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Biscay bites..


As I peeled off from the yachts coming through the Raz – I presume they would go to Audierne or elsewhere along the coast. I could see the open sea ahead and the rollers – or what was left of  them as they came across the continental shelf. You can see the marked depth change on the chart below. This serves to force the energy of the waves upward as the ocean bed rises from between 2000 to 3000 metres to a couple of hundred metres.

By about 6.30am things were getting lively. I had full sail up and the boat started to charge forward into the mounting and confused waves. There were 3 sets of waves. The periodic rollers coming on to my starboard side more or less broadside; the regular chop of the wind driven waves; and a current coming in the opposite direction which up to now had been pushing me along at about 2kts even with little wind. Now we were sailing. It was exhilarating.

I had had several 1 hour naps since the Raz. I felt alert and alive. It was good. I let Enterprise just crash on – occasionally adjusting the autopilot or the sails. Just as before, in similar weather, Enterprise seemed to just keep accelerating. Almost imperceptibly, but it was there in the motion and the rushing of water past the keel and the hull. I found I could even point higher into the wind than normal such was the pressure of water on the keel.


By the time we were doing 8/9kts and pointing about 500 off the wind, the wind driven waves were crashing over the bows and occasionally drenching the raised dog house – which is about 2 metres above sea level. But what was adding spice to the pot was the rollers. They seemed to come in twos. First, a sharp almost breaking wave that knocked Enterprise over until the toe rail was in the water and 16 metres of mast and sail pointing at 450 to the horizon, followed by a gentle hill that raised the 12 tons of boat up around 2 metres before letting it slip downhill and upright again. The contents of cupboards started to complain; the scatter cushions were – scattered; the chart had slipped off the chart table that too was on the floor; somewhere in the aft cabin a cupboard door was swinging and banging; the beer and wine in the fridge had re-arranged itself with the cheese/milk/eggs –  I was not going to investigate.

At 8am I had a novel idea – I should reef. They say the time to reef is the first time you think of it. They don’t tell you what to do when you should have thought of it an hour before – if you see what I mean. Luckily Enterprise is a heavy beast. I reefed the genoa. I turned into the wind to reef the main. This has to be done purposefully but slowly so as not to jam the main as it is furled into the mast. While I was concentrating on that – the sheets (ropes) that connect with the genoa saw their chance. The port side sheet caught on the ladder I had carefully tied to the side netting and the starboard sheet tied itself under the dinghy that was strapped tight on the foredeck. Having sorted the main sail. I turned my attention to the mischievous genoa sheets.  Anyone who sails will know that during such a manoeuvre the genoa would have been clapping and banging and the sheets were whipping like a couple of demented cobras. I had to bear away slightly so that the autopilot could take over and hold a steady course aided by the mainsail. I dutifully clipped my safety line on to the jack stay that runs the length of the boat and waited for the next roller. Sure enough here it came – had I been trying to step out of the cockpit and on to the side deck – even on the high side (starboard) – I would have been awarded my scout circus badge for sure. As part two of the roller swept by I took my chance. Crawling along the starboard side deck I was quickly soaked with lovely cold salt water. As I reached the mast the safety line stopped me moving any further. This is always the most interesting part of boat safety. I was lying on my side reaching down with my right hand to below my feet to unclip from the webbing while holding the mast with my left hand above my head. For once the wretched clip came off in one move (it normally snags) and I quickly clipped it to something that felt solid above my head. Bam – next roller arrived. This one thought it would have some extra fun by breaking over the side of the boat and dropping a jacuzzi worth of foaming cold salt water all over me. It  was at this point that I had that calm certainty of purpose. Instead of struggling against nature to “get the job done” I just lay there for a while – enjoying the moment. Yes, I know, I am a bit unbalanced. Having had a nice sojourn I struggled up on to my knees and saw that the port genoa had not just caught around the ladder – it had now freed itself by flipping the ladder up in the air so it was pointing skyward and it had also broken the end off one of the struts that is part of the ladder. It had one last trick up its sleeve too. In case I had any idea – and I must say it did cross my mind – of just leaving it alone and going back – the broken piece of strut was lying tantalisingly on the port side deck by the toe rail, with water rushing by and maybe only a minute away from going over the side. Fine. I stood up holding the mast with both arms; unclipped; slowly bent to my knees; then down flat on my face; reached down and clipped on to the jackstay on the port side. Bam – next roller. This time it was like MI movie. I was gripping the base of the mast like a smithy holds a hammer; I reached for the broken strut and the water washed it into my hand just as the boat rolled over – and up – and back. I stuffed the stupid piece of white plastic into my pocket – even Tom Cruise would not have risked his life for such an item. I used the swing of the boat back, to get up and quickly unclip and clip back on the starboard side.  I yanked the other sheet out from under the dinghy and crawled backwards along the deck to the cockpit.

