Crossing Bay Of Biscay – What’s In Store?

I’m a bit hesitant to tempt fate by saying that so far the weather has been good to us on our crossing, but it’s now Friday morning with perhaps another 30 hours to go and the crossing has been fine. We are now on a strict rota with 4 hours at the helm, 4 hours standby and 4 hours off between the three crew members. I’ve just finished my 4am to 8am watch. Skipper is not part of this rota but he’s constantly on standby in case of emergencies (like tea-making and biscuit retrieving). This is probably the best way of sharing out the hours but it can be quite tiring, especially if your shift is 12am to 4am, when you’ve been up all day having only had a few hours sleep the previous night. Despite this there has been some great things to experience.


The fog sets in

The fog sets in

My first watch was Wednesday night, 8pm to 12am, which meant I could watch the sun setting. If it wasn’t so bloody foggy! This is actually a great time to be at the helm. Imagine a shroud of fog, dropping visibility to around 100 metres, with light grey skies. There is no definition to the surroundings – just totally light grey. As the sun begins to set somewhere behind you, so the light grey slowly becomes dark grey. The eyes are struggling to adjust to not just the change in light but also to the level of horizontal visibility. Is that the sea I’m looking at or the sky? Because the foggy L’Aber Wrach exit was bustling with ships appearing from nowhere one is always on one’s guard. But the fact is the Bay of Biscay is a very large expanse of sea with little commercial ships and very few people stupid enough to attempt the crossing, so whilst I was expecting to come head-on with an ocean liner I didn’t actually come across anything. Only fog. The helm was tied so the wheel couldn’t turn any further port (left) than 180 degrees, but with the automatic tiller being of little use in the mildly rough sea one had to allow the boat to move over to starboard (right) by itself, and then steer it back to port. At one point a freak wave threw itself over the starboard side and poured gallons of water into the cockpit and, unfortunately, down below (some classic Sam curses ensued). Sailing like this for 4 hours may sound like hard work but actually it’s one of the greatest things about sailing: taking control of the helm and riding those waves, baby! Yeah, absolutely loved those 4 hours and even if I couldn’t see what I was doing at least I knew I was vaguely maintaining our course of 190 degrees.


ram67And then a weird thing happened. Out of the total darkness appeared a light dead ahead. For a split second I panicked before realising that it was in fact the moon popping out to say hello. Without warning it just suddenly appeared and lit the way for me for a few minutes. When you’re hacking around in the choppy sea in total darkness for ages and then the moon appears, one’s overwhelmed by a sense of recognition and warmth. It’s a welcoming and familiar sight – all fears are washed away by its appearance. Then, as quickly as it appears, it disappears. Gone. Cast into the darkness again. The only visible thing to be seen is the compass and the GPS display down below. Even the navigation lights have been turned off to conserve power, so the switch from 2 miles visibility to 0 metres visibility as the fog ensues in a matter of seconds is quite dramatic.


ram68My next watch was from 12pm to 4pm, with some fantastic weather to take in. It was whilst on this watch that I spotted a sea rabbit. Sea rabbits are extremely rare and may only be seen off the coast of France in the Biscay area, before the continental shelf drops away. In fact only one has ever been spotted, and that was by me whilst on my watch. The sea rabbit is so called because of its seemingly long ears, but it surfaced and dived so quickly it was impossible to confirm this sighting with complete conviction. Even so, the Skipper made an official note of this sighting in his log under the sea rabbit’s Latin name, Delphineus Rabbitus Furlonglus. I really feel quite enriched having witnessed a sighting of this rare aquatic life form.


Do I smell?

Do I smell?

One of the more unpleasant side effects of long sea voyages is the lack of personal hygiene, as sustained by all members of the crew. I smell, he smells, she smells, they smell – we all smell. This smell is a mixture of stale body odour, mackerel, old suntan lotion, salty sea air and a general lack of sweet smelling soap. Applying deodorant only makes it worse, and there’s no point in washing because you’ll only smell of stale body odour, mackerel, old suntan lotion and salty sea air in a short space of time again. But then, who cares? It’s not like we’re on the pull or anything. And even if we were at least we’d all have an equal chance!


