Before I tell you of the trials and tribulations of my most feared voyage, let me begin at the beginning... The beginning being the day before I left for Spain.
As readers can no doubt tell, I like to change my mind. One minute, I'm a bee keeper in Brittany, the next I've moved on already. People I've met along the way, I think will agree on my seemingly random movements. They ask 'where are you going?' Some days it's Portugal, others it's Australia, and then to others it's 'Just around the corner... And then I think I'll stop.'
So, with that in mind, I left Camaret to go buy something I couldn't find anywhere else but in a larger town, like Brest. I had already decided as previously mentioned, I would coast hop until there was a Biscay window, or maybe not... Possibly I would just go through the canal and skip the Bay altogether. I left Camaret for a short hop to Brest under a perfect Easterly wind, and connected the windvane, just because one only feels like a captain when barking orders at crew. The windvane never listens, but anyway, it's the action not the outcome.
Turning up into the Rade De Brest, the current was strong, but I just wanted to go lay on a buoy for the night, and I was in no rush. I sailed upwind at 1kt, and attempted to fish with a spinner I found on the pier in L'Aber Wrac'h. As I fished (or rather, dangled a useless line to fish smarter than I) a large tanker came into the Rade. I thought I would be an annoying yacht type, and let him change course... But he wouldn't have it, and I figured it was time I stopped dawdling and moved. I went to start the engine, only to hear a 'CLICK' and then silence. All the electrics in the boat instantly died in unison. Oh, well, that's an issue. For all you romantics that think I just move around powered by the elements, I've got a story for you.
Panic stricken I finally managed to move Constellation out of the way under sail, by turning around and taking the tide for a minute and straightening up out of the collision course. Two marinas existed on the other side of the Rade, which I tried desperately to sail upwind into strengthening tide. I missed the first one, and aimed high for the next. Alas, I was missing that one too... I started moving into a new collision course with a rock. Terrified to infinity, I saw a fisherman mooring his boat, scurried for my fog horn and blasted it like a steamship. At first he didn't understand what I meant. Meanwhile, a RIB was being put onto the back of a car, yet he obviously heard the horn, and re-launched. In the end, I was rescued by both boats, and as I pulled the sails down, I jumped into the cockpit as the boom swung around and hit me squarely between the eyes. Almost passing out and bleeding, I stood stunned for a minute, while under tow to a nearby buoy. This all happened in such a hurry, I took little notice of what was around me, still dazed and stressed about the situation.
Tied up, I reached into the cockpit locker for my toolkit, and frightfully saw that the buoy I was placed on, was too close to shore, and all the other boats around me were only small powerboats with shallow drafts. The fisherman was gone, and besides, I was too proud to ask for another tow. Soon, maybe in an hour, I'd not only be engineless, but I'd be on the ground. If that isn't motivation to think quickly, I don't know what is. Sweat was dripping from my brain as I searched out a logical reason for the failure, which after thinking it was a solenoid, and then some other things, I tracked it down to a blown vapour tight mainswitch. I disconnected everything, and built a temporary circuit block from parts, started up and moved to deeper water. What stress.
While in Brest, Commandersweather gave me a go ahead via email, several days earlier than anticipated for the Biscay crossing. I had to commit right away. Constellation was generally ready anyway, because I had planned to leave the day before, but I had no diesel onboard. Racing back to the marina, I arrived too late to purchase any in person, and I have no working credit card for the automated pump... Off I walked with arms full of jerry cans... I walked. And walked, and walked. I walked all the way back into Brest (you normally need to catch a bus) quite by accident, and then some. I could find no signs of a fuel station. Eventually I decided I would have to leave a day later than recommended, simply because I had no fuel, and I didn't want to leave without enough to power me right across the Bay if I needed to. But that wasn't good enough - I had to leave at 4am the next morning, and damned if a fuel station was going to stop me. I found a taxi, showed my cans and pleaded for him to take me somewhere. Finally he did, and it was to the only station in town: An automated one which you needed a credit card. Great. I stood there and tried standard ATM cards, but nothing. Eventually the driver detected my despair, and offered to use his card in exchange for cash - Good deal I thought! Back onboard, I lashed 50litres of fuel onto the deck, cleaned up a little and went to sleep at midnight. Checking the tides, I needed to leave at 5am, which I dutifully did, motoring out of the Rade, doing 8knots in its peak. A reasonable wind in a favourable direction prevailed, and off I was, towards a rather distant port.
