Whinchat crosses Biscay

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This is a bit of an epic post, because it comes in two parts, the first is my account, of what it was like for me, sitting in Cornwall, wondering what was going on. The second part is Pete’s account, safely in A Coruna, as evidenced by the photo above. There are passages that my mum and Pete’s mum would be well advised to gloss over, and know that all is well.

Julia’s account

When I sit down to write my blog, I’m mostly thinking of the experience of the day, conjuring up as many events that I can recall. I tell it as I see it, feel it, and often Pete will say ‘do you have to be so honest?’ Sorry love! Most of the time when I write, I try to have in mind many of my non-sailing friends, in particular my mother and my mother-in-law (although they both tell me that they skip bits, so perhaps I shouldn’t be so worried). Today, now, I am writing with my husband in my mind, my heart.

When I last saw Whinchat, she was gliding south, resplendent with her cruising chute flying. I’d stood on Pendennis Point watching her grow smaller, and smaller. I couldn’t bear to think that she’d vanished from my view, so I chose to drive away. It was a beautiful day in Falmouth, one that we hadn’t seen in a while, and everything felt light, warm… positive. When I think about it, I’m not sure what I actually did with the day, except crack through the list of things that were left to sort out before we packed up our house for two months. In a very girlie way, I had my mad, curly hair cut in a way that would sustain itself for two months of abuse, other than that, I’m not sure. Except for obsessively refreshing MarineTraffic, and checking where they’d got to. I saw the pink triangle slip slowly past the Lizard, and out into the Channel. I saw their speed drop, and I thought how frustrated they might be growing. I wondered if the calmness of the water, or watching the sunlight tickle the water might alleviate things. Then I wondered if they’d noticed anything but the dropping of the speed. Two blokes with a passage in mind, let’s be realistic. I wondered if dolphins had joined them. I wondered when the last point they’d notice land behind them.

Wednesday came and went for me, and I went to bed, in a very calm Cornish day, looking up at full moon, and the stars pricking through the night sky, wondering if you, my husband, were looking at the same sky.

By the time the morning came around, I was awake when the first rays of light peered over the shutters. Normally able to be immune to this, I couldn’t. I sat up, placed my glasses on my nose, and hit refresh. There you were, in range, going quite slowly. It gave me such a mix of emotions. Happy that the pink triangle placed you somewhere in the great expanse of sea, and sorry that the wind wasn’t playing ball. I’m certain that it was slower than you had hoped for. I didn’t go back to sleep, because then I was thinking about how it had been over night. I thought the wind must have been in the east by now, so that the cruising chute would have been stowed (wasn’t it good to have cleared the for-peak), and that Simon would have trimmed Whinchat within an inch of her capabilities. She does OK in light winds, but she’s no racing boat. I picked up my book, and read. I was in the world of Harold Fry, a man in life who is looking back on a life that he nearly had, at a marriage that went wholly distant, which you had the sense didn’t really need to. A strange one to be reading, when I feel the absolute distance so acutely. You are not on a pilgrimage, but you are on a life’s ambition… as previously written about, this is something I am acutely proud of in you.

By the time I’d climbed out of bed and into my day, you’d frozen on AIS. You were ‘out of range’, and although I’d expected it, you had been so careful to tell me, a part of me froze too. Here I was standing on the day of days. Day of completion on our house in Sussex. Capital coming our way, and only me to deal with it. I learned that day that stress is really relative. Here I was worrying about you at the mercy of the elements (sorry Whinchat) and no doubt you’d be worrying whether I would make the ‘right’ investment decisions on the day. And we both know it’s not because we don’t trust the other, it’s because we are mutual control freaks!!!

I won’t deny that Thursday was agonising for me. You’d dropped off my reference for you in the world, and no amount of refreshing of AIS would bring you back. I was waiting for a call from Caroline (our solicitor) to say that completion had happened. I was deep in the bowels of moneysupermarket.com working out the best for a series of investments, ones that I could sort in a day, that I was in the ‘right postcode for’, and ones that I could satisfy the FSA on that I wasn’t money laundering. I was locked in our dining room, pumping away at the keyboard, making phone calls, pacing up and down. It was the warmest, sunniest day this year in Falmouth, so I threw open the doors and let the sound of awakening summer pour in. We do have birds here! They just choose not to reveal themselves, but shout a lot!

