A bull’s-eye on their back

We had arrived in Falmouth, England, at the western end of the Cornish peninsula, in mid-October 2004, after a summer of cruising in Ireland, Scotland and the Baltic. The plan was to reprovision and head south for Lisbon aboard my Westsail 42, Fiona.

The trip down the English Channel had been a beat against moderate southwesterly winds. But the winds had been strong enough to convince my youngest crewmember, newly signed on in London, that ocean cruising was not for him, and within hours of our arrival he booked a flight home. That left two of us, Andrew, a lanky Aussie who had crewed previously, and me, to continue to Portugal, Brazil and points south for the northern winter. We did try unsuccessfully to recruit a local sailor for the leg to Portugal.

Day after day the forecast for the approaches to the Channel was for strong to gale-force southwest winds — very frustrating, as we were eager to get south before the autumn gales set in. After a week, it looked liked a window, northerly winds for a couple of days. The downside was an intense low in the Bay of Biscay that was tracking north. Ever the optimist, I thought if we headed into the Atlantic we might get to the west of low and pick up a tailwind for the leg south.

The impending storm

We left in pleasant weather on a Monday with a northwest wind and set the sail to clear Lizard Point. Bent onto the boom for the first time was a brand-new storm mainsail, and a genoa was grooved in the roller furling gear on the headstay. By Monday evening the wind had backed and we were only making good southwest. Later we started the engine to motor-sail with a very light wind; the tidal current was pushing us toward Ouessant on the coast of France, an area to avoid, particularly with a storm coming.

Once clear of the northwest tip of France, the plan was to lay a course across the Bay of Biscay to Cape Finisterre and then sail down the coast of Portugal to Lisbon. The wind came back on Tuesday morning from the SSW, and we had a great day under full sail, but the omens were not good; obviously we were well east of the low center.

The forecast on the Navtex from the English station at Niton was gloomy: Force 10 in meteorological area Plymouth, our location on Tuesday evening. As the sun was setting we reefed the main and discovered a problem with the new sail, supposedly copied exactly from my old faithful storm mainsail that had seen Fiona three times round Cape Horn. The aft reefing cringles had been installed a couple feet too high, and the boom was canted up at such an angle that it was impossible to reach it except near the mast.

The wind had reached 30 knots by midnight, and the pressure had started an alarming slide down, the central pressure of the low was reported to be 955 millibars. On our barograph the pen fell below 965 mb, the lower limit of the instrument, and then stuck on the edge of the paper chart, something I had never seen before.

Hove-to, Force 10

At sunrise on Wednesday morning the wind had backed to southeast with a sustained speed over 40 knots and gusts to 55 knots. We debated tying the second reef in the main but decided with the boom so high it would be difficult, if not downright dangerous, so we forereached under the single reef with the jib fully furled and the wheel lashed up. For the next day and a half we rode out the storm, holding our general position with a boat speed of 1 to 2 knots but losing ground due to leeway. It was a rough ride.

The faxes we received from the Offenbach station in Germany were ominous; the low was expected to stall on the southwest coast of Ireland and then possibly drift southeast. If this held true, the storm was drawing a bead straight for us. Early on Thursday I switched the Navtex to the French station on the west coast of Brittany at Corsen, and their forecast confirmed that the low would move south, right for the boat. This seemed unbelievable, if not downright unfair. Lows always moved to the northeast in that part of the world, right? We grumbled about it, and then when it was light we got to work.

We set the spitfire jib — a very tough sail of only 40 square feet — on the forestay. This was an attempt to get the boat moving again and sail as far west as possible to keep the approaching low center to the east, but in this we were frustrated as the wind veered to the west. Instead of heading off to the west, we tracked slowly south.

It was a little encouraging to learn from the Navtex that the low was filling in; the central pressure had risen to 963 mb, at position 50° N, 11° W, by early Thursday. The seas had built up by this time, and Fiona was pounded by heavy waves that produced jarring crashes if they happened to be breaking when we slammed into them. Water forced its way through every crack, particularly the main hatch slides. The dampness below was not helped by the water that streamed off our foul-weather gear every time we dropped through the hatch into the main cabin. On Tuesday night I had locked the vane of the self-steerer but foolishly not removed it from the clamp. The incessant wind finally vibrated the vane so much that the locking pin sheared off.

