A few days ago the time finally came where we had to say goodbye England and ‘Hola’ to Spain! For the past 5 weeks we’ve been sailing steadily westward along the southern English coast. Although we’ve had to say goodbye to family and friends as well as our ‘primary’ home, London, and our ‘boat’ home, Conyer, we found it hard to actually believe we were embarking on this adventure. We were, after all, still in the UK, still drinking ale and gin and tonic, still enjoying the rain and cold that is British summer. After a 10 day wait in Falmouth for the weather to sort itself out, we finally left the UK, crossed Biscay, and have now arrived in La Coruna, Spain.
The Biscay crossing was something Nick and I were a little trepidatious about. Okay, a lot trepidatious about. The thing is, the Bay of Biscay has, to sound like something out of a children’s story, quite a fearsome reputation. The European continental shelf meets the Atlantic ocean in the Bay and the depth suddenly goes from 150 metres to almost 5000 metres, which can kick up quite impressive swells. It is notorious for unpleasant- even dangerous- sailing conditions, and you really have to pick your weather window. Additionally, this was to be our longest offshore passage yet, of 450 nautical miles, and we were using it as a bit of a test run for the Atlantic crossing. Which is almost 3000 miles. The two don’t really compare, but this crossing was our last chance for some decent offshore experience before the big one in November.
We set off from Falmouth on Sunday morning, which dawned cool but reasonably bright. Viv was up so early, eager with anticipation, that she literally had to wait for the cleaner to leave the showers before jumping in and giving herself a scrub. That’s what we like: keen and rearing to go! I, on the other hand, lay in bed as long as I could get away with, before getting myself up and organised.
We had a quick breakfast of porridge before dropping the lines and motoring out of the harbour. This was to be our last glimpse of the motherland, but we weren’t feeling overly sentimental. In fact, the whole thing felt a bit surreal, not unlike the rest of this bizarre experience thus far. I wonder when it will finally hit us that we’re doing this crazy thing?
So, the crossing. Our boaty friends get it, and are suitably impressed. Our non-boaty friends and family are either completely nonchalant, or sick with worry. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. In fact, that attitude extends to our entire trip. I’ve actually had a friend ask me to stop talking about it because she felt physically sick. Others barely registered that I’m about to sail around the world on a 40ft boat. Perhaps they think it’s a bit like a cruise, where we go jaunting across oceans in the space of only a few days, jump off for a couple of happy snaps, then we’ll be home for Christmas? I don’t know. Neil and Viv were recounting a story of a friend of theirs who had done what Nick and I are trying to do: sail around the world. It took them 5 years, and on their return they were talking to an acquaintance about it. Their reply? “Oh yeah, we’ve sailed before! We chartered a boat in Greece last year for a week. Sailing’s great, isn’t it?” It’s hard to understand the life we’re now living. But, hopefully enough of our friends are reading this blog to give them a pretty good idea.
Now. Where was I before I embarked on that little diatribe? Ah yes, Biscay. So, Sunday. We were all wrapped up against the chilly winds, but the seas were nicely calm (and remained so up until the final 6 hours of our passage). The sun was out, the motor was off at long last, and we had a fantastic sail. Nick cooked up a delicious pasta and then 3/4 of us went to bed to get an early night. I was the exception, as I had first watch, 9pm-12am. So I got the sunset watch. Lovely. The skies were perfectly clear and the stars slowly came to life as the last of the daylight faded from the horizon. It was extremely serene, apart from one thing: I was bloody freezing. Even in all my wet weather gear and under-layers, a blanket over my knees and a cup of tea (oh God, I’m turning into an old lady aren’t I?), I was shivering. When Nick got up at 12am to take over, I didn’t linger to chat. Off I went to bed.
Some people sleep exceptionally well on a rolling boat. I am not one of those people. However, I did manage to snatch a few hours, and the next day I was on cooking duties. We were testing out a system where the watches are shared by 3 people during the day, and the fourth person takes over the domestic duties. Night is split into the usual 3 hour watches, covered by everyone. So, I lounged around, made a couple of sandwiches for lunch, had an afternoon nap, caught up on my book, and finally mustered the energy to make a sausage casserole for dinner. Then, bed.
I was on the 3am-6am watch that morning, and it was a busy one. No sooner than Neil went to bed, I had him up again helping me with tanker after tanker who seemed determined to come into our path. In all fairness, I think we were the one in their way, not the other way around, but hey- we’ve got places to be, too. We finally got clear of them, Neil went to bed, and I sat and watched the sun rise.
