Crossing Biscay – The Return, Part I

Saturday 19th July – Tuesday 22 July

391NM (1310 NM)

Whinchat in Coruna - what a lot of white hulled boats!
Whinchat in Coruna – what a lot of white hulled boats!

Dear Reader

As we now come to the challenging part of the voyage your normal reporter had opted for a land-based life of luxury, a bed that didn’t move about, no squeaky mooring ropes and definitely no big waves. It is therefore up to me to once again take up the pen and finish the account of our summer travels.

I had a couple of days in Coruna before Tom, my son, and crew for the return voyage, joined me. By this time the city had taken on a familiar air and the time was filled by a combination of a few boat jobs, some pre-departure cooking and shopping to ensure that we had an adequate supply of ham on board to sustain Tom through the trip.

Tom’s flight was delayed, not an auspicious start, so it was quite late by the time we were back on Board Whinchat. We decided to eat on board because of the time and enjoyed Spanish steaks washed down with Spanish red wine.

As many of you will know Tom has done more ocean miles than I have, and by a huge margin. But most of them were some time ago. So we had decided to spend the following day, Thursday, essentially doing a test sail. Practicing reefing, man overboard techniques etc. inevitably when it came time to cast off the wind chose that moment to blow at about 20knots, thus giving us an immediate challenge on leaving the berth. Luckily all was completed without incident.

We spent a happy couple of hours out in the bay, watching the antics of the incoming shipping, one coastal size ship seemingly racing to pass a large super tanker before it started the process of trying to turn around, assisted by a couple of tugs. Tom rapidly remembering all that he’d previously known, and mastering the autopilot which, to be fair, is a little simpler than the one on his C17! At least on Whinchat you don’t need to worry about altitude!

Just to ensure that we got our full ration of Spanish pork products dinner that evening was a visit to the lovely tapas bar that Jules and I had previously eaten at followed by another awesome steak at the nearby parilla restaurant. Predictable by us may be, but reliable quality on their part too.

Given the rigours of the outbound trip I was a little nervous about the return, though the weather forecast we had looked close to perfect for the return both in terms of swell and wind. If anything we might not have enough of the latter, rather than too much.

We woke to another beautiful morning and no mist/fog, as had been the case the previous day. We had decided there was nothing to be gained by leaving at the crack of dawn, except a loss of sleep, so we slipped our lines for the final time in Spain at about 9.30.

Both Tom and I had decided that we wouldn’t come straight home, but would make a bit more of a trip by heading for France instead. Some chart work on my part had shown that Camaret was acceptably far away to count as our 300 mile qualifying passage for the AZAB 2015. We were sailing within about 10 minutes of leaving the marina, all was stowed away, the sun was shinning and our course was programmed into the chart plotter.

Oh no!
Oh no!

Then the wind began to die, in fact it disappeared altogether. We probably sat for nearly 45 minutes with our speed through the water reading at 0.00. We had the faintest whisper of a favourable tide so we were at least drifting in the right direction, but our time to our destination was showing as over 15 days!!!

That's not quite in the plan!
That’s not quite in the plan!

(We only had food for three days, and maybe enough water for another week after that.) It seemed that we would have a view of Spain for much longer than we had intended or wished for. I even suggested putting the engine on, going back to Coruna – which even after 7 or 8 hours of drifting wouldn’t have taken long – and starting again the following day. Tom thought this a bad idea so we persevered. The coast of Spain finally slipped below the horizon at about the time that the sun set and we were then alone on the sea.

The pattern for the next three days was that we did a 4-hour watch each over the hours of darkness and then had a very flexible rota system for the rest of the time. One of us was awake and on deck all the time, but at times there was no evidence that there was another living soul within 50 miles of us. Nobody to call for help either of course, not that we needed to.

The days were hot and sunny, the nights showing the full beauty of the Milky Way with countless stars filling the sky. It did get cooler at night, but never cold, a few layers was all that was needed. We both read avidly, I finished a couple of books and both of the magazines that Tom had brought with him.

We had five of six encounters with dolphins, one very large group who hung around for ages. After the sun had set you could still hear the snort of them breathing as they surfaced for air. They all seemed to want and come and have a look at us, who were these people invading their world?

We tried the fishing line, but it was just as well we hadn’t relied on the bounty of the seas to keep hunger at bay, as we didn’t get a nibble! We thought we’d tell Simon that we exceeded our EU tuna quota and had to throw it all back! In fact we realised that neither of us really knew what to do with a live tuna if we had caught one, so maybe it was for the best. Our plan to have done all the cooking before we left worked really well though and we could have a hot meal quickly and easily en route. Though at one stage it didn’t look as though I had made nearly enough days’ worth. I think the chilli probably got the highest rating and don’t know how Tom ranked the sausage casserole and chicken curry.

On the fourth morning we had the coast of France in sight, and Camaret not that far away. However the wind was dropping so we were going to have to put the engine on. I did some quick checking with the pilot book and discovered that our timing was perfect for a northbound passage through the Chenal de Four. The tidal currents in this passage are really strong, up to 4 knots at spring tides, so we wanted to get the timing right. Should we abort the original plan and go for option B? Our first thought was “no”, but on a small amount of further reflection as the wind died to almost nothing we decided to go for it. So after three days it was on with the engine, roll away the staysail and the yankee, and head north. Also for the first time in three days we were amongst other boats. The sea felt quite crowded, though it was hardly comparable to a bank holiday weekend on the Solent!

The sea was an oily calm, and with the tide we were doing more than 8knots over the ground, faster than the rest of our passage. After an hour or so we passed the Four lighthouse. It’s amazing to think that people have photographed it with waves seemingly breaking over the top. No danger of that today.

Our destination was now to be L’Aber Wrac’h. Jules and I had been there before on our trip to France two years ago. It has a rock-strewn entrance but with a chart plotter and the very benign weather making the entrance was not going to be a problem. Even better we were on a rising tide so you soon float again if you do come to rest on the mud.

The river mouth was full of kids in small dinghies as well as yachts and at the marina there was quite a collection of gaff-rigged boats. We found a space on the outside of the pontoon with Tom doing an excellent mooring manoeuvre as we cam alongside. However, it seems that the whole pontoon is reserved for boats going to a festival at Dournanez and we may well have to move. A quick trip to La Capitainerie confirms this, and we are allocated a space that he believes we will be able to get into. Whinchat is 12.8m long and this space is only 13m at most!

Tom leaps shoreward with a rope in hand and stumbles on landing and takes the skin off one knee. He is very brave about it, though it must hurt, or at least sting, a lot. The owners of the boats behind us shuffle up a bit to make a little more room and soon we are all snug on what is a much better berth than the one we had to start with.

Our passage has been slow, it’s taken us 70 hours to cover the 350 miles so an average speed on only 5kts. We will have to do better on our AZAB trip.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *