Beyond Biscay is a diverse coastal cruising ground and the route to the warm waters of the Mediterranean. Will Bruton reveals the best ways to cross this notorious rite of passage
Like most nautical folklore, how things used to be has a role to play in Biscay’s reputation.
Unable to go to windward, square-rigged ships would be caught by the prevailing westerlies and be blown inshore – unable to tack their way back out again.
This prevailing wind, combined with a rapidly shelving seabed and exposure to 3,000 miles of open Atlantic ocean, still make for a potentially biblical sea state that continues to occasionally give experienced yachtsman a life-affirming kicking.
The geography certainly hasn’t changed, but sailor’s accumulated wisdom about how best to go about crossing Biscay has grown significantly.
Better weather information, the ability of modern yachts to go to windward and, dare we say it, motor, have all contributed to the likelihood of a satisfying adventure well within reach of the seasoned coastal cruiser.
Waiting for a weather window
The right weather is crucial at the start of any Biscay crossing.
Sir Frances Drake reputedly continued his game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe when he saw the Spanish armada approaching, deciding to wait for the wind to turn in his favour before attempting to set sail. Was this bravado, or just good seamanship? Probably both.
For the ARC Portugal fleet of 18 yachts in 2018, departing from the same point, having a good weather window was on everyone’s mind.
The strategy used by the organisers, to head out offshore beyond the continental shelf, is dependent upon a weather window that will allow the fleet to complete a 550nm passage in one go.
For some participants, the longest passage they have undertaken by far, but also a time tested way to ensure the fleet does not get split up, choosing to make landfall earlier.
Chairman of the World Cruising Club, Andrew Bishop first organised the event to promote the opening of the newly opened Marina Lagos 24 years ago; a partnership that thrives to this day.
He explained some of the challenges faced by his team in organising a successful rally. ‘We used to start in the Solent. Logistically, that was in many ways a bigger challenge than the Biscay crossing. Getting the fleet to the Western tip of the UK was often awkward due to the prevailing winds, so now we leave that part out of the rally itself and advise crews to leave lots of time to get to the start on time. Assembling in Mayflower Marina is ideal.’
Putting safety first
The World Cruising Club team ensures boats are up to the task.
‘The safety checks are no different to what I would do if I were crossing Biscay on my own. What they ensure though is that you have a timetable on paper. So I knew what I had to buy, when I had to have it by and when it would be checked. That makes it happen, which is half of going on a trip like this, getting a plan in place and bringing it to fruition is the reason many fall at the first hurdle I think. You need to put dates in the diary and say, “that’s the day I leave” explained Swan 46 owner Simon Ridley.
For some, a crossing of Biscay is the first of many ocean passages a long time in the planning.
Manihi, a brand new Hanse 548 is bound for Australia. Her owner Christopher Cope is taking his family on a year-long adventure.
With him is his son Patrick, who is on a gap year before university. ‘Starting the trip with other boats is a wonderfully social way to kick things off and takes some of the planning pressure out of the equation. The excursions were also a big draw, we wanted to see the places we make landfall as well as tie up there.’
At each stop the World Cruising Club organises tours, walks and meet ups, including a tuk tuk tour of Lisbon and a walking tour of Santiago de Compostella.
Approaches to crewing for an offshore Biscay crossing vary, but having a strategy is certainly sensible as the first few days of any offshore passage are usually the most challenging.
Steve and Carol Stokes, brought along two extra crew for the offshore Biscay stretch and then double handed for the coastal legs of the rally.
Simon Ridley used the crewfinding website Crewseekers International to find similarly minded sailors, including Marga van Rijssel, who keeps her own Jeanneau in Greece. ‘For me it was a great opportunity to experience a different cruising boat, meet some new sailing friends, with the knowledge that all of the support of the World Cruising Club was there to back up the trip.’
Terry Chandler crewed his Jeanneu Sun Odyssey 37 Aludra with two good friends. ‘They aren’t experienced sailors, which at times has been a bit challenging, but we all get along very well and there were more than a few jokes at each others’ expense. A lot of laughs, sometimes a bit stressful, but it worked!’
However many crew you choose to have on board for a Biscay crossing, taking the offshore route will involve a watch system and rotating crew to ensure everyone gets enough rest.
Meteorologist Chris Tibbs on when to cross
Crossing Biscay can be a battle against the elements but with a favourable wind it will be a memorable passage.
Dramatic pictures of waves crashing against and engulfing lighthouses abound but these are winter storms rather than summer conditions.
Settled summer weather when the Azores high ridges to the UK gives SW winds in the Channel but in mid and south Biscay E and NE winds predominate.
This pattern will be broken when a family of depressions cross the Atlantic passing close to the UK; this makes it difficult to find a favourable weather window as the wind veers from SW to NW then back again, hardly giving time to make progress on one tack or the other.
The continental shelf extends some 60nm into the Bay from Brest; this shallower water forces the deep Atlantic swells upwards creating steep breaking seas.
