into the air and dropping a corner onto a hard surface. It would impact a couple of times before settling, with the contents reacting as well — dishes would go flying, the refrigerator door would fly open, and the dog would probably be a bit grouchy. It’s a series of crashes.
And so it was. Sima explained that it was less of the wave breaking onto the boat than the boat going under the wave. I rushed to the cockpit at the sound. The autopilot alarm was sounding, as the boat had been knocked off course. Aylin and Alexander were in their tethers and harnesses, but had been knocked off of their seats onto the cockpit floor, suddenly sitting in the receding water, and not too happy about it. All were soaked. “We got pooped!” said Sima, looking through droplet-covered glasses.
What was worse than the soaked clothing and gear in the cockpit, I had left the back hatch open! The bed was soaked with sea water! Oh no! Inspecting the rest of the boat, we were surprised to discover that the collision had been strong enough to break our wooden cutting board in two. The cutting board!?
Our weather forecasting skills also grew on this trip. We had been careful to study the wind, current, and sea forecasts before leaving, to confirm the operation of up on-passage forecasting program with a company that we use called Buoyweather, and to contact our friends on s/v’s Wings and Alchemy to be there as back-ups if needed. We had also studied the synoptic charts. We saw that the consistent and strong northeasterly winds were being controlled by a high pressure system that was lingering over Scandanavia, with the isobars in our area being crunched close together by a low pressure system encroaching from the west. The packed isobars were causing the high winds.
According to the forecast, after the end of the second day of sailing, the winds would veer all the way through to the west, before becoming light and variable for the very last part of our trip. What we didn’t focus on, however, was that our movement through this final change would mean passing through a frontal system
It became readily apparent that this is just what we would be doing at the end of day two, September 30. As the wind began to veer toward the south, the skies began to darken prematurely. Seeing this, we hoisted the main sail with two reefs, in addition to the jib. If we got caught in a squall we could maneuver or even heave-to, which we couldn’t really do with the jib only.
By the time it was dark, the sky began to flash to the west, and the radar picked up a substantial squall in that direction. The wind died to nothing, most certainly being sucked out by the nearby cell. The flashes grew in intensity. We turned on the engine, and put the spare VHF radio and GPS in the oven, our ready-made “Faraday Cage,” in the unlikely even that we were to take a strike. Thankfully, the squall stayed well to our west and passed quietly into the night, taking the light show with it. Thankfully, no more squalls developed, and the winds returned in strength, continuing to veer slightly to ESE.
This had most probably been a warm front, because it was relatively short-lived and the air noticeably warmed after it passed. We got a visit from its sibling, a cold front, early the next morning. More good fortune here, as it was relatively benign, and we passed under an increasingly lowering ceiling unscathed.
By mid-morning on this, our third day, October 1, the wind had veered fully south, abating to about 15 knots. The wind from this direction were never sufficiently mature to cause a meaningful swell, and we were able to motor-tack toward our destination using the mainsail only.
By the late afternoon, the winds had died and the seas were slight. We spotted the coast of Spain at about 3 p.m., rocky and brown in the distance. Yipppeeeee!
We made the last few turns to A Coruña, and took a mooring at the Real Club Náutico de La Coruña.
This was a significant accomplishment, and it was good to see the Bay of Biscay in our rear view mirror. We packed, and took the kids for a well-deserved meal and romp around the enormous Plaza de Maria Pita.
1,494 miles traveled, 265 miles to Lisbon, Portugal, and the jump-off point for the sail to the Canary Islands, 3,195 miles to the Caribbean.