Crossing the Bay of Biscay and some MOB button issues

We were determined to cross from France to Spain on our way to Portugal aboard our 51.5′ Nauticat, Big Sky. Fortunately, Geert, my husband Con’s brother, arrived from the Netherlands the last day of September armed with some sailing experience and a wish to cross a big body of water. I, too, was looking forward to the experience, having successfully handled Big Sky in some pretty rough conditions, both in the Baltic and in the North Sea during a few stormy night passages. Little did I know this was not to be my shining moment. 

Had we known that our Canadian friends in their home-made 42-foot sail boat had been knocked down in a storm that swept across the Bay of Biscay, would we have made a crossing of the bay famous for its storms and rough seas? They left a day ahead of us and met with the full-force of the gale; we received the tail-end. Fortunately, their boat righted itself quickly leaving them wet and shaken.

Con and I had been chasing the sun south from Finland where we bought our Nauticat sailboat earlier that spring. We were making our way to Lagos, Portugal for our first winter aboard. We checked the Internet for the short and long-term wind and weather reports and all indications were that we were nearing the end of the 35-knot gale and that the next three days should be “okay” for the crossing. We anticipated that the first 20 hours would be really rough, but that the conditions would improve. 

The low angry clouds were hovering over the ocean just ahead of us as we untied from the sunny marina in Treguier, France. The Jaudy River was surprisingly calm, but all that changed the moment we hit the open water. For the next 2.5 nautical miles, we motored into a 30-knot northwesterly gale with short, steep, 3-meter waves crashing onto our deck. With the Basse Crublent buoy on our starboard beam, we raised our sails with a single reef and turned west on a close-hauled beat.

These first eight hours of our crossing heading west along the Normandy coast were intolerable for my stomach which immediately gave up on me. I was laid out in our bed. Geert who usually had an iron stomach was pretty green with sea sickness. Con, using his 32-years of sailing experience had his hands full behind the wheel handling the storm. After eight hours, we changed course, shook out the reef, and continued in a southwesterly direction. Despite fatigue, he was in his element, clipping along on an 8-knot beam reach for the next four hours. As night was closing in around us, he gave lle d’Ouessant a wide berth to avoid the dangerous shoals and rocks. Turning further south, on a course we maintained for the next 320 nautical miles until we met land again. 

At 1 a.m., Con woke me for my shift. “The winds have tapered off,” he told me. “We’re under motor; just wake me if there’s anything,” and kissed me good night.

It was eerily quiet, just the hum of our engine. I stared into the pitch black from our pilot house, anxious to see anything at all. I had to bend my knees in an isometric stand in order to keep from getting tossed off my feet. Firmly planted, and holding on tightly I peered into the night hoping to see the mysterious green phosphorous lights, I’d had glimpses of from time to time when flushing the head in port. The ocean was too violent for phosphorous lights. I zoomed way out on the GPS for a long view of our 434 nautical mile crossing and propped a book up against the bright green screen of the radar to save my night vision. Entertaining myself, I hummed to the beat of the bashing.

With one hand still tightly holding the edge of the teak navigation station I used my other hand with open fingers to hover just a few centimeters or so in front of the balancing book to gently push it back up if it fell. Every once in awhile, Big Sky would experience a major jolt from the seemingly invisible ocean attacks and I’d reposition myself and carrying on “pa rump pa pum pum…” Then all hell broke loose.

A larger than usual wave knocked me off balance, the book fell, and righting myself with the next wave, my finger accidentally hit a button &mdash but I didn’t know it at the time. Con and I didn’t use Big Sky‘s navigational instruments as they had become somewhat dated. Instead, we charted courses on our computer and transferred them to the handheld Garmin GPS.

About 1.5 hours of motoring into my 2-hour shift I noticed that Big Sky was now experiencing a different chopping beat and more rough seas. 

Shortly after, Con woke up with the bright moon flashing in his eyes, appearing then disappearing, then appearing again oddly, as if we were changing course. He came out to check the GPS. He zoomed in for a close-up of our track and his facial expression changed to that of puzzlement. 

“Hey Barbie, did you change anything on the settings?” He asked.

“No, why?” I asked.

“We’ve been going in circles for 45 minutes,” he responded, taking us off autopilot and mucking with the buttons trying to override the system. 

“No!” I exclaimed with shock and horror. “I must have hit the Man Overboard button when my finger slipped!”

The awful realization that I didn’t even know it filled me with embarrassment. At the same time I was annoyed, because we added another 45 minutes to an already uncomfortable journey. The boat’s electronic system automatically overrides the autopilot to put us into the Man Overboard mode and the boat will circle until set otherwise. 

Geert heard the commotion and came out of his V-berth. He had another half hour before his shift but smiled at me generously saying in his heavy Dutch accent: “I’ll take da rest of your shift, Barb. Go on and get more sleep.”

I climbed into bed too tired to be embarrassed. Just as I relaxed my head on my pillow, I was promptly tossed part way off the bed by another huge wave. The ocean had taken on a rougher feel. For the next few hours, I couldn’t stay on the bed and neither could our queen-size mattress which is usually firmly locked into a three-inch teak edging that surrounds it. I moved to the small couch on the lee side of our bedroom and slept in a fetal position in short stints until 0700 when Con called me for my next shift. 

That morning, the ocean took on yet another form, with deeper rolling waves and along with them came a pod of bottlenose dolphins. They’d been enjoying breakfast but came over to ride at Big Sky‘s bow for about 20 minutes. They left as quickly as they arrived and rejoined the gannets that had continued to hunt overhead making spectacular dives. The Bay of Biscay is much like the Grand Canyon with a deep cliff-like landscape that is covered with incredibly fertile waters. 

Geert called out, “hey, luke over der Barb, whales.”

