Dhara Thompson reflects upon the planned non-stop autumn voyage that became a challenging 30-day battle from port to port
We slipped out of Brighton Marina in early October intending to make a non-stop passage to A Coruña. We finally arrived in Baiona a month later, but what a lot of lessons Biscay and the Brittany Coast had taught me!
I’d sailed across Biscay four times before, but never as skipper, and not for a few years. But I knew the boat and crew were sound.
Jalapeno is a Standfast 43, built in 1972 in the Netherlands by Frans Mass – a commercially coded sail training vessel (although this trip was non-commercial with friends), on which I had sailed the Fastnet race and many qualifying offshore races. Her rigging was under three years old, she’d had a replacement engine a year before, the main was new (second-hand) and we had a good selection of foresails for all conditions.
The weather in the UK had been pitiless in the two weeks leading up to departure, with strong south-westerly systems sweeping in one after the other and, sure enough, the worst conditions we had were in the English Channel within 24 hours of setting out.
We had been forecast variable Force 2-4 becoming southerly Force 4-6 then veering west or north-westerly increasing to Force 7 ‘at times, later’. The southerly got us nicely along the coast to near Portland Bill when the veer happened and we tacked. The wind stubbornly stuck at westerly and crept up through Force 6 and 7 to Force 7-8 by morning.
At dawn after our first night at sea, when I popped my head up through the hatch to see we were over-canvassed and beating into an ugly 4m chop in the middle of the Casquets TSS (Traffic Separation Scheme), I knew we weren’t going to make a direct passage to Spain.
The crew of four were holding firm, but clearly we had taken a pasting through the night and with the tide about to turn against us we were looking set to be smeared along the west coast of Guernsey, unable to make a course over ground much higher than due south.
Running for cover
We dropped the main to reduce the pressure on the helm, after which it was an easy decision to turn tail and run before what was settling in as a steady gale. Cherbourg was my initial, disappointing, thought but after some discussion, Braye Harbour in Alderney came to mind as an alternative. The island of Burhou to westward of Braye would surely knock enough out of the big seas to make a safe entrance? Thankfully, it did, and we tore in behind the massive breakwater, grabbed a mooring buoy and recovered our stomachs.
The next morning was a dash to St Peter Port, Guernsey, mainly under engine power. Then suddenly, the engine started to falter – the distinctive sound of it surging, or hunting because of air in the fuel system – on the approach. We quickly hoisted the genoa for an exciting beat to safety while I attempted to add fuel, then bleed the fuel system, but we were bouncing about too much.
The three days weatherbound from gales in St Peter Port gave us a chance to fix this and do various other jobs, although we were all glad to move on.
From Guernsey we crossed towards the north Breton coast. It was clear the weather couldn’t be trusted for more than a day or two at a time, so we decided to make passage hops within each available weather window; to go with the flow and just push on as best we could. Biscay seemed a distant and diminishing prospect.
Our insurers wanted us to cross by 14 October and it was already the 10th when we arrived in Brittany.
We were still firmly in the grip of strong tides, so our cracking sail past the Plateau des Roches Douvres (new sailing territory!) ended up being headed by the tide in little wind and our new companion – swell.
Tom Cunliffe notes that in ‘thick weather this rock-bound coast cannot be recommended’, filling us with joy and anticipation. Unsure whether ‘thick’ was a unit of measurement or a measure of stupidity, we prepared pilotage plans for three possible landfalls, all about 60 miles from St Peter Port. We opted for Treguier in the end, which gave us an interesting pilotage in and some five miles up a peaceful river before landing in France.
Spirits were raised later that evening when we found ourselves in a bar in a medieval Breton square. The cathedral spire was an open latticework, which, it was noted by one of the crew, was a way of coping with the strong winds on this coast. Great…
The weather was closing again and we opted for a quick dash to Perros-Guirec 20 miles west. South-westerly Force 5-7 saw us beating to windward towards the marks and the foredeck swamped most of the time. It was easy to tell where the wind was blowing from by now as it was always exactly where we wanted to go, a familiar occurrence in sailing.
As we motored head into the wind for the final leading marks none of the engine instruments worked and the alternator warning light was on. Conditions were too wild to even peer over the transom to see if cooling water was coming out, so we calmly ripped apart all the engine sideboards to check the engine temperature, which thankfully appeared normal and reassured us we weren’t about to melt the exhaust and have to start short tacking in a narrow rock strewn channel. It was only later I noticed that the engine battery switch had been accidentally turned off, causing the instrument anomaly. By this time we were working well as a team, dealing with such incidents well, but glad to pick up a waiting buoy as the wind kicked into Force 8.
