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Crossing the Bay of Biscay

by Maree & Phil 3 Aug 10:40 UTC
Sunset first night on Bay of Biscay © SV Red Roo

France to Spain, the famous Bay of Biscay, a notoriously challenging bit of water to cross. I admit I was nervous but also had a wee feeling of excitement thrown in along with the apprehension of what we would find out there.

So many stories of rough passages (to put it mildly) but as Phil reminded me, most people are on a time schedule and have pressure to cross in less than ideal weather patterns, where as we can always wait and secondly we were only crossing a smaller corner of it rather than the whole bay.

Sounds good in theory but of course how long does one wait for ideal conditions, and then what are ideal conditions? Flat calm sounds nice but then there is the curse of no wind to sail and it's a long way to motor and motoring just plain sucks when you have a sail boat, but good sailing winds also comes with swell and waves.... in other words you get what you get and I must admit we did alright, sure we were uncomfortable for a lot of it, but we were sailing well and we were safe.

We crossed from Île de Ré (France) where we were anchored just out from La Rochelle to Gijón (Spain) a distance of around 250 nautical miles. Originally we thought there might not be much wind at all and we would end up motoring a considerable distance however with the journey taking a couple of days things change and wind is different off shore compared to what it is on the French coast and then different again to what we will find on the coast of Spain. Anyway we were going, so we ate a hearty meal of Spaghetti Bolognese on board Taipan then an early night ready for a morning departure destination Spain.

We departed in daylight at 07:00am in calm conditions with mainsail up but motor sailing, it wasn't until lunch time that we were able to actually sail with the main sail and head sail, doing 6.3 knots speed over ground in 7 knots of wind (current was assisting our speed), we were on a course of 250 degrees. We were tracking as Westerly as the wind would allow as the forecast ahead was for the wind to change to south westerly (ie: on the nose) the following day. So far the passage was comfortable, no traffic, no swell, bright skies and great temperature (finished reading my current book and was well into a new one). We both had a couple of naps during the day and was taking turns on watch.

Whilst on watch mid morning on Sunday I had a couple of visitors on board, two tagged pigeons spent a few hours keeping me company. Obviously a little lost and very exhausted they sat and rested, then drank a lot of water, however were not interested in bread or seeds that I offered, they eventually left when we made a sail change and disturbed them from where they were resting.

By evening (8pm) the swell had built up and the wind was building, making me wish I had of prepared our meal earlier when it was calm. As the sun started to drop in the sky we put a reef in the main and head sail as a conservative measure for the night as we expected isolated thunder storms and squalls ahead. The reef in the main ended up staying for the remainder of the journey.

From that point on (Sunday evening) until arriving (Tuesday morning) conditions hardly changed. It was best described as "very lively" the swell was large and from two directions (Atlantic Sea swell and the wind swell conflicting) at a 4 second interval so very constant and very tiring. The wind remained pretty consistent blowing 20 – 24 knots on a tight angle off the starboard bow, we kept making small adjustments on our heading to keep the angle of the wind effective yet attempting to keep our course as direct as possible. We were happy to be sailing and making good speed, but it was certainly tiring in the swell.

We had lots of lightning during that first night but the temperature remained very comfortable, which was a very pleasant change from the northerly climates of the last two years sailing we have done (ie: no foulies (warm wet weather gear) and comfortable in bare feet). We continued to take turns on watch and sleeping.

A couple of snippets of notes I wrote during my watches;

Sunday 15th July 10:30pm

I am on watch Phil is sleeping. Good first day pretty calm most of the day. Just getting ready for dark now, sun is going down – twilight. Just had a bit of a squall pass over with a bit of rain and strong wind, died down now but lots of lightning behind us. Nice to watch while it is far away.

Sunday 15th July 11:08pm

Sheet and fork lightning out behind boat a fair way off but very intense hope it doesn't come any closer.

Monday 16th July 03:49am

Been back on watch since about 3am, stars are out now, still some lightning, starting to feel a little tired. Listening to music on my iPod, sitting in the cockpit, I get up and do a complete 360 degrees check after each song.

Monday 16th July 09:30am

A fleet of fishing vessels, at least 8 of them that I could see with naked eye. All within a mile of each other and look to be rounding up the fish, they are all going in all directions, back and forth, and of course our heading was taking us right through the middle of the pack. I woke Phil (he hadn't been down long) just to back me up as although I know who should give way to who there are a lot of them and they are moving randomly (not keeping a constant course), all fishing with nets out and we are sailing so tight on the wind that I can't adjust course easily without consequence. We came close to 2 of them but didn't have to make major adjustments. One of the boats spoke to us on the radio, very happy we met them during the day rather than at night.

Monday 16th July 01:17pm

Sea state pretty lively (see video clip above) but OMG I have never seen water such a pretty, deep, clear, blue before. Amazing. It's also 4,735 meters deep! Pictures don't do it justice. And our depth alarm isn't coping with the deep water, keeps going off as water is too deep to read depth and we can't figure out how to silence it (have even read the operating manual). Can't turn it off as it links to the auto pilot, sigh...

Monday 16th July 9:15pm

A pretty rough day, too rough to do anything at all but just keep watch and wait or is the word I am looking for endure. Seas are finally moderating (a little). Just saw two dolphins jumping around the boat. About 60 nautical miles to go 12 hours, feeling tired. Have slowed a little but will suit a daylight arrival.

Tuesday 17th July 01:42am

Can see shore lights of Spain. About 35 nautical miles left... about 7 hours.

This article has been provided by the courtesy of SV Red Roo.

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