The Devil in the Deep Blue Sea

Our crossing of Biscay started, as expected, with mirror calm conditions over a long, languid Atlantic swell and little wind. Carl continued to suffer, and he took himself off to bed with a bucket. If he enjoyed his octopus pie when first ingested, the regurgitation didn’t sound at all pleasant.

As we pressed on, the depths rapidly increased from low hundreds of metres to very nearly 5 kilometres. Swells build up across the expanse of the Atlantic and meet the continental shelf here where the seas are ‘kicked up’ as a result. This is partly why the Bay of Biscay has such a fearsome reputation, but it is also to do with the sailing characteristics of the old square-rigged ships and their inability to sail efficiently to windward but any further explanation of this would be ‘too much bilge talk’.

The wind built during my first night watch, and I was able to deploy some downwind assistance from the jib. The weather front became very visible with the rain showing on the radar and as it passed through so the wind built and veered giving us a beam then close reach allowing the setting of full sail including the staysail.

Sailing when the Staysail was still useable.

I had agonised over our route with two viable alternatives to tackle the archipelago of islands and reefs off the NW corner of Brittany in order to transit into the English Channel or ‘La Manche’ as the French refer to it. (Interestingly, when searching for ‘UK’ in a drop-down menu when on-line form filling in Spain, I spotted ‘The Falkland Islands (Malvinas)’) The inshore route involves taking two tidal races, first the Raz de Sein, then crossing the bay leading up to Brest and on to the Chenal du Four. I have done this many times and you must carry a favourable tide, it is possible to do them both together in one tide – six hours. To do this you have to be at the start of the first race at slack water before the first of the flush and make good speed. I had initially favoured this route as it meant we could pick up a signal for weather updates earlier, but the forecast was for an adverse wind which meant the ‘wind over tide’ scenario would kick up a big chop making it pretty uncomfortable. To achieve this ‘double transit’, we would also have to time our arrival perfectly which was difficult to do from 300 miles away given the changing conditions. So, the Passage du Fromveur, inside Ushant (Ile D’Ouessant to the French) got the vote. I have also used this route before and it is wide and easy, but with tides running at up to 9 knots at springs (we are tackling it mid-range) it needs to be taken with the tide ‘under you’. As it is the one ‘tidal gate’ and only an hour to pass through the passage, we have more flexibility on timing. Having said that, to ensure that we made the daylight gate, we needed the assistance of the engine to maintain the necessary pace.

It was at this point that we lost the use of the staysail. I had found a broken split pin on the foredeck and couldn’t find where it had come from. Spotting a slack luff, I went forward to tighten the halyard to discover that it was in fact, the furling drum sliding up the stay having come adrift. In the rough conditions, I chose to just furl the sail intending to tackle the issue when conditions allow.

With the wind continuing to build, we progressively reefed down with squall after squall bringing heavy rain, 25 knot winds and a big lumpy sea.

Rain squalls showing on the radar. When very deep, the sonar comes up with some worrying spurious readings.

The circumstances on board were not helped by both Carl and Peter discovering that they had not closed the hatches in their cabins properly and both of their beds were sodden from the waves we were taking over the bow – fundamental error, should I have checked? Anyway, Hejira being Hejira, we had spare berths and spare bedding, so crisis averted.

I found it necessary to reluctantly summon Peter from his slumbers in the early hours. The wind had exceeded 30 knots which is a Force 7 and I felt that we needed the third, deep reef in the mainsail. The first two reefs are single line reefing with the lines led back to the cockpit. Originally only the third reef clew was led back, and it was necessary to go to the mast to attach the cringle to the ram’s horn at the gooseneck –  too much jargon, I know! I modified the arrangement so that the tack is also now led back having installed extra jammers on the coachroof. I was very pleased that, as a result, we didn’t need to leave the cockpit and the operation was relatively straight forward. Had the staysail been useable we would have used this in preference to further reefing the jib – oh well.

During my forced estrangement from Hejira, I had commissioned French contractors to replace the radar (another story) and we have relied on it extensively since Nice. I had the replacement sent out from the UK and the supplier had advised me to bring the old one back as it might be a quick fix and he could ‘flog it’. Boxed up, it has been lying in the vacant slot in my double berth. This had not been an issue until now, but the pitching and heeling has made it a very cantankerous, volatile and unwelcome bed fellow.

What about poor Carl in all this? He was (is) very poorly so Peter and I opened a tin of cassoulet leaving him in bed. The next morning, he rallied for scrambled eggs but took himself back off to bed where he has remained. He is now wrapped in a 9-tog double duvet, and I have dosed his drinking water bottle with diaralyte which is a mineral supplement designed to replace those lost through diarrhoea or, in this case, violent vomiting and he seems comfortable. Peter and I had bread and cheese. I have put cling film over the prawns and fresh mussels which were destined for a seafood risotto, and they remain in the fridge along with the fresh chicken and mince, we may be taking them home. I have asked him in his bed if he would like to take his mind off things by contributing to this blog and he is thinking about it.

Carl subsequently chose not to write or even comment which, for anyone that knows him is a first!

Carl lost for words – priceless!

8 thoughts on “The Devil in the Deep Blue Sea

  1. Sounds like a bumpy run but your round the last corner at last, well done. Have a safe run up the Channel

    1. Thanks Dave.
      Yes it was a bit of a trial, not helped by the lack of the staysail which would have been my storm jib with the deep reefed main.
      Good to be round the corner, once we are beyond the suck of the Chenal du Four, I am determined to just sail and it will take as long as it takes but, actually looking good for a fast passage back to Chichester Harbour.

  2. A slack Luff and a rams horn at the gooseneck; have I accidentally logged on to grindr ????

  3. Aww Nick! Wish I was there to stand a watch or six. No way you can fix that staysail?
    Good luck with the rest of the trip, chaps.

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