Monday, 30 June 2014

The Crossing

Destiny is a fickle thing.  Just when you’re convinced that you’re living under a dark curse, it turns out that all the bad things happening to you are actually sparing you greater troubles.  Thus began our first multi-day crossing of the Bay of Biscay.

As we approached the meeting point we had set with our friends making the crossing with us, we realized that our vhf marine radio was not working.  After a few telephone calls, we agreed that it would be folly to try to head out without the means to contact each other (or emergency services) and so we called our electrician and re-routed to a nearby port to look at the problem.  Our friends were on a schedule and had to go on without us.

After 2 days, the problem was solved and the weather looked pretty good so we decided to go ahead and cross to Bilbao by ourselves.  After meeting up, we learned that they had a much rougher crossing than we did, and if we had been with them, we probably would have been traumatized. 

As it was, we were none too happy.  We agreed that we would never, ever do something so stupid again.  It’s too stressful, too tiring, and no fun!  Why on earth are we doing this to ourselves?  Then there were moments of grace:  the first day was gorgeous and we were sailing wing-and-wing from morning to sunset on a flat sea, the sky was full of shooting stars, the ocean turned a deep royal blue as we moved into 2000 meters of water, and the next morning, dolphins came to play with us.

First night jitters
Off to a great start

Sailing wing and wing most of the first day on a flat sea.

Our at-sea berth with lee cloths to prevent rolling out: 2 hours in, 2 hours out, repeat.

Neptune's greeting committee

But the weather worsened and we hit an 18-hour period of 20-25 knot winds and swell hitting us a-beam.  The motion was uncomfortable and no rest was possible.  We didn’t trust the pilot in those conditions (wrongly, I think) and so we steered for about 40 hours straight, including a pitch-black night with no visual reference other than the dim red glow of the compass. 

When we were 50 miles off the coast of Bilbao, the wind died down and it began sprinkling.   The sky roared with thunder and lightning lit up the sky as far as we could see along the coast.  Late in the evening, we saw a strange tubular cloud develop in front of our eyes like a tornado turned on its side.  I quickly ran below to look at cloud pictures in our marine atlas but couldn’t identify it.  I suppose it is caused from northerly winds laden with humidity hitting the mountains and being lifted up, condensing, sinking and getting re-hit by northerly winds, creating a roll.  Once the roll gets heavy enough, it takes on a life of its own and rolls "downhill" with a wind shear.  Or not.  Will look it up later...

While the wind was from behind, this thing was moving towards us, very quickly.  We didn’t know what it was but were certain that we didn’t want to have any sail up when it hit.  We briefly thought about trying to sail around it or run away, but it was too large and moving too fast.  We decided the best strategy would be to charge at it perpendicularly to pass under and out as quickly as possible. 

The not-so welcoming site over the north coast of Spain.
Under the cloud roll, the winds rose to 35 knots and the rain pelted down but the winds were in the nose and there was no swell, so it actually wasn’t so bad.  A few minutes later, a second roll hit but it was less structured than the first and the winds lighter.  After those few harrowing minutes, things calmed down to what a friend calls “dog breath weather” … warm, humid, and un-breathable.  We motored through the rest of the night in relative calm with light steady rain and a pink and yellow lightning display dancing along the coast but without any strikes in the area.  We finally decided we could trust the pilot to steer, which allowed us to get some much needed rest for the final leg of the journey.  The industrial harbor of Bilbao appeared at dawn and those red and green channel lights were the most beautiful sight we’d seen in a long time.

Bilbao harbor entrance after a rough night.

Post-crossing dry out and nap.
With a few days behind us now, and several hours of psycho-therapy with our friend who has a couple of solo trans-Atlantic crossings under his belt, we've decided it wasn't so bad after all and that we're now better prepared to tackle those rought spots that frighten us.  But being capable of doing something and actually wanting to do it are not the same thing.  We'll revisit this theme again soon, I suspect.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

And we're off !

