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Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Biscay. Yeah, Baby


Monday 13 August to Friday 17 August 2018

Manic Monday 13th August: Setting off - Falmouth to Ushant

Setting off on Fridays and 13th days is frowned on by superstitious sailors. But missing out on a fair wind is frowned on even more, so we were up at first light and casting off our lines by 05.30. Had a bit of a moment untying Offbeat from Englands shore for probably the very last time in her life, plus the trepidation and elation about being on the cusp of our first proper blue water voyage. However, the busy-ness of sailing a boat out of harbour soon puts paid to sentimental thoughts.

Just follow the blue line for 450 miles, that should do it

Setting off along the blue line
We picked up a good Westerly wind off Lizard Point and as the sea started to splash under our our bow, the first dolphins appeared, which we took as a good omen. With the sun shining and the sails driving us fast (fast on Offbeat being around 6 miles an hour!), it was a great start to our first big voyage.


The first of many dolphins 


At around 1800 we reefed down (reduced the size of our sails to you landlubbers) to handle a squall that was coming our way, bringing rain and stronger winds. This also gave the three of us time to eat dinner together before the weather and the night closed in – meatballs and pasta that Teresa had prepared the day before.

During the squall, we noticed damage to our brand new sails – two attachments to the mast had come adrift. We found the bits from one lying on the deck and managed to fix the other from my repair kit. I have to say that I'm not impressed by the sailmaker – Jeckells. Offbeat's new sails are designed and cut well but there's too many signs of them not being finished well, of being a bit of a rush job.

Our uneasiness about the sails didn't stop us making good progress though. We reached our waypoint off Ushant at midnight, about six hours earlier than expected, having made 98 miles from Falmouth at an average of 6.5knots over the ground*.

*OK, a note of explanation for landlubbers: Ushant (Ouessant in French) is the very westernmost tip of Brittany and is legendary for English sailors as marking the start of the English Channel when approaching home on the return from a long voyage. A waypoint is just a point on a map that you are aiming for, often because you want to turn there or it keeps you clear of a hazard (ours was keeping us clear of very intense shipping lanes just off Ushant). Six and a half knots – miles per hour, near enough – is pretty fast for a boat of Offbeats size and, not being judgemental, shape. She's a tubby old girl and is carrying a lot of extra weight right now, which slows her down. And 'over the ground' means distance over the seabed rather than through the water. On a boat, the water moves with the tides and ocean currents, sometimes with you, sometimes against you. Today we mostly had tide with us rather than against us, so did more miles over the ground than through the water, which helps a boat get to its destination a bit faster. Here ends your nautical lesson for the day. No need to thank me.

Tiresome Tuesday 14th – Ushant to the Doldrums

Well not those Doldrums, the famous ones either side of the Equator where you can be becalmed for days on end. Just a mini-doldrum in Biscay, where the wind had dropped to a dead calm late on Monday night and we had been motoring through the night, all today and into Wednesday. To show you how calm it was, I decided to give the engine a rest and a thorough check, including tightening the alternator and water pump 9belts and changing the gearbox oil. Yeah, get me, Mr Mechanic all of a sudden, changing gearbox oil a hundred miles away from the nearest land.

Red sky at night, sailor's delight

Flat sea in the morning, doldrum warning

We started to get into a good routine during Tuesday, which was great since we'd got really tired. Teresa and I had gone through a bit of seasickness on the first day and this morning. Luckily our crew-mate Mark S was a tower of strength, taking extra watches at the helm to help us get through. As did his peanut butter on toast treats.

But motoring for hours on end over a calm and empty sea is a bit boring to be honest. Hence Tiresome Tuesday. But, the day was brightened up by our reward for getting to Ushant ahead of schedule – sausage sandwiches and generous helpings of jam and cream swiss roll with custard!

By the evening we were all feeling better and sat down together to have a dinner of Salmon and pasta. We were realising that meals together are a very important part of the routine and camaraderie of being a good crew, not just a way of fuelling the body.

Wearisome Wednesday – the Whale-ful Wednesday. Doldrums to the Continental Shelf

The Continental Shelf. Sounds like a supermarket shelf from the 70s where they put spiced sausage, smelly cheese and garlic. What it actually is is a bloody great cliff under the sea where the relatively shallow waters around southern England suddenly drop off by 4,000m into the oceanic abyss. And 'cliff' doesn't really do justice to just how big a drop it is: imagine three Ben Nevis' stacked on top of each other, think how tall and steep it'd look; well the Continental Shelf is taller and steeper. Am I getting across that it kind of impressed me?

Apart from the underwater topography, the thing that really impresses about the Continental Shelf is the wildlife. Wherever these features appear across the world, they push cold, nutrient rich food up into warmer top layers of the sea. And that feeds the wildlife. Right on cue, three big whales appeared about 3 miles to our right, then 5 medium sized whales, a dozen small whales, scores of dolphins of 3 distinct species and hundreds of seabirds.



Eating to keep morale high

So much sealife lifts the spirits, as do Bacon butties for lunch, scones for tea and Chilli and baked potatoes for dinner. And splitting the one and only can of beer on the boat between Mark and I to celebrate being closer to Spain than England. Yeah, we run a dry boat at sea – no booze to cloud our judgement or make us clumsy on deck. But we get right royally hammered when we get to shore, like all true British sailors!

