Crossing Biscay is an offshore rite of passage like no other. Atlantic circuiteer John Simpson talks to Chris Beeson about the best way to take it on

How, when and why to cross Biscay

The word ‘Biscay’ strikes fear into the heart of the sailor contemplating a crossing for the first time, as it does in many of those who have crossed it before. Its Atlantic-facing coast is littered with the wrecks of ships that became embayed and lost on a lee shore, or foundered on fierce tides and submerged rocks. For some, crossing the River Styx holds more appeal.

Is Biscay’s fearsome reputation fully deserved? Yes. And no. Most of the doomed square-riggers had no auxiliary power if the wind died, and in an onshore breeze weren’t able claw themselves off the coast. Today’s cruising yachts have reliable diesel engines to keep them on track in light conditions and should be able to beat upwind at 50-60 degrees to the true wind to gain sea room, closer still with engine assistance. Today, Biscay’s coastal threat is much diminished.

That’s not to say it can’t be thoroughly unpleasant – there are several reasons why it can. First, there’s nearly 3,000 miles of fetch from the east coast of America, which means a westerly gale can whip up huge seas. Second, the Bay shallows from ocean deeps of 4,000m to a continental shelf of about 200m in the space of around 30nm, so long oceanic swells quickly pile up into steep waves. Third, some of its curved coast is rock that reflects waves to create a very confused sea state, especially closer inshore.

Some northern European sailors reach the Caribbean and report that the hardest bit was crossing the Bay on the way to the Canaries. Others’ experience differs. Confident sailors in heavy, well-found boats might find a stiff breeze in the Bay an exhilarating challenge. Others, motoring across in a flat calm, might wonder what all the fuss is about.

‘Here be serpents!’

Biscay is not some mystical Mare Incognita strewn with whirlpools and white whales. It’s a challenge, yes, but prepare well and it can be crossed without incident, as hundreds of cruising yachts prove every year. Here we ask John Simpson, formerly the founder of Sailing Rallies and now chief executive of Rockschool, the contemporary music exam board, how to plan and execute a successful passage across the Bay of Biscay.

See Yachting Monthly’s October 2015 issue for John Simpson’s advice on how to cross the Bay of Biscay