There are certain things in life that you anticipate with such fear and anxiety, you feel quite surprised afterwards to have survived them. Things like the first day of school, driving test, first date, wedding day – and crossing the Bay of Biscay!
For us (just me, really, meaning Inka) the biggest reason for the fears and nightmares was the fact that it took almost a year longer to begin the dreaded crossing than we had originally planned. Winter came upon us while we were plowing through the North Sea, and we decided to stay in France. Now that we have left our winter nest behind we can only say it was the right decision – we loved our time in Brittany!
There was plenty of time during the winter to read dreadful stories about Biscay crossings gone south, and watch videos of humongous waves and unpredictable weather phenomena. And really, there’s no reason to underestimate the notoriety of this puddle of water! The area is well known for its changeable weather, dictated by the low pressures over the Atlantic, the waves caused by the edge of the continental shelf, where the water depth changes rapidly from very deep to very shallow, and the strange weather patterns over Central Spain. Back in the days of the sailing ships, a southwesterly storm would push large vessels into the bay and onto the rocky shores, that have lovely names like “Costa da Morte”, the Coast of Death. But modern boats sail to weather much better than those old square riggers, and weather can be predicted with much more precision. There are countless quite ordinary boats with ordinary crews doing the Biscay these days, and most of them make it across just fine.
The recommended time is during the summer, from the end of May through August. During other times of the year there’s a much greater chance for unsettled weather. We were monitoring the Biscay weather for a few weeks before even leaving our winter base, Binic, and had to conclude it seemed pretty unstable. The whole spring in Brittany had been unstable, so it wasn’t really surprising. Although we were hoping to make the whole trip to Spain in just one go after leaving Binic, we had a good list of safe harbours along the coast of Brittany for waiting out the weather. We ended up having to wait for quite a while, long enough to visit Roscoff, Camaret-sur-Mer, and even anchor out in nice coves of Rade de Brest.
But finally it seemed like the right moment was at hand. Northerly and north-westerly winds were forecast, which for us would mean a good broad reach, and they would likely last two or three days. After that the wind would calm down, so even if we managed to putter around really slowly, as we’ve had a habit of doing for one reason or another, the worst case scenario would have us motoring quite a bit – a lot lesser evil than having to sail through a storm. We left our pretty anchorage and hurried back to Camaret-sur-Mer for last minute shopping and bunkering, and started our journey across the great unknown at 2:30 pm on Friday, the 17th of May.
The journey started beautifully, with a pod of dolphins appearing to escort us out to the sea. Our boat Aina showed us she really can sail, flying in full sail through the water at great speeds of 7 to 8 knots! But once out of the protection of the peninsula of Brittany, the waves started to build up, and that was the end of frolicking! We had to reef the sails, and as the waves gradually grew to 3 metres (10 ft), life down below became somewhat challenging. We tried different bearings, only to find out we couldn’t point straight towards A Coruña, our chosen destination. The waves were right on the beam, making the boat rock too much. It was better to sail a bit further out west and take the waves on the starboard bow, and later turn south and have them on the starboard quarter.
The highlight of our first evening at sea was a ham radio contact with the Golden Globe Race contestant Tapio Lehtinen from Finland – the fifth and last to complete his solo circuit around the world out of 18 sailors who set off from France in July 2018. It was a great moment to be able to talk to him in person and wish him good winds for the last remaining miles to the finish line, which he crossed just two days later. Tapio gave us friendly tips for good anchorages and sights in Galicia – such a nice man! His Asteria wasn’t the only raceboat in the Biscay waters, we saw several of the Bermudes 1000 Race boats sailing towards their finish line in Brest during the first day and night.
Early the next morning it started to rain, and the gloomy, grey weather continued for the next 48 hours. By then we were already pretty far in the bay, with no more fishing boats in sight, so it was safe to move our watch station indoors and only pop our heads out of the hatch every once in a while. We could monitor the radar and AIS screens and take an occasional look at the chart to see whether we were still pointing in the right direction. The waves were big even with a very moderate wind, so we also had the engine going to push us up the deep troughs, and the autopilot was holding up nicely. The Bay of Biscay didn’t strike us as a place to enjoy sailing, it was just a body of water we wanted to leave behind as soon as possible.
The off watch was spent mainly sleeping. It takes a while for your body to adjust to the constant movement of the boat, and there’s not much energy to spare. On longer ocean passages you eventually get used to the movement and the sleeping and waking rhythm, but the Biscay passage is too short for that. Neither or us has ever yet been seasick, but it’s interesting to notice how differently your body functions in exceptional conditions like these. We were eating just enough to keep us going, and didn’t feel like having anything spicy or strong. Apples, bananas, simple sandwiches and pizza slices seemed to work best.
On the third day the wind calmed down, just like predicted. The grey skies cleared and we got a wonderful, sunny day. In the afternoon we could see the rugged coast of Spain looming in the distance. Our Biscay crossing was coming to an end, and we were happy and grateful to Neptune and all of his colleagues, that it had been such an easy one. After all the horror stories and heroic tales we definitely prefer our own, rather boring version of it!
It took us all day to reach A Coruña, but this time we made it before dark, and fresh from the shower, no less! While motoring in the calm seas, we conveniently had hot water and a stable enough shower stall. We tied up to the dock in the Marina Real, in front of the old town of A Coruña, at 8:30 pm on Monday, May the 20th. The crossing from Camaret-sur-Mer took us 78 hours, and we averaged about 5 knots. Not bad!
Finally we find ourselves in a country that matches our natural biorhythms perfectly! We made this happy observation on the first night. Within a quarter of an hour of our arrival we were ready to hit the town, where tourists and locals were just starting to gather, having their glass or two of wine while making plans for the evening. Our appetites had made a speedy comeback, so it was time for dinner! There are countless little tapas bars side by side along the streets of A Coruña – along with great looking seafood and meatlovers restaurants – so it can be hard to choose where to go. On the other hand, you don’t have to choose, you can grab a bite and a glass in any number of them, and walk through the whole town this way! We were too tired for a very extensive tour, it would have to wait until a better day. To be continued soon!
- Costa da Morte – The Coast of Death
- The Journey Continues! Roscoff and Camaret-sur-Mer
- Rade de Brest – Gunkholing in Calm Waters
June 6, 2019
May 9, 2019
May 15, 2019