In June 1995, it was my intention to sail across the Bay of Biscay to Northern Spain. I had harboured a compelling fascination with long passage making for some time and it was my aspiration to sail non-stop to A Coruna in Northern Spain. This was quite a ‘bullish’ undertaking in my diminutive 31 foot Parker yacht but I have always tended to adventure beyond the normal, maybe even prudent, limits of my various vessels. The crew was my brother Hedley and Jem Vercoe, both of whom had sailed with me the previous year to Normandy.
Setting off down the English Chanel intending to round the outside of Ushant, Hedley soon became terribly sea sick and begged to punctuate our passage and go ashore. Reviewing our options and tidal constraints, we decided to put into St.Peter Port on the East coast of Guernsey. We took a passage outside of the Casquettes, through the Little Russel and moored in Victoria Marina in the heart of the familiar and lovely town.
The next day, with Hedley feeling much better for his visit to ashore, we headed off West only for him to fall sick again. He went to lie down hoping that a little horizontal resting would sort him out but it didn’t and he pleaded again for ‘terra firma’. By this time it was dark and we had limited options before committing to the North West corner of Brittany. This was before the days of chart plotters and we only had a rudimentary GPS receiver and positions had to be plotted on a paper chart. L’Aber Wrach’t looked to be the only viable option, but I had never been there, let alone in the dark. We ‘conned’ our way in following navigation lights in transit for most of the pilotage and we were grateful to find a visitor buoy in the dark so we could turn in for what remained of the night. The light of the next morning allowed us to relocate onto a pontoon so we could all ‘walk ashore’ and, not surprisingly, we found a bar.
We met some fellow yachtsmen sailing a Swan 40 and we explained our tribulations. They recommended ‘Stugeron’ for sea sickness. Not having suffered from sea sickness myself, I had not explored the various medications on offer so this was a revelation. We managed to buy some and to Hedley’s credit, he offered to take a train home conscious that his debilities were scuppering our plans.
As we left L’Aber Wrach’t in the light, we saw the rock-strewn passage that we had taken into the harbour in the dark the night before, and mused that, had we seen the hazards the previous night, we would probably not have attempted the entry.
With Hedley stuffed full of pills, we decided to press on but, we were now committed to taking the inside passages, the Chenal du Four and the Raz de Sein. It is paramount to carry a favourable tide through these fabled passages and I have since taken them both on the same tide but back then, in a much smaller yacht, I felt we needed to punctuate the passage in the Rade de Brest and we put into Cameret for an overnight stop and welcome sleep.
Apart from the skeletal derelict fishing boats, we were fascinated by a large aluminium yacht. It was called ‘Antarctica’ and it had a peculiar shallow hull shape and withdrawing keel, rudders and prop skeg, presumably to ‘pop’ out of the ice and not be crushed.
The yacht subsequently became the centrepiece of Blakexpeditions, the environmental-awareness programme launched by Sir Peter after his successful defence of the America¹s Cup in 2000.
Sir Peter and his crew took the renamed ‘Seamaster’ to the Antarctic in 2001, venturing further south down the Antarctic Peninsula than any previous yacht. The next expedition was to the Amazon, where Sir Peter was tragically murdered by river pirates at the successful conclusion of a 2400-mile exploration.
From Camaret we negotiated the Raz de Sein and then put into the pretty Audierne for another overnight rest. I remember watching some grizzled French fishermen casting unsuccessfully from the quay while a young boy repeatedly landed fish after fish. So funny when I saw one of the seasoned old fishermen buying the young lads catch!
Our next destination was Belle Isle where we put into La Palais and moored to fore and aft buoys in the outer harbour.
Our passage had been enhanced by the appearance of dolphins and a basking shark. I had always been cynical about pizza, never having had a good experience but Hedley insisted, and I was surprised to have the most enjoyable thin crust, seafood pizza.
With Hedley seemingly cured, we set off across Biscay in great conditions managing to carry the spinnaker for much of the passage, stopping for a swim halfway across.
Picking up a buoy opposite the Santander Yacht Club we provisioned and assiduously dumped our rubbish in a dumpster bin.
Imagine our disgust when, the next day, making passage along the coast, we saw a refuse lorry reverse up to the cliff edge and dump its contents into the sea!
By this time, we were under time pressure so we could only make one more destination along the Spanish coast and how fortuitous that we chose the lovely Castro Urdiales where we moored against the wall of the inner harbour.
Castro Urdiales is the most delightful, unspoilt and charismatic Spanish town with cloisters around the harbour, where families promenade in their finery in the evenings.
Our return passage across Biscay was, again, sublime and we even managed to carry the spinnaker again. A French plane took an interest in us, circling us several times before heading off. They were so low we could see the whites of the pilots eyes!
We punctuated the return passage with an overnight stop on the Ile D’Yeu which became so busy that, to make an early start in the morning, we had to wake a raft of 4 yachts moored against us in order to extricate ourselves.
On to La Turballe then Croesty just outside the Gulf du Morbihan which had us within reach of our Vannes crew change destination.
Anchoring for the night off Île-d’Arz in the Gulf de Morbihan, we were pestered by a seagull and Jem thought it a good idea to hide some chilli pickle inside a piece of bread and throw it to the bird. The scavenging bird pounced on the offering and we were convulsed as the bird repeatedly flushed its beak in the water as it presumably tried to rid itself of the hot pickle. The RSPB and RSPCA would probably have something to say about it now but this was 1995 and cruelty was allowed then.
Locking into Vannes, we picked up a pontoon berth and prepared for the crew change, watching the Rugby World Cup from South Africa. Tim Bryant and Peter Cole were driving down so Jem and Hedley could drive back to the UK. That is another story.