The adventure begins – Biscay

It’s the start of the queens jubilee celebrations and our opportunity to take the extra couple of days on top of our two week holiday to get Mariadz out of Plymouth across Biscay and into the south of Spain ready for a final shot at getting her to Brindisi.

A lot of people who cross Biscay decide to hug the French Atlantic coast which gives them options around safe havens if the weather turns. However, it is shallow here and the Atlantic swell can be much worse here than in the deeper water beyond the continental shelf. Also when the weather is bad a number of these ports are forced to close since the entrances become dangerous. We have decided to take the outside route by heading south west to start with and then heading south to start to go down the western coast of Spain and Portugal. We have also decided that we ideally want to get a lot of the travel done early so we can take it easy as we get further round. To this end, we intend to skip past the Spanish Rias and head to Lisbon as our first stop. This route has the advantage of avoiding the “motorway” or ant trail of cargo ships that follow the same line from the north west tip of Spain to the north west tip of France. However, since we have no idea how well we will all handle the overnight watches, we have discussed bolt holes if we need to get to land and safety sooner. To sail through Biscay you ideally need wind from the north, even is it is has some east or west in it but we don’t want a forecast with any south in it. We are really lucky that the weather window has coincided perfectly with our preferred departure date – clearly someone is smiling on us.

We have decided to get a good nights rest beforehand and leave at about 10:30am which also means we will have a fair tide at the beginning of the journey. This is purely for morale purposes so that you see a large chunk of miles disappear at the beginning of the journey. In the grand scheme of things it will make little difference.

There is little wind so we start by putting the sails up to see how we will do. We are going so slowly, it would take ten days to just get across Biscay, so clearly that won’t be happening! The engine is on and we motorsail to keep our speed up.

Maria has spent a lot of time researching and perfecting the watch system for our trip. We have four people who can stand watch but Maria is keen to make sure that no one is ever on their own especially as we don’t know the real competence of the people who are with us. I will talk about the nigh watch later but by day, we had a watch that lasted two hours with Adam, as skipper, being allocated a single day time watch, 1-3, and the other three covering 9am until 9pm in rotation which nicely rotated the time slots. The thinking here was that the skipper could be called at any time and so a slightly easier watch schedule provided the opportunity to catch up on rest when there were extraordinary circumstances. Which there were! On that first day, we weren’t taking our rest as we should though. We soon discover that le is less of a skipper and more as the maintenance team for Mariadz and I seem to spend most of my down time fixing one thing or another. However, plans never survive first contact with the enemy!

We are all settling into this journey well when we suddenly notice there are spots of blood everywhere, Gerald is bleeding from cutting his foot on something around the deck. So Adam, the skipper, maintenance, medic, is there with some plasters and cleaning the upholstery and deck. A short time later, he does it again, so we need a shoes on deck but not down below rule we think.

As we head into Biscay the water starts to get deeper. We recall when sailing the med years ago, the raymarine depth only registered to about 100M. Will the new equipment be any better? It certainly won’t register the 4000M depth that we will experience.

We have a good day of sailing heading south but realistically still not very far from England since the start of the journey. Nightfall means the start of the night watch. Since we have two crew on board, we have options around the watches but Maria is keen to make sure that we always have two people on watch especially since we know very little about the experience of the two crew. To this end, Maria has put me on for three hours at the beginning and the end. Again the other three alternate between 9-3, 12-6 and 3-9. Everyone gets six hours rest to hopefully make sure they get a good rest. Basically it is six hours on and six hours off although in practice it is three hours on watch, three hours on standby and six hours rest. Maria has given me the best times since it is possible that I could be woken at any time if there are problems.

This also fits in well with feeding the crew. Maria has spent ages preparing meals for the trip and making sure that we had easy, wholesome and great tasting food for our trip. She has planned a menu that means that no meal will be repeated throughout the two weeks we intend to be away. The freezer is organised with military precision and none would dare to interfere.

