Saturday, September 12, 2009

Wow, what a passage!

Crossing the Bay of Biscay may be one of those dreaded passages that lives up to its reputation—like Cape Mendocino and the Tasman Sea—or it could be our poor timing. The guide books say to be sure that no southwesterly weather is forecast. None was. They explain that the fierce waves are due to the ocean hitting the continental shelf, so we went well west of the shelf. The long-range weather forecast we got called for favorable winds in the 20-knot range. Perfect. And the forecast was consistent for several days before we left. Granted, we haven’t found the weather forecasting to be all that reliable, but what are you going to do? Sit around in the harbor forever?

We left Camaret with the predicted light southerlies and headed west to the real ocean. After 11 hours of mostly motor-sailing, much of it at the edge of a military practice area, we passed the fishing boats that hang out on the shelf and could finally turn south. According to the grib files (our short-wave radio source of weather forecasts), we would soon get 20-25 knots out of the northwest. Even though when we turned, we still had light south-southwest winds, we put a reef in the main. Within the course of an hour, the winds moved around and picked up, and we were sailing at six to seven knots pretty much downwind. Sweet!

The French navy exercising

The waves and wind kept building, and the British “shipping forecast” started calling for gales in southeast Fitzroy, right where we were headed. Darn the luck. Oh well, we’ve done gales before, and the boat takes them well even if we’re miserable, but this was on day two of a four-to-five-day passage, so I, at least, was wishing it was over already. (Note: the British shipping forecast is only a 24-hour forecast. They don’t do five days ahead, so they’re generally pretty accurate once they get around to issuing their forecast. By then it isn’t as much of a forecast as it is a statement of current conditions.)

During that second night we needed to put in the second reef, but before John could do that, the outhaul on the first reef broke during a jibe, and the tie-down we were using to hold up the extra sail sliced through the lower portion of the main sail. (Yes, that’s sailor talk. For non-sailors, the point is that our main sail tore, never mind how.) To add insult, while we were hove-to to reef, the line on our tow-behind generator wrapped itself around the skeg and had to be cut free. (We won’t be replacing the line. If anyone has a Ferris tow-behind generator and wants a spare generator and catcher, contact us.)

Broken outhaul (found after we docked)

And then our red-green navigation lights went out, but John fixed those. We don’t have working tri-color lights because when John went up the mast twice in Camaret, he couldn’t get to them so we’re going to hire someone. (Non-sailors, don’t sweat the details; just know that you need the red-green lights at night so that other traffic knows which way you’re going.)

When we got past the corner of Spain, things calmed down, and we even welcomed each other to sunny Spain. One more night of a peaceful motor-sail and we were outside Viana do Castolo, Portugal, in a pea-soup fog that reminded us of San Francisco Bay. In fact, because we were too late for the tide to go up the river to the marina, we turned off the engine to drift and heard the waves hitting the beach. That reminded me of beer-can races on Red Hawk out of Santa Cruz. In the fog Lou (the skipper) had us listen for the breakers so that we’d know when to turn into the harbor. Then we heard the boom of breakers crashing into rocks, checked the chartplotter to discover that we were drifting toward the beach, and restarted the engine.

Atlantic sunset

While waiting in the fog we discovered that those fishing stakes that have plagued us since the Baltic actually show up faintly on radar. And we were grateful for our AIS so that we could see what the two freighters were up to that were also drifting around in the fog. After one of them decided to move suddenly and got so close that we actually saw it as we were hurrying out of its way, I called the other to see what they were planning. I was informed that they were anchored already, but for the record, AIS still showed them “under way” when we started up the river.

Portuguese fishermen, another obstacle to avoid in the fog

As often happens in California too, just inland the fog cleared. So after we had inched past the first buoys and the jetties using GPS and radar, we could see to steer the rest of the way. And even though the marina didn’t answer on VHF or telephone, Carlos was on the dock to take our lines and welcome us to Viana and Portugal. And we’re very happy to be here with another American boat that came in behind us (Hannah Brown) and a friendly French couple on the catamaran Ti Corail that was already here when we arrived. Sail repair will have to wait for the next stop, but we plan to enjoy a couple of nights here in Viana do Castelo. It looks pretty.

As a post script since I didn’t get this entry uploaded last night, we had drinks and a lovely supper on Ti Corail with Agnès and Francis last night. They left this morning, but we hope we’ll see them again. They’re headed to the Caribbean, and we’ve added them to the list of boats we’re following, several of which are already in the Caribbean: Jammin , san clés , and Indigo.

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