Winds became increasingly light, and I decided I'd kristen the voyage with a motor sail to leave land as soon as possible. Unfortunately I wasn't quick enough, getting caught up in heavy tide around the Point Du Raz. Frustratingly I went nowhere for a good four hours, yet by 8am the next morning, having helmed all night for lack of wind to power the self-steering, I finally made it to the continental shelf. If you look on a chart, this is an area where a wriggly line shows water going from 100ft in depth, all the way down to 4000ft in a relatively short distance. It is an area where waves can build, and I'd been wary off it since leaving Brest, approaching it with a grim frown on my face. I needn't have worried in the end, but there was definitely an increase in wave activity. The small chop soon became the infamously long and slow Atlantic rollers. I started to become agitated by helming all the time, but thankfully rest came at 9am with a slight but steady breeze. I 'cat napped' (technically termed 'polyphasic sleep') waking up at 20minute intervals for checks, the boat finally sailing herself. This lasted for around two hours, before the wind died out, and I was back at the helm. Lashing the tiller down was useless, with the waves always changing the boats course. I had a sneaking suspicion I was up for a very long and tiring passage.
As night fell, so did waves of fog. I was absolutely terrified. Not minutes before two large tankers had edged passed me, and here I was with nearly zero visibility and no radar or AIS. Panicking, I rummaged through my bookshelf to read up on the topic of fog. I knew there was no solution, but in my head all I could think of was to regularly announce my position and heading on VHF, and I wanted to know if that was a practiced maritime tactic, and if so, what the protocol was. The book 'Handling Troubles Afloat' simply said that fog was bad, and you should go into port. Well, I was nowhere near port, so that was utterly useless information. I decided to take my own action regardless of whether it was the 'correct one', and spread an All Ships announcement of my heading, position, speed and to request that ships use caution when transiting the area. This seemed at the time, the best I could do. Maybe all the boats around me were chuckling at my naivety, but really, when it comes to being run over, I care not for others opinions. I decided to make an announcement every hour, because VHF has a range of roughly 40nm, although probably reduced in fog. I reasoned that a tanker might do 20-25kts, and under given ranges, this was acceptable. In the end, I lived to tell the story, and no one ever acknowledged my calls. The fog never came back, having been blown out to sea after three hours and three All Ships announcements. In fact, I never saw another boat until I was 20nm away from Spain.
Through all this I helmed. Stuck at the tiller like my imprisoned self-steering should have been, I avoided sleep by reducing the clothes I was wearing to make myself cold, drinking coffee from a thermos. Other times I would stand up, 'suspending' myself by clutching a guardrail in each hand to stay awake. This went on for hours, keeping a course of 210degrees, not a whisker off. My second night with only two hours of stunted sleep since the beginning of the trip, I was becoming too exhausted to continue. The numbers on the compass were becoming blurred, my ears aching from the sound of the noisy little Yanmar engine. I decided I simply had to stop the boat, lash the tiller to one side, turn the engine off and sleep. So that's exactly what I did, sleeping like a stone in a field, for two glorious hours. Waking up, I refueled and pushed on through a monochrome night, brightly illuminated by a full moon.
You may wonder why I was so insistent on making such progress. My possible mistake was of telling a friend to become concerned if I arrived a day late. This meant that I had to keep my average speed up and not waver, otherwise people on the other side would start getting worried, and the concern of others is something I don't particularly like to instill. It was a mistake simply because sailing is not like driving a car. You cannot possibly make an accurate ETA, especially if you are under sail, and also unlike a car, you cannot pull over to make a call to tell the other party you're stuck in traffic. So I pushed on, determined to maintain my average speed of 4.5kts. Already I felt guilty about losing two valuable hours of progress by wasteful sleeping. By 5am a little wind arrived, just enough to power the steering. I quickly took the opportunity to sleep in 20minute intervals for an hour, before it died yet again.
The ever nauseating din of the diesel engine was really canceling out a lot of the sailing beauty of the journey. There is nothing quite like the romantic sounds of water being pressed aside by the hull, random creaks the halyards rattling inside the mast. But at the same time, I was incredibly thankful to have 'August' (that's the name of the engine) onboard - If it wasn't for his amazing reliability, I quite simply would have drifted to Newfoundland or somewhere similarly far away... Or maybe just washed up on the French surf coast, a beaten wreck, powerless without wind. I also rationalised that I'd rather be motoring than battling fierce winds and an angry ocean.
