Testing the toys in the Bay of Biscay

We continued to have a hectic last few days in Plymouth on the build up for our Biscay trip.  The Autopilot was delivered, installed and tested – and it didn’t work!  We had been sold a faulty unit.  Obviously sending us a new one next week wasn’t going to work, so there was a massive ring around of Raymarine dealers in UK to see if anyone had one on the shelf.  One was put on an overnight courier from Portsmouth and at 10am, just before the guests joined at 6pm a very friendly bloke arrived to install it and check it worked.  By noon it was up and running, hurrah.

So with all the new toys working we were ready on time for our passage across Biscay.  We offer the sail across Biscay as a qualifying passage for Yachtmaster Ocean, and this week we were joined by Donald and Mike, both wanting to use the passage as a qualifier.  We were also joined by Darragh, new to sailing but keen to learn.

Studying the weather is part of the requirement for an ocean passage, so we pored over synoptic charts, grib files, web data and the Met Office forecast.  All sources agreed that we would have a mix of wind with most of it on the nose and we would have to do a good bit of tacking.  There was also a warning of a 5 m swell and high seas in the western approaches from a fairly vicious low pressure out in the Atlantic.

We usually take the shortest route inshore of the traffic separation scheme off Ushant, but in this forecast we decided to beat out of the English Channel and take the longer route, clear of the land and the ships.  It took us a very long time to clear Ushant, we made great progress when the tide was with us and then slow progress when the tide was against us, but eventually after 30 hours of beating hard to windward, we were in the Bay of Biscay.  Here surprisingly the wind died off a bit and we had a nice long fetch into the Bay amongst a host of fishing boats all fishing on the continental shelf.

We continued to monitor the weather with Navtex and weatherfax and watched a stream of low pressure systems building in the Atlantic.  It was clear we were going to get strong gale or storm force headwinds as we approached Finisterre.  We had 24 hours to go until this wind arrived and we were within 100 miles of La Coruna so we decided to detour.

The requirement for an Ocean passage is 600 nm by the log, and as we had already sailed 480 miles, just one more tack would make it long enough to count!  As it was, we needed a few more tacks and by the time we arrived in La Coruna we had sailed 660 miles.  A good decision to divert as by the time we arrived in sight of the Tower of Hercules it was already blowing 40 knots.

Our 4 day passage across the Bay of Biscay, gave Donald and Mike plenty of time to practise with the Sextant, Darragh started learning chartwork and Richard and Lin had time to read the handbooks and get to grips with the new electronics.  As expected a few extra calibrations were needed!

After a day to let the sea calm down and explore the old Spanish town of La Coruna, we set out again to sail overnight around Finisterre.  This time the passage was completely different – downwind for a start.  Calm sea and glorious sunshine as we ghosted along the coast of Spain.  With temperatures in the 20’s it was time to get the shorts out.  This part is all coastal navigation with lots of clear landmarks during the day and lighthouses in the night.  Darragh quickly became a dab hand with the hand bearing compass and mastered the art of three point fixes in no time getting many of his lines to intersect without a cocked hat.

By the time we arrived in Sanxenxo, the wind had died and the temperature rose even more. Drinking beer in the sunshine on the terrace, everyone agreed it was a shame to have to go home.

Richard and I have been in Sanxenxo for 3 days now, with continue blue skies and sunshine we are taking the opportunity to put everything outside for an ‘air’.  Bunk cushions, carpets, upholstery, oilskins, even the clothes from our wardrobe!

As we continue south, we expect the weather to get warmer and are really looking forward to our next few trips.  After drying them out, we have just packed all our thermals and lined trousers away for next year, and replaced them in the wardrobe with shorts and t shirts.  Now away from the prevailing westerly winds of the Bay of Biscay, we are about to enter the Portuguese trades and expect more downwind sailing from here on – There are still a few places on our next trips, and time for you to book a place and join us.  Go on!

Just heard – Easy jet are having a sale, with discounted prices on flights to Madeira and Lanzarote.

Milebuilding Passages – Bodo to Bergen

After a fantastic summer season in the Lofoten Islands, we have just started to make our way south towards the UK. At this time of the year our sailing changes from day sailing and exploring to milebuilding trips. These provide the opportunity to mix coastal cruising with short offshore passage making. These trips are ideal to get a taste of round the clock watchkeeping and night sailing without being too far from land.

We were a bit of an international crew for our sail from Bodo to Bergen. Jackie and Michael from Switzerland who had previously sailed with us day sailing in Spain, Adapia and Mario from Italy who had previously sailed with us day sailing in Iceland, and Jonathan, who keeps his own boat on the west coast of Wales. All were new to long passages and overnight sailing and looking forward to the experience.

