Category Archives: Adventures at Sea

A Hellish Night At Sea… Dismasted Off France

Sat here, safely back in the UK, sunshine streaming through the window, tapping away at my laptop to share this story with you, it feels surreal. Did it really happen to us? As I close my eyes and allow the pictures and sounds to resurface… I can tell you yes, it did happen.

Our beloved Ruby May, now finds herself in a temporary new home in France, bare of both running and standing rigging from the deck up. Here is the story of that fateful and hellish night at sea. If you are a fellow sailor, and would like to read about my tips, learning’s and what to expect in a dismasting situation then please click here to see my knowledge share.

Dismasted boat
Ruby May with no mast and lots of damage, on a bouy in L’Aber Wra’ch
Read on for the story of a hellish night at sea…: A Hellish Night At Sea… Dismasted Off France

We set off from Eastbourne in glorious sunshine, and had a fantastic couple of days of sailing, via Alderney for a few hours of running repairs (we had an impeller disintegrate and needed to fish it out of the heat exchanger which was easier on a buoy than upwind in a F5). We were on passage to Spain, via the infamous Bay of Biscay, and were roughly 250nm into our passage. Onboard we had Hodge, who was sharing watches with Smithy (a good friend from my Clipper Race days), and Jerry a long standing friend of Smithy’s and a very competent sailor in his own right. Smithy and Jerry have been friends for many many years, and own a sailing boat together on the Norfolk Broads, along with two of their friends. Between them they have tens of thousands of miles under the keel. It is a pleasure to sail with them.

Malcs, Hodge, Smithy and Jerry heading to the boat in Eastbourne before we set off

On my watch it was just Malcs and I. Malcs, a former Royal Marine, is smart, resilient, and has a great sense of humour. His resilience shines through in most everything he does, with no apparent fear, he is an incredibly strong character and his stories can entertain for hours. Malcs sailed the Bay of Biscay with us on Ruby May last year, and he’s also got lots of other sailing experience with many trips across the Channel, and also a Fastnet Race under his belt.

My watch-mate, Malcs, just off the Sussex coast

Malcs and I had been loving our watches. Doing what is best on watch – talking a lot of nonsense (well I did!), chatting about anything and everything, eating, trimming the sails, looking out for shooting stars, and generally just loving every minute. We had spotted pod after pod of Dolphin. With one very memorable pod joining us near the Channel Islands. A large pod of Dolphins, made up of a complete mixture of sizes, from babies to full sized adults. Typically Dolphins head straight for the bow to catch fish, but some of this particular pod hung back and stayed on our beam just a metre of so away from us. Malcolm was on the helm, and I sat on the low side taking in the beauty around us, as our new founds friends leapt repeatedly out of the water at our side. It was magnificent.

The full crew, ready to slip lines

We had spent much of the 250nm heading into the wind. It was hard work, but good fun. We were rapidly heading towards to NW corner of France, all of us were VERY excited about this prospect. For when we turned the corner and pointed our bow at Spain it was to be a couple of hundred miles of open ocean across the Bay of Biscay, but also (more importantly) we would have the wind on our beam – the most comfortable and efficient point of sail. For days we had been counting down the miles and hours until this moment… that golden moment was getting closer and closer with the change of every watch.

As Malcolm and I came off watch at 8pm, ready for our well earned 4 hours of sleep, we chatted with the oncoming watch. “Not long now!”

Hodge and I had our usual handover, we talked about the weather – it was pretty fair, a Force 6-7 that had beset us 24 hours earlier had well and truly blown through, the storm jib had been tucked away in its bag. We talked about the boat, and our strategy in terms of navigation. We decided that Hodge and his crew should continue on the tack we were on for roughly 10 nm or so, and then when they thought that they could ‘make the corner’ (turning through the wind so as to get us past the NW corner of France) then he would tack. This was it, we were so close to the ‘Champagne Sailing’ conditions that we’d all been dreaming of.

Malcolm and I headed down below, Malcolm to his cabin, and me to my temporary bed on the saloon sofa. The sofa was a welcoming site, complete with a shiny new (and very handy) lee cloth, which was doing an excellent job at keeping both Hodge and I from flying across the saloon when we alternated ‘off-watch’ to get some sleep. Down below, it was noisy, alive with the sounds of the outside world – the crashing of the waves, the rushing of the water, the clattering of blocks and lines on deck – these are the sounds of offshore sailing.