As the wind veers to the NW post cold front, a horrible cross sea can develop making it dangerous over the continental shelf.
Crossing Biscay can be undertaken at any time of the year however during autumn and winter, waiting for a weather window can be a long process.
Top tips for crossing Biscay
- Get a good 5 day forecast which will give a buffer if you are delayed or the weather changes faster than expected.
- If the wind drops light I would motor to avoid running out of the weather window and/or a change in the forecast.
- If heading further south, getting past Cape Finisterre is important; it is easy to become trapped along the N coast of Spain which has some spectacular cruising, but can be frustrating if you need to get further south.
- With an E or NE wind there is an acceleration zone approaching the NW corner of Spain where the sea state and wind gets up quickly; often to gale force.
- With approaching low pressure and a SW wind, the next change will be a veer to the W or NW. A port tack initially (taking us west) gets in phase with the next wind swing.
- Prepare your boat well; for many of us Biscay is our first real offshore passage.
- Although some cruising guides will suggest getting as far west along the English coast as possible before heading south, I tend to head to the Brest Peninsula to minimise distance and wait for a weather window there.
- Allow plenty of time; sailing to a tight schedule encourages us to sail on a marginal forecast.
To watch for:
- Poor visibility and strong tides around Ushant.
- Waves on the continental shelf
- Becoming embayed
- Strong NE winds around Cape Finisterre (a large acceleration zone).
- Shipping lanes and fishing boats.
The best 3 route options
The ARC Portugal route
This traditional route takes you out beyond ten degrees West to avoid the wave amplifying affect of the continental shelf, making landfall in, Baiona, a 550 mile passage from Plymouth.
La Coruna presents a slightly shorter alternative landfall, which some boats took advantage of this year to pick up fuel. During June and July, gales are extremely rare offshore.
However, due to the land heating up in the daytime, gale force winds close to the shore are still prevalent, particularly when the Azores high moves to the East.
The extreme NW tip of Spain, Cabos Ortegal, Baras and Finisterre are notorious for strong winds inshore at all times of year, so route with caution.
Aside from its passage making sense, routing this way ensures a spell of true bluewater cruising, which one completed marks something of a nautical milestone in the logbook.
The halfway house, across the bay
One option instead of heading offshore for one long passage and coastal hopping within the bay itself is to depart from Camaret or Audierne and then route direct to Gijon or La Coruna, making for a shorter passage.
Even shorter is the option to hop to one of the islands from Groix to d’Oleron before making landfall at Santander or Bilbao.
Requiring weather forecasts within 48 hours, giving a considerably greater degree of accuracy, this makes a good alternative option for those wanting to limit the time spent offshore or sailing short-handed.
Inside the bay
Taking the inshore route appeals to many, both for some picturesque ports of call along the way and the distance between yacht and land presented by taking the offshore route.
However, heading around the northernmost parts of France and Spain can present its own set of problems.
Some ports along the cost, whilst seemingly accessible are impossible to enter with a big swell running, something to which they are perilously exposed.
However, with time on your hands, taking this route makes it possible to head south with day passages under 12 hours in length.
Real life experiences of Biscay.
Joining the ARC Portugal fleet and spending the day aboard Elan 340 Boomerang for the last leg of the rally from Sines to Lagos was a great opportunity to learn what it’s actually like on the rally.
Steve and Carol Stokes decided to move their racer cruiser, the smallest yacht in the fleet, from Ramsgate to the Algarve to experience a different kind of sailing.
‘Two years ago, if it wasn’t racing, I wasn’t getting on it! I think what I have been most surprised by is my own transformation from racer to cruising sailor. I’ve loved visiting so many new places.’ explains Steve.
Each boat and crew has clearly faced different challenges along the way.
The weather defied the forecast, leading to a few torn sails and a broken spinnaker pole on one of the bigger yachts, but no one seemed too traumatized by the experience. Instead, everyone has a story to tell of their crossing. By the time I join, what’s clear is how well everyone has got to know each other.
For Carol Stokes on Boomerang, there’s a sense she has done something out of her comfort zone that’s challenged her but ultimately been a great experience. ‘We had two more crew for the Biscay crossing, including Steve’s daughter, but despite managing a sailing club in my previous job I am in all honesty, not really a sailor! Some challenging weather, coupled with steering problems (fixed by manufacturing a replacement component with a cut to size chopping board from the galley) and finding we were a bit too short handed when the rough weather hit meant the Biscay leg was certainly an adventure!’
‘Our boat was slightly restrictive in that it’s smaller than most others and so therefore slower, when the swell picked up in Biscay we probably didn’t ride the waves quite as comfortably as some others in the fleet that are more heavy set cruising boats, it also meant that we got used to leaving early in order to get to the next place before nightfall. That aspect wasn’t ideal as you are on a schedule, but it’s still workable in a 34ft yacht’ added Steve.