In 10 days we clocked up 734 miles in bite sized chunks! 2 passages each lasting 2 nights and 300 miles. The remainder of the miles coastal day sailing, and including a detour to the glistening glacier at Svartissen.

Our route from Bodo to Bergen takes us around Statt headland, Norway’s answer to Portland Bill. The pilot book is full of warnings about not rounding the headland in bad weather, and so when we received a forecast for SW8 and 9 we decided that we had to divert and wait out the gale. As the forecast went up to SW10, we realised that we had a long wait; it was third day lucky before we were off again.

Our delay meant we approached Bergen in the dark, through the very busy traffic lanes and we were all kept on our toes keeping track of the lights of other ships amongst the many sectored lights and oil terminals. Great practice and experience for those new to sailing in the dark.

The tiny harbour in the centre of Bergen was buzzing when we arrived, and continued to get busier. A-ha, Norway’s biggest pop band were playing live in the city centre, and by 5pm on Saturday night, boats were rafted 5 deep all along the harbour wall – we couldn’t have left if we’d wanted to.

The weather has now settled down and we are about to set off on our next sail, the 400nm passage across the Norwegian sea to Scotland, followed by a cruise through the Hebrides and Irish Sea on our way back to Plymouth. After Plymouth, we continue with milebuilding passages and coastal cruising right up until December.

Across the Bay of Biscay early October, along the Atlantic coast of Spain and Portugal late October, Southern Spain to Madeira in November and finally Madeira to Lanzarote the first week of December. If you wonder what passage sailing and watchkeeping are all about, why not come along and give it a try.

Ocean Passage – 600 miles on the log

Part of the  RYA requirement for a passage long enough to qualify towards a Yachtmaster Ocean certificate is that it should be 600nm by the log and a minimum of 96 hours at sea. As we gathered around the saloon table at the start of our last trip this was an important point to consider as we planned our passage from Madeira to the Azores.

The Azores are a group of volcanic islands situated approximately half way between Europe and America.  Although it is only 470nm from Madeira to Santa Maria, the closest island, it is a further 300nm to Flores and Corvo the westernmost islands.  Depending on the weather we would definitely be able to sail the 600nm by the log, but the question was – which island would we visit and when! As well as the RYA criteria to fulfill, we had to make sure we were in Ponta Delgada marina in San Miguel on 6th April to catch our flights!

Andy joined us this week full of beans and fresh from his ocean theory course, ready to practice with his sextant and take his sights.  Frances and Chris joined us to find out what long distance sailing was all about and would they take to it, and sadly, due to a last minute cancellation we were without our fourth guest, Charlie.

A quick look at the weather map showed Madeira right under a large area of high pressure, but also showed a low moving towards the Azores, how was that going to affect things.  We all agreed that deciding which island at this early stage would be too presumptive.  The best plan was to leave, set off towards the Azores (312T), sail for 96 hours, look at the log, look at the weather and decide where best to go then.  Full of the spirit of Adventure we all agreed this sounded good but we would spend the first day on a short sail to settle us all in to the routine on board.

Safety briefing complete, we left Quinta do Lorde marina late morning, waiting to take advantage of the afternoon sea breeze and enjoyed a fantastic sail to Funchal.  They are working really hard in the harbour here to clean up after the recent floods, and although the entrance was reported to have silted up there was still 3.5m at low water, plenty for us.

From Funchal we set off at noon, again waiting for a sea breeze, but as soon as we left the harbour instead of the forecast light winds we immediately found ourselves with a stiff westerly.  Hard on the wind on the starboard tack we sailed away from Madeira and away from the Azores, notching up 40 miles on the log before the wind shifted and we could head towards the Azores.  As the wind gradually shifted to a northeasterly force 4, Velvet Lady under full sail on a close reach was tearing down the dotted line on the chart plotter at 8 knots.  If this continued, we would have to do 700 miles just to stay at sea for 96 hours.

This is ocean sailing, and the thing to notice is how often the weather changes.  We continued at 8 knots for 48 hours, and then the wind gradually died away, and the speed dropped until we were ghosting along at 3 knots.  At just under 2 knots with the yankee wrapping itself around the forestay we gave up and motored hoping for the wind to pipe up again.  We continued through the centre of another high, mixing motoring with sailing until we made landfall on the eastern tip of  San Miguel.  As we approached the coastline the wind backed to the west again, to give us either a long beat along the coastline to Ponta Delgada, or a comfortable reach down to Santa Maria.  We had now done 100 hours at sea and 580 miles on the log.  Santa Maria at 40 miles away would crack the 600 mile barrier, so we freed sheets and headed south.  We arrived in Santa Maria at midnight – 108 hours and 622 miles from Madeira all on starboard tack.  We celebrated our arrival with a beer in the cockpit before heading off to bed.