For the first time on the passage I was struggling to sleep. I pulled the duvet over my head, and tried to take my mind to calm, peaceful places, as I listened to the roar of the water rushing past our hull. Eventually I gave up and started making notes on my phone and reviewing the forecast… I tried every trick in the book, but I couldn’t sleep. I had an unsettled feeling. It’s hard to describe, I have only once ever felt the same on a passage, and that was when I was mid-Atlantic and a crew mate had accidently gybed the boat (a 72ft racing boat) and I was worried about the rigging, but also competency. Yet here I was in that same place, unsettled, I had a feeling that something bad may happen.

Hodge came down to write in the log book, peeking out from under my duvet, he came and sat beside me…

“Everything ok? Why aren’t you asleep?”

“I don’t know, I can’t sleep. I’m worried, I feel like something is going to happen. I don’t like it. I don’t feel good about things”

I wasn’t feeling unwell, I wasn’t feeling sick… I just had a deep deep (not fear) but sense, that something bad was going to happen. Now, I hear you cry ‘this sounds like nonsense!’ – and I would normally concur, but after 3 hours of no sleep, and this feeling of darkness inside me, I shared those concerns with Hodge, who replied lovingly “there’s nothing to worry about, why are you worrying? Everything’s fine, you need to get some sleep. We’re going to tack in about 15 minutes, and then we’ll make the corner”. He gently stroked my hair as he sat beside me, kissing me on my forehead, he whispered “I love you” and then rejoined his watch on deck.

I closed my eyes, my mind still whirring, counting down the minutes until I could return to the deck, and shake the feeling that was lurking deep inside me. Ten minutes passed. And then there was two loud bangs, and a slight lurching of the boat to starboard. What on earth was that? It sounded like we were tacking (but badly), like blocks and lines smacking out of control, but we hadn’t turned? And then Ruby May, who had been whizzing along at great speeds, came to a near stand-still.

Our position at the time of the incident

“Sam, can you get your life jacket on and get up on deck. Get Malcolm on deck too. Nobody panic. “

‘Nobody panic??!’ – This doesn’t sound good! I leapt up and darted across the saloon towards Malcolm’s cabin door, grabbing my life jacket en route, as I passed the companionway hatch I glanced up, and could see the strangest site on deck… a spreader?! For the non-sailors reading this, a spreader is an aluminum ‘strut’ that lives part of the way up the mast, we have two pairs, on each side of our mast. They’re attached to the mast and their job is to ‘spread’ the steel cabling, creating as large an angle as possible, so as to reduce the load on the mast. Just so we are all crystal clear – there should not be one laying on the deck! And the fact there was, set alarm bells off. ‘What am I about to find?’ I thought as I pulled on my boots.

I knocked on Malcom’s door. “Malcs, Malcs” opening it a few inches, I heard a sleepy murmur, “you need to get your life jacket on and get on deck, something’s happened, we need all hands on deck, but don’t panic.” I grabbed my phone and knife, and within seconds Malcom emerged in a sleepy haze, wearing a t-shirt and shorts… “you need to kit up Malcs, I think it’s going to be a long night”, he disappeared back into his cabin.

The scene on deck… lines, and tensioned cable everywhere. The foot of the mast can be scene in the air, just to the left of the moon

Climbing the companionway steps, my fears were confirmed. On my left I could see the smooth, grey aluminum length of our mast, partially underwater, flattening our guard rail like a giant’s foot would an ant. In front of me a spreader jutting out from the mast, precariously positioned across the cockpit table, coupled with some highly tensioned steel cables, almost lost amongst a complex maze of lines, snake like in their appearance. The cockpit, normally reserved for crew banter and on-watch snacking, was a mass of metal and rope.

On deck, Hodge, Smithy, and Jerry were working calmly and quietly. To keep the boat steady, whilst tying mooring lines around the mast, attaching those to winches in an effort to gain some control of the 14 metre mast which was laying helplessly across the deck. Hodge immediately confirmed that everyone was ok. Miraculously no one was injured – Hodge had moved out of line of a direct hit, just seconds before. Smithy was sitting on the opposite side of the cockpit, and Jerry was at the helm on the opposite side. If Jerry was using the other wheel he would have been hit, if Smithy was sitting in the same position but on the other side he would have been hit. It really was an absolute miracle.

