Crossing the Biscay

No-one crosses the Bay of Biscay for fun. At least no-one with anything approaching a normal sense of enjoyment.

It is like the M25, a rather grim necessity worth enduring to reach the lovely places to which it leads.

If you are heading from northern Europe to the Mediterranean or the Canaries for an Atlantic crossing, or like us, bringing a boat back from southern Europe in order to explore the British Isles and the Baltic, Biscay is the sailing super highway you must take.

The only other options are to travel through France via the Canal du Midi, which though undoubtedly beautiful would take a few weeks and mean missing out Portugal and Spain – thus the untold pleasures of Galicia – altogether. Or if you have a casual couple months to spare you could avoid a Biscay crossing by coastal hopping all the way around Atlantic France then northern Spain but not all of this coast is terribly hospitable to yachts.

Biscay by contrast can be crossed in a few days and, since our time to get back to the UK was limited, this was our only viable choice.

The Bay of Biscay is a name that sailors utter with trepidation. Biscay has a tough guy reputation which it works hard to maintain. The reasons for Biscay’s fear factor are multiple.

Depressions formed over the Atlantic whip up strong prevailing westerly winds, often blowing as gales throughout the winter months, which have flung many a ship onto Biscay’s 310-mile lee shore.

Blowing over an ocean fetch of nearly 3000 miles, these westerlies have ample time to create huge seas.

This is combined with Biscay’s geography which sees the deep ocean of 4000 or so metres meet the continental shelf, shallowing to a mere 200 metres in just 30 nautical miles meaning any ocean swell can stack up quickly into big steep waves.

Lastly, the rocky nature of much the coastline reflects the waves creating messy, confused seas.

This is why any sensible sailor planning a Biscay crossing will firstly not do so in winter and secondly will watch the forecasts with hawk like focus to grab the first weather window that appears.

Having said that, the perfect weather window of sunny skies and kindly winds to see you all the way across on a pleasant beam reach is unlikely to present itself, ever. Our attitude was, if it’s safe to go, we go, come rain or shine.

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Rather than return direct to the UK, we headed for southern Brittany, a three-day sail from the Ria de Arousa, to break the journey and catch up on sleep.

The forecast had promised force four to six south westerlies for the first day and night veering round to the west then north on the second day but dropping slightly, eventually coming round to the north west.

This seemed simple enough, we’d head north as quickly as possible on the south westerlies, then be able to turn off north east towards Brittany on a close reach when the wind veered to the north.

The forecast had also promised rain, lots of rain.

Now I have a small piece of advice for anyone planning a sail in the vicinity of Biscay or indeed Portugal and Galicia, based on my sample of size of, ahem, one.

Whatever the forecast predicts on the Beaufort scale, add on another one of two for good measure.

The force four to six we had been promised from the south west gained strength as the first afternoon progressed into evening, 25 knots, 30 knots, 35 knots and more. By about 11pm, it was a force seven gusting gale force eight. With the boat as tightly reefed as a corseted 18th century maiden, we flew north, surfing down the waves to reach a maximum boat speed of 10.3 knots, thanking our ocean gods the wind and waves were behind us.

At 8pm, the rain hit, working with the violent waves throughout the night to seep through every tiny gap in our waterproofs leaving us cowering under the spray hood, wet and cold, peeping our heads up every ten minutes to check no collision was imminent.

By 6am, rain persisting, the wind had calmed to a more manageable force six and began to slowly veer to the west settling into a strong northerly breeze which we beat into throughout the afternoon.

It was cold, wet, bumpy and, frankly, miserable. Low grey rain clouds merged with the seemingly endless grey waves making it hard to tell where the sky ended and the sea began.

As we sat, shivering under the spray hood, hoofing down the soup which was about the only thing possible to rustle up with the rolling of the boat, looking out at the grey world which had enveloped us, I commented to Pete:

“This would be a lot of people’s idea of hell. Actual hell. And yet here we are, doing this for fun!”

He agreed. There was little else to say.

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That evening we finally spotted a tiny suggestion of blue through the clouds. The rain, at last, gave us respite relieving us of another night being soaked but by then the chill had got into our bones and only a long hot shower on land would cure it.

The third day buoyed us with bright, rejuvenating sunshine and we were able sail close reached towards Brittany in the happy knowledge the bulk of the journey was behind us.

At about 5am the next morning the twinkling lights of the coast became visible. Even the wind had finally exhausted itself to a whisper so we motored serenely up the River Odet to moor in the picture-perfect Breton village of Sainte-Marine drained but elated to have completed our 400-mile journey across Biscay.

Two things sustained us through throughout this passage.

One was biscuits. On land I am not a big biscuit eater. Show me a pastry in any form and I am yours. Offer me chocolate and I’ll snaffle it without a moment’s thought. A freshly baked loaf of bread I cannot resist, in any circumstances. But biscuits, meh, not bothered.

However, when you’ve been woken from a couple of hours of fitful sleep at 3am knowing you have three hours of sitting alone through the sodden bitter cold night ahead of you, there is nothing, and I mean nothing, more comforting than a cup of tea and a digestive. Perhaps two. I savoured every blessed bite. We have onboard an array of biscuits which would make Mr McVitie blush and oh my, have we been grateful for them.

The second, was dolphins. We were escorted virtually the whole way across the Biscay by these amazing creatures. At all times of day, in the stormiest of seas, they would come and greet us then dance through the waves alongside us, darting under our bow, leaping out of the sea just yards from us, surfing the waves behind and in front of us. Big pods came and swam with us for up to an hour, then set off again on their merry way, to be replaced an hour or so later by some more of their fellow maritime playmates. We mused that perhaps it was the same pod, seeing us safely across this perilous bit of sea. Who knows. All I do know is that the common dolphin has shot straight to the top of my favourite animal list. There is something deeply comforting when you feel very alone, to suddenly find yourself with such company. Seeing the dolphins extracting such joy from the same waves that made me shudder as they came looming towards our suddenly very small seeming boat, made the waves themselves seem less unfriendly. The dolphins provided moments of pure magic which would be worth many a stormy day at sea to witness.

For me, the nerves and discomfort are an intrinsic part of sailing. I won’t pretend we weren’t very pleased when the seas calmed and sun shone again but if it were all plain sailing, where would be the sense of adventure? And that’s why we do it, right?

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