Biscay solo adventure
Former soldier John Willis undertakes an offshore right of passage: 1,400 nautical miles solo across Biscay and back in a 36ft yacht
An offshore rite of passage in a 36ft yacht and a tasty fruit cake recipe
In 2015 I sailed from Guernsey to Shetland, alone and at war with my demons, a voyage of discovery and recovery, returning four-and-a-half months later, calmer but restless as ever (featured in PBO July 2018).
In 2017 I bought Pippin, a Frances 34 Pilothouse, to replace my Sadler 290 and I immediately set off for Baltimore to see the Fastnet Rock.
I suffered much, learned more and returned to rest the winter, where I turned again to the understated writings of boatbuilder/painter/sailor Jim Mottram, a veteran of Biscay in his diminutive Elizabethan 23.
I decided to follow in his footsteps, though without the modesty and paintings – and with a wheelhouse.
Crossing Biscay, solo or otherwise in a well-prepared yacht should be a manageable deal. But here is the thing – I found it to be a HUGE deal! Yes I had sailed solo, and read offshore adventures with some of the greatest sailors ever, but I had never been at sea for more than 36 consecutive hours.
Assessing the challenge
Myriad misfortunes dogged my preparations and being in what I term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) remission mode, I had to recalibrate mentally after each set back. In late May Ex-soldier, businessman and school bursar John Willis is a Guernseyman who knew from the age of four he was boat obsessed. Ownership began with a Drascombe Drifter and his Sadler 290 came along in 2007. Now retired, he is proud custodian of Pippin, a Frances 34 Pilothouse. John sails with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 2018, I sailed for Penzance to test out the boat, gain my sea legs before Biscay and to avoid rounding Ushant. I could also settle in to sea-going routines, such as ‘bucket and chuck it mode’, and the never-ending saga of what meal to have and where I had put the stuff.
Crossing the world’s busiest shipping lanes, like an overweight jogger among giants fast as trucks, is a challenge and it was tea in the wheelhouse for most of the 23-hour trip.
I departed for Biscay into a breathless Penzance dawn, but after nine tedious hours of motor-sailing, eight knots of north wind arrived and off Pippin went.
My physical frailties preclude the solo use of spinnaker and heavy pole, but the big high cut Yankee and full main with preventer were fine at 140° to the wind, with Hercule the Hydrovane.
Based on previous solo experience, I decided there were four key issues:
• food and hydration
• collision danger
• sleep (as opposed to rest)
Being an ex-soldier, I reacquainted myself with the Army 24-hour ration pack, which brought fond memories of weighty tins of chicken supreme, suet pudding, cheese ‘possessed’, delicious tubes of condensed milk and Aztec chocolate bars. The modern equivalent was all flat-pack and sachets but the grapefruit powder drink had promise. One pack would provide all I needed for 24 hours, one less thing to think about.
My collision fear related more to unseen objects than shipping and it was realised, when I saw a grey semi-submerged cylinder, perhaps seven feet long and trailing rope. We missed it by barely 20m and I will remember N49°23.67’ W06°22.5’ for a long time! Unfortunately I saw no ships to report this to for days, by which time it might have sunk or reached Belgium. I comforted myself with a slice of Mrs Woodman’s Sustaining Ocean Cake, a recipe from sailing author Paul Heiney’s book. It was the first cake I had made.
Ushant now lay 80 miles east, my last chance to ‘chicken out’ for home 135 miles beyond as Pippin surged through bigger waves. We weren't doing badly with full main and un-poled Yankee, touching eight knots off a big ocean daddy and consistently beating six knots.
I sampled an Army tropical fruit drink and cereal bar while looking out over a grey sea, with nothing visible by eyeball or Quantum radar. As darkness closed in, I set the radar guard zone and tried to rest. I was too excited to sleep. I had set the boat up to minimise night-time deck work, so Pippin sailed on, snugly reefed, commanded by Hercule the windvane.
