Chris Mardon took on the eventful challenge of sailing a friend’s Moody 426 from Portugal to the UK via the Bay of Biscay. Here’s what he learned…
Despite having never had aspirations to be a yacht delivery skipper, I was coerced into delivering a Moody 426 from the Algarve to the UK in 2006.
It all started when I met an acquaintance, Malcolm, in the Kings Arms, Salcombe. After the first pint had mollified my apprehensions about Malcolm uncharacteristically buying me a beer, he bought the next round.
As I wet my lips on the second pint, Malcolm wondered aloud if I would be prepared to collect his late father’s yacht from its mooring in Vilamoura and sail her back to Salcombe.
I’d recently retired so the chance to sail a yacht from Portugal to the UK, all expenses paid, was an attractive proposition. My wife and I had owned three yachts since 1989 sailing extensively to North and South Brittany, the Isles of Scilly and southern Ireland so a trip back from Portugal wasn’t daunting.
Also, a Biscay crossing would enhance my sailing CV. My thoughts went along the lines of “keep an eye on the charts and the weather forecasts and avoid big ships” – what could go wrong?
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About the boat
Malcolm’s elderly father, Keith had been living aboard his Moody 426, Wave Dancer enjoying his retirement in the warm climate and hospitality of Portugal’s Algarve coast, although sailing little in his latter years.
When Keith passed away, Malcolm and his sister inherited Wave Dancer, and wanted her brought back to the UK where she would command a better price.
I asked Malcolm to allow me to sleep on his proposal, but lay awake considering crew (who and how many), the boat and whether the trip would be non-stop or a series of day sails. Malcolm had utmost faith in his father’s ability as a yacht owner and assured me that Wave Dancer would be seaworthy and ready to go.
With all due respect, I wanted to see first-hand evidence and insisted that Malcolm would pay for my crew and me to fly home in the event of us not being able to make Wave Dancer sea-ready. Malcolm agreed, subject to his approval, to pay for any parts needed for the trip, plus mooring fees, fuel, food and non-alcoholic drinks.
My wife was not interested in committing a few weeks to sailing Wave Dancer home so I called on a friend, Mike, a retired RAF and airline pilot who loved sailing.
He was up for the challenge, so we arrived at Faro Airport on a warm night in August 2006 and took a taxi to Vilamoura. We’d booked a hotel for two nights while we assessed Wave Dancer’s seaworthiness. Malcolm had arranged our marina passes and key collection and it was easy to find her berth the next day.
Apart from filthy decks, a weeded hull and faded sail covers she didn’t look too bad. We checked the engine and the rig. While the 240V charger was working, the batteries were as flat as a dab and needed replacing before we could start the engine and check the electrical equipment. If all was OK we’d take her to the boat lift to be pressure washed and antifouled.
I phoned Malcolm that evening. After suffering the pain of shelling out many hundreds of Euros on batteries, lift out, pressure wash and antifoul treatment, he was relieved to hear that Mike and I would be happy to sail Wave Dancer home.
Our plan was to day-sail along the Portuguese and Spanish coasts until we reached La Coruña. From there we’d sail across Biscay towards Camaret, north-west Brittany and then home to Salcombe.
Malcolm was not too concerned about our timings, provided we crossed Biscay before the end of September when Wave Dancer’s insurance for a Biscay crossing was due to expire.
After we provisioned the boat and filled her with water, butane gas and diesel, our first stop was to be Praia da Baleeira, 50 miles west along the Algarve coast.
We arose at 0500 ready to slip at 0600, before dawn, and turned on the navigation lights to find that the bow light was out. The nav light case cover was secured with a corroded screw that snapped when we tried to remove it.
We found a spare bulb and a cable tie to secure the lens cover but by the time we’d sorted this out it was no longer dark so we wouldn’t need the nav lights; well, not until we were crossing Biscay, should we get that far.
Our next stop was to be Sines, 60 miles away. Soon after weighing anchor, we rounded Cape St Vincent, the south-western-most tip of Portugal, where fishermen sat on the crumbly cliffs with their lines in the sea some 200ft below.
The previous day had seen oily calm seas along the Algarve’s south coast but conditions changed dramatically as we rounded the Cape into a large Atlantic swell and a Force 4-5 northerly wind. Time to set sail. That was when we discovered Wave Dancer’s old sails were stretched out of shape, giving a very poor windward performance.
Beating into a Force 5 was bringing waves over the foredeck, many of which were finding their way through the forehatch onto my bunk. We stayed drier and made better progress when we reverted to burning Malcolm’s diesel.
Motoring also gave us more time to enjoy the joyful sight of 100 common dolphins silhouetted in the 3m swell with the diffused sunlight behind them.