After another nap, I woke up to day three of our passage. The skies were cloudy, and a quick peek out of the cockpit revealed everyone was in jumpers still. Nooo- aren’t we meant to be near Spain by now? Spain’s hot, right? However, over the course of the day the sky slowly cleared and, suddenly, we had blue all around us and it was almost too hot in the direct sunshine. We stripped to shorts and t-shirts, claimed our various lounging spots around the boat (I had the foredeck, leaning against the Parasailor packed away- it provided a handy cushion), and in no time I was soaking up that vitamin D. To top it off, dolphins just did not want to leave us alone that day. They seemed to visit for half an hour, head off again, then a few hours later reappear. Viv got some fantastic shots, but I didn’t want to risk leaving to get my camera. For such show-offs, dolphins are annoyingly camera shy and seem to sense when you’ve run off to get your camera, at which point they decide its time for them to split.
Dinner was tortellini (look, I know you’re all desperate for this level of information, so just roll with it), then I had the 9pm-12am watch again. Sunset was a stunner, and to top it off, those friendly dolphins returned, just for me. However, as much as I was hoping for them to photo-bomb my shots of the sunset, they refused, only leaping out of the water when I had my camera down by my side, or when I was fiddling with the settings. Eventually, they cleared off, leaving me to it.
Night fell quickly as the sky was once again blanketed in cloud, and all I could see was the inky blackness of the water, and the smokey charcoal sky, the horizon barely perceptible. The AIS receiver showed only us and two other yachts that we’d already been in radio contact with for a quick chat for miles and miles- no tankers tonight. I sat and stared into space, occasionally hearing a squeaking sound coming from the water off our starboard side, but thinking I was probably imagining things. Then, you guessed it- dolphins. Now, you might think I wouldn’t be able to see anything in the darkness, and you’d be right, except for the phosphorescence in the water that night. You could see it in the little waves breaking around the boat: a sparkling white light. Then, suddenly, a dolphin crested the water beside me, and I could see its phosphorescent path as it dived under and around the boat. It looked absolutely magical, like a trail of white glitter from a fairy’s wand. The dolphin was joined by another, then another, then, in the distance I saw twin lines of that sparkling light, shooting towards me. I cannot tell you how utterly beautiful it was, this pod of dolphins weaving, ducking and leaping out of the water around the boat, all completely veiled in bright, sparkling phosphorescence.
The final morning there were no dolphins around- the winds picked up unpleasantly and they clearly felt they had better places to be. And, funnily enough, so did we: land was sighted at last! A grey blur on the horizon slowly solidified into the mountainous Galician coastline, and we were ushered into La Coruna by 25 knot winds (from behind, thankfully) and a rising swell. Soon enough we were surfing down those waves, reefing the sails in, and checking our speed. Our record so far is 11.5 knots- we didn’t quite beat that, but got up to 11.3, which is respectable for our boat. Usually in these conditions Nick and I start to feel a little nervous about how our mooring is going to go- but, with Neil and Viv’s help we knew it would be a breeze, pardon the pun. And it was. Thus ended our 450 mile passage from Falmouth.
A bit of extra information, for those who are interested: we averaged 5.8 knots, which is roughly what we’d expected, and used a quarter of a tank of diesel. Water and power wasn’t a problem, mainly because we were running the engine after the first 24 hours. The Parasailor was our downwind sail of choice, but in very light winds it wasn’t much use. The hydrovane, which is our new self steering system we installed earlier in the year, worked extremely well- as long as the sails were perfectly trimmed. Several times it just didn’t want to keep to course and we were getting frustrated. We soon realised why, and the moment we trimmed the sails properly, it worked like a dream.
On arriving in La Coruna we hastily showered and then made our way to the nearest bar- which, happily, is in the marina itself. We practically screamed “FOOOOOD!” at the waitress, a plump and smiling lady who graciously put up with Nick’s attempts to speak to her in Italian, but with a Spanish lilt. She understood anyway, and we were soon munching on octopus, calamari and pan-fried steak with chips. Nick and I are now committing ourselves to learning enough Spanish to get by, although Nick’s miles ahead of me already because of all the similarities to Italian.
So, we’re here in Spain, and I feel like our adventure has actually begun. It’s warm (and windy!), food and drinks are cheap, everyone is so friendly, and the Galician Rias are our next stop.