The weather and our nerves have stabilized (somewhat in both cases, anyway) and we’re making final preparations to head across the Bay of Biscay to Spain for 3-4 months of cruising.  We’ll be buddy boating with a Sun Odyssey 40, much bigger and certainly faster than us in most conditions, but we’ve agreed to stay in radio contact (about 25 miles), which is a huge comfort for our first multi-night crossing.  The skipper of the SO 40 has 30 years of experience including transatlantic solo races, so we’re in good hands.

The plan is to head down to the new port of Laredo on the northern Spanish coast.  This is one of the rare ports in the area that can be entered at any time and all conditions, with easy and safe anchoring just outside the port if needed.  The big hop should take us about 48 hours.  We’ll float around roughly in a westerly direction with our buddy until we reach Gijon, where they will head back east and home and we will head west and south down to Bayona close to the Portuguese border, then work our way back north and east through the rias of Galice.  We’ll head back to the French coast (somewhere around the Bordeaux region) by mid-August to avoid the unsettled weather that develops in Biscay, and island hop our way back home in no particular hurry.

Next update from the road ! (… Spanish port somewhere).
Posted on Saturday, June 14, 2014 | Categories: ,

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

First Night

The sky was clear, the moon was nearly full and the winds light.  The forecast was for steady westerly winds, force 3 to 4, a perfect night to test our night navigation equipment and ourselves.  That reverie was short-lived.  Around 1:30 in the morning, we put in the first reef, one hour later, the second, and by 3 a.m. we had rolled up the genoa entirely and were wondering whether or not to start rigging the 3rd reef (which we failed to do before leaving because the sky was clear, the moon was nearly full and the winds light, etc.)

The plan was to head down to the Loire river estuary, buzz around the waiting cargos to test our AIS system, then head back in time for sunrise.  Half way there, the southern sky was illuminated along the coast by lightening and we started getting pummelled with strong gusts.  U-TURN !  A big anvil-shaped cloud blocked out our moon and the wind howled through the shrouds as we made a dash back into the relative calm of the Quiberon bay.

We zig-zagged across the bay for the next 3 hours, trying to maintain a comfortable and stable course.  We dodged a couple of fishing boats and had the piss scared out of us by a huge unidentified unmoving blob lit up light a Christmas tree, which we eventually identified as wind turbines along the coast (not shown on our charts).  At daybreak, the wind died out completely and a light steady rain fell.  We tried to coax the sails to stay filled but we finally cracked and started up the motor for a wet one-hour trip to the port of La Turballe.

As a test, it was a good one, although it was not at all the confidence-building experience we had in mind.  Here are a few things we learned along the way:

1.  Head-lamps are a must.  We have two on board but hadn’t put the batteries because we didn’t think we would need them (calm night…no need for reefing, right?).  Trying to work with one hand while the other holds a flashlight on a rolling boat is ridiculous. 

2.  The pilot works well and is very much appreciated, especially at night.  Finally !  We’ve been without a reliable pilot for over a year.  Even after the new computer was installed last week, it was plagued with a bad electrical connection that I was able to track down and fix at sea.  We feel (relatively) confident about it now.

3.  Our watch schedule went to hell as the wind increased.  We tried to take turns resting but the noise and tension were too much until the wind died down around 5 a.m.  For a 24 hour passage, this is no big deal.  Two days or more?  Untenable.  Once the wind started calming down, Patrick managed to get some sleep and I managed to shake out both reefs and unroll the Genoa by myself (with the help of the pilot).

4.  Our at-sea bunk is cold!  Need to put down a sleeping bag.

5.  We had difficulties adjusting our clothing appropriately between the cockpit and the saloon.  We wanted to stay more-or-less fully clothed and ready to jump up to the cockpit to help the person on watch at any moment.  But staying fully clothed meant sweltering in the saloon below (while the bunk itself seemed icy…nasty combination).  Next time, we’ll strip off all the outer gear and just have shoes and lifejacket in place.

