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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

The author and crewmember Nicki Cudjoe take advantage of the calm before the storm to sort things out on the foredeck.  PJ Pesce photo


I didn’t need much of an excuse to detour to the Isles of Scilly and not just because they have a great name. A cluster of rocks and small islands just off the Cornwall coast, they’re touted as England’s tropical islands. Hmm? The water is blueish when the sun is just right, and the beaches are, well, a mix of sand and rock, but tropical? That’s a stretch. Brooding and windswept, the isles are enchanting in their own, English kind of way and also the setting for one of the country’s greatest maritime disasters. In 1707, the English fleet was returning from the Mediterranean under the command of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, a name you can’t make up. Unfortunately, Sir Cloudesley underestimated his latitude and his flagship piled up on the rocks. Four other ships of the line followed the admiral to their doom and nearly 2,000 sailors died. A story that just won’t go away claims that a local Scilly islander aboard the flagship tried to warn the admiral that they were approaching the islands. Insulted, Sir Cloudesley had him hung for impudence just before the ships barreled ashore. Supposedly, Sir Cloudesley survived the wreck and floated onto a beach where a local woman found him, bashed his head in with a rock and swiped his fancy rings. Thirty years later she confessed the crime on her deathbed.

The author takes the helm to steer through rough weather in the Bay of Biscay.
PJ Pesce photo

We were away at first light, trying and failing to lay the rhumbline toward Cape Finisterre. Strong southwest winds filled in behind the low, leaving us with two lousy choices, head due west for the open Atlantic south of Ireland, or aim toward Ile de Quessant, at the northeast corner of the Bay of Biscay. Quessant, which the Brits call “Ushant” just to irk the French, is the notorious island with a weathered lighthouse that’s always pictured on calendars with monster waves washing over it. 

Although we were making decent progress tacking every four hours, the forecast called for southwest winds steady at 30 to 35 knots, with gusts to 45 knots, and seas to 20 feet. We had a 24-hour window to make our way past Quessant into Brest, a well-protected harbor on the northwest Brittany coast. It was a fateful decision and in hindsight probably a mistake. We would spend four challenging days trying to pound our way across Biscay. 

The Bay of Biscay has a nasty reputation and for the most part it’s not deserved. In the summer, Biscay is a great sailing area rimmed with good harbors and French restaurants. But most sailors wait until the fall to leave Northern Europe on their way to the Med or Canary Islands, when the weather is less settled. A combination of prevailing southwest winds that amp up in the fall, low-pressure systems that track farther south, and raucous waves caused by abrupt depth changes where the continental shelf slices across the northern bay, can make for challenging sailing. Turning south-southeast, we gave up our precious westing and after an overnight sail secured Quetzal in the huge Marina du Chateau. We were thankful for floating pontoons; Brest harbor has a tidal range of nearly 25 feet.

The crew hunkers down Quetzel's protected cockpit.
PJ Pesce photo

After a nice dinner ashore, and a busy morning of stocking up on essential French rations including red wine, fresh baguettes, dijon, and the piece de resistance of offshore provisions, aux cristol de sel (French butter with salt crystals,) we shoved off, once again bound for Cadiz. 

This time we not only had gales on our minds, but also orcas. For the past three years sailboats have been targets of a prowling pod of orcas that roam from Gibraltar to the Bay of Biscay. While it’s hard to know just how many boats have had encounters, it is in the hundreds. The orcas typically go after the rudder and many boats have had to limp or be towed into port. By all accounts it’s terrifying when three-ton orcas ram the hull and take chunks out of, or completely break off, the rudder. Two boats have been sunk, including a 39-foot Beneteau on November 1, 2022. PJ and Roger thought they heard orcas off the stern during their night watch on our approach to Brest but fortunately they didn’t come for a visit. 

All through the day of October 26 we shortened sail and by nightfall we were down to a triple-reefed main and staysail. Quetzal was nicely balanced, and we punched out 6 knots sailing close to the wind, pushing through one squall after another. At first light we were 30 miles from deep water where we hoped the seas would be longer and more regular. The passage across the continental shelf was wild with breaking waves charging at us from all directions. I was below, making breakfast, and suggested that we fall off the wind to ease the motion. Andrew and PJ were in the cockpit and questioned the strategy. “We will be taking the seas on the beam, is that OK?” PJ asked. “Just for a bit,” I replied, “it will be fine.” Sixty seconds after my reassurance, a steep wave smacked us just forward of the beam, breaking over the deck and twisting the stainless pipe between the stanchions that secured the spare fuel jerry cans into a pretzel. The jerry cans flopped across the foredeck, and we scrambled to retrieve them and lash them in the cockpit. The wave also cracked the Lexan portlight just above the galley creating a steady leak over the stove. 

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