The deep sea of the Atlantic is unlike the other waters I have progressed through. It was clearly alive, with so many dolphins, flying fish and strange birds. While in one of my attempts at polyphasic sleep, tiny dreams would crop up, converging with reality. At times I was able to hear the sonar of dolphins reverberating through the hull. Or maybe it was just a dream? At one particular point, a tiny bird 100nm from the middle of nowhere appeared in my cockpit. Not a sea bird, but more like a sparrow. What was it doing out here? The poor bird was exhausted as I was, yet unlike me, didn't have to steer. Not long after touch down, the little bird fell asleep next to me. Curiously, I could even pat it's weary head. Eventually it began to shiver, so I moved him inside the cabin which was warm from the engine. He pooped all over my chart table, but I think it was a small price to pay for companionship in such a faraway place.
Throughout the entire journey, I never felt even a minute of loneliness. A lot of people first ask - 'You are all by yourself? Do you get lonely?' And the answer is almost always 'No'. Not once did I pine for conversation, or become fearful because I was alone. It was certainly the most lonely I've ever been, but lonely in a sense that I was simply completely by myself. To think in these times, it is rare for any one of us to spend a full 24 hours out of contact with the world. Ironically I feel, if anything, the greatest loneliness when I come into port, walking through the streets and watching others in merry self-amusement with friends. It's a curious thing to think that being alone on a tiny boat on a vast sea, is less lonely than being surrounded by a heaving mass of people.
Along the way, it seemed my appetite had completely diminished. I simply wasn't hungry, and I mostly ate things that I suspect didn't rate too highly on the food pyramid. Biscay was proudly powered by Haribo lollies and packets of chips. I did eat the cans of French food I had bought at dinners, and I must take up an extra minute of your time, just to say how incredible French canned food is. For the first time in my ownership, Constellation had an aroma of cooked chicken in a red wine sauce, wafting through hatch. The French make the best tasting canned food I've ever had.
This pattern of helming until I was so tired that I couldn't actually function without an hours sleep, continued the entire voyage. The wind never really came, and when it did, it was just like a fox; there for a minute, and then hidden around the crest of a roller, heading towards a faraway coast. Nights became day, as I watched full cycles of the moon and the sun overhead. As the sun went below the horizon to presumably illuminate my hometown, the moon would rise on the opposite side of the globe, brightly washing out all but the strongest stars. As it tracked across the night sky, I'd get my short sleep at last, and it would have hardly moved. By 8:30am, the sun would begin to add colour to the light, and so the day would begin. If I was lucky there would be a morning breeze, and I could sleep in intervals for an hour at best. Mostly I just concentrated on a course of 210degrees, and carefully listened to the engine, ever fearful it's consistent hum would change, indicating failure.
As I approached Spain, the only indication I was approaching civilisation was rubbish in the sea, and that my mobile received coverage 40nm out. In fact, one would never have known the country existed, as it wasn't until nightfall that I could actually see coastal lights; my navigation hadn't landed us in Boston. Rounding Cabo Prior, I was escorted by dolphins for the last 10miles, before tracking a straight line into La Coruna. The dolphins darted through the waves and under the hull at such an immense speed. I noticed that if I turned all the lights off, you could see the phosphorescent plankton trails underwater, as the dolphins sped up and broke through the surface. I motored into the marina at 3am, keeping a keen eye out for Henk De Velde. I saw his trimaran in Ijmuiden, and I hoped to finally meet him in person in La Coruna, him being stuck with a broken mainsail track. Disappointingly, he is way too fast, already on route to South America. Henk left at least a week later than I, and made it to La Coruna in what looks like less than 7 days. Next boat: High speed trimaran & crew.
I docked 'French style' on arrival - This style can be characterised by smoking a Gitane, and not bothering with the fenders or ropes. I had no cigarette, but doggedly I lay Constellation along side the pontoon, and secured her from the dock. With such a small boat, it's not hard to hold her alongside one-handed.
So that was Biscay, a trip which began at 5am on the 25th of October, and promptly finished at 3am on the 29th. I think the battle was with myself rather than with the elements. It was a sublime.
What now? Bullfighter of course.