Crossing the Bay of Biscay

4 to 6 July 2016

Camaret sur Mer N 48° 16.85′ W 04° 35.31′ to A Coruna N 43° 22.01′ W 08°23.69′

340nm, 61 hours


Our Biscay adventure started at 6.30am with a trip to the self service fuel pontoon at Camaret. We were deliberately heading into light winds and if we had to motor the 350nm we would need a lot of diesel!

The sea was reassuringly calm, rolling gently from the west. None of the big waves that had accompanied us across the Channel. Clouds hung very low in the sky and it was cold. My salopettes were still damp from our crossing days before.

We left the coast of France with two other boats who bravely sailed inside the tiny rocky islands off the headland. We wondered if they were heading across to Spain too but lost sight of them fairly soon. We had steady wind of 12-14 knots but for the first 5 hours it was typically right on Pintail’s nose.

By 11.30am, with the temperature starting to feel a bit warmer, we set our course of 205° and settled in for the expected three days. We would like to tell a heroic tale of crossing the bay but in truth there was relatively little drama. We agreed a three hour watch pattern which although didn’t really allow much sleep time felt more manageable than 4 hours on watch alone. Before we left I had downloaded lots of podcasts of Desert Island Discs and so we passed most of our time, day and night, incongruously listening to BBC Radio 4 way beyond the reach of any radio signal. In that alien offshore place reminders of home felt incredibly comforting and along with the familiar tones of Kirsty Young and various guests we drank Heinz tomato soup from mugs and ate chocolate digestives.

The sea state remained fantastically calm. A 360° circle of gently rolling ocean and horizon. Sitting alone in the cockpit for most of the time we were again reminded what an amazing training ground the Thames Estuary was. It had very quickly taught us not to be freaked out being out of sight of land.

At around 10pm on day 1 we reached the dreaded shelf. The one we had intended to avoid with our original passage plan from Falmouth to Baiona. Pintail’s depth sounder started flashing wildly searching for something beneath us but there was nothing there for 2000 or more metres. Apart from that we felt no discernable different in sea state and continued to record calm in the log book (1).

Somewhere in the Bay we reached an unspoken agreement that we were no longer going to wake the other up as soon as dolphins appeared, rather selfishly enjoy their company firm in the knowledge that there were plenty more where those came from. Stefan decided however that whales were a different matter altogether! Whilst I was off watch  and fast asleep two whales had surfaced very close to the boat, terrifying him after all the absence of incident. He ran down to wake me but by the time we got back on deck all that could be seen was a few unmistakable spouts of water on the horizon and a distant dark back just breaking the surface.

So that was it. With the exception of a tanker just off the French coast and a small aeroplane which did a very low fly pass somewhere in the middle of the bay, our only company for miles in every direction was dolphins and whales. We had expected isolation but not quite that much.

At around 3.30am on day 2 Pintail decided that if the bay wasn’t going to test us, she would instead. After a blissful 11 hours of perfect sailing at about 8 knots I came on watch to find Stefan complaining about the wind changing direction. It turned out that the wind hadn’t moved but we had. Pintail’s autohelm (2), the one thing that makes being so short handed bearable, had stopped working.

Hopeful that he could fix it, Stefan emptied the not inconsiderable contents of the stern lazarette (3) (anchor chain, lines, passerelle (4), bucket) to get to the mechanism. He disappeared inside for a while, he replaced the monitor in the cockpit with a spare, but it still wouldn’t come back to life. We had no choice but to hand steer the rest of the way. I’m still not brilliant on the helm (5) under sail and so we decided to motor/sail just to be safe. By then the wind was getting down to only 6 knots anyway so we had lost speed and the motor kept us on track for avoiding a third night at sea.

The big test came when we reached the shelf on the Spanish side of the bay on the morning of day 3. With each hour the log records the sea state creeping up from calm to slight to moderate. By lunchtime we had 26 knots of wind. In those conditions I am useless on the helm and so Stefan bore the brunt of it, helming all day whilst I tried to make up for it by clearing the bilge pump (6) filter, making tea and navigating us along the now visible Spanish coast.

We arrived in A Coruna at 7.15pm feeling elated and jet lagged all at the same time. The Bay of Biscay is a rite of passage for sailors. Unintentionally but ever so slightly romantically we had done it just the two of us. In the mind fog of tiredness, the Irish accent on the end of the VHF radio confused us slightly but we were finally and very definitely in Spain.

P1100563After 12 hours sleep Stefan took the autohelm apart, put it back together again and got it working!

And we were ready to explore our third unexpected destination of the trip….


(1) where we record things like our position, direction, wind strength, barometer readings so we can monitor where we are if all electronic equipment fails!

(2) magic gadget which keeps the boat heading in the direction you want it to and which means when you are on watch on your own you can leave the cockpit to make tea and have a pee!

(3) big storage space under the deck at the back of the boat

(4) gangway for getting to shore when moored with the back of the boat to the dock

(5) at steering

(6) pump which gets rid of any water that has found its way into the bottom of the boat, the filter stops any gunk getting into the pump

4 thoughts on “Crossing the Bay of Biscay

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s