Sailing Across Biscay

from 'The Journal of Alacazam', by Mary Swift...

Sailing across Biscay isn't something to be taken lightly. Firstly, shortly after leaving Camaret, there's the Raz de Sein - a ferocious piece of water with very strong tides and dangerous overfalls. Timing is everything; you need to get through it at slack water. It's a very scary place.

Then there's the Bay of Biscay itself. Renowned for sudden south-westerly gales with seas to match.

But negotiating the Raz de Sein and sailing across Biscay isn't a new experience for us, we've done it several times before in Jalingo 2, Dick's previous boat - a Nicholson 32 - but it's the first time for Alacazam.

It's Wednesday 25 July 2001, and we cast off leaving the delightful Brittany harbour of Camaret astern. We motor out of the Baie de Brest and - unfortunately - all the way to the Raz de Sein, as the wind drops and then dies completely.

All the yachts approaching us are motor sailing too. Oh well, 'C'est La Vie'!

We've kept the new folding bimini up to see how it fares under way and it works really well; in fact, even though it is sunny I get quite cold helming for the first hour before handing over to 'Arriett' (that's the electronic autopilot - 'Arry' being the windvane self-steering system).

Ushant, the Chenal de Four, and the Raz de Sein.

But today the Raz de Sein is flat calm, although the swirling motion of the tide still looks eerie to us, and soon we are through with no problems.

There's not much wind, it's very gentle over the beam, but we start sailing. Four and a half knots over the ground has to be better than motoring. The sunset over the Ile de Sein is stunning and our surroundings idyllic.

I stand the first night watch and Dick manages to rest for a few hours although he finds sleep elusive. I look back astern. The lights are gradually being switched on along the French coast and it is just like fairyland.

There are a number of lighthouses in this area too, all flashing their different messages. The moon (in its last quarter) rises and the stars gradually fill the sky (although there is a fair amount of cloud there are a lot of clear patches) and I notice the phosphorescence in the water.

Dick takes over the watch. I manage to get a little sleep but the wind is dropping again and the sails are flapping and banging around. The navigator's berth though proves quite comfortable for sleeping and I am snug in a sleeping bag and held in by the lee cloth.

I wake up to find Dick warily watching what appear to be two fishing boats very close together. He wants to be sure of their intentions before going off watch, so we watch together for a while. They are large trawlers and on closer inspection (through the binoculars, which we use a lot) we can see the trawl net is contained between them, their working lights are very bright. 'Pair trawling' it's called apparently. They move away from us, and then turn to trawl behind us. Dick is content that we are out of their way and he leaves me on watch.

During Dick's watch he had been lucky enough to see many shooting stars and also the Milky Way in all its brightness. It is just discernable to me, but fading fast. I notice a lot of cloud ahead and when I hear what sounds like a foghorn, I am concerned it may be fog. It sounds very close and on further investigation I realize that it is just Dick, lying flat on his back, snoring like a good-un.

dolphin leaping ahead of a sailboat during a crossing of the Bay of Biscay

I've been watching the dawn slowly breaking over the stern when I hear a splash and then another. It is still quite dark but I can just make out the shape of a couple of dolphins diving alongside the yacht from stern to bow.

Our first dolphins and I have spotted them! I call Dick; he answers, but is too sleepy to get up and so misses them. I never fail to be moved by the awe and sheer pleasure I feel every time I encounter dolphins; they are such wonderful creatures.

Thursday 26 July 2001

About 0600 hours the wind drops and also changes. The speed has reduced to one and a half knots and the boom starts to slat around so I change the bearing by 12° and thus manage to increase the speed to two and a half knots. This does not last for long and Dick is woken up by the noise of the sails. It is time to motor again. We chat for a while and I decide to make a pot of tea before going off watch.

This is a good decision because I have just poured the tea when I hear Dick say "What's that, I am sure it is a dolphin?" For the next thirty minutes or more the tea is forgotten as we are thrilled by a display from dolphins all around us, as far as we could see, leaping, diving and playing around Alacazam, having a wonderful time. We are totally enthralled and do not know where to look next, but it does not matter where we look as they are everywhere, all around us. This is a very large school of dolphins. Then, just as suddenly as they came, they are gone; absolutely magical, enchanting creatures.