During the trip Andy became extremely proficient with his sextant taking shots of the sun, moon, various stars and even Venus.  The saloon became a work station with sheets of paper everywhere, numerous graphs, plots and calculations as Andy worked out our position the traditional way.  The rest of us managed a bit more of a relaxing trip, sitting in the sunshine reading and completing crosswords (when not on watch of course).

Santa Maria is a beautiful island with a brand new marina.  The town of Vila do Porto is up a steep hill behind the marina, a lovely old town – so very real and Portuguese. Arriving on Easter Saturday, we visited the church which was beautifully decorated with white lilies.  We stayed in Santa Maria for Easter Sunday – or Chocolate Sunday as it became aptly named as we feasted on chocolate treats, some of us had given up chocolate for lent!

Easter Monday we sailed from Santa Maria to Ponta Delgada, a great broad reach on port tack in a SW6.  8 hours to complete the 56 mile crossing and then an extra one waiting for a ship to leave the harbour before we were allowed to enter!

A 4 hour day sail to Funchal, 108 hours sailing for our ocean crossing, 48 hours relaxing in the sunshine in Santa Maria, a few drinks and nibbles along the way, 8 hours sailing on the last day and a total of 700 miles in the log book, this is what cruising is all about!  Why not join us on a Blue Water Adventure later in the year.

Atlantic Crossing

Luke and Charlotte were looking for an Atlantic crossing.  Chris wanted a passage long enough to count for his YM ocean and practice with the sextant.  Dan was returning for the fourth time.  Our destination was Madeira

Madeira is a little gem of an island situated in the Atlantic Ocean 550 nm from Gibraltar.  As with any long passage the weather was mixed.  Although we never had too much wind it came from all directions, forcing us to weave a zig zag course and sail 711 nm across the ocean.  Not quite as far as the ARC but an Atlantic crossing never the less, enough to get a taste and want more.

The mileage satisfied the RYA requirements for an ocean passage (600nm by the log) and Chris was there with the sextant whenever the sun shone.

We made good time on our passage, and made landfall at the tiny island of Porto Santo, 25nm north east of Madeira.  Here the sun was shining and after a quick visit to the Christopher Columbus museum our hardy sailors turned mountaineers and walked to the top of the 500m peak to look at the view.

Our guest book from last week reads

“Just really, really good.  I want to come back for more.  Thanks for all the help with the sights and plotting”

“An adventure of a lifetime, a thrill, an education and a test. Dodging cargo ships, spotting whales and just hanging on for dear life. We had a truly wonderful time”

“When can I come again”

Next we are on our way to Lanzarote to spend the winter in the sunshine.  With Xmas and New Year already fully booked we are looking forward to a busy time.

Our trips for 2010 are starting to full up fast, and I will shortly be adding 3 more trips to our schedule.   We are trying a new route home for August 2010.  Starting with a 10 day adventure along the coastline of Norway from Bodo to Bergen, and then a 10 day adventure from Bergen to Oban via the Shetland Islands. We have chosen Bergen as it is easy to get to with direct flights from London Gatwick or via Oslo from your regional airport.

Morocco Magic


3 years ago in October, Richard and I were very excited as we sailed our maiden voyage on Velvet Lady from Majorca, through the straits of Gibraltar and back to UK.  Since then we have not returned to the Mediterranean until now.  Our recent trip from the Spanish Rias to Malaga included the opportunity of visiting Morocco for the first time on our way back into the Mediterranean.  As I spent most of my early years in Africa, I was especially looking forward to visiting this very special continent by yacht. 

But it is 500 miles from the Spanish Rias to Gibraltar and first we had to get there.  With the wind blowing firmly from the south we made slow progress and after a succession of squalls complete with lightening we decided to take a break in Cascais.  Cascais is only half an hour by train from Lisbon, and we spent a pleasant day exploring this vibrant capital city, we also took advantage of the opportunity to buy some Port.

Fully refreshed from our days break we headed south, and although we had to motor for some of the way, once around Cap St Vincent we had great wind and were reaching along at 8 knots for most of the night and following day.  As dawn approached after our second night at sea I was very excited to see the sun rising over Africa, and tried my hardest to take a photo – I’m not sure it captures the emotion I felt, but it was a fabulous sight.  Just after the sun rose we decided to dodge across the traffic to the south side of the Straits to get a better view of Morocco.


