Crossing Biscay by Finbar

Passage Falmouth to Bayona, Spain September 2014

The dinghy had been winched aboard, the mainsail, both headsails, the topsail with its javelin of a spar, and the jib topsail had all been hoisted up and sheeted in. We were off to Spain, off eventually to the Caribbean, and this was the last sight we would have of England for a year or more. We were about to cross the Bay of Biscay. It would take a week or more and we might see dolphins and maybe even a whale.

Finbar soaking up the sun

As we finished supper, night fell and Locky began his watch. At 10 o’clock it was my watch and I took over from him. Behind, you could see the lights of England and there were more lights of tankers and other boats all around. When my watch was finished dad started his, and I went below to bed and to read ‘The Sparrow’, a very good book about a group of Jesuits (a Christian order) who travel to a planet in orbit around the three sun system of Alpha Centori, and meet aliens. It is a science fiction book, but, unlike the majority of that genre, has quite a lot of science in it as well as the fiction.
            An aside (if you are not interested in this book, skip this paragraph)
An example of the ‘science’ that makes the universe of the book make sense is, when they first get the radio signals there is a pattern to them, once every 9 hours for example. When they get there they find that this is because the alien planet has no ionosphere, the layer of the Earth’s atmosphere that reflects radio waves. So to send radio signals over the horizon, the aliens bounce them off their two moons and back down to the surface. So Earth receives the reflected radio signals from one of the moons every time the alien planet is almost between it and Earth.
The next morning there was nothing on the horizon all round. Not a single point of reference to tell where we were, or how far we had gone. It was rather surreal, and it didn’t feel like we were going anywhere, just fixed in one place relative to the horizon while the water flowed past us never-endingly.
Unfortunately on a boat it is very difficult, if not impossible, to remember the date, day of the week and so on. I am never very good at this at the best of times and at the beginning of the passage I had absolutely no idea even what month it was (my computer seems similarly inept as, on looking up at the date while writing this, it has informed me that it is Sunday the 20th of January!). So I am incapable of telling you at what stage in the voyage the following sequence of events happened, and even the order is sketchy.
Dolphins were frequently sighted, so frequently that I lost count of how many times we saw them, but it was a lot. Once we saw a baby with its mother about 2½ feet long. While having lunch one day someone (I don’t think it was me) spotted the back of what they thought must be another dolphin almost directly to stern. But then we realised that these were not dolphins, they were bigger and they had a different shaped head - they were pilot whales. They just lay there on the surface quite a way away, then they swam away, not paying us the slightest attention. Another time, about the same distance away but on our port bow, we saw a great back break the water, exhale gently, then role back beneath the surface, revealing in the process a small fin on its lower back. We jumped up, whale! It came up several more times then dived, or so we assumed, as we didn’t see it again. I thought it looked like a fin whale. On looking in books we discovered that fin whales are much bigger and this were probably a sei whale.
We went through calms (very slowly) and once it was blowing a 6 gusting 7 (1 is almost no wind at all, 8 is a gale and 4 is blowing rather a bit). We had the first reef in the main and the only other sail up was the staysail. This was in the middle of the night and I wasn’t awake then. When I woke up that day I lay in bed wondering how big the waves were. Judging from the movement I thought they must be very big. Every now and then there would come an upward lurch and then the bottom of my stomach would drop out as we plummeted down. When I stuck my head out of the companionway they were disappointingly small, but still rather bigger that I can remember seeing before. My bunk is in the focs’le and I can feel even the slightest up and down movement. This is why I was deluded into considering colossal waives.
Another day Locky pointed to the horizon. “What’s that?” he asked.
We all looked. There were two thin lines. My first thought was that there were two large yachts on the horizon. But then a third one shot up from the sea. They were whale spouts! With binoculars we could see the whales. They seemed to be bigger versions of the first whale we had seen. These must be fin whales. Their spouts were enormous and stayed there for ages. After a while they too disappeared.

Sunset, waiting for the wind
At the end the wind was against us and then died completely, so mum decided to put the engine on. As night came down it began to get misty. Soon we were in thick fog all around us, you could hardly see the moon. Mum sent me on the for-deck to look out for boats. We were right in the middle of a fishing fleet! Suddenly I heard a splash. Looking over the side I saw ripples as if something had broken the water there. We had soon past them and I went back to looking for ships when it happened again. I looked hard at the water, there was nothing there, except the ripples. Then the dolphin broke the water again and this time I saw it. Then there were suddenly loads of them, all around the bow. They stayed for a while playing by the bow, then they simply vanished. One second they were there the next they weren’t. Then suddenly I saw a light, then another, and the two more, and the fog cleared and there was land. The wind carried the smell of land, warm and piney. We had reached Spain.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely writing! I was right there with you, on the wide empty sea, feeling the swell of the ocean heaving beneath the bunk, thinking, staring out at waterspouts and beautiful sea creatures, scenting the land through the mist ... all that and science too!!!