I sleep until 1000 hours and then cook breakfast. I consider that this being the first morning of our longest voyage since we left Plymouth, warrants an egg and bacon on toast breakfast. The sea is still flat calm and after we have eaten Dick sleeps in the cockpit for a while and wakes to find me watching a couple of birds through the binoculars. They are big birds, black with white heads, large bills and a broad wingspan. Dick had noticed similar birds during his watch and had looked them up in our bird reference book and he thought that they were first year gannets.

We're getting fed up with motoring and at 1230 hours the wind fills the sails just enough to sail at about two and a half knots. This is good enough for us and it is sheer heaven to switch the motor off. The beauty of Alacazam is that she can sail in such light winds; most yachts would have to motor. We have now increased to three and a half knots, and according to the Spanish weather forecast we can expect more wind later. It may take us a while to cross Biscay but this is very pleasant sailing, a flat sea, plenty of sun and no heeling making it easy to move around Alacazam.

We can slowly feel ourselves relaxing. More dolphins race across our bow but they are too intent on where they are going to stop and play with us. We suddenly hear an alarm going off and it has us running around to discover what has happened. Is it the autohelm, the gas alarm, the battery low voltage alarm? The noise seems loudest in the heads compartment and I realize it's the 'off soundings' alarm on the depth sounder; the depth of the water is now deeper than it can record. We are nearly at the edge of the Continental Shelf where the depth varies from less than 200 metres to over 4,500 metres (nearly 3 miles deep - awesome!).

Periodically throughout the day we see more dolphins but only a few come near. We have seen more dolphins in one day than all the other times put together since we have been sailing. It is late afternoon and I feel relaxed enough to start reading my first book, a Rosie Thomas novel, and lay out on the foredeck bollicky buff for an hour or so (introducing the sun gradually to avoid burning my extremely white body). Dick has been running around in just a t-shirt and shorts for most of the day and we have both been making good use of the shade afforded by the bimini.

I have started to take anti-histamine tablets as my insect bites are getting nastier by the day. We do not expect to see any insects this far off shore but two yellow and black insects and a very tired fly land on Alacazam. I do not intend to bother them and with a bit of luck they will not bother me. Thankfully they soon disappear, no doubt lurking in some dark corner waiting to leap out and bite me when I am not expecting it (am I becoming paranoid or what?)

At about 1800 hours we see more dolphins in the distance but as they draw near we realise they are much larger than dolphins and it is actually a pod of pilot whales. The wind is gradually increasing but has been inconsistent changing direction from southerly through to north westerly. We are currently beating at 7 knots in a westerly 3 to 4. Whilst I am cooking a prawn risotto for dinner I notice that the gas has gone out; the gas bottle is empty. This is worrying because we thought we had started a full bottle only two weeks ago. We change to the new bottle we bought in Falmouth and we will have to monitor its usage closely (hopefully the other bottle will prove not to have been full). The risotto is excellent and we are sailing so upright we manage to eat it at the saloon table.

The only vessel we have seen in the last few hours is a container ship, which altered course for us. It was so close that we were able to wave our thanks and the crew waved back. It is 2030 hours and we can smell a strong smell of fish. We suddenly see water spouting into the air off our port beam and hear a whoosh sound. We keep watching and see it again; we cannot believe our eyes - it is a very large whale swimming along on our port side; if only it could have been closer so that we could have seen it better. What a day we have had, dolphins, pilot whales and a real whale.

Dick is tired so I take the first watch until midnight. The wind is a steady force 2 and 'Arry' is handling the yacht well at a constant 3 to 4 knots although there is too much south in the wind and we are sailing east of our course. Dusk is falling and I have a 30 minute adrenalin rush; three whales, one on the starboard quarter, another off the starboard stern and the third off the port stern are continuously spouting and blowing and making their strange sound. They seem to be keeping the same distance from Alacazam and must therefore be moving along with us.

