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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

In addition to downloading GRIB files, licking my index finger and holding it into the wind, and peering knowingly at the swirling clouds, I was also in communication with my brother-in-law, Trevor Richards, who runs Star Weather 

The author makes sure everything is lashed.
PJ Pesce photo

Routing. The forecast, which looked most unpleasant but manageable when we left Brest, now called for winds steady at 40 knots, gusting to 50, right on the nose, of course. “It’s going to get ugly,” Trevor texted via the Iridium sat phone, adding, “you might consider heaving to.” When I replied that was our plan, he responded reassuringly, “better you than me.” 

We needed to make our way farther offshore because once hove to we would drift back toward the continental shelf. We partially furled the staysail, gritted our teeth and forereached into the rapidly building wind. Fifty miles off the shelf we brought the boat into the wind, backing the staysail and lashed the wheel to leeward. We rode about 60 degrees off the wind and the natural slick to windward caused by the boat’s hove to motion prevented any waves from washing on deck. While long keels and skeg rudders are out of fashion these days, the ability to heave to, to “turn off” the wind and take a break is a seamanship option not available to those in more modern hull shapes. 

Eight hours later the wind backed to the south and we seized the opportunity to claw our way southwest. We went back to forereaching on port tack and made slow but steady progress. Andrew’s log entry summed up the conditions: “Gusts to 44 knots, triple-reefed main, tiny staysail, splashy.” We stuck to our watch system of three hours on and six off throughout the passage. Roger and PJ were a team, Andrew and Nickie another, and I had a solo watch. The hard dodger and full enclosure made standing watch dramatically less trying than if we were fully exposed to the elements. I had a nervous moment on my watch when I heard what clearly sounded like whales breathing off the stern. I started the engine and motored hard astern, creating a horrible motion but one that supposedly keeps orcas away from the rudder. After a few minutes I throttled back to neutral and shut down the engine. I scanned the dark horizon but couldn’t see anything but breaking waves. Hoping for the best, we carried on. 

The author enjoys captain's hour no matter the weather.
PJ Pesce photo

The wind dropped to 30 knots on the third day out of Brest but continued to blow from the southwest. It was becoming clear that we were not going to make Cadiz, or even Lisbon, in time for pre-arranged flights, and we began to consider an alternate landfall. We had another scare that morning when the autopilot quit. Pulling gear out of the lazarette to inspect the drive unit, I was shocked to see that the steering cables were loose. A close inspection also revealed that the autopilot linear drive had sheered the bolt connecting it to the quadrant. I spent a few hours squeezed into the lazarette, not a pleasant spot in lumpy seas, and eventually put the steering system and autopilot back together. We wondered if we may have had an orca encounter after all before concluding that it was more likely just the result of crashing off a nasty wave. 

Reluctantly, we decided to make for A’Coruna, a deep, natural harbor on the dramatic northwest coast of Spain. We beat through the night and at first light on November 30, we were 60 miles north of A’Coruna. We were ready for a break and eased out more sail. Roger, the most experienced sailor among the crew, conned Quetzal to windward for hours. The wind dropped to 20 knots as we closed the coast and, naturally, headed us. We fired up the engine, and without a trace of guilt motorsailed the last 40 miles. We pulled into a slip at A’Coruna Marina four days out of Brest, eight days and 700 miles out Lymington. That night, in a dry, warm café, we toasted the gales of Biscay. 

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