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It was time for Biscay!

8th Oct 21

Prepare yourselves, this is a long one!

It’s fair to say I was anxious about the Bay of Biscay. The responsibility of moving our home out into the open sea was daunting and the near constant high winds and rain in the Hamble had not helped. Checking for weather windows became a bit of an obsession. The Guernsey crossing had not filled me with confidence at all. Was this what it was going to be like every time we went out? Me, sea sick and wishing it would just end?

We were really grateful that our friend Meg was flexible enough to fly out and meet us wherever we were to help with the crossing. She’d been on or around boats all her life and, having just bought a boat of her own, was keen to add some sailing miles to her log book. Carl and I had previously said that if the Biscay crossing was pushed further back into October/November we would either look at postponing until the following year or hire a skipper to help. This was going to be our very first multi-day crossing after all, across the Bay of Biscay, notorious for being a bit of a bugger. I could not see a weather window that lasted more than a day, let alone four! So we contacted Halcyon Yachting (the same company that brought Rockhopper to England) and they sent us Mark. Instantly I felt better. As it turns out, so did family and friends! We heard the collective sigh of relief from hundreds of miles away. Mark had done 150 000 nautical miles and had crossed Biscay 20 times, the Atlantic 12 times. He contacted Carl and said there was a great window coming up from Guernsey to La Coruna in Spain. Easterly winds that started out light but would build throughout the four days and would take us all the way there. Unfortunately that meant that our time in Guernsey was really short. A bit disappointing as it was our first country that we’d sailed to and we could not explore it at all. However, I was not going to pass up a weather window!

The intrepid crew gathered in St Peter Port, Guernsey on the 8th October 21, in a pub of course, and we set about getting to know one another and making plans. That involved me and Meg heading to the supermarket to provision and Carl and Mark bonding over a few beers. Strategising they called it! Carl and I were worried that Mark would be quite strict but as they stumbled back to the boat a bit merry we knew it would work out. Mark was officially the skipper (defined by the contract) but had straight away sized up Carl and said he was happy just to assist. Carl would be doing all the manoeuvring of the boat. I came clean to Mark and said that I was worried about sea sickness and he decided that Meg and I could buddy up for our watch, just in case. That meant we had 3 watches, two hours on, four off. As Meg had largely been on power boats that worked out great so we could help each other out and then the two lone watchmen were experienced and comfortable. Meg and I: 12-2 & 6-8; Mark, 2-4 & 8-10; Carl 4-6 & 10-12.

[Carl's thoughts at this stage: After the eventful passage across the Channel and a couple of days of R&R in St Peter port we were ready for the off and I was excited to be heading out. Meg and Mark had arrived the previous day and we had got to know Mark (over a few beers in the pub by the marina). I had previously been in two minds about getting a skipper to help as I had wanted to do this on “my own”. However, with only the three of us (Jo, Meg and I) it would have been a challenge given the time of year. Therefore I was relieved to hear Mark say that he was only here to help and not actually skipper the boat. This alleviated some of the wounded pride :-). Having said that Mark was great and a real confidence booster. To have somebody on board with his level of experience was a real bonus especially as we were still getting to know the boat and what she was capable of. For Jo to hear Mark say ‘it was ok’ was much more persuasive than me saying it, as I would have probably being ‘speaking with confidence and no substance’ (something once said of me in a leadership course :-)!

09/10 Day 1 : We set off at 10am. It was sunny, very little wind so we motored out, getting a gorgeous view of Guernsey as we left. We had put the main sail up which, after a couple of hours in, needed a preventer added to stop it bouncing around, as the swell had picked up a little. Everyone’s spirits were high as the sun was setting. It had been a gorgeous day. We had settled into our watch positions, but during the day we were just chilling, reading, attempting to fish, chatting to the helmsman etc. We had decided that at 5pm it was happy hour and we could all have one alcoholic drink. We had connected the chart plotter display to the TV inside so we could sit in the saloon and watch out for the wind speed, direction and any approaching AIS targets. The saloon also offers a really great almost 360 degree view, one of the lovely things about the Lagoon. I had read somewhere about crew responsibilities and that everyone should take their turn to cook. It helps with morale. With my previous worries about feeling queasy I had prepared several meals in advance so a simple heat up and serve would be all that was required of me. Thank goodness for the InstantPot, large chilli con carne and large chicken fajitas, done! It turns out Mark was also a beef farmer down in Cornwall (randomly) and brought with him 3kg of chuck steak. Another win for the InstantPot on pressure cooker setting!

So with our chart plotter on the telly we sat down for our first meal together. Turns out this would be our routine for the next four days. Drinks at 5pm, dinner preparation, then dinner at 6:30pm. Meg and I had lucked out with the watch timings. We caught sunrise and sunset! With the engine still on, the wind about 10kn from the SSE, the main held by the preventer, we settled in for our watches. During our 12am-2am watch we caught sight of our first dolphins of the passage! They came up to say hello at the side of the boat. It was dark so we didn’t venture up to the bow to see if they had hung around. Meg got her star gazing app out and we set about identifying constellations. Perfect first night.