6.  Next time, we will rig the bloody 3rd reef point before leaving home, no matter what the weather forecast says. 

7.  We will never believe the weather forecast.  We had thought about putting in a preventative reef at sunset, just in case, but the weather conditions were so nice we decided not to.  It was relatively easy to put in the reefs when we needed them (we’re early reefers anyway) but I think a preventative reef may be a good habit to develop.   

8.  Easy to eat / easy to access food is important.  Since the night was supposed to be calm, I didn’t prepare anything ahead of time.  I was able to make soup and sandwiches, but it wasn’t easy or comfortable.  I also forgot to set up the pot-holders for the stove (to keep the kettle clamped in place). 

9.  The bad stuff gets forgotten easier than you think.  While we were discussing whether or not to rig the 3rd reef, Patrick looked at me and said “I don’t think we’re ready for a 3 day crossing of Biscay,” to which I replied, “There’s no way we’re crossing Biscay.”  24 hours later, we seemed to have forgotten all about our rough night, instead agreeing that, while it was stressful and uncomfortable, we could gut it out for a few days if we had to. 

10.  But it’s supposed to be fun, isn’t it?  This realization came while we were asking ourselves “why are we doing this again?”  We’ve done long crossings before as crew and it was fun, even if there were some rough passages here and there.  But being a short-handed skipper and crew on your own boat is another story and the anxiety is pretty heavy. 

Maybe we should take some smaller steps first, like hugging the coast as far as we can and then making a 24-hour hop to the Spanish coast, rather than setting off directly for a 3 day notoriously-rough crossing.  I’m confident that after a couple of successful 24-hour crossings, we’ll be ready for something bigger.  We’ve got no calendar that says we have to be somewhere on a given date, so why push so far outside our comfort zone?  One of the blogs I enjoy following is called, reassuringly,  “just a little further” where the crew of Nine of Cups stress the importance of concentrating on little challenges first and building experience slowly to ensure that thing stay enjoyable.  That’s the key to keeping long-term sailing ambitions alive and a philosophy that appeals to me on the eve of a big challenge !

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Bringing in the Sheaves

After my lamentations earlier this week about our pulley sheaves that needed repositioning, I was reminded of the American gospel hymn “bringing in the sheaves” and found the original reference in Psalm 126:6 quite amusing: "He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.”

Our precious seed was Patrick’s tenacity in attacking a job that required multiple skills (and power tools) that we didn’t have.
The challenge:  move 2 sets of pulley sheaves for the single-line reefing system back along the boom to allow us to tighten down the new mainsail at the first and second reef points.  The photo shows a before and after illustration of the problem.  In the “before” image on the left, the reef point is behind the pulley sheaves, making it impossible to tighten the sail.  The “after” image shows the appropriate positioning.

The pulley sheaves and reef points, before and after.

Step 1:  Calculate where the sheaves need to be.  This was my job and involved lots of hoisting, tugging, measuring, and a little art work.   

The pulleys and their insets.

New placement.

Step 2:  Drill holes to make the rounded ends of the oval insets for the pulley sheaves.  Had to buy a new tool for that one.

Step 3:  Saw between the holes to make the oval insets.  Had to buy a new tool for that one, too.

Step 4:  Pass the reef lines to the new holes and through the sheaves, then rivet the sheaves into place.  We had a rivet gun but it wasn’t strong enough.  The sail maker loaned us his professional one.

Step 5:  Rivet an aluminium plaque over the old holes.  Done !  (On one side; now repeat for the other side.)

We also found a local machinist to weld two stainless steel shackles to our boom gooseneck.  This gives us a better angle for tightening the reef points along the mast.

Two shackles welded onto the boom gooseneck.

In the midst of all this, the new battery charger arrived and was installed.

And now?   How about a little sailing? 

Posted on Tuesday, June 03, 2014 | Categories: