Friday, 20 September 2013

Vigo to Plymouth single-handed

“I am neither happy nor sad, neither really tense nor really relaxed. Perhaps that is the way it is when a man gazes at the stars, asking himself questions he is not mature enough to answer. So one day he is happy, the next a bit sad without knowing why. It is a little like the horizon: for all your distinctly seeing sky and sea come together on the same line, for all your constantly making for it, the horizon stays at the same distance, right at hand and out of reach. Yet deep down you know that the way covered is all that counts.” -Bernard Moitessier 

A month earlier - Plymouth

The Western end of the Plymouth breakwater marks the end of the 610-mile-long Fastnet Race. Perched on the pulpit of a 40 ton, 72 foot steel yacht after what has been mostly a fair-weather race, I couldn't help wondering how the 30ft Auriga will cope with the autumn Biscay weather. Giulia reported that Auriga was seaworthy if wet, while my experience with the new yacht was thus far limited to a few windless hours in the Med.
The last night of the race was uneventful. Someone asked me what I had in mind for my next sailing adventure. I replied that I might cross the Biscay single-handed. I tried to sound convinced.

2013-09-13, Friday - Final Preparations

Travelling to Vigo proves uneventful. By midday, I am at Marina Davila Sport, where Giulia, Dan and Jordan left Auriga a month earlier. The rest of the day is spent provisioning and doing last-minute repairs. I prepare the boat for an early start; mooring lines, sails and safety kit all readied to be handled with minium fuss, single-handed.
Spanish delicacies
The weather looks good, and the plan for tomorrow is to make it to Finisterre. If all goes well and the wind is fair, I can then continue through the inshore traffic zone. If, on the other hand, I feel tired or use a lot of fuel, I can always stop for the night and try to re-supply. Moreover, reaching Finisterre would mark a personal grand total of 10000 miles at sea - hopefully enough experience to take on the Biscay. 
The only thing that worries me slightly is a tropical storm forecast to rebound and hit northern Europe as a deep low in about a week's time. The long-range forecast is uncertain, with the low's arrival varying by several days and its track predicted anywhere between France and Iceland. In any case, I would rather be in England as soon as possible.
Before calling it a night, I walk to the end of the pontoon to avoid any early morning surprises. A 5-masted superyacht blasting 90's disco music motors seawards, then everything is quiet again. 
Ready to go

2013-09-14, Saturday - First Trials

I wake up at 4am, feeling refreshed. After a quick breakfast, I am ready to leave half an hour later. The manoeuvre goes smoothly, and soon I am motoring west. The tiller pilot holds a steady course, and I host the main sail. Two hours later I am approaching the northern channel connecting the Ria de Vigo to the Atlantic. The wind picks up at dawn, I engage the wind vane and hoist the jib. Before I can relax, the wind increases and I have to reef the headsail. The wind drops soon after. The reefing exercises, interspersed with the occasional track to avoid a returning fishing boat, remind me of a Yachtmaster exam. Once I gain some distance offshore, the wind steadies. With no other yachts around at this early hour, I manage to get some sleep before being awakened by the boat heeling in strengthening winds. I reef again, but a momentary lapse in concentration leaves me staring at the splash left behind by one of the two winch handles falling overboard. Five hours into the voyage, and with at least five days to go, I am left wondering if this loss rate is sustainable. My hope is that mistakes like this one only befall those with insufficient experience, less then 10000 sea miles say. More importantly, however, I realise that I can not allow myself to be half-asleep while on deck. Every movement and every grip requires full awareness. I spend the rest of the passage guarding the remaining winch handle like the most precious thing in my rapidly shrinking world.

I continue tacking up the coast. Around midday, the light haze around me thickens into fog. I keep watch on deck, regularly checking the AIS. I make radio contact with a yacht sailing south, and as it passes close to starboard I can see that visibility is no better than a few hundred meters. Shortly after, I hear the sound of an engine and a large fishing boat appears on port. Doing at least 10 knots without an AIS transmitter, fog horn, nav lights or any discrenable watch on the bridge, they don't respond to my VHF call either and I have to alter course to let them pass ahead.

Cabo Fisterra comes in sight some hours later. Low-lying clouds pour over the steep cliffs and drift out to sea as fog, adding to the mysterious appearance of what was once the end of the known world. 
Cabo Fisterre

Watching the Finisterre lighthouse, I briefly revisit the possibility of stopping for the night. By now, I feel like I have settled into a routine. There don't seem to be many fishing boats close inshore, and the traffic separation scheme is some distance away. My main concern is fog, but it seems to only affect the few miles close inshore. I tack offshore and in less than an hour I can see the sky, followed by the horizon some minutes later. I watch the sunset, set the AIS and GPS alarms and go to sleep. I spend the night taking between the coast and the traffic lanes to the west. With two to three hours between tacks, I can get some much-needed sleep. By midnight I realise that a south-going stream runs closer inshore. I continue tacking up a 5-mile corridor just east of the TSS for the rest of the night. This makes for faster progress, albeit at the expense of sleep.

2013-09-15, Sunday - Becalmed with Whales

The sleep (and lack thereof) is quickly forgotten as I am treated to a beautiful sunrise. I am near the northern edge of the traffic separation scheme, and during the day I cross it to position myself northwest of the main shipping routes. As Spain is disappearing out of sight, I notice a puff of smoke driftting quickly towards me. It comes closer, and I realise it is actually a whale's blow. Having never seen a whale in my life, I am soon treated to the sight of at least four huge fins. Each exposed back is certainly longer than Auriga, with more hidden out of sight.

