Sailing the Bay of Biscay – Swell, waves, dolphins, thunderstorms and fog

img_0066Bay of Biscay is known for its’ difficult sailing conditions. When we sailed across it from Audierne (France) to Cedeira (Spain) in late August, it lived to the expectation.

We were well prepared for the voyage: We were well rested and in good spirit. The weather for the crossing was well analyzed. We had plenty of food & drink onboard. We had tightened safety protocol in place, e.g. use of lifelines, a grab pack packed.

We were expecting dolphins, spinnaker wind, time to read and just be lazy. The deck shower was waiting for the sunbathers.

Day 1 – Dolphins and a ripped spinnaker

When we left, right outside Audierne, the captain got to go to a morning swim to clear up the engine propeller from seaweed that was slowing us down. Swimming in the Atlantic swell did not look tempting.

During the first afternoon at sea the wind came from the side and the Atlantic swell was higher then predicted. We were rocking from side to side but we 20160823_110641managed to make lunch, read a bit and enjoyed a dolphin show that lasted over an hour.

Later in the evening the Atlantic swell and the waves from another direction increased the rocking of the boat. At sunset we had our spinnaker up and we were sailing 7 knots. By 10pm the gusty wind made it impossible to sail with the spinnaker among the waves. Right on the very minute when we were taking the spinnaker down the wind ripped it into 3 pieces. We got the 20160826_192548spinnaker down without any drama and sat in the pitch-dark cockpit inspecting the damaged sail with a flashlight.

In the darkness of the night we were trying to find a sail combination that would work. It was hard. There were some cargo ships and fishing vessels to look out for too. And the rocking of the boat continued.

The rocking of the boat got even worse during the night. At first, we figured the raff seas was caused by the ocean going from 100m to 5000m in depth but it was not only that. By 3am I had enough and I had to vomit my cuts out.

The rocking seemed to have a rhythm of 3: first a tilt of 10 degree followed by a 15 degree tilt and one more even stronger tilt from left to right. And suddenly the boat was almost steady until the next cycle started. It was very difficult to move around the boat and we tried to be extra careful not to get injured.

Day 2 – Long day and night with thunderstorms

The strong rocking continued till the next day. The wind was gusty but light and come directly from the behind. I was seasick and my energy levels were down because I could not eat. Saku was fighting to find a sail combination that would give us speed and easy the rocking. He worked hard to get the wind pilot to steer the boat. We did not have fun. Either one of us had had any sleep the night before.

The day at sea went by slowly. We could not do anything – not even to prepare a warm meal because the boat was rocking so heavily.

By evening the wind calmed down so that we started the engine. But the swell and the waves did not go anywhere. Not fair – no wind but big waves. This reminded us of a leg we did from Tallinn to Helsinki last year.

The second night arrived and I was on watch from 9.30pm to 1 am. I was sleeping in the saloon couch. We had the radar alarm on and I had an alarm clock ringing in every 25 minutes. When the alarm woke me up, I got up, looked at the radar screen, checked the course from the compass in the cockpit wall and stood on the doorsteps and looked around just to make sure we were not running into anything that the radar did not see. And back to the couch. I was so tired that I fell asleep each time immediately. I thought Saku was sleeping the whole time but he wasn’t.

After midnight we got some interesting cargo ships traffic and we both were up again. Apparently one of the cargo ships flashed a working light to us to make sure that we see it. This caused more confusion then helped us. Another cargo ship passed from in front of us just one mile away. That’s a short distance in open seas.

After the cargo ship “rush hour” we sailed into a thunderstorm. The radar showed black, heavy rain areas around us. We both were up and of course very concerned. At some stage I decided that there was nothing I could do to the thunder and I fell asleep to the couch. I woke up occasionally when a lightning made everything white for a second. Couple of times I jumped up screaming “did that hit us?!” No it did’t. Saku was making maneuvers to avoid the storm centers until 9am in the morning. We were lucky – the lightning did not hit us and we didn’t get strong winds.

In the morning Saku got little bit of sleep but poor visibility due to rain and still continuing rocking made our life generally difficult onboard. Luckily Anton was fine. He was playing with this lego sailboat and said that sailing day after day was “real ocean life.”

Day 3 – Who moved Spain?

On the third day, we waited for the moment that we could shout “LAND OHOY”! We thought the moment would arrive about 15-20 miles before our arrival to Cedeira but the closer we got to the coastline, the poorer the visibility got. We made jokes that someone has moved Spain to another location or that we have missed Spain and actually are sailing to America. It was only half funny.

Just one mile from the coastline, in thick fog, we could see a white church “flying” in the fog. We had found Spain!

After 58 hours and 310 unpleasant nautical miles we arrived through the fog to Ria de Cedeira at 6pm20160827_140954 on day 3. This beautiful Spanish bay greeted us with an amazing scent of eucalyptus. We dropped the anchor into a bay of fishing boats and the rocking of the boat finally stopped. We made proper, warm dinner and went directly to bed.


Conclusion – Discomfort in multiple levels

Bay of Biscay was difficult for us. The Atlantic swell combined with the waves by the wind-generated cross-waves that rocked the boat from left to right for three continuous days. We spend 3 days in Cedeira eating the food we had reserved for the crossing because almost all the food was left uneaten.

After a good night sleep we were happy to have arrived to Spain. Even though we are in north Spain 20160827_141301the climate here is warmer than in France and the price of living is significantly lower.

In raff sea conditions, in addition to physical discomfort there is also the constant mental discomfort: Is something going to break? What if the weather gets even worse than this? How is Anton/Saku coping? Is Anton scared? What if someone drops overboard? What if someone gets seriously injured? I can take physical discomfort and be able to function to certain extent even when I’m seasick. The mental side is more difficult to deal with.


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