Arrival in La Coruña – Bay of Biscay crossing

At 2.20am on Sunday morning, HMSTC Kukri arrived in La Corunna, with all hands relieved to have completed a highly demanding winter crossing of the Bay of Biscay; their fair log below describes the conditions and is a great credit to the crew.  They are now having some well earned rest in La Corunna, making repairs to the yacht and soaking up some Spanish atmosphere before the next leg departs on Sunday 22nd February bound for Villamoura.

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 Day 1: 9 Feb 15.   The first leg started with a 9am meet on the Nicholson 55 yacht, Kukri. The location was Joint Services Adventure Sail Training Centre, Gosport. So ten people who had never met before were all waiting for one person, the skipper, Phil Brown – it turned out that he had been doing the food shopping so we couldn’t hold it against him for being late. After all the introductions we went into all the mandatory safety briefings as we would be departing for Guernsey the next day. There were a few novices on board so needless to say not everyone slept well that night – after all how many yachts cross the Biscay, let alone in February.

 Day 2: 10 Feb 15.   A 5.30am start was required if we were to make Guernsey in good time. After washing and eating the crew started preparing the boat for the day’s sail. We slipped the mooring lines at 7.30am and that was it – Ex Gallipoli 2015 had begun. We sailed into the Solent to conduct a few crew drills and then we were in the English Channel making headway south. After guiding our way across the shipping lanes we made haste towards the Alderney Race for what we thought would be the last section before arriving in Guernsey. Unfortunately nature is a fickle beast and because of the worsening conditions, a strong wind warning on the latest forecast, and the inexperience of the crew, the skipper decided to put into Cherbourg for the night to regain our strength and set off again the next day. We moored after a wet beat to windward at 0030 hours local time. Today had opened the eyes of a few of the crew to what may lie ahead.

 Day 3: 11 Feb 15.   A lie in and a good breakfast meant that we were ready to tackle the journey ahead. We slipped lines at Cherbourg at 12 o’clock midday and made our way for Guernsey where we were due to refuel. We crossed the Alderney Race which was slightly choppy due to the fast tides but the pleasant downwind weather made this part of the journey bearable. It was proving to be a fine downwind sail until the skipper got the updated weather forecast. It didn’t make for good reading so we decided to abandon the refuelling at Guernsey and head straight away across the Bay of Biscay towards Northern Spain. A low pressure system was expected, replacing the following easterly winds with strong south westerly winds and it made sense that we made as much southerly progress before the weather changed. The crew settled into its watch system and mentally prepared itself for the few days ahead.

Day 4: 12 Feb 15.   The crew was getting along fine, operating efficiently and without fuss, save for a few cases of sea sickness. The worst that was hitting us was Force 5 weather as the wind gradually went from east to south west. We rounded the Island of Ushant which is the north westernmost point of France at around 1200 hours and altered course for the long slog across the Bay of Biscay. The wind came round to the SW and gradually increased. Life became wet on deck as we started beating into the wind. After darkness a ship was spotted and as we passed ahead of it they contacted us by radio asking where we were heading. We replied saying that we were crossing the Biscay. The ship replied asking whether we had heard the latest forecast giving gale force winds of up to 40 knots. The tone of the ship’s radio operator implied that a lonely sailing yacht should not be attempting a crossing of the Biscay with such a forecast. We carried on towards Spain, but the mood had definitively turned more sombre.

 Day 5: 13 Feb 15.  The third day of our passage and signs of fatigue started setting in. We were right in the midst of a Force 8 gale, gusting Force 9 and it required all of our will to even go on deck. The crew were performing brilliantly. Not everyone could handle the helm due to the conditions but those who did earned their pay this day. The wind and rain battered across the deck knocking people over and forcing us to dive for cover as the bows of the yacht ploughed into huge waves and walls of green water cascaded across the deck and the cockpit became a jacuzzi of frothing water. Helming required total concentration, and being exposed to the wind, ones water logged hands soon became extremely cold. At times squalls would hit us and rain and hail lashed across one’s face stinging the salt water drenched eyeballs. The skipper told us “36 hours and we will be alongside in a little Spanish marina somewhere;” this made everyone double their efforts. This had truly been a day of days, testing our endurance and at this moment in time, it felt like the Bay of Biscay was winning.

Day 5: 14 Feb 15.   The last full day of this nightmare, knowing we would be alongside the following morning. By this time the crew were exhausted, tired from the constant beating from the waves. Sleep came easy to some, in fits and starts for others. We needed to see this last period through and then we would be done. Every time a new watch would go up on deck the skipper would say “good effort guys, the last bit.” We knew what was required and surged ahead with the finish line in sight. One last good meal that evening stilled our stomachs and we hunkered down for the last few hours. We had nearly made it. Land was spotted some 25 miles out. As we approached, the mountainous seas gradually subsided as we came under the lee of the north coast of Spain.

 Day 6: 15 Feb 15.   As this day started, we had made the protection of the bay of La Corunna. The winds had dropped, the rain had stopped and the sea was thankfully calmer. We dropped the sails and motored into the marina looking for a space to moor alongside. We moored at 2.20am, four and a half days after setting off from Cherbourg, crossing the Bay of Biscay through horrendous and challenging conditions. We were all cold, wet and tired but deep down we were, with out exception, very proud to have achieved a successful crossing of the Bay of Biscay – a feat that not many experience, especially in February!

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 Day 7: 16 Feb 2015 – recuperation.   The gales we’ve endured in the Bay have taken a toll on the crew and the boat. Sleep has been a commodity in short supply and in the next few days we plan to recharge our bodies and restore the boat’s broken bits. The saloon table has been ripped from its mountings, a part of the wooden toe rail has parted from the deck, the navigation lights have been ripped off the pulpit by the force of the waves and have disappeared into the ocean, several lockers have been stoved-in by crew members as they had been flung across the cabin during the voyage. We’ve also found that the companion way hatch leaked severely every time a wave crashed over the deck and this needs fixing. Having rectified the yacht and given it a good clean we are confident that the boat will be in a good condition to be passed on to the crew for the next leg. We are planning to take the opportunity to explore La Corunna – a town bearing evidence of considerable historical wealth and influence, with some wonderful Spanish architecture, particularly the impressive town hall and surrounding square which is truly stunning. The crew are looking forward to a well earned meal ashore to round off a challenging, rewarding and most definitely memorable sail.

La Jument light SW of Ushant marking the entry to the Bay of Biscay.
La Jument light SW of Ushant marking the entry to the Bay of Biscay.

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