Gerald and I are on the first watch and as it starts to become twilight, I look to turn down the brightness of our instruments so that we can protect our night vision. Most of these are quite easy and I am merrily pressing buttons when I notice, after doing the autopilot, that the wind instruments are going crazy. There is a fair bit of wind but it is constantly changing direction. I can’t understand this, have I changed the calibration settings. It is a minute or so before I realise that I have inadvertently stopped the autopilot when I was adjusting it and we have done three 360 degree turns. Fortunately it isn’t a bad sea and mariadz hasn’t been noticeable different as it has done it’s turns! We will keep that between ourselves…. Except the track showing our path has three neat little circles in the middle of it!

The watch system seems to work really well although the rolling motion of the ocean means that in order to sleep in our normal bed comfortably you need to sleep across the bed. You are then rocked like a baby in a cradle as opposed to rolled from one side to another.

Apart from my gaff, the night is quiet and after 24 hours we are now 75 miles west of Brest and as Gerald points out 300 miles south of Dublin! Our first day is 168 miles or an average of seven knots which is exactly what we have always planned upon when working out times and distances. To be fair, we are mostly at eight knots during the day but I cut the sail plan and therefore speed during the night for safety and because we have limited people on watch.

The new day starts and we are all still feeling fresh, we are making sure that we are getting our rest during the day although my extensive medical knowledge of plasters is called upon as Gerald once again cuts himself and leaves blood across all of the boat.

Our depth instruments are reading approximately 150m but then as it gets deeper they get confused and start reading 6m. I suspect that this is because we have two different sets of depth instruments, not including the forward facing sonar, so maybe there is some confusion between the two units. Fortunately we can independently switch off the main depth sounder before it starts warning us of shallow water when we are in hundreds of metres. Interestingly the sensor for our navigation works to a much deeper depth and we can see 400m on that one. At some stage we will look into the settings to see if there is something better we can do.

The wind is behind us and blowing a healthy 15 to 20 knots, the sea is also mostly following us with the occasional rogue wave that causes us to roll. It is time for our downwind sailing plan to be deployed. There are a number of options when you want to attempt long distance downwind sailing. We had a cruising chute on our old Dufour that got used twice as I recall. Others use a spinnaker or a parasailor but Mariadz has a Twin headsail setup, this means that our standard head sail is set and then a second headsail is rigged and poled out. The rolling seas mean that even the standard head sail needs to be held in place and this is achieved using the boom as an additional “pole” on Mariadz. We start to get the pole ready and it is seized and won’t disconnect from the stainless bar used to store it. I remember years ago in Ipswich we had suffered with similar corrosion problems locking various bits of our rig and our lovely neighbours Pete and Linda had introduced me to Corrosion X. This is a god send which eats the corrosion and fresh up the movement. I do this on the pole and it is working fine so thank you Pete once again!

After four attempts we have the two sails how we want them with our clever new block on the boom redirecting the sheet for the head sail and the pole doing the same for the second sail. Mariadz looks lovely with these twin wings pulling her forward and we are making great progress hammering along at eight knots. Today is going to be better.

We finally reach the continental shelf where the depth drops from a few hundred metres to many thousand of metres in the space of thirty miles. We are interested to see whether the sea state will change. Most of our experience has been in the English Channel and North Sea which are shallow and result in high waves being very close together. In deeper water the wave period should increase and the motion should be gentler. If we are honest we didn’t notice a huge difference across those few miles but did think that most of the crossing, once we got into deeper waters, was quite a pleasant motion from the sea.

On our trip along the south coast we had eventually been blessed with visits from dolphins. This coincided with the arrival of our Irish vet, Gerald, aka the dolphin whisperer. We were interested to see if his powers would still work when Richard was on board since. On day 2 we discovered that Gerald’s talents were indeed still working although we did find that the Dolphins in the atlantic were shy compared to the playful pods we had experienced in lyme bay. Still it breaks the monotony and is a little bit of excitement for us all. At least until Richard comes on deck and scares them away!

After five hours, the wind is changing and we are looking at our setup for the night. I decide we will change our plan and have something that is easier to manage during the night. As we take down the second head sail, we notice a major problem of chafe on the halyard that has been used to lift the sail. All of the outer cover of our brand new line has been cut and has peeled back revealing a metre of the core. That isn’t good and we will need to understand what causes that so we can fix it. The situation is worse when we pack away the main headsail where we also have a little chafe on the sheet that goes to the boom. The cause of this is obvious when we bring the boom back to the centre of the boat. My new gorgeous and very clever block is a mangled piece of metal. It is clear that whilst the plan to put the block as far back on the mast is standard, it is blocked by another part of our main sheet which means the block can’t deploy properly and is caught on an angle. Over five hours this had worn a groove on the wheel part of the block and mangled the frame. Until we solve these problems, there will be no more twin headsail sailing.