It’s funny how you ‘project’. After my mixed emotions when you left, of vaguely feeling something of regret about not being there, it being so glorious here, I imagined what it might be like in this big expanse of blue. And then I made the heart-stopping mistake of checking the shipping forecast. Why did I do that? In a moment, everything changed. I could see the weather that you were heading into, and I had no way of ‘waving’ at you. The Weatherfax has proven to be so wholly unreliable, and I had no idea if you’d be able to pick up the Shipping Forecast. Gale warning in SW Biscay, and severe Gale Warning in SE Fitrozy. Just where you were heading. I had to make my mind have a metaphorical lie down in a dark room. I was in spin, spin, spin. The transaction hadn’t gone through, and I had nothing to anchor to in this storm in my head. In my fit of anxiety, I leaned on social media, and my friend Cally came back with a two-point response. I then created my own six-point response, in private:

1) Whinchat is amazing
2) Pete and Simon are not me
3) It’s a big sea area
4) It’s an easterly (good direction)
5) They have a day at sea under their belt
6) Brittany buoy 8knots, Gasgoine 13 knots

That actually was quite reassuring. And for the avoidance of doubt, all those romantic notions of ‘may be I could’, were dashed. It’s exactly why I’m here, and you’re there, still out there (although at least I can see you now).

The afternoon passed in a blur of financial transactions, which I’m not going to bore you with, and despite a gazillion refreshes, you never appeared. I vaguely thought of phoning Adrain and asking him if he had any greater power, but thought that was totally neurotic. It was a stressful day.

I’d arranged to go out with a ‘new’ friend here, a writing buddy, and it was an amazing tonic at the end of the day. We went to sushi night at PicnicCornwall, and how awesome was it! I managed to avoid tuna (didn’t think you’d be impressed if I’d risked it), and in spite of the day, was the designated driver. You wouldn’t have written that, would you?

I’d promised myself that I’d watch the moon rise when I got home, and wonder if you might be watching it too. Here, everything was so still. The trees were screening its emergence from Roseland way, but the colour was so rich, so red. I wished I could rise up over the house and watch it – interestingly there was an amazing photo in The Times of the moon rise over Falmouth Docks, so someone here had the same notion. I just wondered if it were you, too, looking at it.

Despite me willing it, you still hadn’t appeared on AIS, and I was not going to make the mistake of checking the shipping forecast again. You won’t believe it, but I read on until quite late in the night. Well, into the next day, which is rare for me.

Friday morning saw me come to with the early light of the day, although I pushed it away for a while. I was awake before the alarm, yes, hitting refresh. Still stuck off Brittany and still loudly declared as out of range. Grrrrrrr… I lay in bed and read, reading through the talk of the alarm.

By now it’s been 24 hours, and I haven’t heard a squeak. Haven’t seen a peek. I didn’t worry that something untoward had happened. I trust our boat to look after you, and I would have heard if something catastrophic had happened (such is the speed of the world). I worried how you were, how you both were. How you’d slept. How the motion was (rough or very rough is never in my description of an ideal sea-state). How you’d eaten (I know, I know). I knew better than to expect you to have showered, or bothered about personal hygiene, but above all, I want to know how you are. How is it pitting yourself against the elements? Perhaps it’s worthy of a diversion here. I am a novice sailor, I come from a family of non-sailors. I grew up in Stroud, where no one I knew sailed. I have been a habitually land-based creature (for one that notionally lives on an island). To cross the Channel in a ferry was a BIG adventure for me, let alone in your own boat. To cross seas, oceans? Pllleeease. So, I wonder how it is, in reality, for the one I know best in the world.

The day passed in a blur of admin, emails and hitting re-fresh. What can I say? There is an uneasy tension underlying everything. The strangeness, the alienness of what you are achieving is but half a heart-beat away. There seems to be no moment when I’m free from it. It’s like holding your breath for hours, and hours. It isn’t until something changes that you realise quite how tense you’ve become.

