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Hove to in the gales of Biscay

2023 March 1

John Kretschmer needed his full kit of storm sailing tactics to get through a fraught passage across the famously nasty bay

I first downloaded the American GFS weather model, and it didn’t look good. I tried the ECMWF European model, but it was worse. I even downloaded the German ICON model, but no matter how many ways I crunched the data, the GRIB files refused to yield. I closed my eyes and meditated, I hummed Gregorian chants, I even turned the 

Crewmember Andrew Christie trims the sails as the weather relents.
PJ Pesce photo
iPad off and restarted it, but there was just no willing away the procession of deep low-pressure systems marauding across the Bay of Biscay. Gales and strong head winds were forecast for at least a week and possibly longer. We were going to get rocked and I had a sense of dejá vu. 

Quetzal was nestled in Lymington Yacht Haven, just off the Solent along the south coast of England. It was a fitting spot for a short but well-earned break. We had recently completed a challenging Atlantic crossing by way of the far north, retracing the route of the Vikings, albeit in reverse and nosing above the Arctic Circle. I chose Lymington because it was where we first launched Gigi, the Contessa 32 sloop that I sailed around Cape Horn 39 years ago. It was also a poignant stop, as my friend Jeremy Rogers, the legendary founder of Contessa Yachts, had recently passed away after a long illness. My wife Tadji and I had dinner with Jeremy’s family and remembered his remarkable career as a sailor, boatbuilder, husband, father and grandfather. We toasted a life well lived. 

My new crew arrived a few days later and Tadji had the good sense to return to our pied-à-terre in Paris, which serves as our home base these days. It was late October and time to sail south. We were bound for Cadiz, Spain, just west of the Straits of Gibraltar, a 1,200-mile nonstop passage across the Bay of Biscay and skirting the Iberian Peninsula. Studying the grim forecast, I remembered the trials of trying to coax Gigi out of the English Channel. I was a slightly terrified but game 23-year-old captain. I sailed with Gigi’s owner, Ty Techera, who was a complete novice but the hardiest of shipmates and he taught his young skipper the power of perseverance. We shoved off despite a dreadful forecast and endured a long, cold, soaking week pounding into relentless southwesterly gales. 

Crewmember Nickie Cudjoe takes a turn at the helm.
PJ Pesce photo

When we finally reached the Bay of Biscay, we were greeted by a Force 10 storm. Hello! It was a learning experience, to put it mildly, and would serve me well over the years as I became something of a specialist at stumbling into and out of heavy weather. In addition to trying out storm strategies I’d only read about, I discovered something just as important. If you are in a good boat and can find the right state of mind, it is a privilege to have a front row seat when nature is in a bad mood. 

Back to 2022, I had dubbed this sail a “heavy weather training passage” and for some macabre reason the promise of misery is irresistible, even priceless, and it sold out quickly. Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate, and heavy weather passages go smoothly. This time, my crew, Andrew, Nickie, Roger and PJ, could not accuse me of overhype—they got their money’s worth. 

We pushed off early to catch the current ebbing through Needles Channel. Once into the English Channel we made our way past the notorious tidal rip at Portland Bill, grateful for a 3-knot boost. The wind was reasonable, 20 to 25 knots from the south, and we zoomed along on a sweet close reach. A huge low-pressure system south of us was stalled, so we seized the opportunity to make as much westing as possible. Thirty hours, and 200 miles out of Lymington, we dodged the low and ducked into the Isles of Scilly with Nickie at the helm. 

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