The Dreadful Bay of Biscay

August 10, 2009

I don’t know about you, but for many years the Bay of Biscay has conjured up the image of desperate sailors battling against wind and waves as the Atlantic Ocean dumped its fury on the shores of France.  It is therefore not too surprising that I was a touch apprehensive about setting off for the crossing to La Coruna.


David, Julia and I spent a lot of time pouring over weather forecasts, reading up the best routes to take and generally thinking the trip through, trying to account for every eventuality so as to minimise the risks involved.


In the end the passage plan was pretty simple: leave Falmouth and clear the Lizard, then head south west until we were about 007o 30’ W and then head south, making a little ground to the west so as to make La Coruna which is at about 008 o 30’ W.  The route would minimise the chance of encountering the really bad seas that can happen on the edge of the continental shelf as the sea bed rises from 4500 meters to less than 150 metres in about ½ a mile.  It would also give us sea room if the weather did get particularly bad – often the best thing to do in a storm is to rig a storm sail, fix the helm and shut the hatches until it’s blown over.


The route worked out at a little over 450 nautical miles (Look from now on, I’ll just call them miles but remember that a nautical mile is a bit longer 1 nautical mile = 1.14 land miles).  ‘Rampage’, on a good day, will make about 110 – 120 miles so we were looking at at least 4 days to make the trip.  Add on a fudge factor for lack of wind etc and we reckoned it would be 5 – 6 days before we got to Spain.


The next thing to think about was the wind.  The Met Office and its equivalent in France issue forecasts for the following 5 days but the details are sketchy and deal with fairly large areas of sea.  For extra detail, there are a number of other websites which provide raw wind predictions up to 7 days in advance.  The information is presented as a graphic file which shows the predicted wind in 50 km square boxes at 3 hour intervals.  As a passage planning tool, this is really useful information, as you can plot where you hope to be and see what the wind will be doing when you get there.  Don’t forget, ‘Rampage’ is a sailing yacht and depends on the wind for motive power, so we really need the wind blowing in the right direction at a comfortable speed.


It is never possible on a long passage to get the right wind throughout the trip, there will inevitably be times when the wind is against you and times when it just isn’t there at all.  The best you can hope for is that the wind is doing what you want it to do for most of the time.  David and I poured over the forecasts, looked at our planned route and finally came to the conclusion that we should leave in the evening of Monday 3 August; this would minimise our chances of being hit by a strong south westerly wind (just the wrong direction for us), give us a kick from the tide in the Channel and should see us in the middle of the Bay in time to pick up some northerly winds to push us towards Spain.


Whilst this was going, Julia had got Polly to take her shopping for food for the trip.  A full fridge is a happy fridge and ours was certainly full by Monday afternoon, with food enough for 4 people for 7 days.


Tommy had passed the word round the Gig Rowing world that we needed another crew member and Jeremy Cash was foolish enough to stick his head above the parapet and ask to join us.  He came on board mid afternoon on Monday accompanied by his bosun’s tool kit; not too sure if this was a vote of confidence or not!


Having refuelled in Milford Haven and not done too much motoring to get round Lands End, we only needed a small amount of fuel to top off the tank but it was worthwhile for the peace of mind it gave us.  Rampage was then berthed alongside the old quay wall until Tommy could escape from work to wave us off.


All too soon it was 6 pm and time to shove off if we were to catch the tide down the Channel.  The wind should have been from the south west but, true to form, it was actually from the west, making it very difficult to make progress to the west.  In addition, it was somewhat stronger than expected, so we had to tack to the south east to start with, to make enough ground to miss the Lizard.  The motion of the boat was fairly uncomfortable and we made slow progress as darkness fell.


After supper, the watch keeping regime started with one person on watch in the cockpit and the others below.  Watches were set at two hours at a time, which meant 2 hours on duty followed by 6 hours off; not a bad regime.  The duty bod has to keep a lookout for other vessels, keep an eye on the instruments, keep the log and make sure that any wind changes are matched by trimming the sails and course.  Simple really, as most of the time the autopilot does the difficult job of keeping the boat on course – until the battery runs down that is…


There’s something very satisfying keeping watch at night, even in bad weather.  Once away from towns, the light houses and other lights stand out well, letting you keep track of your progress.  Ships appear as patterns of light well before you can make out their shapes and, with a clear sky, there are the stars to watch.  Looking through binoculars, the faint lights of a ship become real as the shape fills in and you can make out what sort of vessel she is.  Sometimes dolphins and porpoises come and check out the boat; it’s lovely to think that they’ve come to visit you and never the other way round!


Monday night and Tuesday were not very comfortable; the sea was fairly rough and the wind was in just the wrong direction, so we seemed to be being thrown about a good deal and not making much progress.  Nevertheless, people were getting their sea legs and beginning to feel much better.  And we were getting somewhere; the marks on the chart showing our progress down past the Isles of Scilly and moving more southerly towards our destination.