As we approached Sines the engine overheat alarm started making intermittent squawks. Although the engine temperature was high, its gauge was only just in the red sector and there was plenty of water coming out of the exhaust so we pressed on for the final half hour.
After anchoring and a cup of tea, I was adamant we fix the hatch first. I did not want wet bedding for company. We found a tube of workable silicone sealant on board so sealing the hatch required little more than unscrewing the unit, cleaning off the old sealant, applying the fresh silicone sealant, screwing it back down and wiping it clean.
This took over an hour. Never mind, the beer tasted so much better knowing I would sleep in a dry bunk from now on.
Next morning we searched for the cause of the overheating engine and discovered that Keith had used the space around the calorifier to stow old spare ropes.
In pushing them down he had cracked its primary water feed fitting on the calorifier allowing engine coolant to escape into the bilge.
The erstwhile flexible rubber hose carrying engine coolant to the calorifier and back was brittle with age and had to be binned.
There were no spare calorifier fittings on board so I joined the engine’s calorifier water inlet direct to its outlet spigot with a short length of spare hose, bypassing the calorifier.
We’d have to forego domestic hot water until I could replace the calorifier connector and interconnecting hose but at least we could now top up the coolant and run the engine.
The northerly Portuguese tradewind was still blowing the next day but only 8 knots so we motored north-north-west about 50 miles to Cascais at the mouth of the River Tagus which flows through the capital, Lisbon further inland. Cascais is a relatively wealthy resort reflected in its marina prices but the facilities were good, clean and well serviced. We were able to buy the hose and fittings needed to reconnect the primary hot water system to the calorifier.
Our destination was Peniche about 45 miles north up the coast from Cascais. Visibility reduced to about 20m during this trip. Wave Dancer was not equipped with a plotter but her very good radar guided us into the harbour.
The next day we left under a blue, cloudless sky into a glassy calm sea. As we increased speed we felt a vibration from under the helm. Thinking we had picked up some weed I snapped her into neutral in the hope of engaging astern to shake any unwanted junk off the propeller. The engine stopped and refused to restart, leaving us only a few metres from the rocks with no wind to give us drive.
I shouted to a fisherman in his boat about 30m away but he refused to help. I was considering dropping the anchor when Mike suggested we launch the Avon inflatable dinghy, tie it alongside and drive her into the harbour using the 2hp Yamaha outboard which was clamped to a Hydrovane mount on the stern.
After heating the spark plug over the gas ring the outboard eventually started and I was amazed we could make 3 knots into the harbour with this 2hp engine driving a 13 tonne boat.
With Mike in the tender tied alongside Wave Dancer’s port side controlling the outboard and me at her helm, I could see a vacant berth and told Mike, who could not see over the yacht’s topsides, to slow down.
‘I’d still not cured our engine problems. The continuous running for several hours each day was taking its toll’
The outboard was not capable of stopping our 13 tonne yacht in time so I jumped onto the pontoon with line in hand to surge it round a cleat. The strain was enormous but thankfully the line and cleat held fast preventing us from crashing into an expensive looking motor cruiser.
Our next task was to work on the engine. The delivery fuel pipe to the lift pump was loose and had been incorrectly fitted with its compression olive too near the end of its pipe. I repositioned the pipe olive and was able to make an airtight joint. I bled the line and started the engine, put on some revs, snatched the control lever to tickover and the engine died again.
It refused to start until I had bled the air out of the fuel line again. Then, the engine ran OK as long as we did not drop her revs too fast. We decided to depart the next day.
Weather conditions remained much the same when we left under motor, heading north, bound 60 miles up the coast. As we approached Nazare, visibility deteriorated to about 20m but our radar again saw us safely into harbour.
Conditions improved the next morning so we pressed on towards Figueira da Foz another 70 miles away.
The entrance to the marina in Fig Foz (as we called it) is a narrow gap in a concrete wall of the north bank of the fast flowing Modego river. We put on full speed to counter the current as it swept us sideways towards the concrete pier head and made it without mishap.
Thick fog descended and stayed for several days. The delay was frustrating, my alliterative note in the ship’s log reported: “Frozen by Fog in Fig Foz”.
After five days, the fog cleared enough for us to depart on the 72-mile journey north towards Povoa de Varzim. Our luck didn’t hold for long as visibility reduced to 50m two hours into our trip.
Fog is not the only hazard along the Portuguese Atlantic coast. We were lucky to have calm weather because many of these harbours close if the swells are too high. Plus there are many pot marker buoys, often little bigger than tennis balls. We could have ventured offshore but that risked putting us into the shipping lanes.