Perros-Guirec is at the top of a drying bay, so we had to wait for a fair rise of tide for the cill gate to open and allow us entry. I’d read that the entrance was 6m wide, but it was only as we approached with our 3.6m beam that it appeared a bit tight. When we left in the pre-dawn dark the next morning the entrance appeared to have shrunk even more.
Another short 25-mile motor the next day got us round to Roscoff, with nothing but rear leading lights and sector lights to guide us past rocks and round corners until a groggy grey dawn emerged.
The beautiful pink granite coastline that tourist offices and pilot books gush about remained firmly out of view and we ploughed on with islands and rocks teasingly revealing themselves every now and then.
We stayed well into the Baie de Morlaix to keep out of the leftover sloppy waves, opting for a neat shortcut into Roscoff past yet more rocks. Thankfully the visibility was improving as we approached, but marks referred to on the distant Isle de Batz were still not visible, so we relied upon a combination of chartplotters (three in total including tablets) and ‘reading the water’ to see where a particular shallow ledge lay in wait. As we were getting ready for this we were all distracted by diving gannets and our first sight of dolphins on the trip.
Two nights in Roscoff in October is arguably two too many. The coachload of day trippers on the ferry from Plymouth seemed to have opted for a far more efficient way of both crossing the channel and departing Roscoff. And a crew member had to head home so we were down to three.
Onwards to L’Aber Wrach and it really felt like we had reached the corner onto the Atlantic. We failed to heed the warning in the pilot book about the exposed outer pontoon, however, as conditions were benign in the day. But by the small hours of the morning everything had changed with the boats acting like hobby horses as the wind was shooting right up the channel.
A local RIB came to the rescue of a 30-footer ahead of us that looked in serious danger of being pitched up onto the pontoon. We waited with the 60-footer behind us, popping fenders back in constantly, until the wind calmed enough to allow us to get off safely and inside the marina without hitting any other boats.
Round the corner to Brest was another flat calm day. The trip was turning into a lot of motoring, but the Chenal du Four provided some navigational distraction and was full of as many dolphins as rocks. They came at us from all sides, small ones being pushed away from our bow wave by larger dolphins like bullies in a playground. Up at the bow you could hear them clicking away and making eye contact. Amazing!
In Brest the game was back on, as we obsessed over the weather for Biscay.
I had contacted the insurers when we were in L’Aber Wrach, asking for a week’s extension to 21 October. This they agreed to, but a follow up email received in Brest added the condition of a ‘72-hour forecast showing nothing above Force 5’. Well, we’d all like that across the Biscay in October!
But to our surprise this did indeed seem to be on the cards – three days of northerlies! So our shore contact took a video of the prophecy on Windy the weather app (www.windy.com) while we made preparations with a somewhat less wholehearted belief in these optimistic signs. There was still a very lively weather system off in the North Atlantic, with strong southerly winds to the west of the Finisterre forecast area. To the east of the area the winds were becoming southerly. Weeks of south-westerlies meant there was going to be plenty of swell to contend with and the thought of this meeting with strong winds from an almost opposite, northerly, direction didn’t sound pleasant. But it was the best window we’d seen for weeks and we grabbed the opportunity.
I made another call to the insurers to get clarification on whether ‘by the 21st’ meant midnight on the 21st or midnight on the 20th (they went for the latter) but this still gave us the 72 hours that matched both their requirements and the weather on offer.
We made an afternoon bash to windward again, down to Camaret, allowing for deck checks to be made. The sun came out and the wind died off to nothing as we arrived. We cooked and stowed some food, caught up on a bit of sleep and did a last-minute victualling dash for some wine.
At dusk we slipped our lines and used the last of the light to raise the main and motor with the tide towards the western edge of the Chaussée de Sein, a long line of rocky teeth extending 14 miles to seaward from the Breton coast.
Beyond this turning point the tide was due to slacken and then turn against us, but here is the point where the push and pull of Channel tides literally drops off and the ‘foul’ tide against us was little more than a knot compared to the 2-3 knots we had in our favour leaving.
The plan was working well, the wind stirred and we set off on a broad reach towards Spain.
As well as working out a tidal slingshot in our favour at the start, the plan also involved reaching the continental shelf by the following midday. This is where some confused seas might be expected and dealing with this in daylight was preferable.