J all wrapped up for a night watch

J all wrapped up for a night watch

Come Wednesday, the weather had improved beyond recognition; a lovely warm sunny day and moonlit night.  The only downside was the fact that the wind had completely disappeared, so we had to turn on the artificial wind (otherwise known as the engine).


Thursday was not much different, with only light winds round the middle of the afternoon.  In an effort to make the most of what little wind there was, Jeremy had assembled the boat hook and various bits of line to make a pole to push out the foresail so as to catch the wind.  Then I had a brain wave and got the stainless steel tube that is part of the sun shade and we used that as a pole.  It worked great until the wind died again and we took it down and realised that the sharp edges on the ends of the tube were cutting through the rope.


Mk1 Pole, using canvas bag

Mk1 Pole, using canvas bag


Mk2 Pole using awning kit

Mk2 Pole using awning kit

Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were warm and sunny with little or no wind; most of the time was spent motoring to make the passage.  There is a compromise to be made here: we needed to complete the trip in a reasonable time, as otherwise people would start to get the coastguard wound up about overdue yachts but at the same time we had only a finite supply of diesel oil for the motor.  The watching of the fuel gauge and working out the best engine speed for ground made good became a major topic of conversation; one moment opinion would be that we could motor all the way to La Coruna and still have something in the tank; the next opinion would shift to the gloomy conclusion that we’d run out short of the Spanish coast and be condemned to complete the journey at the whim of the weather.


The pole returned to haunt us the following day, with much thought being devoted to the topic as we continued to motor south west towards our destination.  In the end I drilled a hole in the end of the pole to take a shackle so that the rope didn’t need to pass through it – job done.  Now all we needed was the wind.  The forecasts in UK before we set out had reckoned that the winds would be from the north and building towards through the day.  The winds didn’t wish to oblige us however, as we had little or no wind for the daylight hours of Friday.


However, by the evening, the wind was doing just what it had promised and a little more: wind direction had changed to north easterly and was building up to a force 5.  With a swell of about 2 metres running with the wind, we were really moving over the ground.  By now we were about 60 miles short of La Coruna and looking likely to arrive there by mid morning.  The wind, however, had different ideas, as it increased in strength and moved round to the east, moving us over the ground at about 7 knots and in just the right direction!  At last the weather doing what it was meant to do, just when it would have been OK to go slowly so as to arrive in daylight, we were being dumped off a strange port in the dark!


We came into sight of the Spanish coast at about 10pm, with the lights of the coastal towns and the lighthouses being visible about 35 miles offshore.  The main lighthouse was identified and minor adjustments to our course made by the duty bod.  By 4am, the cockpit was crowded as all 4 crew members joined in the entertaining sport of spotting the leading lights and channel marker buoys against the backdrop of a significant city’s lights.  Frankly, it was all a little too exciting and resembled a Monty Python sketch at times, as people failed to see what was glaringly obvious to someone else.  The whole business wasn’t helped by the fact that half way into our final approach, a large freighter appeared behind us, going a good deal faster than us and heading for the same part of the port.  Now, I know that sail has precedence and that the overtaking vessel is meant to avoid the one being overtaken but reality does intrude into the equation: this guy was much bigger than us and there was no guarantee he’d actually seen us.  So, down came the sails, on went the motor and we moved smartly off to one side to let him through before he made matchwood of ‘Rampage’.


This also solved the navigational dispute, as we simply followed the merchant man into the harbour, peeling off towards the marina as it appeared!  We then had to dodge a contingent of anchored yachts before we finally spotted the entrance to the marina.  Abandoning any thoughts of fancy approaches and finding ourselves a berth close to the shore facilities, I took the easy option and parked ‘Rampage’ on the first berth we came to – about 500 metres from shore.


We were alongside by 0545.  We had a beer to celebrate our arrival after 5 days at sea and then to bed! 

12 Hour Positions Showing Course

12 Hour Positions Showing Course



  1. Very glad to hear it was all somewhat uneventful! xxx

  2. Hurrah!
    Beer before breakfast… so THAT’s the sort of voyage you’re on.
    Well done, Salty Skipper and trusty crew.

    • Kath,
      You should understand that it wasn’t beer before breakfast – it was beer FOR breakfast. And to act as a mild sedative for an overtired crew….

  3. Hi There
    Happy New year to you all
    At last have found your blog site and thought we would post a message to wish you all the best for 2010.
    All well in Oxfordshire despite us landlubbers being snowed under.

    We might be in Italy in the summer so please let us know what your plans are it would be great to try and rendezvous(it’s been nearly 25 years – but who’s counting)

    Lots love Sarah and Pete

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