Biscay or bust, 44 years after a disastrously ill-fated attempt, Dick Durham finally makes the fabled crossing

Dick Durham: The last time I tried to cross Biscay I ended up fighting for my life, although I was too young to realise it then. It was the worst storm I’ve ever experienced. But for now, let me tell you about my second Biscay baptism. It was last July and this time there were no preparations for shipwreck, no Maydays, no lifeboat rescue. And yet, still, there were plenty of challenges.
We were four strong: my second cousin David Smith, his co-owner Adrian Lower, former rear-commodore of RORC and the crew – John ‘Glum’ Green and myself. The boat was Snatch, a German Frers Swan 48 built in 1998.
We took our departure from Lymington in a fresh south-westerly and, later, a forecast of poor visibility and a Force 7 from the same quarter saw us duck into Salcombe after one night at sea to await a veer and have a night in our bunks. However, the run ashore involved unexpected greetings from friends of our skippers, which took a greater toll on our well-being than would a further night of watch-keeping.
Worse, the wind was still south-west Force 6 when we left Salcombe the next day. But with no choice but to carry on, we found ourselves east of Ushant by morning with a parted genoa furler and 30 knots on the nose. We all admired David, not just because he sat astride the bow for an hour winding on a jury furling line as spray broke over him, but also because he had only recently rejected a surfeit of rum and coke.
The night’s thrash across the Channel had also seen the flailing genoa sheets tear the collapsed inflatable, stowed on the foredeck, from its lashings and hurl it overboard. Other losses included the chain locker dorade and the port light on the pulpit. But we eventually weathered Ushant, which glowed under a brief ray of sunshine, its patchwork of fields pinned down with giant lighthouses, as the next job – a shredded generator fan belt – presented itself. Glum and Adrian spent hours dismantling the watermaker and refrigerator compressor to get at the aforementioned belt. As the engineers slowly reassembled their efforts, bare to the waist and covered in grease, the wind at last veered west and we flew south-west.
Unfortunately the ‘fix’ was short-lived as the spare belt also quickly shredded. To conserve power the decision was made to hand-steer, use no lights below and even turn the nav lights on only when we could see other traffic, until we could make port to sort things out. That night the wind went north-west and we made good progress, the tricolour only needing activation as we sailed in among flickering white and red lights, rather like a Christmas tree sales room, which turned out not to be craft but lobster pots.
Morning brought another problem; the fridge was no longer being fed with power from the engine. Under a warm sun and with a Force 4 westerly I thrilled to some wonderful helming as the others dismantled and reassembled the generators. They succeded and we were back with nav instruments, cabin lights, and cockpit music, which, personally, I can live without.
The following day Spain came over the horizon, along with more problems. We’d eased the halyards, to prevent chafe, so when Adrian goose-winged the genoa the loose halyard jammed in the top of the luff spar and now we could not roll up more than two thirds of its area. With no-one willing to go aloft at sea we sailed into Camariñas in Galicia that evening and anchored within a biscuit toss of the rocks under a pine forest to get some lee. Aloft, David discovered the top of the foil had spread and its jagged fingers had hooked up the genoa halyard and cut it to the core. He changed it for the spinnaker halyard and taped up the foil.
But with dense draughts of Rioja, sardines and cod stew we celebrated our landfall. Forty-four years on, I had at last crossed the Bay of Biscay.