Crossing Biscay

We weighed up our options. We could spend the summer cruising around Brittany, and possibly even spend the winter far up a Breton river. Or we could cross the Bay of Biscay to northern Spain. For days we had north easterly winds, and the forecast was for more of the same, with fair weather and slight to moderate seas. We might not get sailing conditions like these again all summer.

biscayOn Tuesday we made the decision to cross Biscay. I shopped and prepared food for the journey, and Julian prepared the boat. At 11.30am on Wednesday morning we slipped from the pontoon at La Palue in Aber Wrac’h, northwest Brittany, for the long journey ahead. Ten minutes out from the port and we had all three sails out, following a course for 29 miles to Isle Ouessant, and then a south-western course which we stuck to for the next 300 miles.

For three days we sailed, the winds blowing us along at between five and six knots for much of the time. The hot sun shone down on us, but we were cooled by the north easterlies behind. On the evening of the first day we began our watch schedule. We planned four hour watches, but it didn’t work out that way. On the first night, I went to bed around 8pm, while Julian took the first watch at the helm. I slept poorly, and took over before my four hours were up. Julian slept equally badly, Carina’s rolling on the waves feeling much worse when lying down than when at the helm. He too took over before his four hours had passed and I was glad, as I was struggling to stay awake by that stage. We only managed three to four hours sleep per day, often catching our best sleep in the middle of the day. By the third day we were getting into a routine and sleeping much better.

On the first day out the girls were slightly queasy, but by the second day they were oblivious to the rolling motion, and happily played below deck, reading and drawing and doing things that Julian and I would have found impossible to do in those conditions. I had told them they needed to be self-sufficient, as Mummy and Daddy either needed to be at the helm or asleep for a lot of the time. We don’t have a wind vane, and given the wave and wind conditions, the helmsman had his/her hands on the wheel pretty much all the time. I had prepared a tin of snacks (healthy and otherwise) and a bag of fruit and told the girls that if they were hungry they should help themselves to food from that, rather than ask us. I feared they would gorge on the snacks in one go, but when we reached Spain there were still some left. They were left pretty much to their own devises for the trip, and they stood up to the challenge remarkably well – going to bed without help, playing well together (most of the time), and helping the helmsman out by fetching things or occasionally taking the wheel.

We ate well. I had made a large saucepan of basic tomato sauce which I divided into meal-sized portions. I had also soaked and cooked two varieties of beans. On the first evening, I added some beans to the sauce, flavoured it with chilli and we ate it with rice. On the second evening, I added chorizo to the sauce and we ate it with couscous. The third evening was a mix of sauce, beans and chorizo, with left-over couscous. Those evening meals were all warm and filling. We had three baguettes for the journey – one for each lunchtime, with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, Emmenthal and Camambert cheeses, cured sausages, eggs I had hard boiled in advance. Breakfast was the only tricky meal. As Julian and I were either catching up on sleep or at the helm when the girls wanted breakfast, I had to devise a way to feed them. In advance of them getting up I placed cereal and spoons in two mugs, and put two pain au chocolat beside them. The helmsman’s only job was to add milk to the cereal, and the girls had their breakfast ready in seconds.

It was a spectacular voyage. We had constant companions. On the first day, shortly after we passed Isle Ouessant, a pair of bottlenose dolphins came past. Not long after we saw the dorsal fins of what looked like two minke whales. And then the common dolphins joined us. Day and night they came, every hour or so, playing around the boat, riding our bow wave, leaping from the water, being magnificent. If Carina was moving fast through the water, the dolphins showed off their aerial acrobatics; if Carina moved slowly, the dolphins slowly swam along beside us, breathing slowly and loudly beside us. Below deck we could hear their constant squeaking, and I laughed out loud one evening as I stood in the galley preparing supper while looking out the window at the dolphins playing outside. Not a sight one often sees from one’s kitchen window! They were especially numerous at sunrise and sunset each day, and I recall one evening, as I stood alone at the helm, the other three asleep, the sun setting in the west, casting an orange glow over the boat, and dolphins leaping in the setting sun. It looked almost too perfect to be real.

