Rough seas down through Biscay

by Adrian on June 7, 2006

As we crossed Biscay winds have been amazingly steady, allowing us to make very good progress with comfortable and safe sailing.

We are now 200 miles off the coast and have pure ocean all around us. Its an amazing place, completely exposed and at the behest of the elements. 

Last night we flew along in 20-25 knots of wind on our beam with full sails and a steady course. Our fastest recorded time was 9.9 knots when surfing down a wave. By early morning the seas had built and we gradually had to reef the sails to keep the boat controllable. We were now in a full on gale force winds (25-35knots) with very heavy seas. Our course meant that quite often we had to turn into large waves to avoid being hit and bashed around. The waves were quite large (about 4 – 5 meters) and towered above the helm before they passed underneath to continue their long rolling journey.

The biggest risk in these seas is being hit side on as the top of a large wave starts to break, so we had to be very careful to anticipate the large ones and turn up into the face of them as they swept by. This way we would rise up their face and accelerate down the other side (surf). Conditions meant that we had to reduce sail to a minimum and use the engine to give us enough power and steerage to negotiate the big ones. 

To its credit the autohelm did a fantastic job and was far better and more accurate at keeping a course and correcting for the large boat aspect changes in the waves than any of us helming.

After about 5 or 6 exhausting hours we finally reached the top of the Cape Finnisterre and made the decision to route to the east of the large ship Traffic Separation Scheme that carries all commercial traffic around the headland. The inside route would be shorter but is often rougher and more difficult. Weather reports and contact with other boats ahead suggested that because of the easterly wind direction the headland may well be protected from the winds and thus be calmer.

Fortunately the seas did calm down as we approached the TSS and by the next morning they were glassy smooth again with little wind. This amazing change is the reason Biscay can be such a difficult crossing. With little wind we motored through the night for the first time in sight of land, taking reassurance from the lighthouses marking our route and confirming our location along the way.

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