Having got back into the cockpit, strangely elated that I could have accomplished so little at the risk of so much, I settled the sails, adjusted the autopilot and went below to get some dry clothes. Leaving a trail of shoes; life jacket; BR2 jacket; trousers – unmentionables. I made my way to the aft cabin. This was the first time I had ventured into it since I had left Camaret. There was the swinging door. Various items of clothes had appeared from nowhere and joined the photo frames on the floor. I reached for some trousers and pants and – crash – next roller. Since I was standing on one leg at this point there really was no other outcome possible. I crashed towards the port side cupboard door that I had just swung closed – and went through it, taking it and the door frame with me into the cupboard. What to do. Another item for the to-do list on the chart table – or was it on the floor? I got dressed, and went up to the strange beauty outside, a world of wind and water and sky as far as the eye could see.

I was frustrated that I couldn’t sail more West. If I tacked, I could go North West but the thought of going backwards was too much to bear. At least I was going South – even if it was due South rather than South West. On top of that it seemed I was glued to a course that would run along the edge of the continental shelf for hours. I knew that this was not a good location and the sea would naturally be rougher here. I was just musing to myself  “well at least I haven’t seen any other ships for over a day” when the AIS alarm went off  – and there was a pack of cargo vessels approaching. Like busses they all arrive at once.  I was already committed to cross their path. Given the sea state and winds there was precious little I could do except hold my course. I watched the AIS draw its doomsday conclusion – CPA (closest point of approach 100 metres) – basically that is a crash – its not that accurate – it’s about as accurate as a post code on your car navigation system. There was nothing for it. I had to hail the first ship in the pack on the VHF. I could see the boat name – Endeavour – and other comforting data such as it was 175m long and 30m wide and traveling at 20kts and the cargo was “Hazard A(major)” – oh good!

It was definitely an exchange worthy of two star ships…

“Endeavour, Endeavour….cargo vessel Endeavour…. this is yacht Enterprise, yacht Enterprise…Over”
…..the reply came in a husky, female, Russian/English voice….
”Good afternoon Enterprise….over”
”Er, yes, good afternoon Endeavour….I am a sailing yacht approximately 5nm ahead of you. I am trying to get out of your way but as you can see my speed will reduce if I change course…..Over”
…a pause….
“Yes, this is no problem sailing yacht Enterprise…I vill moov for you….Over”
…with some relief…
Thank you Endeavour, sorry to trouble you, Enterprise out”.
…a pause….
…..”Yes Enterprise, have a good and pleasant journey Sir, This is Endeavour, Out”

Two more conversations with other members of the pack followed. They all moved for me. I was grateful and surprised.

Enterprise seemed to just barge on happily. I had hoped to do much more than 100nm a day but to have covered roughly 100nm in these conditions was not at all bad. I had a few more 1hr naps on the floor of the saloon where I had placed a mattress and a blanket. I could also watch the chart plotter screen on an app on my phone – although this was actually not a good idea since the screen was so bright and it really hurt your eyes and destroyed your night vision.

By midnight it was obvious that two days in – I was not going south west any time soon. My 3rd backup port was Gijon on the northern coast of Spain. The other two had been Concarneau, now miles behind me and La Rochelle virtually due East. Gijon was due south of my position. The boat was happily sailing due South. That was settled then. I was going to Gijon. Enterprise galloped on. The autopilot carried on tirelessly steering to wind. I slept well.

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Sleeping position 1 Sleeping position 2
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The Ancient Mariner Fishing fleet 30nm away
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iPhone app echoing the chart plotter display Gybe – off to Santander then ..?

4 comments to Biscay bites..

  • A-MAZING Russ – you are an absolute hero! This is such a vivid account and so brilliantly written that we felt like we were there with you (not that we would have been any help). I love the Endeavour/Enterprise communication and can imagine the wry smile on your face during the exchange. You’ll have to frame that bit of plastic, after you’ve fixed the cupboard door, sorted out the fridge, located the to-do list … xxx

  • Riveting account Russ; I could almost feel the bile rising in the pit of my stomach at the memory of my last trip across Biscay on a Ferry with Dee. We had to skip the buffet and sit up on deck until the green mist receded :). So happy that you were able to give us this insight and happier that I was sat in my dining room reading it. Sail on…….

  • phil ient

    Gripping stuff Russ….Enterprise? Endeavour…all you need is a Challenger and Atlantis and Columbia and you have the whole shuttle fleet.

    Laura was very impressed…..he looks like a sailor now (now?)

    Sleep well

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