Sailing the Atlantic, Cruising the Caribbean - Avalon of Arne

By Phaon Reid

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Biscay Between Storms - Falmouth to La Coruna

Biscay MapWe were a bit apprehensive about the Biscay crossing. It would, at four days or so, be the longest sail we had done to date. Biscay has a bad reputation for weather, and we had left it rather late in the year. While waiting in Falmouth, one gale had already blown through, and at that time of year the next one probably won't be far behind. For days we waited, checked the weather charts in the harbourmaster's window, and phoned for long-range predictions, which tended to be non-committal and inconclusive..

By the time there was an apparent window in the weather, it was 1 September. So, after some last minute shopping for fresh food, and a last Cornish pastie for lunch, we pulled up the anchor (covered in thick gooey mud) and set sail. We had hoped to set off at the same time as Chris and Carole on Wild Rose, but they still had some things to do, and were going to set off a day or two later and head straight for Muros.

Once we were out at sea there was a bit of a chop and a swell from the gales, but with a moderate wind from the North West we were soon making good progress westwards. After having to motor almost all the way from Poole, it was good to be under sail again.

After a few hours we cooked and ate our dinner, and then it was time to get into the watchkeeping routine. We normally do our watches on a three-hours-in-bed basis. As soon as the off watch person's head hits the pillow, the clock starts. After three hours in bed, the person on watch wakes the other up and makes them a cup of coffee (for Sarah) or tea (for me). The person on watch always wears a safety harness while the other is below, and must wake the watchkeeper if there is any need to venture outside the cockpit. With roller reefing on both sails, it isn't often necessary.

Sarah doesn't much like night watches (or night driving for that matter) as her night vision is not particularly good. I encourage her (or any other crew for that matter) to wake me up if there is anything that they're not happy about.

She woke me in the early hours after seeing a strange combination of lights. They turned out to be quite a large vessel, not under command, attended by a smaller vessel, possibly a tug. When we were quite close, the larger vessel suddenly turned on all its lights - decklights, floodlights, and the like - and started moving towards us, so we had to alter course. Eventually we got clear of them and I went back to bed.

Our intention was to head well outside Ushant, and then straight down to La Coruna, while reserving the option to head into Brest if the weather took a turn for the worse. In the end it wasn't necessary. The Navtex continued pumping out good forecasts until we were well into the Bay.

For most of the trip we had a pleasant sail, with enough wind but not too much, and from a generally westerly or north-westerly direction. We saw numerous fishing boats, some of whom motored along in convoy with us for some time, and a few cargo ships, but no other yachts. About three days out, we passed an oil rig, lit up like a Christmas tree.

At about the same time Molly (our Aries) which had been steering until then, suddenly jammed solid. One of our fancy red-and-yellow Kevlar control lines had jammed itself inextricably in one of the Aries bottom pulleys. We tried various expedients to free it at sea, leaning over the stern and jabbing away with screwdrivers and things, and failed. So Molly was disconnected, and the Autohelm was put into use.

On the fourth day, the wind became fitful, and after drifting around for a while we decided to continue under power. The wind came and went, the engine was stopped and started. Around this time the Navtex churned out a little billet-doux with a Gale Warming for Biscay and Finisterre, gale force 8, soon. It was obviously time to get into port.

During the following night Sarah woke me, obviously alarmed, saying that there were oil rigs moving about everywhere. I got up, had a look, and could see what she meant. While it wasn't immediately obvious, the "rigs" were a group of local fishing boats which use large numbers of powerful lights, mounted on tower-like structures, and shining into the water all around the boat. These are presumably intended to attract whatever sea-creatures the fisherman are seeking.

If these fishing boats have any navigation lights, and if they are turned on, it is quite impossible to see them due to the glaring intensity of the searchlights. As a result, it is very difficult to judge the fishing boats' course and speed, which are often erratic enough to cast serious doubts on the helmsman's sobriety - or perhaps his sanity. One imagines that the crew of the fishing boat, sitting in the middle of several thousand candle power, must be quite unable to see anything outside the boat at all.

The next morning the wind dropped off, just as the Navtex churned out another gale warning. I think they were talking about Force 9 at this stage. I turned the key to start the engine, but there was just a CLUNK and nothing happened. I tried again with the same result. After leaving it for half an hour or so, I tried again and it started. By this time the wind was getting up, from the South West, which was pretty much on the nose. Bearing in mind the gale warnings, we decided to keep the motor on and motor-sail into La Coruna, which was then about 30 miles off. It also struck us that if the engine was having problems starting, it mightn't be a terribly good idea to stop it.

As we approached La Coruna, the wind strengthened, and visibility got worse as the rain started. Progress, motor sailing just off the wind, was slow. It was probably about a squally 5-6 as we approached the port. We found the approach confusing as newly bought pilot books failed to show a massive and conspicuous structure on the breakwater.

We rounded the breakwater and could see a large number of yachts, some at anchor, some on buoys, and some in a marina. As there wasn't a lot of room to swing, and bad weather was forecast, we picked up a buoy. In fact we picked up two, as they were so close together that we would otherwise have hit the other one. Well, we'd made it across Biscay and it hadn't been too bad a trip. We were somewhere we'd never sailed before, with a year's sailing ahead of us, and it felt good.

After resting a couple of hours, we blew up the tender and went ashore with the documents to check in. There was nobody around (the Spanish, unlike the Portuguese, aren't bothered about paperwork) so we wandered on into town.

La Coruna is an attractive and historic town. One of its claims to fame is the world's oldest operating lighthouse, the Torre de Hercules. We phoned home to let people know we'd arrived OK, and then just explored the city, stopping for a few drinks along the way. In due course we had an excellent dinner, with the best octopus I've ever tasted. and some good Rioja. Then we strolled back round the harbour to the boat, and before long retired to our bunks.

When we woke up the next morning, after a very welcome uninterrupted night's sleep, the wind was howling in the rigging and the boat was tugging at the buoys. the tender, tied alongside, was threatening to take off in the gusts so we chucked some full water carriers into it to keep it down, before going back down below for breakfast.

Later that morning, Wild Rose came in. They had left the day after us, heading for Muros, but when the weather turned nasty, they did the sensible thing and headed into La Coruna. Their last few hours had been quite uncomfortable.

I think it was the same morning when we witnessed a very unfortunate accident. By this time the Navtex was mentioning winds of Force 11 and sea state "high", which I had never encountered before. Sticking my head out of the main hatch (it was blowing force 8 in the harbour by then), I saw a small tender, crewed by two men in full foul-weather gear, recovering a man from the water. Meanwhile a woman was motoring a yacht (Hallberg-Rassy or similar, about 42') around the crowded harbour in circles. The man was taken ashore, and we shouted over to the woman, as she motored past, to ask if we could do anything to help. She said no, the harbourmaster was coming out to help her bring the boat into the marina, which eventually he did.

Apparently their anchor had been dragging and the man had gone forward to pull it up and reset it. While doing so, he had had a heart attack and fallen overboard. He was dead by the time he was brought ashore. Apparently the couple had only recently given up work, bought the boat and set off from Scandinavia. It was something they had been looking forward to for years, and it was horrible to see their dreams shattered in this way.