10/10 Day 2: I woke up to find that the guys had put the jib sail out too. We were getting 15kn from the NNE as we came round Ouessant. Still had the engine on though as we were about to pick up some strong tide round the corner. We had yet to fly the Code 0 sail so today was the day. Carl would have worked it out but it was useful to have Mark to rig it for the first time as he had sailed on Lagoons before and had done it previously. We had gone to the extravagance of putting our Rockhopper logo on the sail (thank you Liz! - “you’ll regret it if you don’t”) and we were keen to see it. After a bit of faffing and leaning over the front to hook her up she was flying. It was actually quite majestic! Engines off!

It was Carl’s turn to see some dolphins! This time, riding our bow waves. Mark was fairly blasé about them but we were totally still in the ‘Amazing!!” phase. Not sure it will ever go away to be honest. Beautiful fun creatures. By early afternoon the wind had picked up to 20kn from the NE and it was time to take down the Code 0. It doesn’t do well beyond 16kn AWS (Apparent Wind Speed). That was the last we saw of it on this crossing. It was time for Mark to cook his beef stew in the pressure cooker. Middle of Biscay, boat rocking about and we have an InstantPot full of beef stew sat in the galley with the steps down to the owners hull right behind it. Why is it always me who feels nervous about these things?! Needless to say, no incidents, the stew was amazing, perfect meal for a slightly chilly evening. I seem to recall it was at this point that Meg introduced me to Matthew McConaughey’s audiobook ‘Greenlights’. We sat, staring up at the sky as Jupiter came into view, listening to Matthew’s southern drawl. Ladies, trust me, get the audiobook! The sea state was starting to build as well as the wind. By the time Mark came on watch it was gusting up to 25kn. We had full sail out and the boat clocked up 12.7kn boat speed surfing down the waves.

11/10 Day 3: The new day brought in our first reef in the main sail. The wind was averaging just about 20kn from the ENE and the sea state had progressively got worse. We were experiencing 2.5m swells. Mark, again boosting my confidence, had reefed early as he had seen that the wind was only going to build. By 2pm the second reef had gone in as the wind was now 27kn. A few hours later, we went down to the second reef on the jib as well. The boat was riding up and over what appeared to me to be massive waves, all the time creaking and groaning. The water would slap the underside of the hulls which sounded incredibly loud when down below. They always say the boat can cope with more than you can - I was praying ‘they’ were right at this point.

The poker set went flying - chips everywhere! A 5l water bottle flew up into the air and crashed down the stairs. And our penguin mascot flew from his perch and took cover down below. At 30kn the third reef went in. The waves had built to around 3.5m - doesn’t half make you feel small out there. And the dreaded sea sickness started to come to call. I’d been reasonably ok up to this point. I came on watch with Meg at 12am and had to ask her to sit on the helm while I lay flat on the cockpit seat outside. I was within calling distance and asked her to shout if the wind picked up above 36kn or it looked like we were going to hit anything. Like a trooper she was calm and kept an eye on it all. Apparently it touched on 36kn a couple of times but seemed to be sustained at around 33kn. Two hours felt like a lifetime! After our watch I crawled back to bed but within a short time the noise was so loud and the boat was moving around so much that Carl had got up early for his watch to help Mark. I remember asking Mark at this point “Are we ok?” He just said “Yes”. I went back to bed. By 4am the following day the third reef was in the jib. The log records a wind speed of 38kn! Any worse and it would have been bare poles and engines on. Luckily, it never got to that point.

12/10 Day 4: By 6am the wind had dropped to 27kn. The sea state had started to calm down. Our batteries had dropped to 13% as we had been sailing for almost three days with what sun there was too low in the sky to charge the batteries much. Depending on the angle the sails can block them too so the engines had to come on. Around 7:30am LAND HO! The sun was rising over the Spanish coastline, we had made it. The wind had thankfully dropped to around 7kn and as La Coruna came into view a pod of dolphins came to welcome us. Carl navigated us into our berth in La Coruna at 10am, almost exactly four days after we set off from Guernsey, 445nm later.

We had had stronger winds than we expected during the crossing but looking back on it now, Carl and I both agree that the experience of it was exactly what we had needed. We needed to see what the boat was capable of and what we were capable of. Had it been plain sailing all the way we would not have learnt so much. The decision to hire Mark was invaluable, he will be the first to admit that he is not an instructor (he used to be and can’t be bothered with that anymore) but we gained an awful lot from him. He gave us confidence in our boat. And Meg was a superstar - good company, easy going, unflappable, helpful with making meals and tidying up. Great crew, great experience!


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