On we went through Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. On Friday afternoon the weather changed, a front moved in, and the wind died. We were now making only two to three knots, but we didn’t mind. At this speed, we would reach our destination after dawn, rather than the less desirable middle of the night. As evening wore on, the girls and I were rained upon as we cheered on the dolphins. We listened to loud claps of thunder away to the east and were treated to a magnificent display of lightening. After the girls went to bed the electrical storm grew closer and when Julian appeared around midnight for his watch, we decided to turn on the engine. We were thirty miles from our destination, it was dark and we were tired, and we didn’t relish the prospect of having to reset sails if thundery squalls passed over us.

I slept then for two hours and when I awoke it was 2am. The electrical storm had passed over while I slept and now it was the darkest night I have ever seen. There was no wind, no stars in the sky, and I could see nothing beyond the end of the boat. I was relieved when, after twenty or so minutes at the helm, I saw the lights of a ship, as these gave me a sense of depth into the night. Four sets of lights in two hours (more vessels than we had seen during the rest of the journey) kept my mind focused and were a blessing in that blackness.

I was looking out for the light from two lighthouses, marking the entrance to Ria de Viveiro on the north west Spanish coast, and when they finally shone weakly through the cloudy night, I was thrilled. The end was in sight.

Except it wasn’t in sight for long. When the light to starboard disappeared I realised we were in fog. I called Julian. It was now 4.30am and we hoped that the first light would be in the sky at 5am. I stayed on helm and we both kept watch through the fog. I was dismayed when the light to port and then the moon also became shrouded in fog. We had no way of telling in the dark how dense the fog was, but it didn’t feel wet on our faces.

When the lights of the towns in Ria de Viveiro came into view we were ecstatic. The first grey light was appearing on the eastern horizon, and we could finally see that the fog wasn’t as bad as we’d thought. We slowly motored into the Ria, slowing down even more, to give the sky more time to grow light.

We reached the end of the Ria, and the end of our journey, at 6.50am on Saturday morning, when we dropped anchor 200 yards from a golden sandy Spanish beach. We were tired but exhilarated. At 7am Julian and I sat in the cockpit, sharing a bottle of wine, grinning at each other, delirious with tiredness but thrilled with what we had achieved.

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7 thoughts on “Crossing Biscay

  1. I have just read your journey across Biscay with a mixture of envy and exultation. Envy that I didn’t choose the right partner first time round to share adventure with when my children were young and exultation that I can share it through your amazing diarising. The Good news is that I found my inner adventurer when I met Rex, my soulmate and other half. Our triumphs are joyous and plentiful……..we may even make it up the Helford river this week!!!
    Having just had the news that one of our sons (we have 4 and 2 daughters between us) has had a successful result from his Easter brain scan ( surgery last August) we feel truly blessed and thankful for each day. Enjoy all your days and time together and keep on sharing it with us, the emotional roller coaster is good for my psyche and a good cry each time I read a new one must be beneficial!!

    With love and happy wishes

    Dee……..an over emotional 50something from Yacht Haven Marina (Solace)

    • Dee…thanks so much for your kinds words. It took me a long time to find the first husband, so I’m sticking with him!! So happy to hear the good news about your son, those are the events in life that make us stop and think and relish what we have, when really we should relish life no matter what wake up calls we get.
      Enjoy the Helford – those leafy riverbanks really are blissful.
      With love,
      Martina, Bluto (!) and the mini-crew

    • Oh dear…yes…but it needs to be added to all the other book ideas. I suppose a lot of this is getting written as I go along, unlike the others that live only in my head!

  2. Better than any ‘story’ I have read this year! Did not have your email [and could not find it on the blog] but reposted this to a number of my lists as is . . . . I’m glad to be on terra firma myself but thrilled to follow you and your girls on the ocean wave 🙂 !

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