Needing to sleep
The seas had increased by dawn, big languid rollers from the west but Pippin charged on comfortably, unperturbed by the north-northeast wind blowing 14 knots (True). I am a fan of the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle, so my plan was to stay well west of the shipping lanes from Ushant to Finisterre, whilst working south-southwest, to an undecided destination. By day two’s evening, Pippin had traversed Sea Area Sole and turned into Sea Area Fitzroy, 170 miles from the nearest headland.
As day three dawned, I was getting used to lying in my bunk 4,600m above the ocean floor, and to leaning at 35° over the cooker, legs flexing like shock absorbers, while I buttered slightly-burnt toast. I had already done all the outdoorsy stuff, like fitting a second boom preventer, checking all rigging fastenings and completed cockpit ablutions, before happily helming for an hour. But I was tired, so sleep was the top priority to avoid hallucinations and poor judgement.
The wind had increased to 16 knots and the seas were bigger, but Pippin is a seakindly boat I thought, as the Yanmar chortled across the shipping lanes and the wind touched 21 knots. Once in safe water, I set the radar guard zone and left Hercule in charge, as the promised front swept in and I slept just long enough to restore rational thought and morale, which blossomed at the thought of the Spanish coast ahead. Four Common Dolphins visited and, comfortably prostrated by the contents of an Army ration pack, I admitted things had come on since 1974.
At 2000 on day four, I hoisted the Spanish flag to the yardarm 35 miles from Spain, aiming for Ribadeo as I dodged fishing boats, coasters and pot buoys in the darkness. Around midnight I spotted the lights on Isla Panche and Punta de la Cruz to port, and tied up in Ribadeo Marina at 0330 BST, 502 miles and four days out from Penzance.
I had played in a reasonably benign Biscay, battled exhaustion, avoided collision and rediscovered the Army ration pack. Now, at journey’s end, I couldn’t stay awake long enough to drink my cocoa with a dram. I rested three days, causing one minor international incident when I inadvertently used the ladies’ facilities at a posh yacht club, before I turned west for Atlantic Spain and Rias de Galicia.
I ran west and south, anchoring for days in pretty rias, sharing beers and tapas with a fellow solo sailor in Ria Viveiro,
‘While resting below I heard a slithering sound and shot on deck to see Pippin in the middle of a football field-sized island of weeds’
climbing the mast with my Topclimber to sort out a halyard and helping a French skipper with a caught anchor in gusty Ria Cedeiro.
In Ria El Ferrol I awaited a visit from my son Sam’s Spanish mother-in-law, who had travelled there for work at the same time, but the weather blew up, making my anchorage untenable and I had to leave. I caught up with her later, when I stayed with family in Moana.
So I beat a retreat, dinghy flying in the wind, before anchoring in peaceful Ensenada de Mera, across the ria from A Coruña, guarded by the Tower of Hercules. Built by the Romans in the 2nd Century AD and standing 55m high, it is the oldest lighthouse in use today – though I guess the technology has moved on.
Here I rescued a young local skipper for which he and his girlfriend repaid me with a night to remember during the feast of San Juan – sardines, tapas and wine at the very posh yacht club, beers in town, dancing through fire on the beach and signing off with rum and cokes at 0230.
The young skipper had been swimming frantically out to sea after his wind-blown inflatable. He was very tired, managed to grab it but it was unable to get back to his yacht. He couldn't row it, as he only had one oar. I told him to lie on the dinghy and leg kick to Pippin, where I hauled him up.
After he had rested and warmed up, I put him into my tender with an engine and towed his dinghy back to his yacht where their tiny dog consumed my fingers.
I sailed down the scary Costa da Morte between A Coruña and Finisterre, resting at anchor with a square rigger off the village of Finisterre, a pretty spot and scene of many a nautical drama.
I was self-contained, generally at peace, though the mental clouds crossed my foredeck in pretty Muros, during the festival of St Pedro. But time and a manic programme of positive activity helped and new friends provided extra reason for being there. Finally, 743 miles out, I took Pippin into Moaña Marina, opposite Vigo, for a week ashore with family. Here, Galician Customs and Excise caught up with me and registered my entry into the country with smiles and friendly banter.