The only weather we had not encountered so far on the trip was fog, which came down on us just as we were clearing the Straits.  It gave a rather strange feel as we couldn’t see anything but still had to wear sunglasses for the glare.  We crept along the coastline, dodging small fishing boats until we found the marina and the fog lifted enough for us to identify the harbour entrance.

Clearing customs and immigration was remarkably easy if time consuming and during the time I was away from the boat a ‘local guide’ was encouraging the crew to hire him and his mini bus for a trip inland.  With only a short time to spend in Morocco we thought this would give us an ideal opportunity to visit a typical Moroccan town and souk and so gladly accepted.  After half an hour in a minibus our guide showed us around the narrow streets of Tetuan and directed us through the maze of the local market. All very exotic and interesting as we experienced our first real bartering!

As we left Smir the following morning, we encountered a huge number of dolphins – and stayed with them for well over an hour.  As usual we had the book out to identify them and came up with short beaked common dolphin as being the closest.  There must have been at least a hundred of them, all moving together as a group.

After Smir, we visited Ceuta, a bustling Spanish enclave on the Moroccan coast, and a return to Mediterranean style mooring – stern to the quayside.  Getting ashore requires us to rig our passeurelle (gang plank) and to rig that we have to move the dinghy out of the davits, so mooring becomes quite a time consuming job.

After Ceuta we spent a night in Jose Banus where the rich and famous keep their boats before ending our trip in Benalmadena Marina, Malaga.  After a short hiccup where they couldn’t find our booking, and a night in an uncomfortable berth, we are now securely wedged between two power boats in the main part of the marina.  We get used to Velvet Lady being one of the largest boats in the marina in most of the places we go, but she now looks dwarfed against the 30 metre boats which are on the next pontoon.  Temperatures are in the late 20’s, with blue skies and sunshine – so why are Richard and I packing our bags and flying back to UK tomorrow!  We are taking the opportunity of a quick break to visit our families and celebrate an early Xmas as we can’t be with them for Xmas and New Year, when we will be sailing in Lanzarote.

Tropical Storm Grace

Our guests arrived anticipating a week of sunshine and light winds to explore the Spanish Rias, but it wasn’t meant to be.  The weather had a somewhat unsettled feel to it, and our first days sailing was interspersed with rain showers.  We anchored for the night in the Ria de Alden, not too far from Sanxenxo.  During the night the rain came and went, but we started the morning of Monday 5 October in light airs.  Little were we to know that out in the Atlantic, just south of the Azores, Tropical Storm Grace was forming and that her path would bring her within 300 miles of the Galician coastline and Velvet Lady’s cruising ground.  By 3 in the afternoon there was a storm warning on the navtex for force 8 to 10 winds offshore and our plans to find an idyllic anchorage for the night needed to be radically changed.  We needed a marina berth that would be safe in the predicted strong southerlies and so we headed north to the Ria de Muros and Portosin marina.  As we approached the marina and already in the protection of the Ria we were experiencing severe rain squalls with wind gusts of 40 knots, Velvet Lady was still doing 4 knots under bare poles.  After a trip to the shower and laundry to dry out, we settled down on board with a well earned beer and prepared to sit it out.

During the night we could hear the wind gusting – although at one stage there was a completely clear sky, and were very happy to be tucked up on board.  With the weather really no good for cruising, we took a bus to the nearby old town of Noia, and practiced our Spanish. 

We went out for a sail after our second night in Portosin, and although the wind had died somewhat, the sea was still rather large.  After 11 or 12 tacks, we realized that we were not going to make fast progress out of the Ria, and headed back to marina Portosin for a third night.  The girl in the marina office chuckled when I entered, but said we had stayed out longer than she expected!

Finally the weather improved, with bright blue skies and sunshine, and we spent a long day enjoying being out in the fresh air as we headed 50 miles south to Bayona and some authentic Spanish Paella. 

Despite the weather, we all enjoyed ourselves, sailed 144 nautical miles, practiced navigation, chilled out from work pressures, visited 4 picturesque rias, took photos of leaping dolphins, ate and drank lots, barbequed on board, ate al fresco and filled the time practicing our tall tales of being caught in tropical storm grace.

We even added to our general knowledge.  We were all extremely puzzled after the storm as we sailed through huge patches of ‘red goop’.  Google came to the rescue and let us know that it was naturally occurring red algae caused by the upwelling of nutrients found specifically off the Galician coast!