Abrupt storms and choppy seas keep James Kenning and the crew of Arkyla on their toes crossing the Bay of Biscay

Crossing the Bay of Biscay may not command the romance of a Pacific or Atlantic crossing, but it is, nonetheless, a significant body of wild ocean that demands careful planning, meticulous preparation, and the utmost of respect.

My wife Jenny and I bought our 2008 Regina 43 Arkyla in 2018 with the intention of heading south to the sun. Even with significant cruising experience, we felt that support would be wise for a first crossing of Biscay and so signed ourselves up to the World Cruising Club (WCC) ARC Portugal Rally.

In olden, square-rigger days, the fear of becoming embayed in treacherous conditions made Biscay one of the most dreaded stretches of water in the world. Although advances in design and technology make it easier, a direct UK-Galicia offshore crossing, of 550-600 miles, will likely take a typical cruising boat four to five days, which is on the outer edge of reliable weather forecasts.

With the steep continental shelf can come formidable sea states, not to mention the potential of significant winds around Finisterre. Crews are well advised to expect the unexpected.

Any significant offshore passage demands a well-equipped boat. With crossing oceans an upfront goal for us, we had already refitted Arkyla with new sails, electronics, and additional solar and wind generating power. We also serviced our yacht and upgraded our safety equipment to the exacting WCC standards and carried out important sea trials and a rig check.

Arkyla reaching down the Portuguese coast. Photo: Joe Lavallin, SY Blue Eyes

Diesel quality was a concern; aside from always using a fuel additive, I fitted a Marine 16 Diesel Dipper as an independent fuel polishing system. I also replaced the primary fuel filter with a dual Racor system that, in the event of a blockage, would allow me to maintain supply to the engine at the flick of a switch. In terms of crew, I had press-ganged three friends into joining me for the sea crossing as Jenny would not be joining the rally until Bayona.

With a week’s delay on the original WCC start date, some yachts chose to leave early and join the rally in Bayona. Arkyla took the start line off Mountbatten breakwater with the fleet, jostling for position before heading out of Plymouth Sound with a definite air of competitive excitement. Once past the Eddystone Rocks skippers had to make their first strategic decision: whether to route inside or outside the Ushant TSS. We went west and, as darkness fell, it was not long before there was no visible sign of the other rally boats even if many were still observable on AIS.

As our first dawn broke, the wind had significantly dropped, moving well into the north. We deployed the twin genoas, permanently set on Arkyla’s front stay, but found that the light airs were not enough to prevent the cross-angled sea from knocking the stern and inducing a degree of roll which repeatedly collapsed the tops of the poled-out sails.

The first navigational challenge was avoiding the Eddystone Rocks, which were directly on Arkyla’s nose as she beat into the Channel. Photo: James Kenning

We then altered course to a broad reach. But by midnight the wind had increased considerably, and we were beginning to surf the larger waves that had developed over the shelf. We reefed down and this tamed the boat though we still maintained a good 7.5 to 8 knots albeit not fully in the right direction.

Three weather fronts

By day three, still to the west of the shipping lanes, we began to see more traffic on the AIS. On Wednesday, into our fourth day at sea, the Galician coast was in sight. The wind became more variable, and at one stage the sky sported a line of three weather fronts advancing toward us from the north. Fearing squalls, we prudently reefed down; a good decision because as each front passed, the wind increased from 10 to 28 knots and reversed 180° in direction.

None of us had experienced anything like it before. Once all three fronts had cleared, Arkyla was left wallowing in a near calm. With a flight deadline to meet for one of the crew, we started the engine for the first time and motored toward Finisterre. We had so far seen no wildlife. However, as soon as we engaged gear, we were joined by a playful pod of dolphins riding our bow wave for a good half-hour. Then between six and eight pilot whales appeared on either side of the boat – an incredible experience.

Singalong mid-Biscay; Mark (helm) and Rich keeping morale high on watch. Photo: Photo: James Kenning

As we closed in on the north Spanish coast the rally boat Falcon, equipped with Iridium GO! and PredictWind, passed us a 24-hour weather forecast: near windless conditions for the last 80 miles of our passage past Finisterre into Bayona.

I left the 2000-0200 watch team to navigate our way between the coast and the Finisterre TSS with instructions to remain outside the 100m contour to hopefully avoid any fishing pots during the dark hours. I returned to the cockpit in the early hours to find a wet and cold watch crew who had experienced dense fog followed by a torrential downpour whilst I’d been sleeping below.

With no wind, I took the helm and continued to motor Arkyla south along the Iberian Peninsula. As dawn broke, the wind picked up and I pulled out a full main and genoa. Within minutes, however, I sensed the air freshen and chose to reef back in. Almost at the flick of a switch, the wind rose to 30-plus knots True, directly on the nose. It was the seas, not the wind, however, that gave most concern. The waves rose only to about 2m but were incredibly steep and with a very short period; we had a roller-coaster ride for the next four hours and were very glad of Arkyla’s Swedish-built, bluewater credentials.

Twin headsail rigs, such as the Elvstrøm Blue Water Runner on Falcon, were a popular choice of short-handed rally boats not wanting to fly coloured sails. Photo: James Kenning

We arrived into the Ria de Vigo and approached Bayona in the relative calm of a 15-knot breeze.

Rally control helped us berth and took care of the paperwork. All that was left to do was enjoy the welcome drinks party in the yacht club. Bayona was where I said goodbye to my Biscay crew and was reunited with Jenny. We took advantage of a couple of Rally tours and visited the UNESCO pilgrim town of Santiago de Compostela.

After a much-welcomed day’s weather delay to avoid a relentless beat into a stiff southerly, the fleet departed Bayona, and Spain. Our first stop was in Portugal, Póvoa de Varzim. Further stops south included Figuera de Foz and then Nazaré, famous for its world-record waves created by the underwater canyon system that cuts close to the coast.

The final 15-mile stretch to Lagos took place in excellent sailing conditions. Photo: James Kenning

High winds off Lisbon

If transiting this coast out of season, beware that many of the harbours are dangerous to enter in certain conditions and are closed by the authorities when Atlantic swells are treacherous. Our arrival into Oeiras, on the outskirts of Lisbon in the mouth of the River Tagus, was dramatic. Just off Cabo Raso on our turn eastward, a gentle 10-knot northerly transformed into a steady Force 7 with gusts topping out at 38 knots in a matter of minutes! Heeding the advice in the pilot guide and listening to the VHF radio chatter, we reefed down and rounded the Cape doing 10 knots under two small handkerchiefs! This stop marked where there was a welcome increase in the warmth to the climate and with its proximity to Lisbon, a much more cosmopolitan atmosphere.

Only one stop, Sines, now lay between us and our final destination of Marina de Lagos in the Algarve. We had a mix of wind over the last two legs. Our final push south was windless until we rounded the Cape off Sagres when we were treated to 18 to 25 knots for the final 15-mile reach to Lagos. Here, a wonderful last prize-giving night, marked the end of our rally. Soon boats were either turning left into the Mediterranean or making their way onward to the Canaries in preparation for an Atlantic adventure.

We have chosen to remain in Lagos for a year and explore the Algarve coast until we decide our next cruising plan; will we turn to the left or to the right?

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