Being solo, my main fear was dragging the anchor at night in a gusty ria; the wind always seems louder in the rigging as darkness falls at anchor when alone, and Pippin has lots of rigging so the hum starts at 10 knots, keens at 15, moans at 20 and I then put the pillow over my head. Fortunately the Rocna has a strong grip.
MOB was always a constant worry and I tried hard not to be slack about tying on. As if to emphasize the point, I received a DSC call off Coruña about a MOB situation. The location was close, so I diverted towards it, as did half a dozen other yachts but nothing was found.
At the end of July, I turned Pippin’s bowsprit north and began the uphill climb for home, clutching a five-day forecast from PassageWeather.com and determined to do it in one hop. I had an excellent router aboard and the internet continued to work
surprisingly far out to sea – for me an essential aid to sailing and morale.
It felt uphill from Vigo because it was a constant fight to gain ground against the stubbornly prevailing north winds. As I looked back at Moaña in the early morning light, I saw the beauty of Ria Vigo as if for the first time and a pod of dolphins cruised lazily across Pippin’s bows, cue more empty film and much cussing.
My plan crashed when I could barely make headway north. I persevered for two hours before motor sailing. I decided to make sailing a priority over gaining ground and off we went. As if to encourage me, a whale slapped its fluke and arched its back: as long as Pippin, awesome. As the afternoon closed, I anchored in sand at Ensenada de San Francisco, in sight of Finisterre, serenaded by the squeals of children on the beach and watched by the crews of a dozen yachts pretending not to watch. I had won too few miles, burned two gallons of diesel and allowed disappointment to set in, but I had enjoyed a blue sky sail and a perfect anchorage.
Next morning started well when I killed two flies that had driven me quietly insane in my little cabin, as Pippin sailed towards the open ocean.
Wizened old fishermen in tiny dorys bobbed all around up to a mile from shore, their concentration absolute, their contentment palpable. At the ria’s mouth inshore trawlers scurried, busily checking pots. Heaven is made of many things, especially sailing at 6.7 knots with bacon sandwiches, though Hell threw in a bank of thick fog off Cape Finisterre. It was surreal sailing towards one of the world’s scariest capes in poor visibility, munching bacon sarnies with Hercule the wind vane in charge. Knowing tiredness would be an issue, I had pinned a menu plan up in the galley and saved my last Army ration pack for bad weather, though I couldn’t find it.
I knew the south-west wind wouldn’t last, so my strategic plan had only two words on it – ‘sail north’ – so that’s what I did as Pippin ran 130° to the wind at a sedate four knots guided by Hercule. Five miles off Finisterre in fog, I could hear nothing but my tinnitus and worried skippers on British yachts calling each other.
Unperturbed, a pod of dolphins came for coffee and stayed awhile in the dying south-west breeze, as Pippin slowed to a sail flapping walk, and I reminded myself I had to relax, go with the flow. No deadline meant 2.5 knots was just fine, using the engine to help was not failure, every inch north was a triumph.
Fishing boats passed either side of me, unseen throbbing engines, coloured blobs on my radar screen, the loudest sound Pippin’s gentle wake and the scraping of sheets on wire. Finally I set Pippin north on the veering wind, as the fog began to lift revealing the dark mass of the Costa da Morte to starboard, as gannets dive bombed a shoal, dolphins came to check out Pippin’s new bow wave and the enormous boom of a ship’s fog horn carried across from out to sea.
As the afternoon closed the wind remained from the south and west close inshore, albeit progress at times was a crawl. At Cabo la Boltra, basking in sunshine, the last morsel of Mrs Woodman’s fruit cake, slipped down a treat with half a pint of tea.
Pretty Camarinas lay astern as Pippin continued at a stately three knots in the dying evening breeze and mist reduced Spain to a smudge before darkness could steal it, as I battled to work north. It helped to think that Horatio Hornblower would have struggled more in his square rigger as Spain lay disappointingly close off the starboard beam, while Pippin ran parallel to the coast for the night. Still it was a good sail and I managed a sleep, though a review of my red position marks on the chart, randomly scattered, spoke of the blood, sweat and tears of the previous 24 hours. It was as if I had lost a day and I
felt doomed to remain stuck in Biscay for eternity with the shadows of the entire Spanish fishing fleet out to say farewell.
