September 2002 Bay of Biscay to Northern Spain
Those words, "the Bay of Biscay" strike dread in the hearts of sailors: the Bay is known for its ferocious storms. If you have ever seen those remarkable photos of lighthouses being inundated by waves to half their height, well, most of those are in and around the Bay of Biscay. So we were not looking forward to this part of our trip south. Then we met a local sailor who takes his 65' custom Beneteau to the Med every winter. "Piece of cake," he said. "There are 3 ways to cross the Bay of Biscay:

1. Start from Ireland and head west first, then south, staying off the continental shelf and avoiding the Bay, with its shallow water and steep seas, entirely;

2. Go straight across the mouth, from the Solent to Cabo Finisterre. This is a quite bad idea because it puts you in the path of any developing storms, with no place to go; or

3. Go across to Brest, then sail right into the Bay and port-hop along the coast of France and northern Spain, keeping an eye on the weather and staying in port if there's a storm coming. This gives you lovely sailing. Besides which, there's the food and wine."

Recalling our Atlantic crossing, when we were hammered as we approached the Bay of Biscay, we happily opted for choice number 3, especially when our friend gave us a guide to "don't miss" ports (and restaurants) along the way.

So, we left Lymington for an overnight sail to the Channel Isles, stopping in Guernsey. Crossing the very busy English Channel was quite the experience: there were never fewer than 4 ships in sight constantly! But the "traffic separation lanes" keep the ships quite orderly, and we crossed -- like jaywalking across a superhighway -- without incident.

Guernsey was an interesting blend of French and English -- either afternoon tea or an aperitif! As we left, we had a brief scare when we noticed that our engine exhaust was not spewing out its usual quantity of sea water, meaning it was not being cooled. We quickly shut down the engine to investigate the problem. We closed the sea cock, checked the sea water filter, and found it clear; but when we re-opened the seacock, no water flowed through. We then disconnected the hose from the seacock and discovered the through-hull fitting was totally clogged with long strands of kelp! We carefully extracted them, trying not to break them and leave pieces in the hose -- they were over 3 feet long! -- and everything worked fine.

Our destination was Camaret, Brittany, a port just inside the river leading to Brest. To get there, we needed to pass through the Chenal (channel) du Four, known for its riptides. We timed our passage to coincide with the tides, leaving Guernsey around noon for an overnight sail. But when we arrived at the north end of the Chenal du Four we were about 4 hours early, which put us against the current. So we put into the lovely little town of L'Aberwrach, picked up a mooring, and caught a nap. When we got going again, we found the harbor swarming with sailboards (at least 20) and Hobie cats (10). Made for interesting navigation! On a nearby beach which was apparently dedicated to kite sailing, we saw at least 10 kites, and wondered how they avoided tangling in each others' control lines! The French certainly are sail-crazy!

The Chenal du Four turned out to be, in the words of an English sailor who has done it many a time, "a doddle." We never saw more than 3-4 knots of current, and got to the Camaret marina, outside Brest, just after dark. We awoke to discover another US boat at the marina: "Tempest", an Amel from Houston, that we had met in Horta, Azores. We had crossed from the Azores to England (for us) and Ireland (for them) and had stayed in touch by SSB and e-mail during the passage. Tom and Vicki are quite similar to us in cruising style, and we really enjoyed each other's company for a few days.

Danny, our former crew in the Leeward Islands, had written that he was headed to Brest on a 90' traditional schooner, so we hitchhiked to the next town (just 8 kilometers) and caught a ferry to Brest. We found the right marina, but had missed him (and the boat) by just 3 days! He's now back in Mallorca, so we may see one another this winter.

After 2 days in Camaret eating delicious breakfast croissants, we and Tempest headed for Benodet, where we had French gourmet pizza and wine for dinner. We took off the next day for Belle Ile, leaving Tom and Vicki to make their way more slowly to La Rochelle, where they will winter at the Amel boat works.

We'd never heard of Belle Ile before several Brits included it in their "don't miss" lists. They're right -- it's a well-named little island. The main harbor has a huge fortification which we never could find out the reason for, and many lovely cafes. We anchored outside the harbor and took the dinghy to town, tying up to the harbor wall with plenty of line because of the tides -- or so we thought! After sightseeing and shopping, we discovered the dinghy hanging by its painter, with its motor in the mud and no water across the 100 yard harbor. Whoops! We managed to relieve the stress on the painter, but we were stranded until the tide came in. Eh bien, there were plenty of cafes. So, seafood bisque, fresh huitres (oysters), and moules Mariniere (mussels in white wine and garlic), washed down with a bottle of Muscadet white wine, helped us pass the time until we were afloat.