Hodge taking a moment to stop and think, you can see a steel cable (a stay) in front of him across the wheel, and the mast, and main sail in the background overboard

As I stood on the top step, surveying the scene before my eyes, Hodge asked calmly “what do you think we should do”? “Cut it away, we need to get rid”. My fear that the out of control mast could deliver a final blow of venomous proportion to our weary looking Ruby May, it could hole our hull. “No, I don’t think we should yet. Let’s slow down, let’s think…” Turning to Jerry and Smithy, I ask their views, and they respond with “Let’s wait, I don’t think we should do that just yet”. Fine, yep, I concurred, let’s slow things down and take time to think.

On my hands and knees I crawled underneath the lines and tensioned steel cables, concerned that at any minute, with the lurch of a wave the mast could fall further overboard taking me, or any one of us with it if we were unlucky enough to be caught in the cross-fire. Popping up at the stern, like a meercat from it’s burrow, I turned to assess the full extent of the dismasting. What an unbelievable sight.

I was welcomed by the site of the mast foot in the air, pivoting precariously 10 ft or so above where it’s normally secured to the deck. The maze of lines and cables that I initially saw in the cockpit, seemed to span the entire coach roof, and the foot of the mast was also covered in limp, helpless looking lines.

A wave hit our beam and we lurched. The boat was moving differently to normal. We were bobbing helplessly, without sails and unable to use our engine thanks to the snaking lines that lay beneath us, we felt every wave and rolled from one side to the other. The mass of steel and aluminum creaking and banging as each wave passed beneath us. With every few waves in the train, one would be slightly larger, causing us to lurch even more, making me question our stability a little in my own head. The mast and rigging would respond with glee – smashing against the hull and deck, making the most horrendous, grating noise, a reminder that at any moment this situation could go from bad to worse.

By now, Malcolm was on deck. I headed below to send a ‘Pan-Pan’ – an emergency message, which will alert others that we have had an incident, but we’re currently not in ‘grave’ danger. The radio waves were silent. There was no response.

Returning to deck, I turned to Hodge, and suggested we escalate the message to a Mayday. We were bobbing helplessly 12nm away from land. Our rig was reminding us that at any moment it could punish us further, it was 11.30pm and we are shrouded in darkness, we had lost our AIS, and I was very conscious that it wouldn’t take much for this situation to escalate.

Heading below I press the distress (DSC) button, and am met by beeping and confirmation that my message has sent. I pick up the radio handset, and start the Mayday voice call. My first, and hopefully my last. I sat at the chart table and waited eagerly for a response. But nothing came through. Waiting a couple of minutes, I repeated my call.

“Our position is forty eight degrees, fifty one decimal, zero seven North, zero zero four degrees, one nine, decimal six five West. Our vessel has been dismasted. There are 5 persons on board, and we require immediate assistance.”

Still nothing. The silence on the radio is deafening.

With our VHF antenna secured at the top of the mast, now several metres below the murky English Channel, we had virtually no ‘range’, and our distress calls were going unanswered. Hodge pulled out our emergency antenna and we tried again, with Smithy holding the antenna as high as he could. I looked up at his silhouette, arm raised, antenna possibly 2.5 metres high, Hodge attempted another Mayday. Nothing. This was a nonsense.

We were reluctant to cut the rig away because with so much in the water, yet so much still to go over, we were concerned that it could cause catastrophic damage to our hull as it went. I also had concerns about stability – if more of the rig was to go over, but remain attached, it could put even more weight on one side and make us yet more vulnerable should a wave come along with our name on it.

I pulled out a pen and scribbled an entry into our ships log book. “Dismasted. All crew on deck. Life jackets on. Mayday sent. No response”. I return to the deck with our 2 grab bags, which I had spent a couple of hours 2 weeks before re-stocking, to ensure we had everything we needed. (See this post for full contents of our grab bags). So I was confident that we had everything we needed, should we for some reason end up in a situation where we had to leave the vessel.

Discussing the situation with Hodge, we made the decision to put up 2 parachute flares. We were roughly 12 nm from shore, and were possibly seeing what looked like the occasional twinkle of light, a hint that there is some life out there. There may well be vessels that would see a flare, albeit we couldn’t see any. A parachute flare can be seen for up to 40nm on a clear night. In my mind, it was worth a go. Everyone agreed.