Grey clouds and mizzle opened day two as the wind shifted east of north, all three knots of it, so on went the little diesel with an oily chuckle. A rain squall set off the radar alarm, dolphins appeared, and with little sailing to think about I deliberated on the menu choice for the day. It’s important to establish a routine of tasks and activities to maintain morale. I decided on a fresh shirt, shave and considering options for rounding Ushant – and how to kill the cabin fly that was driving me crazy.
By coffee time the wind was northnortheast 15 knots, and Pippin flew though not really where I wanted to go. Finally I was able to snug down heading north-east for the night. I make light of what had been until then a hugely frustrating struggle to get north.
At 0430, day three, I sleepily took advantage of a wind shift and got Pippin doing what she does best and in the right direction, east of the shipping lanes. Now I had really crossed the start line and, with few vessels about, I slept.
Feeling positive, I burst into the sunny cockpit later with a mug of tea and the paraphernalia for a strip wash, a satisfying if not pretty event. Pippin dug down her shoulder in the general direction of Ushant.
Looking at the set of the sails, it was tempting to do a few tweaks in pursuit of speed as I hoped the wind would remain this way for a day or two. The wind built during the morning, teasing white foam off wave tops as Pippin crashed on, guided by that tireless soldier, Hercule, a good indicator of the wind’s movements. I kept a hand-bearing compass by my bed to check the course from my sleeping bag.
By afternoon Spain lay only 105 miles astern, but the sky was blue, the sun shone and I had just seen two whales slap their tail flukes, as I topped up the fuel tank. It is frustrating when there is nothing you can do and the wind has gone, your destination far over the horizon and you are knackered. It is time then to put trust in machinery and electronics and reach for a good book, as I did for the next 12 hours.
At such times I ponder things like fuel consumption, for I didn’t carry enough to get home under engine; I was glad I had laboriously filled three extra cans at a garage three quarters of a mile away while in Moaña.
A change in the boat’s attitude sent me up to see the wind was more south and west, Hercule took charge pointing Pippin for that busy corner called Ouessant (Ushant). Progress was pleasingly good, so time for maintenance and an hour with my head up the engine and down in the bilges; a half litre of oil for the old Yanmar and fresh diesel in the tank, both wise precautions with the threat of bad weather.
Evening closed to the sound of rasping sheets, hissing wake and gently creaking boom, the wind 125° off the port quarter.
Day four began wet and with insufficient wind to make way under sail, as I mulled over plans for rounding Ushant deciding to take the Passage de Fromveur along the east side of Isle de Ouessant, a rock inhabited by 800 hardy souls and the indigenous sheep. Around 50,000 ships a year pass by Ushant, so it isn’t surprising there has been many a wreck, the most famous being the steamship Drummond Castle, which sank in 1896 with the loss 243 souls.
The wind had shifted helpfully to the south-west, pushing Pippin on towards Ushant as Pippin slipped into day five with Brest, a possible staging post, 70 miles north-east. It became clear that I should arrive at the Passage de Fromveur at around Brest LW, perfect, so I abandoned plans to stop.
Yes I was tired and the weather would turn, but I had achieved some more sleep so was functioning OK – no hallucinations, seasickness or dehydration I thought, as Pippin progressed agonisingly slowly, so time for the Yanmar again. By early afternoon Pippin was sailing slowly against the tide and on into a lovely evening as the Brittany coast slipped past to starboard. While resting below, nose stuck in a book, radar alarm on, I heard a slithering sound down the hull sides and shot on deck to see Pippin amid a football field sized island of weed, tendrils streamed from the rudder and wind vane steering blade, which I couldn’t shift.
The French Coast Guard warned repeatedly of strong winds, but I was, unusually, poorly prepared as darkness set in, and I went to tuck in the new boatyard-installed third reef, for the first time ever, and open the staysail. The reefing pennant jammed inside the boom and disconnected from the boom end, leaving me unable to raise the main sail, so with much cussing, I strapped the sail to the boom, set the autopilot and motorsailed into the darkness, as sailing speed had dropped without the big main sail.
