Our first Biscay passage

Friday 2 – Sunday 4 August

It was obviously an important day, as the Patrouille Acrobatique de France, the French version of the Red Arrows, performed a fly past in the diamond formation over our anchorage with the red-white-blue smoke streaming – very impressive.  We set off at noon, motoring into a light headwind until we had cleared the Antioche rock at the NW tip of the Ile d’Oleron.  Needless to say, the tide was against us as well, so it was a slow first ten Miles.

We took advantage of the conditions to hoist the mainsail in anticipation of improvements once we were able to turn SW, and finally started sailing properly mid-afternoon, unfurling the genoa onto a close reach, and adding the staysail for average speeds around seven knots on a flat sea – perfect!  We were even able to stand Jeanny down, as BobbyCool was able and willing to steer us reliably on our chosen course.  We covered a fairly respectable 65 Miles in the first twelve hours at sea.

Unfortunately, as darkness fell, so did the wind, and it became sloppy in the slight swell.  With almost no shipping around, when Mate took the watch around 0100 Saturday, she was able to enjoy “Sailing down the Milky Way” below a sky full of stars undimmed by the new moon, which had already risen and set.

When Skipper relieved her at 0600, first light, he was able to furl the genoa and drop the mainsail single-handed, and then set the gennaker to catch any whisper offered by the NE 1-2.  By noon it was hot and sunny, and we’d achieved the grand total so far of 85 miles – in 24 hours – and only 20 since midnight: somewhat dispiriting in this sea area of such fearsome reputation.  Moods were lifted by a shoal of tuna feeding on the surface and leaping clear of the sea…but they didn’t come close enough to the lure on the end of our fishing line.

By 1400 we were halfway, and at 1800 the log records enough wind (N4) to achieve a downwind speed of around 5 knots, and BobbyCool back in charge of steering.  At 2100 we crossed the border into Spanish waters, and the courtesy flag was duly changed as the gennaker was furled for the night.  With the genoa set, our first sighting of dolphins at dusk was a brief delight.

As Mate took the night watch, her priority was to keep me moving in the right direction, and as quietly as possible, so that Skipper could at last get a decent rest.  However, with the wind continuing to drop and swing around all over the place, she became increasingly frustrated, failing to gybe the genoa cleanly onto the other tack, which necessitated a visit up to the foredeck, harnessed of course, to untangle the sheets from the forward cleats – all in the pitch dark, as cloud obscured the stars.

Hearing the curses from down in the stern cabin, Skipper dragged himself back on deck to reassure – and remind – her there’s no way to sail a sailing boat without any wind, and reluctantly they called Trevver back into action, relieving BobbyCool in favour of Jeanny, who can be asked to steer when the engine is recharging the batteries he’s draining – somehow the wonderful new solar panel doesn’t do so well at night…

Of course, it wasn’t long before the wind filled in again, just a tantalising little, and Mate started to wonder if she should risk disturbing Skipper again by cutting the engine and trying to sail.  As it was still only 7 knots, she didn’t bother, but at the 0400 watch change, Skipper decided to get me back to being a sailing boat, and between them they set my mainsail and gennaker, before cutting the engine and Mate retiring below for a good (peaceful) rest.

At 0600 on Sunday morning, after 42 hours at sea, we’d covered the grand total of 157 Miles, and by 0830 the wind had died again, the sails were furled again and the engine was back on again, still 20 Miles short of the waypoint at the entrance to Bilbao harbour.  My crew knew we must be closing land, as there was a clutch of small fishing boats just ahead, but although daylight it was very overcast and cool with light drizzle.  The first yacht we passed in two days was flying a British ensign, and then at 1030 the cry went up: “Land Ahoy!” [Yes, that really does happen]

We made the final approach into Bilbao tortuously slowly, finally anchoring in the very sheltered large harbour at 1415.  We’d covered 189 Miles in 50.25 hours – not an impressive average speed, but we’d crossed a corner of this notorious stretch of sea without incident, drama or seasickness.  Our first impressions of the Basque country of Northern Spain?  Grey, very built up and industrial…but the next post will describe the pleasant surprise of our first foray ashore.

At anchor in Bilbao Harbour
Sunset over Bilbao Port