In the darkness I can just see the outline of the one on the starboard quarter. It is quite eerie hearing them in the darkness; a strange feeling, alone in the cockpit with nothing but sea and sky surrounding me, over 3 miles depth of ocean beneath me and these magnificent creatures as my companions. I feel honoured, yet my heart is pumping at a rate of knots and I do not know whether to be disappointed or relieved that they have not come closer.

sailing route across biscay, from Camaret-sur-Mer in France to La Caruna in Spain

Sailing across Biscay

Friday 27 July 2001

It is very dark tonight; the sky is cloudy and the moon and stars are not visible and I have only seen one vessel on this watch and that was on the horizon. It is starting to drizzle when Dick takes over the watch but it only lasts for a short while. Dick has the graveyard watch again and I wake up twice to hear him tacking as the wind keeps changing (still the forecast insists that the wind will back to a north westerly). There were no vessels to be seen during his watch, only some dolphins that came to play. He had tried to wake me but I was fast asleep however, on my next watch, just before dawn they came to play again. It is strange watching them move through the water as the phosphorescence shows up their shape and they look like underwater torpedoes.

The wind starts backing towards the north at last but veers back again and starts to die away. 'Arry' cannot handle it and so I set up 'Arriette' but within 10 minutes the wind dies away completely. Dick wakes up as I am about to start the motor and agrees it is the only thing to do. At least we can set our course. We share a pot of coffee before I go off watch at 0730 only to sleep until 1210 hours. There is no wind and Dick is disgruntled because we are still motoring so I quickly prepare a late breakfast and then he settles down to sleep. It is a very grey day and the sun does not break through the cloud until 1300 hours. Still no wind yet the Navtex, which is now showing the Spanish sea areas, shows the Finisterre and Biscay forecasts as northerly 3 to 4 increasing to 5 by noon - I wish!!

At 1430 hours the wind starts to fill in. Rather than wake Dick I think it is time that I learnt to set the sails myself. The wind is on the nose so I set 'Arriett' at -20° (205°) and put the engine into neutral. Yes, there is definitely enough wind to sail. I set up the running backstay and unfurl the Yankee foresail; we are sailing at 2.5 knots. I switch off the motor and re-set the sails and increase the speed to 4.5 knots. I am pleased with my progress and I am just about to set up 'Arry' when Dick wakes up pleasantly surprised to find that we are sailing. The wind drops away again but is so quiet that we continue sailing (in 'Arriett's' charge) even though sometimes we are moving at less than 2 knots. I cannot believe that I am, at last, relaxed enough to actually read a novel.

It is 1600 hours, time for the Atlantic Fish Soup that we bought in Camaret. I add a tin of smoked mussels for extra protein and we finish off my rye bread. Delicious. On the horizon we can see a couple of tuna fishing boats (distinguishable by the long outriggers at either side). We check the radar and can easily see the boats and also something else, which we realize is a squall. It will pass us by.

The wind is increasing to a force 3; we are now sailing at 5 knots and we are back on course but have to harden up for a while to avoid another squall we can see on the horizon. Back to easy sailing again and I am thoroughly enjoying reading my book; Dick thinks he has caught a fish on his trolling line but it is a false alarm. Disappointingly we have not seen any dolphins or whales today. We pass two sailing boats probably returning from Spain but see no other vessels. At 0930 hours it is time for dinner (minced lamb, mashed potatoes, carrots and courgettes). No wine; the only alcohol we drink when on passage is the occasional small bottle of French beer during the day.

Time for my watch, Dick is in bed and just as the sun is setting the dolphins arrive, leaping in pairs in complete symmetry along the side of Alacazam. Fabulous. I have a super watch, no boats, a starry night and enough wind to average 4 knots. As soon as Dick takes over the watch the wind dies away to nothing and we have to motor. The mainsail is banging away and I am finding it very difficult to sleep but eventually drop off when we are able to sail again. Dick takes pity on me as he is enjoying the night sailing (not least when he suddenly smells the fishy smell and hears the blowing and whoosh of a whale close by) and he does not wake me until 0600 hours to take over my watch.