In the fog we kept a permanent watch on port, on starboard and the radar screen; not easy for two crew especially for Mike who had to wipe his glasses dry every five minutes.
On its highest gain the radar picked up flying birds but unfortunately not the tennis balls so we filtered out all unnecessary clutter and relied on the Mk1 eyeball to spot the closer hazards. We relished our beers after 13 hours of straining our eyes on that stretch.
On the way to Povoa de Varzim we passed the major port of Porto but couldn’t see it. We were thankful for our radar as we worked our way through at least six anchored ships, showing up brightly on the screen.
After Povoa we were to leave Portugal and motor 45 miles towards Bayona. I was looking forward to the Spanish cuisine.
We spent two nights at the Monte Real Club de Yates de Bayona’s marina and filled up with fuel. Bayona is at the entrance to Ria de Vigo, one of the many picturesque rias (flooded valleys) in north-west Spain.
We frequented the excellent restaurants and tapas bars, and walked up to see the Parador de Bayona, an old castle on the promontory overlooking the harbour.
There was little wind as we left so we had to put more stress on our sick engine. As we motored past Cabo Finisterre there was a huge swell on our beam coming off the Atlantic Ocean. With no wind to steady the boat we had to suffer violent rolling for around four hours.
The continuous running for several hours each day was taking its toll on the engine. It would often stop and need its fuel line bled if we were carelessly quick when shifting into neutral and tickover. Also, its maximum power was declining so that off Finisterre it could not drive Wave Dancer at more than about five knots.
Our frequent bleeding of the fuel line had also caused the lift pump’s manual lever to come adrift from its spindle. We took it in turns to hold the lever in place with one finger to stop it from falling into the bilge while we primed the pump with the other hand. Not easy in cramped surroundings next to a hot engine on a rolling sea.
English speaking marine engineers on this coast, at this time, were rare, and none of the marinas we visited had a chandler. With nothing better to do while being tossed around off Cape Finisterre, Mike and I wrote a detailed text about the engine’s symptoms to Mike’s friend in Bristol who serviced diesel engined vehicles. We received his pal’s diagnosis within a couple of hours – the wonders of modern technology!
He suggested that our fuel filters might be partially clogged. We’d not replaced them back in Vilamoura although we had a spare set on board. In hindsight it would have been wise to do so and to sample the fuel at the bottom of her tank to check it was clear of contamination.
We were faced with a conundrum. We didn’t want to change the filters while rocking and rolling about at sea and if we replaced the filters without more spares on board there was a risk that the dirt in the tank would clog up the new filters leaving us in a no better position and we would have to bleed the fuel lines with a lift pump that was falling apart.
We decided to struggle on and only change the old filters if the engine cut out for good before we could buy a spare set.
The waves were smashing 60ft up the cliff at the narrow, rock-strewn entrance to Ria Camarinas. Once inside we could see the ria was bordered on its north bank by the town of Camarinas, with a yacht club and a small marina. Camarinas did have a chandlery but being Saturday it was closed for the weekend.
As our engine was still working, albeit at only 4.5 knots we left for La Coruña on Sunday morning about 43 miles east. In the big city we had no difficulty buying fuel filters, a lift pump, a thermostat, fittings and pipes to make a proper job of the fuel system and ancillaries.
Once all were installed we took Wave Dancer out for a trial run. At full power she cruised at 8 knots, water gushing from her exhaust, very little steam and no smoke. Also, the temperature gauge stayed in the green zone. Snapping the engine from 3,000 revs to tickover had no ill effects. I was satisfied that we were ready to tackle Biscay.
We thought it wise to fill her fuel tank to the brim in case we had to motor across Biscay but the fuel pontoon was out of action. The berthing master lent us some 20lt plastic cans and a supermarket trolley.
After loading them into the trolley, wheeling them across a busy road and bumpy tram lines to our marina, it took ages to syphon the fuel into the tank. Then we had to trolley the empty cans back to the berthing master.
We had paid for three nights at the marina. When we told staff that we planned to cross Biscay, they got very agitated and warned of a big wind.
We would have checked the weather forecast before we left but up till that time we had been preoccupied in the preparation of our transport. Wave Dancer had an old Navtex which produced only printed reports on a type of till ticket roll.
We’d been watching hurricane Gordon developing mid-Atlantic with mild interest, expecting it to track west and away. But Gordon had decided to take a trip north east towards us in north-west Spain. With Force 12 winds forecast we could do little more than double up lines and fenders and await the worst.
The next day, Wave Dancer’s anemometer in our sheltered marina reached a steady 52 knots. Yachts were heeling at 30°. We were lucky that our position did not suffer from any swell.