An advantage of long distance crossings is that I can now make a proper bowline in under 10 seconds. And a clove hitch. And a round-turn-and-two-half-hitches. And a sheet bend. And a figure of eight. Reef knot. Timber hitch. Prusik knot. Having read The Exorcist (which did nothing for my confidence in those dark crossings) I am now working my way through the SAS Survival Guide, just in case we stack the boat. Conny is concentrating on Learn Spanish, what with Spain being our next destination. We obviously have different levels of confidence regarding our completion of the Bay Of Biscay. At least I’ll know how to track and gut wild game, even if I can’t order a beer in Galician.


Other Observations whilst crossing Biscay
I’ve already mentioned the mysterious fog and its novelty factor when we first had to navigate our way through it, but one watch I undertook from 12 – 4am was no laughing matter. With the engine running due to lack of wind the sea was still but the fog extremely thick. So thick I could only just see the end of the boat, so with everyone else asleep I had no one looking out for me. I had nothing to look at except the phosphorescence illuminating the wake of the boat. This is caused by tiny plankton that light up when disturbed, so as the boat cut through the water, so our path was illuminated by this strange phenomenon. When this is all you can see this is quite a magical sight. But as the fog got thicker so the air became more damp and cold. The warm glow from the instrument lights from down below look so inviting but all I could do was to put on more layers and eventually wake up Sam as I was concerned for oncoming, unseen craft. Just as well I did as we had to spend 20 minutes avoiding a vessel directly a head of us, using only the radar and automatic steering mechanism to assist us.


Another early morning phenomenon I’ve read so much about yet never seen before are sunspots. Because the sun rose behind a fairly thick veil of fog one morning, I was able to use the binoculars to look directly at the deep, rich red rising sun. Obviously this is something one never makes a habit of, which is perhaps why most of us have never seen a sun spot, but sure enough that morning I saw three as clear as daylight.


Of course there is plenty of aquatic life to witness, some of which very strange. Conny spotted a school of around 100 tiny fish skimming across the surface of the water at great speed. Upon closer inspection they were actually jumping out of the water, obviously pursued by a larger predator. Another time a big scaffolding plant floated past, which had obviously been at sea for months for at each end was a cluster of mussels and cockles – a living organic colony of bivalves wandering aimlessly, dependent entirely upon this plank of wood. Stranger still, however, was the school of very large fish floating underneath the plank, using it as protection from some unseen prey far below. As we approached Spain at the other end of our Biscay crossing we sailed through about 2 miles of crab-infested waters. This was a natural phenomenon, thousands upon thousands of thousands of baby crabs, clawing around in no particular direction.


We ran goose-wing for the first time on Biscay. This is when one sails downwind (with the wind coming form behind), with the mainsail up and out starboard beam (across the deck pointing our right) and the genoa pointing port beam, using the spinnaker pole. This is an additional mast that connects to the main mast but lies horizontally and is attached to the clew of the genoa sail (the bottom back edge of the genoa sail). In a nutshell the yacht looks as if it is spreading its wings as if it were about to take off, hence the name. Anyway, I’m only mentioning it because I think it looked damn cool, having both sails out like that.


Despite all that happened on our Biscay crossing I still found time to shave my hair off, which was a truly liberating experience. Three days at sea hardly turns you mad, but when one has such a smooth crossing as we did, motoring the majority of the distance due to a lack of wind, one can get a little restless. When you’re not catching mackerel, the autopilot is on, a lack of activity from the water and the sun is shining there’s little to do but chat, read, eat or drink. Any of these options suit me fine, as it does the others too, so I think our rather placid crossing of the Bay of Biscay will hold us in good stead for the longer trans-Atlantic leg.





3 Comments on “Crossing Bay Of Biscay – What’s In Store?”

  1. Pingback: Dame Ellen MacArthur & Hilary Lister: 21st Century Heroines |

    1. Javier

      What kind of sailboat do you think crossing Bay of Biscay? I have the same project, sailing from Ribadesella (Asturias) to London.

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