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  • Writer's picturePeter

Crossing the Bay of Biscay

Our first attempt to cross the Bay of Biscay was in October of last year. We had arrived in Camaret Sur Mer, just south of Brest and waited for a weather window to make our crossing; we did not want to be stuck in northern Europe for the Winter! However, with waves of 4 – 6 meters high and storm after storm

we thought that our timing was not optimal and probably too late in the season. In addition, Covid-19 brought on the French “lockdown” and so we were forced to retreat to Brest for the winter. This was not our preference, but we used the time well to get to know our boat better and also to have some upgrades and maintenance done. We would look at “Predict Wind” for possible weather windows for passage south during the winter, but as the days were short and cold we were happy to stay with our heating, cozy and warm on our boat. Finally, in April it looked like the weather windows were opening up, the days were getting longer, there was less rain and the temperatures were slowly increasing.

With the arrival of Giuseppe as an extra crew member to assist us with his experience, and also to make the night watches easier, we identified a weather window with good winds from the right direction. Over the next days the wind forecast increased, so we had to further delay and then the winds decreased to the point where we were worried that there would be insufficient wind to take us to our final destination.

Our original plan was to go to Portugal, work our way down the coast and to arrive in Gibraltar after about 2 weeks. Then we heard that Portugal was closed to visiting sailboats – unless for an emergency, so we decided to head directly for Gibraltar, a 7-10 day sail of around 1000 nautical miles.

On the off chance, Ingrid called the north Portugal Marina of Povoa de Varzim to see if we were welcome. “Call back in 1 hour” said the lady and I will find out. 10 minutes later she called us back and said we were welcome !

So back to plan “A” with a few stops planned along the Portuguese coast.

With the weather forecast looking quite good for our shorter journey of 500 nautical miles we set sail early on the morning of the 16th April, with an expectation of light to no winds on the way. We were really ready to make a move, so light wind was better than a storm, even if we needed to use the boat’s engine (we have a fuel tank of 650 litres).

Heading off at 7.00am to catch the high tide and corresponding slack water as we passed the Goulet Du Brest (a short, narrow stretch of water that is prone to strong currents and rough conditions when the wind is strong). We motored out through the calmest waters we have seen in this area in the last 5 months.

Once out to the open sea, the wind behind picked up and we were able to sail down-wind with a good speed using a sail on each side.

Once past the Point de Raz, we changed our course for the north westerly corner of Spain and started the engine as the wind was insufficient for even a low sailing speed. Our pre-planning decision was to use the engine if we could not sail at 4 knots/hr, then the motor would be used as the objective was to cross the Bay of Biscay before any storms want to give us their best regards.

Through the day the wind slowly increased to the point where we could easily sail at 6 knots – our preferred cruising speed. Engine off, we were sailing again – and you have seen Ingrid’s comments on our Live Update of “Where are we now”.

With the steady increase in wind, we started to reduce the size of the sails to keep our comfort level and minimise wear and tear on the boat. At this point we were sailing at 7-8 knots with 2 reefs in the main sail and a reduced genoa.

We expected the winds to continue to slowly die down, but in fact our wind speed continued to increase from 12 knots to now 18-20 knots. As evening was coming, we decided to further reduce the sail area as it is better to do this in the day time, rather than by the light of the moon and stars.

With a tiny genoa and a fully reefed main sail we sped along at 7-9 knots through the night and following morning. The comfort level indoors was a little bouncy and it took about 15 minutes to get dressed or undressed; the movement of the boat was creating G forces that jet fighter pilots were more at ease with.

We had visits from our friends the dolphins; they seem to be attracted to the movement of the boat and as we come into their area, they race to play in the front of the bow, catching our pressure wave as we sail.

Swimming from one side to the other, just centimetres from the bow. With the larger waves that had now developed, up to 2 metres high, we could see the dolphins jumping out of the waves on eye level as we sat in our living area – almost as if they were curious to see what we were doing !

As the following day progressed, the wind finally started to calm down and we had to increase the sail size to keep our speed up to 6 knots. Fortunately, the waves, with a long period were behind us, so this helped to keep us comfortable without too many high G forces impeding our actions.

Throughout all of this time Giuseppe was happy cooking in the kitchen, concocting a large variety of delicious Italian dishes; pastas and risottos - all with original Italian ingredients.

When the conditions were suitable, we were able to eat outside in the cockpit

Passing Finistere was a great feeling – to have crossed the Bay of Biscay, safe and with a reasonable understanding of weather expectations from our "Iridium Go" satellite system.

It was time to raise the next flag of our journey; the Portuguese Flag and prepare to celebrate our success after a safe arrival by putting the champagne in the fridge - only we could not find where we had put the champagne for safety !

Continuing down the west coast of Portugal our sailing was just fantastic with a steady breeze down to Povao de Varzim, where we stopped to rest and re-stock for 2 nights – and have a day of Port tasting in the Port of Porto.

As the weather window was narrowing for the continuation of our journey towards Lisbon we set off early on the morning of the 21st April. A large depression was heading towards us. It was actually quite amazing to see the weather change as we sailed through the warm and cold fronts with the wind direction changing significantly from the starboard to port and then back to the starboard bow. Fortunately, we managed to keep sailing for most of the journey and only needing the engine for the last approach to Lisbon as we wanted to arrive in daylight, rather than at night. We passed the most extreme western point of Europe as we passed the islands of Berlengas.

In the end, I think we had a fantastic crossing. Nothing extreme as we were prudent with the weather forecast expectations and the risks we decided to take. The wind was higher than expected, but we were ready and prepared. We appreciated the support and advice of Giuseppe and greatly appreciated the motorized in-mast furling (installed in Brest) as this allowed us to change the size of the mainsail with minimum effort and maximum safety. As usual, the boat handled exceptionally well, so we felt totally safe and in control - and there were even a few minutes to relax in the sunshine !

Some information:

Brest to Povoa de Varzim – 503 nautical miles, 81 hours sailing = 6.2 knots/hr

Povoa de Varzim to Cascais - 184 nautical miles, 33 hours sailing = 5.6 knot/hr

1 nautical Mile ie equal to 1852 metres or 1.15 Statute Miles

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