One of the guys pulled out the large yellow flare carton from the starboard locker, which was somewhat buried under a spreader. I carefully unscrewed the lid, and took out a flare. As I removed its cap, a small white pull cord dangled down, almost like the cord you would see on a party popper. I pointed it downwind into the night’s sky, and gave it a hard tug . With an almighty whoosh the flare illuminated the sky, burning bright red in all its glory. I was surprised at how loud it was when it went, and also at just how much light it created . The most incredible red glow, quite a sight.

Our first red parachute flare, lighting us up. We think this is what attracted the first fishing vessel that came to our aid

It was a clear night, with plenty of stars and a full moon for company, we were so incredibly lucky to have such good conditions. “Please see us, please see us” I repeated over and over in my head, as Malcolm set a three minute timer on his watch.

We all fell silent, taking in the moment, staring up the sky, with the deck and sea lit up red. And with that, it silently fizzled out. As quickly as it was there, it was gone. Scanning the horizon there was nothing, and no one. It was just us out there, helplessly bowing down at Neptune’s feet.

2 minutes 30, 2 minutes 40… I have the second flare in my hand. 3 minutes. With the cap removed, I take aim and pull the now familiar flare cord on the second flare. Whoosh. Like a firework, it shoots into the darkness. This flare however, decides on a different path! Initially taking the same position as the first, it suddenly and erratically darted in a totally different direction, upwind of us. Well this is not good news. We all turn and stare intently. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come this way” “yes that wouldn’t be good”. We stare and wait, and stare and wait. The flare slowly starts its decent, making its way quietly in our direction, getting lower, and continuing to come straight towards us in slow motion- this can not be happening! The last thing we want is for the fireball to land on us.

Thankfully it comes down nearby, uncomfortably nearby, but nearby nonetheless. Possibly 10 – 15 ft off our stern, the bright red flaming ball gracefully lands on the water, momentarily creating a fairly sizeable fire on top of the sea, before it finally snuffs out. We breathe a sigh of relief, and see the comedy in the moment of utter terror! Hoping that someone had seen us.

We all stood quietly scanning the horizon. Looking eagle eyed for any signs of life. Every now and then one of us would spot a light. “A vessel, a vessel, it’s definitely a vessel!”… It’s amazing how your brain can invent the things, and see the things it wants to see. That night, I saw several vessels that weren’t.

After some time, we decided it was time to use our last resort option to get some help. We have an Iridium Go Exec, and on it is a ‘red button’ – if we this is pressed, it alerts the Garmin Emergency Centre (in the USA), who will in turn alert our shore contacts, who may be able to get us some help.

I pressed the red button, and at the same time, despite being well out of range, Malcolm tapped out a whatsapp message. ‘Mast down. Need help’ – addressed to a good friend and work colleague of both him and Hodge, someone we know is tracking our every move.

And then it’s back to waiting. We continue the regular scan of the horizon.

Suddenly things started to happen, and I can’t be sure of the order. But incredibly a whatsapp came back through to Malcolm, asking for our position, and a small exchange is had before we could no longer communicate by that means. At the same time, the Iridium Go Exec sprung into life with a call coming through – a lady with a thick American accent, asking where we are. Baffling that despite all the tech, the Garmin Emergency Centre had no idea where we were. The comms are broken, and incredibly difficult. The device rings again, and a crackly male voice comes on, it’s Hodge’s brother, our shore contact, with an incredibly calm ‘Yo, what’s up?!’ We attempt to give our position, and iterate that we’re all (miraculously) unharmed, we give some details, but the comms are so broken, it’s difficult, and again it cuts out.

“A light! A light! I can definitely see a light! It’s a vessel, it’s definitely a vessel!” (This is following several false alarms) On the horizon, we spot a small white light. Grabbing our spotlight, I start flashing it frantically in the direction of the light. It is definitely getting closer, but is not necessarily heading our way. I continue to flash our light, my arm aching, as I hold it as high as I can above my head. As it gets closer we realise that the vessel has it’s own huge search light, and is making regular scans of the horizon, from left to right, and then back again. They are looking for us! Did they see our flares??

“We’re here, we’re here” I’m screaming in my head, and quite possibly out loud, as I continue to flash the torch in their direction. And with that the light once again scans past, before quickly centering, and fixing on us. “They’ve seen us!!!!!!”

