The sea route to the sun from Britain.

My Biscay Log Book


‘Bambola’, my 1985 vintage, centre cockpit, Moody 36 and I arrived in Brighton Marina in early June to pick up a crew. They had all contacted me because of my free registration with the agency ‘Crewseekers’ to sail and wanted to sail with me across Biscay to Gibraltar. This crewing agency is paid by people seeking to crew on other peoples boats and the skipper / owner can select applicants who will pay their own travel to and from the boat as well as contributing to the cost of food, fuel and marinas. There are advantages on both sides and no obligation or formal contract. For the most part it works very well.

A crew of three, all strangers to each other, arrived on board and settled in. Mike, Elaine and Andy. All in their twenties, Mike was the most experienced having crewed on a yacht crossing from east coast USA to England. Elaine had some experience obtained in sailing schools and Andy, from Scotland, had worked on rigs in the north sea.

My plan is to work our way west as far as probably Plymouth or Falmouth. Then sit tight and wait for a fair wind to cross Biscay with. Any wind with north in it. From crossing Biscay we would keep heading south only stopping if circumstances dictated.

Having filled Bambola’s lockers with food, milk, soft drinks and with a tank full of water and completed a little maintenance we were ready to set sail up channel.

22nd June  Slipped out of the berth and along side the fuel dock to fill the tanks, then out through the breakwater into the English channel with the wind coming out of the west straight on the nose. Headed to outside the Owers light buoy then with the wind strengthening I decided to call it a day. We headed into Portsmouth Harbour and tied up in Hasler Marina for the night. Good little day sail giving the crew an opportunity to get used to the boat and to me.

23rd June  07.50 Left Hasler with the wind set fair. Got the spinnaker up off Cowes – Isle of Wight and sailed steadily down towards the Needles, where a fair tide waited to sweep us out of the Solent. With a forecast of South Easterly 3 to 4 increasing 5 for a time I was hopeful of making Falmouth without another stop. Set a watch keeping system of 3 on 6 off with Elaine and Andy teaming up and Mick and I standing our watches alone. All of the crew with instructions to call me, at any time, if concerned about anything in the slightest way.

Midnight:  With a shipping forecast for a Westerly gale 7 to 8 -‘later’. As ‘later’ means after 12 hours, I decided we should head for Dartmouth.

Made a classic night entry to the well lit river at Dartmouth. A blustery force Westerly 7 gusting off the hills confirming a good decision.  Tied up alongside a German yacht at 04.00 and hit the bunks.

June 24th Blew like stink all day so we amused ourselves in the town and spent a pleasant evening with the delivery crew of the German yacht we were alongside.

June 25th slipped out of Dartmouth at dawn and by 19.00 was in Fowey having spent the entire day going to windward! Surprisingly cold weather for the time of year combined with a worsening forecast made the decision easy.

June 26th, 27th Spent at anchor in Fowey waiting for a better forecast. Customs launch with 7 officials on board comes by to check our papers.

June 28th Conditions improve slightly and the forecast suggest it may be possible to make Falmouth which is what we do. The forward heads – crews toilet has become blocked so Mick spend the passage stripping, cleaning and reassembling them. Andy and Mick have a run ashore with the dinghy and return shortly after closing time reasonably inebriated!

June 29th  04.30  in the morning. Andy and Mick still the worse for wear. The wind is still South East which is useless for crossing Biscay but it is possible to lay St Mary’s in the Scilly isles. A pleasant enough passage and we anchor up in the bay to await a fair wind for Biscay.

June 30th  Top up fuel and water tanks and move into the anchorage. Call the weather centre and receive a 5 day forecast which suggests we may leave on August 1st and have fair winds across the bay. In fact the protracted trip along the south coast has enabled us all to weald into a crew and for me to discover their strengths and weaknesses. 

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July 1st With an Easterly 2-3 we slip out of the Scilly isles and head out towards the Bay of Biscay. I inform Falmouth Coastguard of our ETA in Vigo and we start the already established watch system of 3 on 6 off with Elaine and Andy sharing one watch period – Mick and I standing our 3 hours alone.

July 2nd 02.00 go onto port tack out into the Atlantic as the wind goes Southerly.

11.00 wind backs Westerly and increases force 5-7. put in some reefs and resume the rum line course for Cape Finisterre. Elaine is becoming very sea sick and unable to cope in the cockpit during her watches. Suspect fear of the unknown may also be playing a part. Decide to leave her in a bunk in the saloon tucked in behind a lee cloth whilst we continue our roller coaster ride south. Andy is sensible and can stand watch alone.

 July3rd  Whilst the considerable swell continues the wind is dropping.

12.40   The wind has fallen away to nothing – started engine heading 200 degrees for Finisterre. The forecast promises North Westerly 4 to 5 – sounds perfect!

18.00 Northerly 4 – 5! Genny boomed out and with the main on a preventer, we are tramping south at 6 to 8 knots!

Midnight.   The wind has dropped considerably and we were all able to eat dinner together in he cockpit for the first time. Elaine is feeling better and joins Andy for the mid-night watch. Dolphins are dancing around the bows in the moonlight and we are on course.

July 4th  06.00 A rather dull and dank dawn. The sails beginning to flog. A small waning moon and there is nothing to do but to start the engine again. It runs at 18.00 RPM and we are making 5 knots on our course for Capo Finisterre.

