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.