We are now ready for our second set of night watches and are getting into our rhythm. It should also be noted that despite quite a rolly journey, none of us have had any symptoms of seasickness although that may be because of the lack of alcohol or hangovers!

The start of another day, and we are clearly adding a lot to the repair list. It seems pretty standard that, after a long voyage, there are days spent fixing everything that is broken and I fully expect that the definition of cruising as fixing your boat in exotic places will be equally true of Mariadz despite the great start we have of a clear to-do list.

At the start of our third day, we are deep into biscay, the depth is now four and a half kilometres which is mind numbing. It is daylight so let’s get some more sail up and we are soon cruising along at a great pace, tuning the sails as best we can as the wind changes. At the end of our second twenty fours of sailing, we have coincidentally travelled exactly another 168 miles!

As we reach the half way point of our 750 mile initial journey, we are all happy especially as we have seen two whale spouts a long way off. One is quite a bit bigger and higher than the other so we assume it is a mother and calf? I guess one could have been asthmatic though.

It is the back end of the day and I am resting prior to my evening watch when I am suddenly woken by Gerald, it appears the steering is broken. We haven’t even got close to the orca that attack the rudder and we are already disabled! The boat can turn right but like Zoolander can’t turn left. As you get to the mid point and the wheel is straight, it locks.

The steering quadrant is at the bottom of the lazarette so we have to empty the lazarette and investigate. It seems to be working some times but stops at the mid way point in one direction sometimes. We check the steering console to see if there is something catching there but the chain is moving freely. Gerald in the lazarette thinks it is the driving arm of the autopilot. I think he means the sensor arm, which was a problem previously causing the autopilot not to work and poo poo the idea but he means the mechanical arm that drives the steering for the autopilot and to be fair he is right. There seems to be something wrong with the internal mechanics of the Whitlock drive. It isn’t easy to get out and I suspect not something I can fix on the move so we decide to find somewhere closer than Lisbon and hand steer having safely stowed the arm of the Whitlock.

The decision is taken to head into the Spanish Rias to Vigo or bayona to try and get everything fixed.

We will need to change the watch system since the workload is much greater when hand steering rather than letting the boat do the work and just keeping an eye out. We decide that the two people on watch will do alternate hours on the wheel. It is also time for the skipper to step up and not take it easy. I decide to do the first few hours on my own, giving my partner on the first night watch a couple of hours off. That person has an extra hour at the end as they do three hours driving shared with the other person on watch which gains the second person on watch an hour of extra rest before the third person comes on who I relieve early and they get an extra hours rest at the end of their watch.

During the night we pass through the motorway since our new destination is on the other side. Although this looks like playing frogger, there are reasonably sized gaps between the ships and I am able to negotiate a way through without inconveniencing anybody. It must have been difficult for the big ships though seeing a somewhat erratic hand stirred course from us when they are used to a consistent course from everyone they meet. At least we didn’t get called up by name to explain what we were up to! For most of our trip we haven’t been remotely near another vessel with even fishing boats being at least a mile away from us so it is nice to know they are still out there.

Over the night the crew all get some extra rest and now we are getting closer to Spain. It isn’t long before “Land ahoy” and Gerald armed with our hand held compass has found a lighthouse on the horizon. Gerald and lighthouses would become a feature of the trip!

Gerald is again on watch when we are joined by literally a hundred dolphins off our starboard side. The whole sea is churning with jumping dolphins for as far as the eye can see. It is a great site but when Richard appears from down below they all start to disappear. It is certainly a talent!

We are making reasonable progress but will arrive at Vigo too late and in darkness so decide to find an anchorage in the rias protected from the expected south westerly winds. We find one and are the only boat in the little cove but it isn’t a particularly pretty anchorage and certainly not the area of outstanding natural beauty we were expecting,

Anyway, we have negotiated Biscay with only a few wounds to lick and the repairs can soon begin.

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