Its a good job we had clear heads because during the night we had to cross a shipping lane. This means dodging ships that can be a thousand times bigger and heavier than Offbeat. Fortunately, they mostly go in straight lines along the shortest path from known points to known points, lining up like cars on a motorway. Unfortunately we have to cross that motorway at around 5 miles per hour – a brisk walking pace. Fortunately we have electronic collision warning gear on the boat that makes it a lot easier to judge which ship is a threat and which isn't than just by naked eye (which is good, because the ship that might hit you when you are crossing shipping lanes at a right angle is usually over the horizon and out of sight when you should start manoeuvring to avoid it!)

The Thursday Thrash – the wind returns with a vengeance and we get first sight of Spain!

The winds returned this morning – very light at first, just 5 knots or so, but enough for us to set all sail and turn the engine off. What a lovely moment that is for any sailor; the constant rumble and thud of the engine disappears, the unmitigated roll and lurch of the boat reduces, to be replaced by the quiet splash and gurgle of the sea and the inherent stiffness of the boat as the sails resist the effect of the waves. And then the wind increased, and then increased some more, as did the waves....

But before we get into that, a pod of Pilot Whales came close by us. These are very small whales – about the size of dolphins – and this was a family group with at least one youngster. One of the adults decided that Offbeat was too close and made very loud slaps with its tail, either as a warning to the rest of the pod or to us. It felt like a warning to us – a sort of 'right you, come any closer to my kid and there'll be trouble. Now just bugger off'.

As the wind started to build up during the afternoon we decided to heave to and get ready for a bit more challenging night. Heaving to is backing the sails so you pretty much stop still in the water. Its like pulling into a layby off a fast road to have a break. We checked the engine, ate a lovely early dinner (Moroccan Lamb(ish) – soya chunks marinated in lamb stock) and make plans for the landfall in Spain. Note for the sailors among you: the wind was North-westerly Force 4-5 at this point, and the forecast was Northerly up to Force 6. But only 50 miles from our destination was Cape Finisterre the forecast was Force 7, and near-gale warnings were being given. So, running downwind towards a rocky steep-to lee shore with strong winds. Not something you rush into nor without a Plan B.

We reefed our sails down before nightfall in anticipation of the winds strengthening, and altered course to take us away from the strong winds to our West. This took us away from our intended destination – A Coruna – and would add half a day to our trip, but also took us closer to an alternative destination – Gijon – in case the wind at A coruna was too much.

By 20:00 the wind and waves were getting pretty strong. Offbeat was utterly in her element though, cresting the waves comfortably, handling the wind gusts firmly. We instituted 1 hour watches at the helm. Anything longer was too tiring, both physically and mentally – the concentration needed to handle a yacht in strong winds and big waves is pretty intense. For the sailors among you, we were down to 2nd reef, 50 degrees off the wind and occasionally surfing down the swell at over 7kn. In the pitch dark – no moon, 80% plus cloud cover. Gulp!

Friday's Finale!

Around midnight we began to make out the glow in the sky of light from the Spanish shore and by 0200 the wind had reduced a little, making life a bit easier. By 0430 dawn was breaking on our last night at sea and the wind was moderating further so we resumed course for A Coruna. By now we could judge the wave height, the sea state and wind force better than in the dark. The wind was still Force 6 – quite strong – and the sea was full of breaking waves – white horses in sailor's slang. The swell from the north-west was 2m to 3m high, presumably driven by stronger winds to our West, with wind driven waves from the North (and later, north-east) were 1m, sometimes a little more. When these waves met, they built up peaks that were 3m to 4m high – well above Offbeat's gooseneck for those of you that know her. Quite a thing to be looking up towards from deep in the trough of the wave.

By 08:30 Teresa called 'Land Ho!' at the first sight of the Spanish mainland and we turned for a direct course to A Coruna, confident in our boat and ourselves. 


We dropped the mainsail and ran with both foresails wing-a-wing (the yankee poled out by the lee), creaming along at 5kn to 6kn, hitting 8kn occasionally as we surfed down the bigger waves. OK, I know that bit won't mean much to the landlubbers among you; all you need to know is that it was bloody exciting and I sent the crew below to prepare plans to enter A Coruna because there was no way I was letting anyone else get their hands on the steering wheel while it was this much fun!



OK, I relented and let Mark S have a turn at the helm for an hour or so before we reefed down to depower the boat – it was getting a bit too tasty as the waves were heaping up even higher and steeper where the 4,000m deep ocean floor suddenly rears up towards the Spanish shore. But with A Coruna getting closer and clearer all the time, we didn't let up on the speed too much, just cut out the surfing, but only after we were treated to one final sighting of a pod of Dolphins surfing the waves next to Offbeat! 















By 1630 we were 15 miles off A Coruna making excited phone calls to our loved ones.


We reached the shelter of the ria – A Coruna is located in a sort of loch or fjord, called a riar round here - and the wind and waves became reasonable. 


As we passed the Torre de Hercules – the oldest lighthouse in the world – and caught sight of the harbour wall, the mix of anticipation, nerves and tiredness on Offbeat was palpable. We were arriving in Spain!


At 1920 – twenty past nine local time – we berthed Offbeat in the Real Club Nautico, just as the sun was setting on a momentous day's sailing. Teresa opened a bottle of champagne that she had stashed away and we toasted our safe arrival, the boat that had got us here and ourselves as a tight crew and great friends.


Then we went out and got hammered.

Now let every man toss off a full bumper
And let every man drink off a full glass
And we'll drink and be merry and drown melancholy
Singing, here's a good health to each true-hearted lass
We'll rant and we'll roar like true British sailors
We'll rant and we'll roar across the salt seas
Until we strike soundings in the Channel of Old England
From Ushant to Scilly is thirty-five leagues
from Spanish Ladies – a sea shanty

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