By now we were a bit behind schedule, and with great weather predicted we decided to make tracks for Spain, as much as we hated to leave behind the French cuisine. So we did a 2 day passage to Gijon, on Spain's north coast. Because we were at sea on Lisa's birthday, we used our satellite phone to call her, only to have the phone conk out in the middle of the call. We've been astonished at how reliable and fault-free the satellite phone has been -- it was too good to last. There seems to be an antenna problem, so we'll have to find out how to get it fixed. Meanwhile though, our European mobile phone and infrared port to the PC has proved to be a good substitute while we're near land.

The sail to Gijon featured a beautiful sunset, replete with astonishing green flash!

The bakery across from the marina in Gijon made excellent French style croissants. We liked this bustling city (though we struggled a bit in the change of languages, from familiar French to very rusty Spanish).

Lisa had been trying to arrange our trip back the States in October, but the only deals she could find on the internet were for trips originating in the US. So we went to a travel agent in Gijon who found us round-trip tickets from Barcelona to LA for $500. This price was so low we were worried that she was quoting us only half the fare! Reassured that it was really a round-trip fare, we bought the tickets, then hopped in the boat and headed for Coruña (or La Coruña or A Coruña, as it's variously called, this last being in Galician, the local dialect), in Spain's northwest corner. We had a wonderful downwind sail, first under spinnaker and then changing to wing-and-wing at dusk, doing 8-9 knots across the bottom and enjoying it tremendously. We had to motor when the wind died in the early morn, but it was a great passage nevertheless. Coruña's nickname is Crystal City because many of its buildings have balconies, often several stories high, featuring multi-paned windows. It gives a delightful consistency and sparkle to the place. It also has a beautiful huge central square with a statue in the middle entitled "Liberdad" featuring Maria Pita brandishing a sword with a fallen soldier wrapped around her leg(?) and cannon at her feet. The local guide sheet we picked up at the marina said Maria was the "City Hero". Typically of Spanish tourist information, there was no further indication of who she was, when she lived, what she did, or even if she's real. Great statue, though, and wonderful square, with those glass balconied houses, narrow streets radiating from it featuring dozens of tiny restaurants all offering wonderful tapas and raciones (small portions) of yummy food. We pigged out on a great variety of things including Galician style octopus, all for $12!

From Coruña, an hour train ride took us to the World Heritage Site city of Santiago de Compostella. What an amazing place! The city has been a pilgrimage site for centuries; the enormous baroque cathedral houses what are believed to be the remains of St. James (Santiago), one of the 12 Apostles of Christ, in a silver reliquary -- a chest -- that pilgrims can "hug." This has to be seen to be believed. There are a number of other rituals the pilgrims go through, including touching the feet of a certain statue and bumping their foreheads against the base of a certain column of the church (though we did not witness this latter), all, of course, with one's companions taking snapshots of these actions. In certain "Holy Years," as determined by some arcane calendar, a special pilgrim's door to the cathedral is opened, and for certain services they bring in (from the museum where it resides most of the time) an enormous 10-foot tall silver censor (incense container) which is hung from the very high nave from ropes at least 6" in diameter and swung through an enormous arc by a special group of guys who train for this purpose. We saw the ropes and the nave, and can only imagine what the view of this huge silver pendulum must be like. In addition to the grandiose cathedral, its plaza is surrounded by beautiful ornate palaces on its other 3 sides, and there are smaller plazas in the surrounding area which are also quite impressive. In a Holy Year, Santiago de Compostella is host to as many as 10 million visitors, mostly pilgrims.

When we returned to Coruña, we found that the weather charts were showing a gale forming to the northwest of us, off the Bay of Biscay. It looked as if there would be at least another day or two before we had to worry about it, so, after refilling our diesel tanks, we were off around Cape Finisterre to Bayona. Finisterre was named by the Romans, as the end of the earth as they knew it, and indeed, it's west of England's Land's End, and almost farther to the west than Ireland. We motored around the Cape at 1:30 a.m., and noted in our log that "there's an unusual phosphorescence on the very surface of the water, so that every little ripple in the calm sea is limned in blue and stands out sharply." Bayona was the city where Columbus's "Pinta" was built, and to where Pinzon, Columbus's second in command, returned with the "Pinta" from the discovery of the New World. Pinzon was after the glory that Columbus also sought, and had hoped to beat him back to Spain. He did, in fact, return earlier, but to Bayona, while Columbus made it to Cadiz and thence the court before Pinzon, gaining the glory and totally demoralizing Pinzon, who promptly died. (Never fear that we learned this from the Spanish -- we've been re-reading our Columbus!) The Bayona harbor features a replica of the Pinta, a statue to the meeting of the Old and New Worlds and an extensive castle/fort whose walls we walked around in the afternoon before a vicious rainstorm hit. That dampened our plans for more tapas in town, so we called it an early night and prepared to leave the next day for Portugal.

So in the end, the Bay of Biscay was a pussycat, not a lion; but we're glad we took the safe route around the coast and got to enjoy some of the lovely scenery, interesting culture, and great food of the region!