10.00 and a most wonderfully spectacular dolphin show you can imagine. They stayed with us for almost half an hour. When they leave the wind has gone more northerly and we hoist the spinnaker and turn off the motor.

18.00  Mick bakes fresh bread for to eat with our dinner.  Spinnaker comes down for the night and with boomed out headsails we make good progress south.

 July 5th 00.15. We can see the lights of Capo Finisterre.

11.30 we sail into Bayonne and moor up alongside the fuel berth to refuel then park up in a marina berth. A successful 5 day crossing of Biscay behind us.

July 6th R & R in Bayonne!

July 7th At mid-day we slip out of the marina and start south again heading for Gibraltar. Winds start light then increase to a northerly F5 – perfect.

July 8th  We tick off the lighthouses on the chart as we leave them off to port and  head south again. As the wind increases we drop the main sail and proceed under just the jib. A good move as the wind comes up to a Force 7 from dead astern.

12.00 Wind has dropped slightly and the crew clean up the saloon and cockpit after a fairly rolly old night…

  July 9th a beautiful warm sweatshirt day as we tramp down the Portuguese coast with the prevailing winds blowing from astern. Very undemanding and enjoyable sailing as a reward for the difficult time we had between Brighton and the Scilly Isles. I busy myself baking bread. The sort of sailing dreams are made of!

  July 10th 01.00 Everything is banging around. We have run out of wind! In 3 hours we have hardly made a mile of progress so reluctantly the motor goes on again. We pass Cape St Vincent and head out across the bay towards the Straight of Gibraltar and the entrance to the Mediterranean. With the flat calm sea and no wind I encourage the crew to start washing and polishing the decks and rails of Bambola so she will look smart when we get into port.  Varying degrees of enthusiasm at this suggestion but in the end Bambola looks a lot smarter and the crew will be free to go ashore and explore, play, drink or whatever as soon as we are tied up alongside! We start to see other craft – ships and yachts – not far to go.

 July 11th By 03.00 the wind has come up to North Easterly 4 to 6 and we are sailing again.

06.30 and we are in a spanking force 7 which gradually increases to an 8 blowing more or less straight out of the straights. With reduced sail we beat into this with quite large seas over the shallower areas. Clearly we are not going to make Gibraltar by dark if we have to continue like this but Tangiers is only 4 tacks away according to the GPS and it looks very attractive. I have been in there several times before and although badly lit for a night entry in daylight it is easy and the Tangier Bay will probably offer some protection once we are in it.

11.00 we enter Tangiers harbour and moor up under the customs shed. I go ashore to clear us in and Mick, Andy and Elaine set too tidying up the chaos below from beat into F8 winds across the entrance to the Straights. A fair amount of water is pumped out of the bilges. We sit in the cockpit having afternoon tea in our shorts and T shirts before venturing into the delights of Morocco.

July  12th. The wind has gone westerly and we can easily continue to Gibraltar. I visit the customs and  immigration offices to clear out at 08.00 only to be informed that the only customs officer on duty that day is supervising the loading of a car ferry. He will not be free to  come aboard Bambola to clear us until mid-day. I try charm, anger, bribery but in the end have to accept that it will be after mid-day before we may leave the undeniable delights of Tangiers. There is no wind what so ever and we to motor the whole way and having missed the tide because of out late departure it takes longer than I would have wished with a question mark over how much fuel actually remained in the tank.

23.45  We do not arrive in Gibraltarian waters until late. A few moments of concern as some unlit speed boats hurry by their way to smuggle duty free cigarettes into Spain. Navigationally the whole area is very well lit and presents few problems. Carefully feeling our way into the anchorage at the end of the runway and drop the hook for the night amongst the other cruising boats!

July  13th Pull up the anchor and motor round to the customs pontoon and officially clear in. Move the few yards to the marina and tie up alongside.

Three weeks passage from Brighton to Gibraltar but only 13 days since leaving the Scilly Isles. This would have reduced to around 10 if we had not called in at Bayonne and Tangier but both stops were welcome and part of the fun.

The crew stayed around for a few days then headed to the UK, South Africa and the Caribbean. I visited friends and relations in the area then headed into the Mediterranean and pastures new.

I have crossed Biscay several times from north to south and once from south to north – very hard work into constant head winds. Canals are preferable for heading north if you are in a hurry and if your craft is suitable for them.

The above log is probably fairly average. Sometimes there have been more frequent stops, particularly on the Portuguese coast, which has lots harbours and ports to dive into if the weather turns foul. Despite its fierce reputation in summer and even autumn months there is little to fear. A five day forecast will see you down to northern Spain and they are pretty accurate – certainly for the early days of the passage. Once you have made this passage the fear or apprehension of sailing through the night will vanish.

The idea of being at sea for days on end will become more attractive and challenges like the Atlantic or Pacific will appear more achievable if that is in your future plan. If you are inexperienced or like me just like some sleep then taking on crew is a solution. Sometimes total strangers are a better bet than friends or relations. Sad to see a good relationship break down because you have both got over tired and irritable. With strangers you can always politely ask them to leave when you arrive in a port!  Mick, Elaine and Andy were a good crew. I was lucky. There have been other times when I have (politely I hope) kicked crew off the boat and there have been crew who still keep in touch with me decades later I am delighted to say!

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