Blogger's Digest: a Novel
Tim had very kindly agreed to assist with the first leg of the passage - from Brighton to Roscoff. He would then take a ferry back to the UK. It was no more than a couple of days, but it was all the time he could spare, away from his family duties. I was very glad to at least start the lengthy journey with 3 experienced skippers aboard.
The logistics were torturously complex. I had to collect Tim from his home in Hampshire, bring him to Brighton, then he would be collected in Plymouth by his poor wife, who'd have been left home alone with the children for 3 nights. For Tim, it would hardly be much fun, given that a substantial part of our crossing would be at night and none of us could get drunk, but he seemed to enjoy offshore sailing.
I did not enjoy offshore sailing.
The English Channel has busy shipping lanes and strong tides. The currents around the Channel Islands were extremely fast and dangerous. The Channel crossing from England to France sounded like enough fun to tempt Tim, but I was dreading it. At least with experienced help aboard, I felt far less weight of responsibility on my shoulders.
As we approached the Cherbourg Peninsula - some distance offshore - we were intercepted by a French customs vessel, which loud-hailed us and instructed us in French to switch to a specific VHF radio channel, whereupon they told us to prepare to be boarded. Mercifully, my French was quite good and Ian possessed a particular International Certificate of Competence, which they were very keen to see. The UK has no regulation of who is allowed to take to the water in a sailboat or motorboat - akin to allowing people to drive on the roads without a license - so the French were particularly careful about who they allowed to cross from international water into French territory, especially if they were most probably from the UK. Incompetent UK skippers would often be ordered to get out of French waters.
Having dropped Tim off in Roscoff, Ian and I took the opportunity to have a couple of restaurant meals, drink some wine and a good night's sleep, before we set off on the next leg of the journey.
Crossing the Bay of Biscay was the part of the entire trip which I was dreading the most, because we would be further offshore than we were at any other point. To hug the coast of Western France and Northern Spain would be a huge and unnecessary detour, adding a great deal of travel time, but I was prepared to do it in order to be close to a number of ports, if we decided that we wanted to stop for rest or shelter. Ian convinced me that we would be able to manage the crossing between just the two of us, dividing each 24 hour period into 6 watches, lasting 4 hours - this would allow us to sail continuously and arrive at the tip of North-Western Spain without being too sleep deprived. "It will be a slog" Ian said, "but it will be worth it to make good progress".
The forecast predicted plenty of westerly wind, which was encouraging. I was hopeful that we would be able to make the crossing in good time.
I had not considered the rain.
Each 4-hour watch was quite punishing and unpleasant. With the wind and waves hitting the yacht at a 45 degree angle, the bow slammed quite heavily into the choppy water, and vast amounts of spray and rain were driven into the skipper's face. Facing backwards helped immensely, and was necessary to check for any large cargo vessels, cruise ships, tankers and other large ships which approached rapidly from behind. However, it was also necessary to keep looking forwards as much as possible, to keep an eye on the instruments and a look out for any large ships coming in the opposite direction.
As a pleasure-cruising yacht, designed for comfort as a 'floating caravan' she was ideal when moored up in a marina, or for short trips in fine weather, but lacked any of the equipment which she needed for offshore sailing. Without radar and an auto-helm system, which worked well when the wind and waves were unpredictable, she was entirely reliant on her skipper to be far more alert and in control, than any vessel which would ordinarily undertake such a long offshore passage.
To save the hull and rigging from the worst of the constant pounding by the waves, Ian and I steered my yacht up and down the crest and trough of every wave individually, trying to minimise the number of times when the bow would come clear out of the water, and come crashing back down, violently shaking the whole yacht.
Because of the wind direction, it was more important - more efficient - to keep the direction aligned with the wind direction, than to steer the most direct course. We could travel one or two knots - nautical miles per hour - faster if we kept the sails filled with wind from the correct direction, by constantly steering the boat, hunting for the optimal angle. Over the course of the 500 nautical mile leg, this would equate to 12 hours or maybe even a whole 24 hours saved. Perhaps it might not sound worth the saving to an ordinary person, but to competitive sailors like Ian and I, we were keen to cross the Bay of Biscay in the quickest possible time.
Taking it in turns to rest/sleep below decks, alternating as skipper at the helm, we hardly spoke for the whole journey, besides exchanging a few pleasantries. At the end of each watch, enough spray and rain had penetrated our wet-weather gear, that we were damp and cold, and desperate to peel off the soggy clothes and warm up in bed, sheltered from the wind.
It was not at all fun.
As we passed well beyond the point of no return, where it would have been completely pointless and counter-productive to turn back, I spent an entire 4 hour watch having a mild panic attack, feeling as though I had made a huge mistake and that we should turn back. Why was I putting myself through this, I asked myself. I had plenty of money to have my yacht delivered by either a professional crew, or else I could have her transported by road or sea. Why had I done this?
"Change of plan. I'm going to spend the summer in Bordeaux" I said to Ian, as soon as he arrived on deck to swap over with me.
"You've never been this far offshore have you?" he asked.
"No. It's bloody terrifying" I admitted.
"I had the exact same reaction you're having, the first time I crossed the Bay of Biscay. It's natural. It'll pass" he said, reassuringly.
"But this is miserable" I complained.
"At least we've got wind. We were becalmed for two days when I did it."
"Sure, but it's right on the nose. Close-hauled all the way" I whined.
"Call yourself a racer?" Ian joked, with a huge grin. The upwind leg of any race was always the most exciting, when every sailboat would be tacking backwards and forwards, and each time your path crossed with another competitor, you knew whether you were ahead or behind in the race. The upwind leg was where races could be won and lost, by pinching a little bit more, and squeezing a little more performance out of your sailboat than your competitors could. Ian was right: viewed as a very long race, I should have been loving the sailing.
"It would be stupid to give up at this point, wouldn't it?" I asked.
"Yes. This is the hardest part. You don't want to bail out now and spend your summer in Bordeaux. If you keep going, at least if you decided to bail out halfway you can spend your summer in the Balearics, and pay a visit to the Côte d'Azur."
He was right. I didn't want to spend my summer still stuck on the Atlantic Coast; I didn't want to spend my summer in Bordeaux. I wanted to get as far south as possible and into the sheltered warm water beyond the Gibraltar Straits.
"Thanks, Ian" I said. Below deck, I realised that I was finally now committed to an idea which had seemed so appealing in principle, and I knew would be rewarding in the end, but I had always been aware would be a huge challenge. My life had been quite easy in many ways, so I suppose I wanted to challenge myself like this; I wanted the sense of achievement. However, when faced with the enormity of the task ahead, I most definitely wanted to take the easy way out. I was glad that Ian had talked me out of abandoning the trip. I felt a little ashamed that I wasn't as dedicated and committed to sailing - and its occasional hardships - as my friends.
As I settled down to attempt a nap, I thought about how authentically my friend Tim had lived his life: pursuing his passion for sailing, instead of chasing money and sacrificing his pleasant life by the sea, for city living. He seemed happy and contented. I wondered if I had made the right choices in life, as I fell asleep in my bed, which was being fairly violently shaken as Ian steered us expertly through the waves.