Sailing across Biscay
Hallucinations across Biscay
For some reason our eldest son is tied to the mast crossing Biscay, there is a Ninja warrior running around the deck and boats of every conceivable size are closing in on us on a collision course. To add to the mayhem, Cygnus is rolling like a Labrador in a cow pat due to the swell and at four in the morning it is colder and darker than a psychopath’s wet dream. So remind me again of just why we wanted to go sailing and liveaboard a boat?
It had all started more than a day ago when we decided we could get across the dreaded Biscay from La Rochelle in France to Gijon in Spain, some 248 miles away. It does not sound far but when you are only doing an average of five knots a one-legged sloth could give us a fair race.
Leaving La Rochelle for Biscay
We had said our goodbyes to our French friends and cast off from their shores for a while at least. The weather was glorious although there was no wind to sail so the engine would have to be used.
As France dissolved behind us into a memory the wind picked up and gave Cygnus the chance to sail. We also acquired a hitch-hiker in the shape of a bird that decided securing a lift with us was better than flying. Little did he know!
As we neared the continental shelf where the sea depth drops from 150m to 4000m the Atlantic swell began to kick in like concentrated espresso causing the boat to roll from side to side. It is not so much dangerous as you rise and fall over the crests but more like having a stone in your shoe. Uncomfortable and annoying.
In case the unthinkable happens you prepare what is called a “grab bag” with essential items for survival in the life raft. Jordan had decided to create his own grab bag with his essential items (sweets, coke, X-box hard drive, a couple of games and a change of clothing).
Just floating in Biscay
Watching the sun set on an empty Biscay sea was beautiful as a nearly full silver moon took its place. The sky was festooned with a myriad stars that can only be found away from the pollution of land and giant Jelly fish the size of Jeremy Clarkson’s head just floated by.
I was chatting away with my son, Aiden, in the cockpit when I glanced out and there it was, directly ahead of us. A Brazilian rain forest interspersed by Long Huts and a few cannibalistic tribes heating their cooking pots. Well I may exaggerate a tad but it was the biggest tree we had ever seen including branches and leaves. It was just floating, miles from the coast directly in our path. Hitting that would soon have put an end to our crossing and been embarrassing. Imagine our adventures being ended prematurely because we had sailed into a tree.
I took the night watch whilst Angelina slept in the saloon just below in case she were needed. It was now starting to get cold as clouds gathered and totally obscured the moon leaving us in pitch blackness. It may have been a good thing as all you could feel and hear was the swell lifting the boat before rushing off somewhere in the distance to break on a shore days or weeks later.
Crossing the missile range in Biscay
I again checked our route across the Sea of Biscay and down to Gijon to find that unless we altered course we would travel through a French missile range which extended some 50 miles out to sea. I cannot believe how inconsiderate the French were in putting a firing range directly in our path but carrying a British flag we decided not to risk a diplomatic incident or becoming a valued target.
Seeing strange things in the cold Biscay night
During the night it became very, very cold and I became very tired. It was about 0400 and I started to see and imagine the weirdest things. It was at this time that the lines that are kept around the mast became Jordan in my imagination. I had to look several times and shake my head to clear the image. I then saw a ninja, clad in black with a sword on his back running around the decks. I did think it was pretty stupid as the boat was rolling so much and he was not wearing a life jacket. Then I had ships of every size and even a gargantuan oil rig making for us. We do have radar and AIS which would have beeped at me if anything was too close but it was almost impossible to tell what was real and what was not.
Crossing the continental shelf
The worst moment was as we were about to go over the continental shelf into the depths. We had wondered what it would be like as the sea dropped away below you to 4000 meters. We were about to find out. The sea certainly became more disturbed and the waves were closer together. I then saw what looked like a white band almost like an island in the sea. At the same time instead of the depth sounder dropping dramatically it started to rise. From 160m it came up and up and up to 1.4m by which time I felt like turning Cygnus around. I knew from reading the charts there was nothing around but very, very deep water but it was still an uneasy feeling. So that was it, we were over the shelf and the depths were so great even the sounder could not get a reading. The one thing it did do was wake me up.
Angelina cooking in a rolly sea
Eventually dawn broke on a long cold night. The trouble was I now felt too much awake to sleep. Angelina and the boys took the day watch looking like meerkats bobbing up and down. I just couldn’t sleep and seriously wondered if I could spend another night awake and what images I would see. I certainly know why they class sleep deprivation as torture. A nagging from Angelina is a relaxing verbal massage with essential oils in comparison.
I was not the only one suffering as Aiden had a mouth infection that caused his face to look like Louis Armstrong on a big finale. He did not complain much though and even helped where he could. We did what we could for him but in all honesty it was not a lot and for some reason he refused my offer of getting the pliers out!
Dolphins, stuck sails and no charts in Biscay
We managed to sail quite a bit during the day and never saw anything apart from the Biscay sea all around. We did however have about ten dolphins swimming around Cygnus. It doesn’t matter how bad you feel those smiling assassins always make you feel better. I have no doubt when the Mona Lisa was painted she had dolphins swimming around her feet.
It was just after this we noticed that the AIS which shows us other ships on our chart plotter was not working and the electronic charts themselves were playing silly buggers and only showing the minimum of detail. No matter what we did I could not get the charts to work. We did have backups on the computer and I had been doing an hourly plot across Biscay on the paper chart but it was still a pain. I also saw that the big mainsail that rolls into the mast appeared to be stuck in the groove two-thirds of the way up. It took half an hour with us all helping but with pulling one way and another on the lines and swinging the main through the wind a couple of times we did get it free.
Another night sailing across Biscay
By nightfall I had managed a couple of hours sleep and felt better for it. There were also the blackest storm clouds gathering ahead so we pulled the sail in to leave only a small amount to catch the wind. It was too little to sail with at any speed but we did not want to be caught in the high winds such clouds could bring and the earlier incident with the sail made us more cautious than Abu Hansa’s manicurist.
During the night across Biscay we all took watches on deck and actually enjoyed the sail. We even had to slow down as without the chart plotter we wanted to enter Gijon during the day.
As we approached the Spanish coast all manner of lights began to show in the gloom of the night. It was also at this time the AIS turned itself back on and we saw a couple of very large tankers on a direct course for us. All sailors will tell you the same in that you won’t see a ship for ages but when you do it will be heading straight for you. Discretion was the better part of valour at this time as we decided it was best to turn around and go in the opposite direction in case they could not see us.
As the night turned to day we approach Gijon and managed to go in without incident.
Sidre in Gijon
We had done it. 44 hours across Biscay, our longest sail to date. What was more important was that we had all done it together and although we were totally shattered it was something we would all remember forever.
The day had not finished however as it was Angelina’s birthday and we needed to celebrate, at least a little. The local devils brew is a home-made cider or as they say here “Sidre”. We were soon in a bar with a bottle in front of us. The idea is to hold the bottle as high up as possible with one hand whilst holding the glass as low as possible it the other. Then you pour, hopefully hitting the glass which gets air into the Sidre before drinking it down in one. It wasn’t long before we were giggling wrecks but we were in Spain, it was Angelina’s birthday we were still alive and our adventures were continuing.
Happy Birthday Angelina