After what seems like an age, the vessel gets closer and closer. It’s a huge fishing vessel, the Azkarra. Never have I been so happy to see a fishing vessel. Not usually a massive fan (understatement) of fishing boats, this feeling of elation at being in the company of one was somewhat alien, you could feel the sheer relief wash over us all.

The Azkarra called us on the radio (our handheld VHF which has limited ship-to-ship range), and in broken English they told us that they were in contact with the coastguard and that help was coming. They would be our voice, our link to the outside world. They said they would stay with us until help arrived. Slowly circling us, with enormous spotlights on us at all times, they kept a healthy distance (most of the time!) with huge waves rolling between us to give us perspective.

I have never been so grateful for maritime law.

By now, it must have been 1am or later, time was standing still. Another fishing vessel appeared and made its way close to us. We had regular comms with the Azkarra, and now we had another French vessel, Le Tad for company. Le Tad agreed with Azkarra that they would take over, and would stand-on, so the Azkarra could return to shore to offload her catch in Roscoff. Le Tad was equally as big, and much like Azkarra, circled us, and ‘lit us up.’

I cannot emphasise the relief that we all felt, by having another vessel by our side. It meant that if things did escalate, if we did start to take on water, if we did suddenly roll, if any of the ‘if’s did happen, and one of us or more ended up in the dark seas of the night, that we may just be safe. It meant that people knew where we were, that people were watching out for us. It felt so so good.

Le Tad informed us that a helicopter was on its way, and that a lifeboat was coming too. The helicopter would be 15 mins, but the lifeboat much longer. We responded, letting them know that we really didn’t need a helicopter, that we just needed a lifeboat, to assist and hopefully tow us. The Le Tad said, that the helicopter was insistent, and that it was fine. Communication was tricky, with a mixture of broken English and broken French. Nonetheless, we were going to receive help soon.

Before long, we could hear the familiar sound of a helicopters rotor blades thumping through the sky. As it got closer, salty spray washed across our cluttered decks. We had a brief back and forth on the radio, and a huge spotlight shone down to identify a suitable landing spot for the winchman. Realising our deck was somewhat hazardous, they asked if we had a swim ladder. We do, but it was completely trapped beneath the mast. So that was it, with no further ado, we watched as a real-life action hero dangling from a helicopter landed in mere seconds on our foredeck, somehow avoiding the snake pit of lines and cables. One wrong move, and he would have been seriously hurt. I don’t quite know how he managed to do it, but he did, landing in a space probably half a metre, by half a metre, he unclipped and shook each of our hands in turn, his face beamed as he said a confident ‘bonjour’.

The French Navy helicopter assesing our situation from the air

We welcomed him aboard and he asked who was going up in the helicopter first. He wanted 3 people. Absolutely not, no, no and no. No one wanted to go anywhere. He understood, but was a little surprised. He told us that he wanted to stay with us until the lifeboat arrived. That the lifeboat would tow us, but we now needed to cut the rig away. With that we sprang into action.

Just about to give the final push and say goodbye to our full rig

With Le Tad, and the helicopter watching over us, and our new French friend onboard, we pulled out the bolt cutters, and various implements from the toolkit – hammers, wrenches, screw drivers… and all of us started the job of freeing the rig. We did it in a controlled and systematic manner, working together and communicating constantly making sure that the rig didn’t suddenly heave, or a cable didn’t suddenly fire across the deck. One of the last screws to be undone was by Hodge (he had to climb under the mast), I held my breath as he was out of sight and in such a dangerous position, with the mast continuing to crash up and down. The whole process took us about an hour, and then we were ready. We cut the lines that were just about holding the rig on deck, and on a count of three we pushed everything overboard.

I was towards the stern of the boat, and captured the moment on camera just as we were about to push. We all stood, or crouched exhausted as the entire rig vanished into the deep sea. I watched intently until the white of the mainsail could no longer be seen. Now we just had to hope that nothing was entangled around our prop, and that there was no hull damage.

The bare deck, and the winchman waiting to depart

The deck was suddenly unfamiliar again. Now it was just bare. Where there had once been a mast, shrouds, sails and lines, there was just an empty space. The boat continued to lurch with every wave, now more so than before.

Our temporary crew member told us in a very smooth French accent, that it was time for him to leave. The lifeboat appearing behind us was a welcome sight. And with that he hooked himself to a line and whizzed up from the deck, swinging wildly as he was winched back into the awaiting helicopter.