That moment, for me, came a couple of hours ago. 20:08 apparently. I’d had a lovely couple of hours with our friend Karen, putting the world’s to right over a glass of wine in the garden, and she’d gone, and I was setting about making supper. I hit refresh, again, and bang! There you were. I really squealed. Out loud, and it’s in those moments that you realise how tense you’ve become. The sheer joy brought hot tears pricking the back of my eyes, and I could have wept. I’m not sure why I didn’t, there was no one here to say anything. After 36 hours, you’re back in range, and I am overwhelmed. You’ve achieved something incredible, and I am immensely proud. I think you might even be in port before the next day dawns (and you’ll hate arriving in the dark), but before long the world’s systems will enable us to speak again.

You have been in my every waking thought, in the underlying discomfort of being apart in such a massive ordeal, in looking at the sky and wondering what you’re thinking, feeling. It has felt longer than these 60+ hours, and it makes me wonder how on earth it will be for the AZAB, but I can’t let myself go there.

Pete’s account

Your normal correspondent had chosen to wave Whinchat off from the pontoon as she left for new adventures. So it was that on Wednesday 14th Whinchat set sail for La Coruna in Northern Spain. The destination was chosen for two reasons: first we had heard nothing but good reports of the area and were keen to explore the Rias. Second Peter had entered the AZAB 2015 and one of the entry requirements is to complete a 300 mile passage with your chosen crew for the race. Falmouth to La Coruna is over 400 NM and thus more than meets the standard. Pete was joined by Simon Carter of Red Ensign who are the main sponsors for the race and also main brokers of second hand Rustlers, so Simon knows the boats well and has been to La Coruna several times before.

Adrian Jones of Rustler had challenged Pete and Simon to get the cruising shute hoisted before they reached Black Rock, which they did. I waved them off having driven round to Pendennis Point and they looked fabulous, I even made sure they got a mention on Chris Evans Breakfast Show on R2 as “Breaking News”.

Pete takes up the story from here:

Our departure all went really smoothly and we left Falmouth harbour giving our passage plan to HM Coastguard as we passed Pendennis Castle. We could see Jules waving but didn’t hear Chris Evans, we had more important tasks at hand, coffee!

Sadly shortly afterwards the wind died almost completely and we actually motored to the Manacles, but once clear of the Manacles buoy, the engine was off and stayed off until we were in La Coruna harbour.

During the day the wind gradually veered from an initial W until by midnight it had gone NE, as our course for pretty much the whole trip was 200 a NE suited us fine. Winds on our first day were generally light and we flew the cruising shute all day along with the staysail. Pressure also continued to build throughout the day, and the sun shone in a cloudless sky. We even had a dolphin, briefly, in Falmouth Bay so what could be better?

Simon cooked that evening, amazing steaks, though as a portent of things to come he ate hardly any of his. Overnight we had agreed to do 4 hour watches, and when I came on at midnight Simon had gybed us onto port tack, where we were to remain until we gybed again around the breakwater in La Coruna over two days later.

The night watch seemed to go quickly, there was a really bright moon, we were close to shipping lanes but with AIS,and given the good visibility it was easy to spot what the big guys were up, and none of them came very close to us anyway. We were routing outside the TSS (a sort of motorway for large commercial traffic, like a dual carriageway you have to chose the correct line for your direction of travel) so didn’t expect to encounter too many in any event.

We continued to fly the cruising shute right through the night, the wind was slowing building and at some point would get too strong for the sail, but as yet we hadn’t found when that was. Jules doesn’t really like the sail and on this trip it has had more use than the whole of the rest of its life!

By 08.00 we had completed our first day and travelled 141 nautical miles, so just another 300 to go! Simon did a walk round to inspect all the gear and found that the shackle holding the tack of the cruising shute (the bottom corner) to the bowsprite had nearly undone itself and was hanging on literally by a thread. Great spot as mayhem would have ensued had it actually come undone. In tightening it up I inevitably dropped the rest of the shackle in the water, luckily Whinchat has spares of most things on board and we were shortly flying along again.