Storms that pass in the night

Conditions began to improve a little just before sunrise on Friday, the wind dropped below 30 knots and veered. This gave us a chance to sail near the rhumb line for Cape Finisterre and put as much distance as possible between the boat and the storm center, now heading southeast. At lunchtime we unfurled a sliver of the jib and led the sheets inside the shrouds so we could sail close-hauled. The little spitfire was still pulling gamely.

The wind remained about 30 knots, with pouring rain; for a while the pressure dropped a few mb, then it climbed slowly. The boat was sailing well at about 5 knots and making good a course over the bottom that was only 15? to 20? shy of the rhumb line. I began to feel that the worst was over. Just as we were eating supper at about 1930, a squall of more than 40 knots hit the boat. We were a little tardy getting on deck, as there was nowhere safe to put down our plates in the violent motion we were experiencing.

When we did climb through the hatch we saw the jib had torn above the clew from the leach horizontally for several feet. We furled the sail, and in order to give some drive forward of the mast, I decided to hand the spitfire and set the staysail. I had been hesitant to set the staysail before because short-handed in high winds the staysail boom can be a lethal club as the sail is being hoisted.

We cast off the gaskets, hanked on the halyard and began to haul up the sail. After a few feet it jammed and would not go up or down. To keep the staysail boom under control during this phase we had rigged a vang with a four-part tackle, so at least the boom was not crashing about with the sail half up. In the fitful glow from the spreader lights and our flashlights, we discovered the halyard had fouled the port spreader and seemed firmly stuck in the notch holding the shroud. Fortunately by standing on the forward end of the staysail boom, Andrew was just able to reach the halyard snap shackle, no mean feat on the pitching bow in the dark. He attached a short line to the halyard and then unshackled it. By leading the halyard aft I was able to free it with a few vigorous shakes, and then we hoisted the staysail, taking care to keep the halyard taut. The storm center passed us that night, heading SSE and a few miles to the west.

Free at last

As the storm headed to the east, our wind veered to the NNW and we were able to make good the rhumb line course of 220? magnetic and even ease the sheets. It was still blowing 35 to 40 knots as dawn on Saturday revealed a dramatic seascape of long foaming waves with spindrift and low, gray clouds scudding across the sky. Fiona galloped for Cape Finisterre like a racehorse, but the weather was still atrocious, despite the freeing of the wind. The Météo France forecast predicted winds to Force 9 with very rough seas, conditions we experienced in spades.

After lunchtime on Saturday severe squalls forced us to disconnect the Aries self-steerer and hand steer in 30-minute shifts. With only one reef in the main, the Aries was overpowered by the weather helm. Stinging spray swept across the cockpit. More disturbing was the sight of the furled jib. The Dacron above the tear had not fully rolled up when we furled the sail, and now the strong wind worried and tugged at the piece of cloth so that slowly the tear lengthened and the upper part of the sail began to unwrap.

As I contemplated this gloomy scene, a sleek jet roared out of the overcast at little more than masthead height. It was a French maritime reconnaissance aircraft. I shouted below to Andrew to give them a call on VHF. He assured them in his broad Aussie twang that we were okay. I wonder if they understood his accent. As they finally winged away I imagined the nice, dry cafeteria waiting for them.

Then I wrenched myself back to the reality of a wet, storm-tossed boat with 150 miles to the Cape still to go. The storm careened on into central Spain with the low slowly filling to 1,005 mb. As it moved away, the wind decreased to 25 knots, and we had a great sail to Cape Finisterre. We gybed over about noon on Sunday for the run down the Iberian coast and shook out the reef in the main when the wind fell to 15 knots.

The storm’s parting shot

Although the wind and sea conditions were quite manageable, the storm continued in an insidious way to inflict damage; the upper part of the jib continued to unwind and disintegrate. I made the unwise decision to get the jib off the headstay and set the Yankee. But when we unrolled just a few turns on Sunday afternoon, the tear simply extended and left an even bigger area flapping in the breeze. We rolled it up again, but the damage was done and the jib flogged itself to pieces.

We tried to restrain the flapping remnants by wrapping a line around, using the spare halyard to raise it, but that did not work. Apart from the damage to the jib, which was deemed irreparable when we finally got it down in Lisbon, the boat suffered few long-lasting effects from its maiden voyage across the Bay of Biscay. But the storm’s evil eye that spotted Fiona as it headed north and then came back to chase us certainly added to the Bay’s reputation as a heavy-weather proving ground.

By Ocean Navigator