Biscay…

Monday 11th July – Finally found the wind

At midnight it was still foggy, a radar alarm had been set in case anything came within six miles of the boat. Kevin switched bunks to allow Erica hers once I was out of the nest in the saloon. It takes about ten minutes to get out of a bunk and into mid layers, oilies, socks, boots and a woolly hat. We exchanged notes on course and the foggy conditions and said good night to each other.

Fifteen or so minutes after I’d taken over from Erica, I called Kevin on deck, the fog was clearing and the promised Easterly wind had switched on, finally Temptress has a good sailing breeze. A check on the chart showed it was right on queue just north of a line west from the northern most tip of the coast, where the pecked circle lay on the chart!

We quickly unfurled a third or so of the genoa, with the engine off, the prop feathered, Temptress kicked up her heels and took off at seven knots and more. This is what our boat was built for, a reach in flattish seas brings her alive. Stars began to appear overhead, the air was mild if damp. It was cosy sitting in the front corner of the cockpit. By half one the moon started to appear through the low clouds, a ghostly yellow loom. Then there it was clear and bright behind us, almost like daylight.

Less than five hundred miles to go., we expect to be in Irish waters by Thursday. For now the shipping seems mostly to be heading on a course slightly more east than ours at around 030 which will take them to Ushant on the northern western corner of Biscay and thence into the Channel to ports like Rotterdam. It will be a few hours before our paths begin to cross. Yesterday having been a Sunday, there are no fishing boats about. No doubt tomorrow night that won’t be the case. For now the watch keepers task is an easy one.

Kevin and I dropped in the second reef before I went off watch at 02:00 which made the boat flatter, more comfortable but didn’t impact our speed. The miles were being ticked off. By the time my next watch rolled round there was more genoa unfurled, no ships and it was daylight. On this last watch of the night the watch keeper has the nibbles. Cereal bars and coffee don’t really keep it at bay. The other two sleep through well beyond the end of the watch until gone nine.

The decks start to dry out from the overnight dew, a large tanker slowly appears over the horizon it will be well past before it’s track crosses Temptress’ course. In the lulls we are making five and a half knots over the ground, when the wind is up six or seven. The Biscay current is taking a knot or a knot and a half off progress through the water.

I look at the chart; Ushant is around 275nm north west of us; our course should take us approximately 120nm to the west of it, in about a day and a half’s time (Tuesday evening). Then we will pass around 45nm west of the Scillies some 15 hours later on Wednesday morning. From there it’s just over 24 hours to the south east corner of Ireland. We expect the weather to change as Temptress reaches northwards. The forecast showed a windless patch south of the French coast then as we reach the Western Approaches, the wind is predicted to switch direction, around to the west or south west which should blow us northwards.

Meanwhile I’m ploughing through a pile of books, catching up on a backlog of book club reading and more. Elif Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice, Michael Hutchinson’s amusing book about his sailing experiences on Belfast Lough and beyond which was an odd read because several of the events and places he’d sailed were ones I’ve sailed too. Clare Pooley’s heart warming ‘The Authenticity Project’, The Rev. Richard Cole’s first Rev Clemente’s mystery and Richard Osman’s second Thursday Murder Club book followed.

Sunday’s sailing was mostly reaching at around seven knots. The current against us reduced to around a knot. From time to time a chunk of gennie was either furled to make life a little more comfortable in the stronger breeze or unfurled for a bit more speed in the lulls. We left the reef in. Erica practised taking sun sights with the sextant, harder than it looks on a moving boat. Eventually she had three reasonably close results with which to try her hand at the mathematics.

Supper was a combination of fresh vegetables and tins made into a vegetarian chilli. Temptress has a bilge store full of tins which will soon be surplus, in fact probably are already surplus so the galley slave is using a few up on this passage. The kidney beans and lentils that made the basis of the chilli were tins purchased in Singapore, the former was best before sometime in 2019! Not entirely certain what use the cans of beetroot should be put to, nor the large tins of spinach, whilst we are unlikely to make a dent in the vast array of tinned fish and ham on offer before Temptress reaches Bangor. We were grateful for the store during our Red Sea passage two years ago but for cruising Irish and Scottish waters, six months provisioning in tins and dry goods is overkill.