Just before midday the shackle on the cruising shute sheet burst open, not sure why, but we decided it was an omen and brought the cruising shute down for good. I think Simon was a little disappointed but the wind was now blowing 17kts and it continued to build so in reality a good call. We were also joined by a swallow, obviously tired on its long journey from Africa. He kept flying inside the boat so I kept shooing him out. He would fly off, just a few meters, and then return. Then he nestled down where you put your feet when you steer and sadly decided to give up the ghost. We gave him a decent burial at sea!

The swallow wasn’t the only one off colour as Simon had a bout of seasickness. As it would turn out he couldn’t shake it off and was not in good shape for the rest of the trip. He might have been ok but from this point onwards the wind and the seas begin to build. It was now thursday evening. At 20.00 the wind was 19kts, by 08.00 on Friday morning it had risen to 28kts and would peak on Friday afternoon at between 35 and 40kts, which is a lot!

I had gradually reduced sail as the wind increased and we now had the staysail (our smaller front sail) and two reefs in the main. The one advantage of more wind is that you go faster! so by 08.00 on Friday morning we had covered 321 NM which gave us a daily run of 180NM. With my crewmate comatose for much of the day I did long watches and began to feel very tired. There was absolutely no other traffic around and I know I briefly fell asleep on at least a couple of occasions. Not really sure whether for minutes or seconds. The autopilot was driving us so no real harm done.

By now the seas had grown with the wind, and we were beginning to surf down the backs of waves, despite the wind and the sea everything felt in control and safe – though it was hard to escape the feeling that you were in a washing machine on an extended spin cycle. I had grabbed a muesli bar for breakfast, but Simon had had no hot food really since his bacon sandwich on Thursday morning. But neither us felt hungry despite the lack of calories, and certainly neither of us were about to volunteer to go and spend time in the galley!

Somebody enjoyed the waves though. I was given a fantastic display by a group of dolphins who were jumping out through the back of the breakers so they were completely airborne for a short while, they were obviously having fun even if I was beginning not to!

At about 16.00 on Friday we had our main meal of the day, a banana each, but what a brilliant pick me up. Neither of us felt like anything more. If we had been going for another few days I’m sure it wouldn’t have been enough but by this stage we both knew that we would arrive some time in the early hours of Saturday morning.

At this stage I was seriously questioning why I was there at all. The conditions had been bad on Friday morning, when we had over 100 miles still to go, and now they got even worse! At one point a big wave broke over the boat, I was sitting in the cockpit and was instantly up to my waist in water. The force of the wave washed away our dan buoy and life ring off the pushpit and nearly wrenched the outboard off its storage point, luckily that just held on. From that point on I was getting a regular soaking, thank goodness it was a sunny day and for a good set of waterproofs.

Aside: What is it like to be in a gale in Biscay?

If our wind instruments are to be believed the wind didn’t drop below 35kts from Friday afternoon, until it abated under the shelter of the land as we approached La Coruna. A check in Reeds Almanac says that is a F8, or gale on the Beaufort scale. EEEK

It also describes the sea state as typically being:

“Moderately high waves of greater length; edge of crests break into spindrift; foam blown in well-marked streaks.”

Well that much was certainly true. I was sat, predominately, with my back to the wind and sea looking at the waves as they roared past. Every so often it was if somebody had thrown a bucket of water over me, this was usually when a wave slapped the side of the boat and the spray came in a deluge over me. This would also cause Whinchat to lurch and if you weren’t either lying down or holding on tight to something you would be thrown around. It didn’t just make moving about difficult it made it dangerous too.

But the waves weren’t uniform in either size or direction. whilst the majority charged off downwind, and didn’t feel that big, though in truth I find it almost impossible to judge as we were the only people out there. We did pass within a mile of a cargo ship towards the end and in the trough of the waves it was completely hidden from view.

Every so often there would seem to be a wave not only bigger than the rest but also from a slightly different direction. These were frequently breaking as they went, more rollers than waves. Sometimes they would break in front of us and all energy would be dissipated, and when we got to that spot shortly afterwards it was no different to anywhere else. Other times you would rise up on the wave and shortly afterwards it would break in a boiling mass of foam and I would breathe a sigh of relief and watch the back of it as it reformed itself to hurl against something else but not us. Only once did one break right on top of us, filling the cockpit with water.

