2002 Bay of Biscay to Northern Spain
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:
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;
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
sail to Gijon featured a beautiful sunset, replete with astonishing
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).
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!
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.
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.
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