15 November 2016 – Bay of Biscay
We cross the Bay of Biscay in late October, with a stopover at Île de Groix. In Spain we visit a company based on democracy and social responsibility.
Falmouth (GBR) – Cape Finisterre (ESP)
Back in Autopilot Business
“There’s a package for you”, says Anne, the friendly harbour master in Falmouth Haven. She hands us a big cardboard box, which we open eagerly. Our autopilot computer! We had sent it for repair in Scotland after it seemed to have died completely. With great anticipation we wire the computer again, using pictures we had taken of the wiring to guide us. As we turn it on, we hear the familiar sound of the spinning wheel. What a relief, it works! We are glad that there are still places where skilled people repair things and that we didn’t have to buy a new one.
It is only natural that things break. Still, when we look at the technical state of the boat, we’ve been somewhat lucky. So far two solar panels, navigational lights, the galley-light dimmer, and our dinghy have needed repairs. Our “to-do-list” contains a constant number of items – as soon as we have fixed something, something new appears. Fortunately, since getting our compass back none of the items have kept us from sailing. Not having an electronic autopilot was not more than an inconvenience, as we can rely on Herbie – the windvane autopilot – most of the time.
With the autopilot back in business, we are ready to plan for our next destination, the notorious Bay of Biscay. In the old days reliable long-term weather forecasts didn’t exist. Ships could find themselves in a storm unexpectedly. The cross-rigged sailing ships could not sail close to the wind, which meant that they could get “trapped” on a very unforgiving lee shore: the West Coast of France and the North Coast of Spain. In those circumstances, breaking waves change shallow harbour entrances into white-foamed nightmares. Not a good place to seek shelter. On top of that, the sea bottom steeply rises from several thousands of meters to a few hundreds closer to the shore, which can create dangerous waves coming in from the Atlantic. That makes even the open sea a hazardous place for sailing yachts in bad weather.
The autumn and winter months are known for their inhospitable weather in the Bay, so most sailors cross it in summer. Having spent our summer exploring sustainable solutions in Scandinavia, we have no choice but to rise to the challenge. The shortest and most frequently taken route is the 400nm direct trip from Falmouth to La Coruña, which typically takes about four days. Four consecutive days of fair weather are rare in this season, so we opt for the tactic called “French island hopping”. We’ll sail along the French coast with intermediate stops on the way to wait for favourable winds.
We leave Falmouth with a promise of two days of NE / E winds. This should be enough to bring us to Western France before a low-pressure area with strong winds will take over. Playful dolphins entertain us for some 20 minutes, before it’s time to focus on crossing the busy shipping lane extending from the English Channel. Our Automatic Identification System (AIS) shows the speed, distance and closest point of approximation of other ships equipped with AIS. This means we can see if another ship is on collision course with us and at what time we’ll be closest to them. A great help in crossing this busy shipping route.
For the rest of our trip it is not ships but nature that determines our course. There are strong currents off Western Brittany, in particular between the mainland and Île Ouessant and the “Raz the Sein” reef. It is advised to time the passages there precisely. As we let the wind (rather than the engine) decide our speed, we cannot time our arrival. Instead we stay further from the shore, thus making a detour around it. Once past it, we tack towards the French coast. Our weather window is closing, gale force winds are predicted later tonight, so it’s time to find some shelter.
Stopover in France
Sailing close-to-the wind, we reach the harbour of Île de Groix just before nightfall. Wind and rain try hard to keep us awake that night, but we’re too tired to notice it. The next day the gale has ceased and when the rain stops, the beauty of the island unfolds. “Qui voit Groix, voit sa joie – Who sees Groix, sees his joy”. We fully agree with the French poet who wrote this as we pass steep cliffs with their white sandy beaches, trees in autumn shades and bright coloured Brittanic homes. The joy continues when we get a low-season discount on the harbour fees. We enjoy French cheese, wine and crêpes and stock up on it at the organic grocery store.
When we check the weather forecast, it’s time to change plans. Four to five days of gentle easterly wind mean perfect weather to sail south. We let go off our initial plan to “hop” south via the French West Coast and set sail for the 260nm trip to Bilbao, Spain. We’re eager to get to Spain and excited to visit our next sustainable solution there.
A layer of fog envelops Île de Groix when we leave in the afternoon. The island quickly disappears into a blanket of grey. Towards the evening the sky clears and a steady 10 knots easterly wind sets in. Suddenly a little bird lands on our deck, looking exhausted. It’s clearly a land bird and lost at sea. Perhaps realizing it needs us for survival, it’s not at all afraid of us. Our stowaway drinks a bit of water and eats some breadcrumbs, which quickly brings it back to life. It spends two days and two nights with us and turns out to be a real entertainer. It hops around and on us and explores the boat inside out. Vogeltje even finds a place to sleep in our main cabin. Luckily small birds leave only small poops…
Vogeltje and the weather make our two nights and three days of sailing remarkably relaxed. There is hardly any swell, and no significant wind waves. Steady easterly wind, great visibility, plenty of dolphins and sea birds turn the trip into our most enjoyable stretch so far. We have energy to read, write and relax.
In the morning of the third day we see land in the distance. The early sunlight reveals the steep mountains of the Basque country. As we close in on the Spanish coast, signs of civilization become more plentiful. A ferry from Portsmouth, airplanes and fishing boats pass us. One of the fishing boats – how is it possible – manoeuvres exactly in our way. He calls on the VHF, but we can’t make any sense of his broken English, so we change course to avoid a collision. Not much later it’s Floris’s turn to employ his VHF skills. We’re on collision course with an impressive tanker. Floris asks it politely if it lets us pass in front of it. Yes, yes, we are going slowly to let you pass, comes the friendly answer. We have the right of way, but it’s ever so reassuring to know that we have been seen and can continue our course.