The lifeboat crew were fantastic. They told us they would throw us a towing line, and they planned to tow us to L’Aber Wra’ch, a small fishing town on the NW coast of France. After a couple of missed attempts, we finally had their line onboard and the tow began. We took turns on the wheel, watching the line snatch and ease, as the SNSM effortlessly dragged us along behind them. The crew were friendly and very reassuring, it felt safe to be in their hands. They called us every 30 minutes to check in, each time giving us an update on progress. On deck the mood had shifted, it was now time for some banter and reflection, as the adrenaline started to subside, what on earth had we all just been through, and what do we do next?!

Approaching the shore, under tow by the SNSM

As the sun began to rise, we were nearing L’Aber. I took the wheel, and we navigated our way through the maze of buoys, still under tow. Just before the marina entrance, the lifeboat coxswain instructed us to enter the marina and moor alongside them. I started the engine (with clenched teeth) and very slowly and carefully put us on to our designated berth. Smithy, Malcs and Jerry worked with the lifeboat crew to tie us up. And before long, it was all smiles and handshakes on the pontoon.

It was so amazing to see the 8 lifeboat crew who had left their warm beds to come to our aid in the middle of the night. We shook their hands in turn, and exchanged pleasantries, and the story of what had happened. They said they would catch up with us later in the day or the next day to do ‘paperwork’ (in France the SNSM, RNLI equivalent, charge for salvage), and with that they were gone, and we were alone once again.

With the adrenaline drained, we were all shattered, but I felt we needed a short decompress and chat on deck before everyone headed to bed. So, like all good sailors do, we cracked open some very very fine beverages (at 7.30am) and enjoyed the sweet taste of ‘surviving’ on deck. We were all fine, it felt good to be safe, it felt good to have come through as a team, we were here, we were ok, and everything else would fall into place. Cheers to that.

Smiles and a ‘decompress’ on deck once we arrived safely in L’Aber Wra’ch

I’d like to say a massive thank you to the SNSM L’Aber Wra’h for looking after us and towing us to shore; the French Navy helicopter crew for lighting us up and giving us the help you did; the skipper and crew of Le Tad and the Azkarra for responding to us when in distress, following the maritime code, and for standing by – whilst also giving us so much hope and reassurance; the marina staff at L’Aber Wr’ach for looking after us and Ruby May so well, and Johnathon at Cafe Du Port for keeping us fed and watered. Thank you also to GJW, and our insurance team who have been amazing since we got back to dry land.

The SNSM 064 French Lifeboat who came to our aid

I would also like to thank Smithy, Jerry and Malcs for the calm, positivity and tremendous team work that night, and of course Hodge for everything pre, post, and on the night that made it a far better experience than it could very well have been. The memory of that hellish night still burns bright, but it is amazing what happens when people dig deep, and team work and experience shine bright. To that point, I also want to say thank you to the many sailors over the years who have imparted their knowledge with either Hodge or I, who inadvertently helped us that night in making us the sailors that we have both become.

The full crew in L’Aber Wra’ch

There’s so may lessons I would like to share with fellow sailors, from that night, I have created a separate blog post, which you can read here.

Fun in the sun

We are going to be attempting an Ocean Yachtmaster qualifying passage in the coming months. Our last attempt saw us run for a bolt hole, meaning it could not be used as our passage. So, with an ocean passage on the horizon, we’ve been busy prepping the boat, which has seen us invest in a new Iridium system, fit a new cooker, fit a new life raft, do a rig check, and get a new storm and main sail – among other things. It has been a very costly few months!

celestial navigation sailing
Me doing a sun site
Read more: Fun in the sun

We’ve also squeezed in some excellent sailing, including a couple of passages to our favourite destination, Dieppe. Last weekend, we had various jobs to do, including fitting lights to our compasses, doing an inventory check for our victualling, and digging out all of the charts. It was glorious weather; scorching hot sunshine, with a light breeze, so we took the opportunity to have a short sail to test out our never-before-used (by us) cruising chute.

Hodge had a cruising chute tucked away from a previous boat he’d owned. The previous boat was slightly smaller, but we figured that the sail would probably still be just about ok for Ruby May, and to have the option of using a kite in light winds would be beneficial. So, we dug it out for a shakedown.

