We crossed the Bay of Biscay

We crossed the Bay of Biscay

24. July 2017 Off By Søren

This reminds me of once we were in a real bad storm down in the Biscay…” says “Skæg”, a character from the danish children comic strip Rasmus Klump. He often starts telling about the storms in the Bay of Biscay, but always falls asleep or are interrupted before revealing anything. What is it, he never gets to tell about this somewhat feared sea?

My guess is that it is due to the atlantic low pressure systems, which are mostly heading for the Bay of Biscay, so quite often you can run into som heavy weather. In addition to this, the depth goes from 4 kilometers to around 200 meters within a few miles, and this results in rising and steep waves when crossing this belt. Nowadays, the available weather forecasts have a quality so you with a high probability can avoid any bad weather, and will know what the sea state is.

We arrived in La Coruña friday, and it seemed like a good weather window of 4 days for crossing the Bay og Biscay would be available from sunday. We should be able to leave in light wind, then ride on the back of a low pressure system with a fresh breeze, next motor through almost no wind, and finally a fresh breeze up to Penzance or Newlyn in Cornwall. Talking to other sailors in La Coruña confirmed this was a good window for crossing. It actually turned out, that the forecast was very accurate.

Offshore cruising education
So it wasn’t heavy weather sailing we would be training on the Bay of Biscay, but we learned something else very useful during the 4,5 days we used to cross the bay. We have heard from many offshore cruisers, that it takes up to 3 or 4 days before the rhythm kicks in, and you can enjoy the cruising. What rhythm are they talking about? We had no precise idea, including how it would be up to the time where it settles. This was probably the most important thing we will take with us from the experiences of crossing the bay. The Bay of Biscay taught us the following way:

  1. You start by lowering the appetite by adding waves, missing sealegs after a few days in a marina, and a little tension towards what awaits
  2. Then you add some changing conditions at the edge of the weather systems, which requires attention and therefore less sleep during nights, and more physical  work handling and trimming sails, reefing etc. Fatigue will now settle in.
  3. Early morning on the second day, you put the engine out of play. The wind disappeared and we started the engine, but after 10 minutes we realized that the engine was way too hot. The cooling of the engine was not working.
  4. You spice it up with small things stopping to work. We lost the sailstop on the mast (which showed up a bit later), We couldn’t unfoil the genua, which is the biggest sail on the boat, due to something was locked at the top of the mast.

At this point of time, hungry but without appetite, tired and insecure, I was at a state, where we might just as well call for someone to come and tow us to nearest harbour. But we are 100 nautical miles from France, so that makes no sense. And it is not at all necessary as this is mentally and not a real problem. In almost a full day we don’t move much. We send Nanna into the water to check if something is stuck in the through hull for sea water cooling the engine. It was very cold, and she had to give up, completely exhausted. We did succeed in fixing the foiling issue of the genua, so we again were able to set full sail. This also meant, that the issue with the engine was our only issue, so it was just a matter of the crossing taking more time – and a bit uncertainty towards entering the harbour when we get to that. We would solve that at Penzance, knowing we had done it before in Lagos.

Full speed towards land
We all agree, that if there was any meaning behind the issue with the engine, then it was for us to stay an extra day on the Bay of Biscay. This extra day was what it took to reach the point where the so-called rhythm settled in.

Nanna making pancakes

Nanna and Laura made pancakes

On the third day, we start eating more (with reference to Rasmus Klump (Bruin) again, pancakes was the big hit), get more sleep and structure the watch system better. And a good help is also, that we get wind again and have some real good sailing towards England. During the night we get more wind, and with that bigger waves, but we keep the speed on reefed sails. We are very determined to reach land with this wind, as it would be calm again next day, and we really would prefer not to get stuck just outside the coast without being able to get the last miles in there.

Friday morning we finally reach Penzance. We call the harbour and are told, that the gate to the harbour will close in an hour, which we will be able to make in time. They know we only can run the engine for few minutes so they are very helpful guiding us to a mooring. Of cause everything goes well as we are getting quite experienced in entering harbours by sail only.

So after 4,5 days we can say we have crossed the Bay of Biscay. Proud and wiser on what this means and what can be done better next time. And we think we did get to feel the rhythm settling in, which we are really happy to have experienced.

The issue with the cooling of the engine was fixed by an engineer, who found the time from his lunch break. It turned out to be a small crack in a pipe, making the water pump suck air instead of water. Another issue was hiding as well, which later on would challenge us more than ever on Carpe Diem, but we will get back to that with the next post.

Penzance is a very lovely town. The harbour inside the gate is mostly a ship yard, so it was not as nice as the town. Saturday we rented a car and did some sightseeing in Cornwall. We saw Lands End and St. Ives, which are very beatiful and impressive.