Sister's Journal

Date: 12.September.1999
Location: Figueira da Foz, Portugal
Position: 40 degrees 8.8 minutes North, 08 degrees 52 minutes West
England and Across the Bay of Biscay

We spent a couple of weeks in England including one day in London plus another half day after we dropped the kids (remember our niece and nephew have been with us) off at Heathrow for their flight home. I think they had a good time although I think the experience was somewhat different than what they expected. We spent more time in transit, particularly motoring, and less time in port that I think they expected. Oh well, such is the reality of traveling through the world at 6 knots.

We spent our first week in England at Brighton, enjoying communicating with people in English, a little of the English countryside and, FINALLY, some decent BEER. It didn't take us a day to find a tiny brewpub in Brighton and I drank my share, and most of Andy's, of some relatively hoppy beer there.

The second week we were in Cowes, Isle of Wight. Cowes has been described as a sailing Mecca to which every sailor should make a pilgramage at least once. It was indeed a sailing intensive area and, being a devoted boat watcher, I enjoyed Cowes ... at least for a couple of days. The rest of the week we spent biding our time waiting for a package of anti-cholesterol medicine from the States. We finally left without the medicine having made arrangements for it to be forwarded to Portugal.

Many experienced sailors suggest that, when one is planning to cross the Bay of Biscay from north to south one should first go to Falmouth in southwest England and wait for a good weather forecast. Accordingly, in the afternoon of September 28, we left Cowes, headed for Falmouth. The weather was mild. Again, we motored through the night.

As evening approached we heard the British Coast Guard announce on the VHF radio (remember the law says you have to monitor VHF channel 16) that they had received a single May Day call from a yacht named "Trampus" and they had commenced a search. Trampus had been in our vicinity when she made the May Day call so we were in the middle of the Coast Guard search the entire night. The search was conducted entirely by helicopter and it was pretty eerie to watch that huge spotlight sweep back and forth as the helicopter meticulously flew back and forth along the English coast. The first time I saw the helicopter light it was a some distance and it looked like a powerful beacon on shore. Mild panic set in since we weren't supposed to be anywhere near the shore. Then I noticed that the light was getting larger and closer. Then the chopper flew by and I realized what it was. They searched the rest of the night. A ship reported seeing a flare in the area. The CG reported that local police had said that the flare was launched from somewhere on shore. Another ship reported hearing an emergency radio beacon but the CG said that a commercial airliner had reported accidentally setting off their beacon ... no sign of Trampus. The search went on the entire night and, apparently, the next day for it wasn't until that afternoon that they announced that they were calling off the search and Trampus was nowhere to be found. Having left the area I doubt that we'll ever find out her fate.

The afternoon of the 29th we were approaching Falmouth. The weather was mild, the weather fax indicated decent weather for the next few days so, rather than put into Falmouth we turned left and headed for the Bay of Biscay and Cape Finisterre. We were sailing by this time and the northeasterly wind was right at our back at about 15-17 knots. Pretty mild for the B of B. This lasted for a day and night and Sister moved steadily, even monotonously, out into and across the B of B at 6 knots. The sea was not kind but then not abusive either.

Sailing with the wind at your back is not the optimal situation one might expect it to be. The boom has to be brought way out to the side of the boat to get the main sail out into the wind. The boat rocks in all three of her axes ... she rolls, pitches and yaws. With the motion, particularly yaw and roll, the boat can, for a short time, lose the wind. When this happens the boom essentially wallows and can move back toward the center line of the boat. When the wind catches the sail again it either slams the boom back to it's proper position or it can actually catch the back of the sail and slam the boom all the way to the other side of the boat ... an accidental jibe. This boom action can be pretty violent and if one actually jibes it can be disastrous, potentially doing major damage to the boat's rigging.

To deal with this we tied a line to the end of the boom and ran the line forward to a "cleat" . This line holds the boom in place and effectively prevents the accidental jibe. Surprisingly enough a line rigged so is called a preventer. Once rigged our preventer held the boom nicely in position and we weren't subjected to the violent jerk of the boom being knocked about by the wind.

As the wind increased from 15 to 20 to 25 knots we doused the jib and reefed the main and moved steadily, if uncomfortably, along at 6 knots. By Sep 1 we were in 35 knot winds with a heavy swell coming primarily from the stern. Sister would occasionally ride a wave like a surf board. When she did so her speed increased dramatically for a brief time then, when the wave passed under her she would veer dramatically to port, heel over perilously, usually burying the lee (the downwind) rail under water. Then, without fail, she would straighten herself up, get her head pointed in the right direction and continue on.

This was extremely uncomfortable, Andy and I wore harnesses and kept ourselves strapped in anytime we were out of the cabin ... even in the cockpit. Believe it or not, however, it wasn't particularly scary. Sister never felt overpowered, never really out of control and never threatened. "Wanda the wandering autopilot", worked overtime and was regularly confused by the yaw but she inevitably sorted herself out and steered the entire way.

During the day of Sep 1 we were entertained by dolphins for an hour or two. They seemed to enjoy the crazy seas, particularly surfing the larger waves. Often a large wave would approach and we could see 3 to 4 dolphins actually sliding down the wave smiling at us. Occasionally they would overtake a wave and burst right through it into thin air, all the time wearing their perpetual smile. It was a welcome break. The 35 knot winds and shitty seas continued the whole day of Sep 1 and into the night as we approached Cape Finisterre.

Andy and I had been standing two hour watches, particularly during the dark hours. Two hours is not too long to stand watch at 0200 in the morning but it is definitely not long enough to get significant sleep, particularly when the motion is so violent, while you're off watch. Were getting pretty tired. By 2000 that day we were exhausted. About that time, however, the wind abated to 17 knots and the seas calmed significantly. We had rounded the Cape and were entering a different world. By 0200 the next morning we were motoring through glassy water, going slow so we wouldn't reach Bayona in the dark. At 0600, Sep 2 we were off Bayona, Spain, having been escorted the final two hours by dolphins galore. They were extremely cool, and nearly as welcome as the small winds and calm sea!

The Bay of Biscay was behind us. We were spared it's notorious southwest winds and it's "equinoctial gales". It didn't coddle us but it certainly didn't abuse us to the extent that it is known for. Now we've left Spain and we're in Portugal. The weather is warm, the water is calm, the breeze is soft and I am READY for it!

Chuck and Andy in Figueira da Foz, Portugal


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