Then the autopilot went AWOL (due to an undersized reversing pump). I was too tired to steer home but remembered I steered successfully with the Hydrovane while motor-sailing slowly across the Celtic Sea in 2017, and so it did again to
my relief, until the wind began to build and Pippin continued happily under the Yankee. The motion was getting lively, I noted, perched on my pilot seat in the wheelhouse to update my log, when Pippin dipped sharply to port and the seat I had fitted collapsed, taking me with it.
High fiving the sky
By now there was a cap full of wind, but even so I was surprised by the size and ferocity of the rising seas. Running before a strong wind, now against the tide and having built up strength out in the Atlantic, the waves charged unhindered up the English Channel, perhaps accelerating between Ushant and possibly ricocheting off the Brittany coast over shallow water. As time went on, the tops of the bigger ones curled over and collapsed in a hissing torrent of foam, slamming hard up against Pippin, slewing her off course and blasting spray and water into the cockpit. Down in the cabin, where I was working up an appetite for dinner with a DCI Banks story, it seemed much less dramatic.
It was a soldier’s wind, south-west hard up Pippin’s chuff and blowing hard enough to have some fun. It ranged between 18 and 27 knots with gusts to 35. The heavy rain heralded the passage of the front, a sensible time to be below preparing beef stew with dumplings. I got some dinner and rest, but no sleep so four hours before dawn of day six, I dressed in my offshore foul-weather gear and harness, grabbed a bottle of water and chocolate and headed into the cockpit where I strapped on. Optimistically I brought my book in a sandwich bag. Guernsey isn’t so big you can’t miss it, and I didn’t want to be trapped against a lee shore, so I took over from Hercule, guiding Pippin up and down some truly impressive waves. Pippin has a hull speed of around 7.4 knots – yet she clocked 13.4 knots off the back of at least one big daddy, with just a Yankee sail raised, which had her demented skipper whooping like an idiot, high fiving the sky in the pre-dawn rain.
For six hours I stood at the wheel, gulping water, munching chocolate whilst trying to keep Pippin straight and true to the waves, with occasional lapses as a big daddy slammed against a quarter slewing Pippin into a near broach, worse sea conditions than I had encountered in her previously. The waves eased as Pippin closed St Martin’s Point on the south-east tip of Guernsey, and a P&O cruise ship changed course to pass close by. I could imagine the commentary… ‘and out to starboard you will see some idiot in a little yacht’, though they couldn’t see the grin on said idiot’s face or sense the pride in his breast. I knew I had almost arrived, when I saw the first bobber and its baby slide uncomfortably close to starboard.
The tide was perfect to enter the marina at 0941 on 28 July with just an hour to spare though only sea gulls were there to applaud. Pippin had uncomplainingly taken me 1,400 nautical miles solo across Biscay and back, and up and down the Spanish Atlantic coast, but at that moment I did not know whether to laugh or cry – I was a jumble of exhaustion and emotion after six days out at sea and little sleep.
As I walked down the pontoon to meet the First Mate on wobbly legs, I found myself looking at boats, wondering whether I would be happy to have gone through what we just had in them: “Nah, not that one, or that. Maybe that one. Pippin will do me just fine, thank you”.
‘Pippin clocked 13.4 knots off the back of one big daddy, which had her demented skipper whooping like an idiot and high fiving the sky’
ABOVE John Willis aloft in Cedeira LEFT Skipper’s pit
Pippin greets a rough dawn on Biscay
The Tower of Hercules, the impressive ancient Roman lighthouse at La Coruña, Galicia
House decorated for a festival at Muros
John and Pippin’s route across the Bay of Biscay and back
Pippin, John Willis’s Frances 34 Pilothouse yacht anchored at Finisterre
TOP Preparing breakfast at sea ABOVE John and Pippin leaving Viveiro
ABOVE St Peter Port, Guernsey RIGHT A Coruña