At one level it was awesome, in the true meaning of the word, the power of it and strangely beautiful. It was certainly tiring being constantly braced against the movement of the boat, and worried that we would get caught by one that was too big for the auto pilot to handle. I wondered whether I was better not strapped on, because if we did capsize then being hooked on in the cockpit was probably going to cause me to drown! Should I not be in the cockpit at all but down below and just abandon our fate to the wind and the auto pilot? I was very cold, wet and tired so none of those thoughts were that logical and I stayed exactly where I was as that seemed the best option. What if a gale lasted for two or three days you couldn’t adopt the same strategy then.

The wind, and the bulk of the sea were on our port quarter, I’m sure it would have been a different story had we been trying to push into those seas. That did at least mean the waves were pushing us the way we wanted to go and we weren’t fighting them to quite the same extent. In a boat less capable of handling the conditions we would have been very over canvassed, in fact we only had two reefs in the main and continued to make 8 or 9 kts even in these atrocious conditions, with almost no tendency to try and round up into the wind and no “slamming” as the bow hit the waves. The auto pilot was also superb. It beeps every time it is more than a certain number of degrees off course, and it did beep a lot! But always managed to correct itself, usually within seconds. Another fear was that a wave would push us around and cause an accidental gybe. Again we didn’t come close to that. We had rigged a preventer which would hopefully have helped manage the situation but best avoided.

I was sooooo glad that Jules had decided to stay behind as I think it might have killed her love of sailing for good. I didn’t enjoy it one bit and certainly wondered why I had entered the AZAB when this could happen to us with another week to go, not just a few hours. It was scary without me being frightened, if that makes any sense. Like a big rollercoaster ride except we had no ‘Elf and Safety to make sure we wouldn’t get hurt! It seemed to go for ever, with no indication of an ending. The GPS telling me we had 10 hours to our waypoint, or whatever, was very depressing. I felt very small and vulnerable, we were too far away from anybody to alert them if something had happened, out of radio range of anything. And the most likely accident was going to be a dismasting or a capsize and in either case the radio aerial would have gone too, so it felt pretty lonely particularly as Simon was completely killed by his on-going seasickness. We did have an EPIRB which alerts Falmouth by satellite and I kept the personal one firmly in my pocket in case I needed it

After the event there is a sense of achievement for sure but I also know I would avoid if I could. As ever Whinchat is much more capable than her skipper, Stephen Jones (the designer) is a genius, and its so reassuring going to sea in a proper boat!!!

Back to the story….

By about 21.00 I was not really up to doing much more, luckily Simon stirred from his bunk feeling a little better, though given the way we were being tossed about I’m not sure why! I collapsed into the pilot berth and instantly fell asleep. Just two hours later I was woken by the engine starting. The motion of the boat had totally calmed down, we had finally reached the shelter of the headland. Apart from having to clamber in to sodden gear it was a pleasure going on deck again. Simon was completely restored and had been trying to hit new maximum speeds by surfing down the waves. He achieved an amazing 14.5kts. Is this a record for a Rustler 42.? Its certainly a record for Whinchat.

By 01.30 on saturday morning we were snuggly tied up in a marina berth. The drama was over and sleep on a bed that didn’t try and throw you out every 30 seconds or so beckoned.

Overall?

The trip certainly had its low points. Being thrown across, and nearly out of, the cockpit was one as was being dumped on by the huge wave. The seemingly endless tossing of the boat all through Friday when we still had a long way to go, and poor Simon’s seasickness.

High points? The dolphins, of course. Watching a blood red moon rise above the stormy seascape on Thursday evening, and great sunsets and sunrises every day. The sense of achievement from just getting here and the beer in the main square at La Coruna at lunchtime. And finally proof of what we already knew, that is that Whinchat is a totally amazing boat able to cope well with the roughest conditions. Our trip through those seas would have been really horrible on most boats! But despite that can I have calmer seas for the return trip with Tom in July please?

We covered a total of 451 NM in 66 hours which is an average speed of 6.83Kts, not bad when that includes a F8.

One thought on “Whinchat crosses Biscay”

  1. What a voyage – I had to keep telling myself that “you’d got there” and hope for the weeks to come you have fair weather and favourable winds. love you! m

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