Dawn is late breaking this morning; there is no visible sunrise as it is very cloudy and as usual for the mornings, no wind, so we are motoring again. I manage to finish my book (Rosie Thomas - Every Woman Knows a Secret) and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. Dick wakes about 0930 hours fed up with motoring. It is time to try out the gennaker sail but so little wind and we only manage 2.5 knots. The sky is still overcast, a really grey day. You would think that with all this cloud around there would be some wind but nothing. The weather forecast on the Navtex shows Biscay as 3 to 4 northerly, I do not know where it means but it ain't here!

Saturday 28 July 2001

It is now 1115 hours and Dick is going to try out the new spinnaker pole (oh no!! - well here goes). Joking aside, the asymmetric spinnaker (or gennaker) works well rigged as a conventional spinaker with the tack poled out. For the next few hours we take advantage of the light airs to practice different sail techniques for the downwind sailing we will experience with the trade winds crossing to Barbados. Quite good fun.

'First Time Atlantic Crossing', an ebook by Mary Swift recounting what sailing across an ocean with your best beloved is really like.

First Time Atlantic Crossing

The day-by-day account of a cruising couple's first Atlantic crossing

Download It Here!

While Dick has a zzzzz, I try my hand at baking bread (remembering to pop my head out on occasion to keep a watch). Having never ever baked bread in my life, I take Phil's advice and cheat, (I use Sainsbury's sun dried tomato and parmesan bread mix). I read the instructions carefully and knead and prove to perfection.

The aroma is wonderful and the bread is delicious (or so Dick tells me). I have to say the consistency is good and I just wish I had bought more packets. I will have to check out the Spanish supermarkets.

During the afternoon we see two more whales swimming and spouting off the starboard bow and we are even treated to the classic image of the full fluke in the air before they dive below. Just stunning.

We check in the Sea Life book and decide that they are Minkie Whales. We are rolling quite a bit sailing dead down wind and find that, although we are bearing off course, it is a little more comfortable tacking. I try to sleep for a while but it's difficult because the starboard tack is noisy slamming into the swell.

We change to the port tack and the difference is incredible; much faster and more comfortable. We are sailing at 4 to 5 knots in very little wind (northerly 2).

Time for dinner, rice and millet pasta with spicy roasted garlic sauce and tuna, topped with parmesan cheese. Two yachts motor past us travelling the other way and one passes very close and we all wave. We feel smug because we are sailing; to be fair though we have no time restraints, which must make a difference.

I take first watch and let Dick sleep on but the wind is gradually increasing and our speed is 9 knots so I am somewhat relieved when he wakes up. I go to bed but I cannot sleep. We are now racing along at 10 knots and the wind is increasing and so are the waves. We reef in the main and later have to put in a second reef and also furl in the yankee. We are still racing along at 8 knots. There will be no sleep for either of us tonight.

The waves are short and in different directions, there are white crests everywhere. Periodically we are hit by two very large waves and each time we turn and surf down the second wave. It is certainly exciting sailing. Dawn breaks and whereas the normal pattern is no wind and motoring this is not the case today. The course we have sailed makes La Coruña the more favourable port and we decide to make that our destination. Dick cat-naps for a while and I keep watch from the cockpit. A large container vessel is heading straight for us but it alters course and passes behind us.

Sunday 29 July 2001

The wind is increasing to a force 7 and the waves are pretty big but Alacazam is handling them beautifully. It is very exciting; just like riding a bucking bronco - yee-hah!! Ride em cowboy!!

Only one wave has gone right over the cockpit (just as I went below and unfortunately straight over Dick - Yes, I laughed, but so did he). When we are closer to La Coruña we should be protected by the lee of the land. I helm for a while (quite a feat with the size of the waves) as we need to sail down wind to ensure missing the shallow shoal when entering La Coruña and then it will be a fast beam reach sail straight in.

We cannot believe it; the wind has died completely and we have to motor the last mile. Lack of sleep has made us both a tad touchy and we are thankful when we tie up to a mooring buoy at 1145 hours. We have been at sea for nearly 4 days. In all we have had a good Biscay crossing; sailing across Biscay can be pretty epic at times, but the last 12 hours has given us an insight as to what Biscay has to offer.

Previously: Crossing the English Channel...

Next: The Delights of La Coruña

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