Becalmed on the second day
 The wind dies by noon, and I run the engine for a few hours to charge the batteries. I hoist the #1 genoa and spend the rest of the day eating, sleeping and sunbathing.

2013-09-16, Monday - Rude Awakening

The night ends with me being very nearly thrown out of my bunk. After putting on the waterproofs, boots, lifejacket, headtorch, and clipping on, I crawl to the foredeck on all fours. It is pitch black, I preceed to wrestle down the genoa, my torch illuminating the occasional bucketload of spray a moment before it hits my face. A headsail change and a reef later, I am completely soaked and wide awake. The first light breaks the clouds by the time I am finished. The wind backs a little throughout the day, and I maintain well over 6kn on a close reach. The swell builds, but also becomes more regular as I head out into the Biscay.
Navigating across the Biscay without a chart
Auriga proves very stiff once heeled to about 20 degrees, and keeps accelerating to consitent 7 knots. I maintain the speed until I notice the reefed jib chafing. I decide to change to the #3 and dump both the genoa and #2 on the wet saloon floor. The boat keeps taking water and I have to pump - 100 strokes every three hours to empty the main bilge, than some more for the forepeak. The rest of tha day is fairly monotonous, with the exception of the occasional tanker showing up nearby. 

2013-09-17, Tuesday - Biscay Gale

My fourth day at sea starts much like the previous one - I wake up when the boat falls off the top of a wave so hard that the electronics turn off and continues heeling somewhat excessively. I take 3 reefs on the main, change to the storm jib and settle in for a rough day. The 24h run exceeds 140 miles - not bad for a 30ft boat - and although the conditions are deteriorating, I continue making good progress. The traffic density increases as I get closer to Ushant, the pumping is tiring and all I manage for lunch is re-heated day-old pasta. The sea state worsens as I approach the continental shelf. While the wind pilot is great at steering a straight line, it knows nothing about avoiding breakers or not steering a boat straight down a wave crest. I have to adjust course after being caught beam-on repeatedly.
A loose shackle on the spinnaker pole keeps banging against the deck, forcing me to take another trip to the foredeck. I stick my head out the hatch and consider a quick dash there and back - it would only take a minute, I could do it my underwear. As I am still standing on the steps, I watch myself scramble on deck, jump forward, miss a step and disappear overboard. The out-of-body experience is so shockingly real that I can't halp asking myself how close I actually am to making a mistake due to tiredness and lack of sleep. I get fully dressed, double-check all my safety gear and clip on.
Windvane on watch
In the evening, I contact Ushant TSS on the VHF. I learn that a gale warning was issued earlier, but it has now been cancelled and the weather is forecast to improve. I settle in for one more uncomfortable night. A cargo ship overtakes to windward - it's wind shadow provides a short break from the constant baffeting. A few minutes later, it's back to reality of autumn sailing. I settle in for one more uncomfortable night. I have to be more cautios now - there are French fishing boats in the viscinity, and the yacht is buried between wave crests half the time, making it harder to see any lights or be seen. I sleep for a couple of hours in total, hoping to get rest after I pass Ushant.

2013-09-18, Wednesday

In the morning, I can indeed see all the signs of are cold front passing overhead and bringing rapidly improving weather. I cautioulsy hold on to the storm jib and shake out one, than another reef. The boat is surprisingly balanced and efficient over a wide range of wind speeds. I am now in the English Channel, the home straight! Optimistically, I could be in Plymouth around midnight, and this gives me the much needed psychological boost. 
Behind the cold front
Despite the sunshine, it is chilly - I am now almost 10 degrees further North. I try drying some of my clothing with little success - just as I start thinking about taking my waterproofs inside again, a wave breaks over the cockpit, leaving them as wet as before. Having given up on drying, I make lunch and try to get some rest while there is little traffic. The wind keeps easing and backing, soon I am sailing on a broad reach with a full genoa and one reef in the main. The windvane is not very precise in following seas, but still better than anything I expected.
As the day drags on and the wind eases, I have to revise my ETA. By nightfall, I am within range of Falmouth CG and ask them to relay a message. Upon request, I have to repeat the number of crew on board. The shipping lanes south of Plymouth are no place to sleep, and I settle in for a long night with a kettle boiling every half an hour and the SSB providing some entertainment.
I pass Eddystone lighthouse for the fourth time this summer - I am in familiar waters now, and I start visualizing my actions upon arrival. In my head, I go through hooking up the tiller pilot, dropping the jib, than the main. Getting the mooring lines and fenders ready. Finally, I am approaching the Plymouth breakwater. The tiller pilot fails minutes after I engage it, and I have to improvise as the boat rolls uncomfortably in the swell. Finally, I manage to get the sails down and I motor into Plymouth harbour. I loose all sense of scale and distance - what I imagined being a 15 minutes approach stretches for hours. I stare at the flashing lights and I can't help wondering how the previously obvious approach could have morphed into the most difficult pilotage I have ever done. I barely recognize the lighthouse at the western end of the breakwater. The bouys seemingly change position at random, an overtaking vessel forces me to get out of the main channel only to become an anchored ferry that has not moved all night. Finally, I call up the marina and ask for help with my mooring lines. At 4am, I am tied up at Queen Anne's Battery, home to the Royal Western Yacht Club.

2013-09-19, Thursday - Plymouth

Come morning, noone pays attention to a tired-looking 30ft yacht tied up alongside much bigger vessels. Yet Auriga has crossed oceans before and she is ready to do it again. The end of every adventure is just the beginning.

1 comment:

  1. Actually read this finally. I think you're mad. My mother also thinks you're mad, and has forbidden me from ever considering doing anything like this!