As supper was being prepared Temptress had less than four hundred miles to go. However progress slowed as the sun set, with the wind dropping a little and by ten pm we were close hauled making under five knots over the ground. The second reef put in the previous night could be shaken out but is this wind going to stay down?

We have largely crossed the commercial traffic’s main track now though the odd ship on a different route appears from time to time – a tanker heading into a French port deep in Biscay crossed from west to east, another whose destination is Pembroke in Wales was following a very similar route to ourselves.

As we sail northwards the evenings are noticeably lighter, tonight it was still twilight at quarter to eleven! The clear skies and full moon in complete contrast to yesterday’s fog.

Tuesday 12th July

The wind started to go light during the night and head us. At one point we were sailing on a course of 340 degrees for an hour or so – that would mean us missing the west coast of Ireland completely! The wind veered again to the north east then around dawn and the 6am watch change it died completely. The engine went on and Temptress plodded along her course of 010 degrees in flat seas. The infamous Biscay current has all but gone, soon the tidal streams of the Western Channel will be influencing our course. The slightly slower overnight progress means our ETA in Ireland has slipped a little but still it looks like a Thursday arrival.

The skipper decided to take the opportunity of flat seas to top up the fuel tank from the cans on deck. His first challenge was that the siphon pump had split but no drama as we have a second that had been reserved for moving fresh water from our emergency supply to the tanks or kettle etc. It was swiftly repurposed.

When we started this trip we decided to live with last years rash purchase of a Reeds Almanac and simply acquire a Dover tide table for 2022. Everything else can be calculated from there as most tidal stream atlases are based on Dover. So when I pulled out ‘The Yachtsman’s Tidal Atlas Western Channel’, I was a bit bemused to find it used Cherbourg as its basis (a fact I had totally forgotten, not having opened it for almost 10 years). Doh! It was soon remedied though as the skipper pointed out Reeds should state somewhere how Cherbourg, a standard port, relates to Dover the standard port of standard ports. And it did; HW Cherbourg is three hours eight minutes earlier than Dover (whose first HW is 10:21 BST today). The stream turns north off Ushant about four hours after HW Cherbourg. It’s a bit later further out. Given all this I estimate that today from around midday the tidal stream should be in our favour for six hours, may be a little more. And, if I’ve managed to guesswork my way through the tidal height and stream rate conversion table, it could add a helpful knot to our speed as we are coming up to a full moon and spring tides.

Today was mostly motoring again, though we did manage a short spell under sail in the afternoon. However to make up for it, it was a great day for spotting things at sea. A few dolphins in the distance, some jellyfish late afternoon and more excitingly two, may be three whales making their way north this morning. We are almost certain they were fin whales. We also came across a pink fishing float with a healthy crop of goose barnacles but as it had nothing a boat hook could grab hold of, we left it drifting wherever. Now we are away from the shipping lanes we’ve seen few ships and just one yacht sailing south with a large blue asymmetric.

As it was so calm lunch was nibbly things; Spanish cheese and olives, Lidl rice cakes and a tomato, watercress and red pepper salad dressed with our tasty Greek olive oil plus Philadelphia to spread on the rice cakes. More books were completed, more sextant practise too. And, being as the heads were stable and level this morning, all three of us took advantage by showering and donning clean clothes! The skipper dug our little radio out and we listened to the midday shipping forecast on long wave for the first time in many years, it confirmed what we knew. Little or no wind, becoming a northerly later. It was great to hear this little bit of British life again. Life at sea is all about the little things.

By evening Temptress had passed over the edge of the continental shelf, we are no longer in Biscay but in the western approaches. Brittany in the form of isle d’Ouessant (Ushant), Brest and Cameret lay to the east. However my tidal guesswork of earlier seems to be wrong as our speed over the ground and through the water remain more or less equal.

First watch is almost completely light with an odd combination of a red sunset spreading across the clouds to port and the moonlight creating a glittering white path across the mirror calm water to starboard. We’ve finally reached latitudes where there are long summer evenings again.

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