As we approach the coast, our depth instrument measures a signal again at 170m. Although there is no difference at the sea surface, it feels different compared to the sea area that was 3,700m deep not so long ago. Vogeltje leaves us and heads for its new territory. Good luck little friend, it was our pleasure to have you as a stowaway. (After quite some research and comparing images in Peterson’s bird guide, our non-expert best guess is that Vogeltje is a female black headed bunting)
As we sail into the harbour of Bilbao, we soon reach the lee of the cliffs. We’re welcomed by sunny and warm weather and surrounded by sailboats all flying Spanish colours. We moor in the marina of Getxo and enjoy a drink in t-shirts in the evening sun, hardly grasping how smoothly and quickly we’ve made it to Spain. The next few days we dig out our shorts and sun cream and enjoy the >20 degrees, sunny weather, pinxtos (tapas), wine and Bilbao’s tourist highlights.
In the midst or our Spanish second summer, we are saddened by the news that our friend and fellow sailor Bouke Beemster passed away. Ivar met Bouke as a fellow winter-guest in the Sixhaven in Amsterdam many years ago. We’ll never forget his great stories, good company and the fantastic trips on Lucipara2 together. It feels like yesterday when he visited us before we left, still in relatively good shape. Farewell Bouke, we’ll miss you. We wish Bouke’s family lots of strength to deal with this big loss.
Cooperatives in Mondragón
To research our next sustainable solution, we take a bus from Bilbao to the Basque mountain village of Arrasate (Basque name) – Mondragón (Spanish name). It is home to the Mondragón group of cooperative companies. There are over 2,000 cooperatives in the Basque country, but the Mondragón group is unique. It’s size and the focus on industrial products and education next to its retail and finance activities is unparalleled. The group consists of 101 cooperatives and with €12 billion of revenue it ranks as Spain’s 7th largest company. The cooperatives are owned by it’s more than 75,000 workers.
Inspired by a priest named José María Arizmendiarrieta, the first cooperative was founded in 1956. It has been growing ever since and demonstrates that it’s doable to operate a cooperative organization on a large and international scale, while maintaining fair pay and work conditions. The CEO gets a maximum salary of 6 times the lowest paid worker, and the lowest paid worker gets 1.5 times the Spanish minimum wage (around €10,000). All jobs are rated somewhere in-between on this scale. The different cooperatives take care of each other’s workers if necessary, which provides job certainty. The group also has a cooperative that arranges sick pay and pension benefits. This model surely contributes to a fairer, more equitable society. See also more information on this exciting community sustainability solution on our website.
The day after our visit to Mondragon, the weather changes drastically. The Basque mountains bend a northerly flow into westerly winds that bring showers and air of ten degrees to Bilbao. From the boat we can even see snow in the mountains. We stay for a while to await better weather to sail further west.
We take time to read, write and do research. We get into our running gear and run to the lighthouse and back. We meet up with Ana, Floris’s friend from when they studied in Venice and a Bilbao native. She takes us to the nicest pinxtos bars in town. There are many years to catch up upon and the conversation continues on-board another evening. We also take a bus to San Sebastián and experience that the food can be even better than the nice bars we went to in Bilbao.
A week flies by. The short weather window opening on Friday night remains in the forecasts and we are eager to further explore the Spanish coast. During the day we make best use of the (seasonally discounted) Getxo Marina facilities to prepare our departure. We shop for groceries at our favourite neighbourhood eco-shop, Floris takes care of the laundry, Ivar fills the water tank and saws some driftwood into little pieces for the woodstove. We charge all the batteries and electronics, cook a few meals, prepare the sails, fill up the fuel tank and leave Bilbao around midnight. With only our mainsail and a gentle breeze from behind, we sail quietly trough the dark harbour until we reach the swell of the Bay of Biscay.
A gentle southerly breeze takes us around Cape Ajo, from where we can see the city of Santander in the morning light. The river entrance is well marked and we anchor near Santander’s beach. If it weren’t for the low-hanging grey clouds and drizzle, the yellow beaches, the trees in autumn-colours and the snow-covered mountaintops behind the city, would have made a stunning view. Another time perhaps. We hesitate whether to stay on the boat after our short night, but the promise of a tasty lunch in town helps us get over our fatigue and into the kayak. We paddle to the beach and explore town. The lack of a historic centre, which was destroyed by fires and civil war bombardments, is compensated by the choice of bars with delicious food on offer. We spend the money we save on harbour fees on delicious salads. We make it back to the boat just in time before the wind becomes westerly again with more rain. The shelter on the anchorage is good and except for the waves from some passing ships we enjoy a quiet night.
The next day the wind has changed to N and the forecast is brilliant, N-NE for the next three days. Later that week, a westerly flow with strong winds is forecast. Clearly, the Bay of Biscay can live up to its reputation and be a trap in that type of weather. The most NW part of Spain is a mountainous region and is marked by the renowned Cape Finisterre. The landmass functions as a kind of geological “knife edge” in quite a few weather patterns. The result is more westerly winds for the Bay of Biscay and northerlies for the Portuguese and Spanish West coasts. We prefer not to get “trapped” again and leave Santander in the morning, aiming to round Cape Finisterre.
We sail three days and two nights along the Spanish North coast with mixed feelings. A whole list of potential stopovers, interesting destinations and real “pearls” that we would have liked to see pass by. But mostly we’re grateful of the good winds that blow us around the Cape. When our anchor drops at Finisterre’s long sandy beach, we’re just in time to enjoy arrival drinks in the last hour of sunshine. Galicia, what a warm welcome!