The sound of the whales exhaling caught Geert’s attention, and we watched as they moved in very close to us as they fished. The smell coming from their blow holes was surprisingly foul. 

“Could they tip us Con?” I asked in my naivety, as my heart raced the closer they came, both from excitement and from fear. They were huge! 

We were now at the half way point, and eerily out of VHF range. The flat continental seabed shelf fell off a few kilometers away from France, and by now we were in depths of more than 4,000 meters. If they tipped us, I wondered, how long it would take to rescue us when our EPIRB was activated.

Soaring along at 6.8 knots with great winds on a broad reach, the sperm whales had passed as quickly as they were spotted. More dolphins arrived, also on their way to France, and once again changed course to play at our bow. Dolphins joined us all morning, and well into the afternoon. One group that afternoon seemed especially agitated, squeaking and rolling around and then we realized that they were actually mating at our bow. I sat on the bowsprit watching. They were larger than the groups we saw that morning. Four or five at a time would swim under the bowsprit, roll sideways and look up at me. They chirped and squeaked and I answered by laughing and talking right back to them. It was an amazing moment.

On the second night, we were going about 6.5 knots under sail over the long gentle ocean swells. It was 1 a.m. again, and still licking my wounds from the night before, I wanted to make up for my awful mistake. I had planned to do an extra hour as a “thank you” to Geert for him covering part of my shift. Paying extra attention to the course, wind indicator and our speed, I was determined to avoid any unexpected mishaps. I had both the Garmin GPS and the Raymarine system on to compare all the details. I spotted a mysterious purple marker on the Raymarine chart that was not on the GPS. It was directly in our path! I woke Con to get an opinion on the purple marker.

“Humph,” he said considering it. “Don’t pay attention to it Barb, it’s an old chart; our GPS doesn’t show it and it’s more current. Enjoy your shift.”

You know that saying, “don’t think about the pink elephant in the room…” and of course, that’s all you can think about. All I could focus on was that blasted purple marker and the location was about 30 minutes away and still directly in our path.

I made the decision to sneak around the alleged fictitious purple marker without disturbing the sails. I gingerly placed my fingers on the autopilot knob and rolled it to starboard 3 degrees &mdash nothing happened. The dial just rolled without engaging the rudder. I tried it again, nothing. I wasn’t going to let this gizmo get the better of me. I already felt so inadequate after having hit the Man Overboard the night before. Studying all the instruments, I decided my best course of action was to reset the system. I hit “off” waited, then hit “on.” To my horror, the boat immediately began making a turn, going into the Man Overboard program! Big Sky was turning into the wind creating a deafening ruckus with the sails. If we jibe, we could snap the mast in a matter of seconds causing major damage and maybe even sink us! Obviously, the system remembers the last program and had gone right back into the Man Overboard! 

“Con!” I shouted loudly from the nav station throwing open the companion way doors. “I need you!” 

I made a beeline to the cockpit pedestal to take control of the boat. In the darkness, I couldn’t see anything, not even the button for the lights, let alone a button to take it off autopilot! The last thing I wanted to do was hit the anchor button! 

Con had been right behind me and in the dark, like Braille, he found the button for the lights, turned off the autopilot, had the wheel in his hands and set us back on course. When the boat was settled, he turned to me with an astonished look on his face. “What happened?”

I said biting back the tears, “I was sneaking past the purple marker…” and knew it all sounded lame. 

Con looked at me with a sideways grin trying to figure out how the button could have been hit during both of my night shifts! Geert was now standing in the pilot house, both of them with the same crooked smile. 

Geert spoke sweetly, “Barb, we’ll finish your shift, go and have a good sleep.”

After 63 hours and 434 nautical miles on the choppy water, the lights of La Coruña, Spain were flickering straight ahead. Entering at night is never our first choice, but we were happy to be ahead of schedule. La Coruña is a well-marked port with no major obstacles and the weather was clear and calm, so I motored toward the marina. 

“Look for a green light,” I called to Con and Geert, having noted what the sailing book advised to mark our route into the marina. 

“There!” Con said and I changed course toward the light.

A minute later, the marker light turned yellow, then red! “Oh!” Con gasped laughing, “we’re heading straight for the traffic lights!”

A few minutes later, I spotted the correct marker and turned into the marina. In the pitch black, three overly exuberant Irish guys barely able to stand upright from the numbers of drinks managed to catch our lines. One of them was able to loop the line a half dozen times, but the other two couldn’t for the life of them figure out what to do with them. We slowly drifted back from the pier, so I motored forward again. Con stepped down the ladder and secured our lines. A few minutes later, we tucked ourselves into bed, and let the quiet of the night and calm of the marina waters wrap us in a cozy sleep until morning. 

Con and I are two Canadians sailing through life in our retirement.

We’ve sailed in and out of 20 countries &mdash so far, through fog, 45-knot wind storms, lightening; hit rocks twice, nearly grounded once getting caught as the tide was ebbing, surfed into a river during a wild storm nearly swamping Big Sky, had encounters with ferries a few times; sailed with dolphins dozens of times, whales a handful of times, soared with a current on a beam reach logging up to 11 knots, have seen history unfolding in the Baltic States, eaten fresh fish from dozens of markets, learned “thank you” in a dozen languages, and we have loved filling our souls with this magnificent world. The best part of it all is that we’ve been able to share lots of these adventures with our adult kids too!

Questions or comments for Barb?

Barb is a freelance writer, and retired Founder and National Executive Director of the Kids Up Front Foundation of Canada. She and her husband Con retired in 2007 and are sailing through life. Con and Barb bought their 51.5-foot Nauticat in Turku, Finland and are currently in Monastir, Tunisia. 3675

By Ocean Navigator