Across the small bay, at a large commercial wharf, there was a mountain of coal being continuously doused with water to stop the dust – however the 52-knot gale threw tons of it into the air.
Down below we found a fine layer of black coal dust over every surface despite all windows and hatches having been closed. Every boat had black windward sides and clean white leeward sides. We spent the next hour or so after the storm hosing off our boats.
The forecast the next day was south-west Force 6 so we victualled the boat and departed La Coruña heading north-east towards Camaret, France, 370 miles away. A few hours into our journey, the wind increased to Force 7 gusting 8 with violent thunderstorms as it got darker.
Three metre breaking waves came crashing towards our port quarter although few joined us in the rain-soaked cockpit. There was lightning in the distance and the breaking waves charging up behind us had green phosphorescence in their foaming crests.
We had laid out a metre long metal hydro-prop ‘fish’ towed on a long rope to turn a battery charging generator on the pushpit. When the ‘fish’ crested a wave behind us in the dark it gave me a start looking like a glowing sea monster chasing the boat.
After the gale subsided to Force 6 we decided to set up the Hydrovane self steering gear. It’s a credit to its design that we were able to do so without the instruction manual.
‘Beating into a Force 5, waves were finding their way through the forehatch onto my bunk’
Unfortunately, it had had a long service life and was so badly worn that it would swing us 15° either side of our course every 25 minutes or so. Eventually we got used to its zigzag headings and after some trial and error managed to set it to average out to our desired course.
The wind eased to a Force 5 over the next 24 hours, helping us to make good progress across The Bay. Our course was about 50 miles to the east of the shipping lanes but it didn’t stop us coming close to a collision shortly after I took over Mike’s watch one grey morning.
He pointed out a ship that was approaching our starboard quarter. It soon became clear that we were on a collision course and she didn’t show any inclination to change course to avoid us, although we had our active radar reflector powered up.
With limited visibility, rather than call her on the VHF radio, it was easier for us to assume ‘might is right’ and alter course until she passed.
The end of our third day at sea found us at the Ile de Sein west cardinal buoy about 25 miles from Camaret. Navigating the Iroise stretch of water at night, it was tricky to distinguish the huge number of buoy and lighthouse lights from vessels’ and shore lights.
We picked up a visitors mooring buoy off Camaret marina soon after midnight and crashed into our bunks. The Moody had very good heads and showers so after a much-needed sleep, we smartened ourselves up and went ashore for a bottle of wine and two large portions of moules et frites for lunch.
Our next challenge was to cross the English Channel. We’d both sailed regularly from Camaret to Plymouth and were well aware of the heavy shipping traffic en route. I would never attempt a Channel crossing without radar, having been caught in fog many times.
We set sail for Salcombe. A rainy squall came over us as we crossed the Avant Goulet de Brest towards the Chenal du Four so we switched on the radar, only to see a blank screen.
I held the helm while Mike searched for and fitted a new fuse but to no avail, so we decided to sail into Brest to find an engineer to fix it.
An hour and a half later we tied up in the Moulin Blanc marina but couldn’t find anyone who could repair the radar for at least a week. So, after a call to Malcolm, we agreed to leave Wave Dancer in Brest and catch a ferry home from Roscoff.
Malcolm sold his Moody for a good price to a French family a few weeks later.
- Never skipper an unknown boat without a thorough inspection, including sampling the bottom of the fuel tank for diesel bug and running the engine flat out in gear for 10 minutes in open water.
- I had an engine stop dead on me on another occasion because the cam belt broke. If the boat’s engine service book or the owner cannot confirm the last cam belt change I would suggest they fit a new one.
- The rigging and sails are as important as the engine. It’s often easy enough to ensure a full complement of split pins, clevis pins and split rings are in place by careful and thorough inspection with binoculars from deck level; otherwise a trip up the mast is required. Pulled wire strands are a sure sign that standing rigging needs immediate replacement.
- I was lucky to have someone as competent as Mike for crew and the advantage of knowing him. If I do not know a new crew applicant I inquire confidentially about them from their acquaintances.
- If you want a yacht delivered by sea I recommend you hire professionals with excellent CVs and reviews; they will be worth every penny. But please don’t call me!
*Send us boating experience story to firstname.lastname@example.org and if it’s published you’ll receive the original Dick Everitt-signed watercolour at the top of this article.
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This feature appeared in the February 2023 edition of Practical Boat Owner. For more articles like this, including DIY, money-saving advice, great boat projects, expert tips and ways to improve your boat’s performance, take out a magazine subscription to Britain’s best-selling boating magazine.
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