As we were three crew only, our shifts were two hours on, two hours off and two hours on standby, with the autopilot as a fourth crew member. But the autopilot is rarely used when sail training, and surfing down the swell over 6 knots at times was just too much for it. Twenty-four hours in it packed up, thankfully with a whistling alarm so we knew to deactivate it. We worked out that a seal had gone and the hydraulic oil had leaked out, but I didn’t feel like sticking my head down the back of the boat to attempt a possibly futile fix. So we had to helm from then on in.
We were making good progress, but there was still a good 30 to 40 hours to go. The wind dropped off, although the swell remained, so 16 hours of motoring followed (with no recurrence of the hunting issues from St Peter Port).
We were in the middle of Biscay in the middle of October and there was a lot of weather hanging around! Large anvil-shaped clouds fizzed with lightning through the day and night. A flash of a head torch made me jump. I realised how ‘on edge’ I felt, surrounded by these massive bundles of pent up energy. We had downpours, it was tiring, but the wind finally returned and we were off like a rocket.
Downwind sailing. This felt like a distant memory, but fantastic to be reunited with as we swallowed the miles keeping up over six knots for hour after hour. This certainly revived our spirits and made for some beautiful sailing, sunsets and sunrises working their magic in the thunderclouds around us. It was tiring and our arms were growing longer, but it was exhilarating all the same.
The loom of lights on the Spanish coast occasionally straked the clouds from still 60 miles away. As we approached the continental shelf once more things got busy, with fishing boats and choppier seas combining with our sleep deprivation.
Without the autopilot we had to draw on more help from the next watch, which was starting to drain us a bit.
Sunrise over Cabo Ortegal lifted us once more. The wind had picked up to a northerly Force 6 with stronger gusts and Jalapeno was flying along at 7 knots.
I noticed that less was more on the helm and could surf down swells for up to 30 seconds with barely a touch of the wheel.
The insurance conditions define the southern edge of Biscay as Cabo Ortegal, so we had to make the most of this wind while it lasted.
A rainbow behind and dolphins surrounding us induced a mild delirium on board.
I was thankful that I’d put all the waypoints in for A Coruña well in advance, but what had seemed like a good offing when planning now felt a little bit close to what was a closing lee shore. We only needed to put in a tack, but I reflected that in our depleted state a better choice of waypoint hours earlier would have saved us the hassle in now sustained gusts.
A few miles off A Coruña the wind and swell disappeared and we motored the final couple of hours in. This gave us a much needed chance to catch up on some sleep and enjoy our arrival.
We had done a 350-mile crossing in 66 hours, with plenty of sailing adventures lying ahead. The beer we enjoyed on arrival, sat outside in T-shirts in the October Galician sunshine, tasted all the better for the work we’d put in to earn it!
1 We probably tacked too soon off Portland. I’ve been caught out before banking on a forecast north-westerly veer to provide a sailing angle out of the Channel. Best to assume there isn’t going to be any north in that veer and continue battling west as long as possible along the UK coast before tacking south.
2 Don’t underestimate a Biscay crossing, but in our case the worst conditions were at the beginning. You’re a bit more alone in the middle of the Bay of Biscay and the swell has an underlying menace to it, but much worse had already passed!
3 When the engine was hunting and surging off St Peter Port I eased back on the throttle, but now realise in that situation more throttle would be better – the same amount of air would leak into the system, but with more fuel being pulled through the proportion of air to fuel would be less and that should keep the engine working.
4 Be prepared for anything – even when coastal hopping like we did. Being a commercially coded sail training vessel covers a lot of the basics for us, but the additional special regulations provided for boats entering the Fastnet race are worth reading and reflecting on (www.rorc.org).
5 A tip from Fastnet days was to pre-cook and freeze various home cooked meals, and seal them in a polystyrene box from the local grocers. If a rough crossing forces you to rely on bananas or flapjacks for a while, you’re certainly going to want to eat like horses at the first opportunity.
6 Everyone also had their own water bottle to keep track of fluids as it’s really easy to get dehydrated at sea, at any time of year.
7 For Biscay weather windows detailed French meteo forecasts break the single UK Met Office Finisterre area into five different zones, giving a lot more detail for planning, combined with Windy and Grib file apps.
8 If you are going to rely on the autopilot, ensure it has been well tested and maintained and that you are confident troubleshooting any problems in all conditions.
First published in March 2020 issue of Practical Boat Owner
About the author
Dhara Thompson is a co-founder of Sail Boat Project, a community sailing school. Currently on a six month sabbatical from his day job, he plans to visit farming partners in Portugal whose olive oil he imports to the UK by sailing ship, investigate new sail cargo products along the way and visit friends along the Atlantic coast of Portugal and Spain.