Locking out in the sunshine, we headed out into familiar waters. After informing me that he’d not so much as had it out of its bag, Hodge and I piled the sail on to the deck. A classic cruising chute, it comes in its own snuffer, making it easy to rig and use, also very easy if ever single-handed. We found the head and the tack, but with no sign of the clew, opted to rig it and start a hoist – we’d then be able to grab the clew and work out a plan for the sheets.

Heading up to the bow, we attached a spinnaker halyard and raised the chute up the forestay, size wise it looked good. After a bit of jostling, with the halyard, sail and snuffer, we grabbed the clew. We didn’t have enough suitable lines to rig two sheets, so we attached our preventer line and just accepted that we’d need to juggle things about a bit on the gybe. The winds were so light, it didn’t matter. We hoisted the sail, and looked up as it filled like a balloon. A beautiful bright blue and white sail, it was perfect.

Making just under 3 knots in virtually no wind, we played around with a couple of gybes, kicked off our shoes and let the tide and breeze gently carry us. We were in no hurry, we had nowhere to go. We marvelled at the feeling of not having a deadline to meet, something that is rare for us. Oh, if life could be this simple all the time.

Sun site celestial navigation
Hodge practicing his celestial nav – despite the sky now looking overcast, with the filters on the sextant, it was possible to take a really good shot of the sun

With the sun in the sky, it was also a great opportunity to practice our celestial navigation skills. We got the sextant out and took turns at shooting the sun. Something we’ll need to do during our upcoming ocean passage. Although for us, celestial nav is just a bit of fun, and another ‘tool in the toolkit’, it’s amazing to think that this was how the explorers and adventurers of ‘the day’ used to navigate. I remember reading the story of Shackleton’s Endurance, and how at one stage he couldn’t take a site for days, and then it was in an open top rowing boat in an angry Southern Ocean. A million miles away from us, off the sunny south coast. Incredible.

With that Hodge heard a splashing noise off our beam, looking at me with a slightly bemused expression “was that a whale?” he asked. Jumping to my feet, I glared intently at the open sea. “There! There!” he points, and with that several glistening, black bodies slowly surface and disappear. Pilot Whales? Then there’s splashes, and tails, and dives. It looks like a pod of porpoises perhaps. Unusually for porpoises though one comes completely out of the water before crashing back into the cold sea. It’s a site to behold. These magnificent creatures, gliding past, going about their business. As quickly as they appeared, they disappeared, and I feel so lucky that we got to witness them on their journey.

With the suns rays beating down, and a big success ticked off with our lovely cruising chute pulling us along. The cool sea is calling me. I undo our stern guard wire and sit on the swim platform. The water is freezing, I immediately feel my muscles tighten, nonetheless it is refreshing, and a great feeling, with the water whooshing past. Acclimatising, I decide to drop the swim ladder and go a little deeper. At first just my calves, then further and further until I feel the ice-cold water hit my spine – it’s debilitating, and I can’t deny that I wasn’t shrieking, much to Hodge’s amusement. I wanted to go all the way. I briefly popped back on to the deck, grabbed a mooring line and tied it around my waist, with the other end tethered to a hard point. I climbed back down the ladder, and let my body adjust before taking the final plunge. The cold leaving me temporarily breathless, a stark reminder of the staggering danger of ‘cold water shock’. I finally relaxed and let go of the ladder.

There’s something absolutely cathartic about pushing yourself, be it physically or mentally. This unexpected dip in the English Channel did just that for me. I wanted to go in, because I love the sea (I secretly also wanted to be in the same body of water as the porpoises who had not long passed us!), but equally it was incredibly uncomfortable physically, and so mentally every part of my brain was telling me to stop. Yet I ignored it all, and (after a lot of shrieks) took the plunge. And it provided an enormous rush!

Fun in the rather chilly sea

Life has a been a little busy recently, with various stresses and strains from many directions, not to mention my beautiful and most loyal companion, my beloved black Labrador of 14yrs being put to sleep just over a week ago. But in the moment, let’s say freezing moment, hanging on to a line off the back of Ruby May, with a huge blue sail flying proudly, everything momentarily paled away.

Experts have hailed the benefits of cold-water swimming on mental health, and I can only agree, I certainly felt the benefit in that moment. Scientists say that it can cause the release of dopamine, endorphins and serotonin – I’ll have some of that, thank you.

I played like a child, pulling myself back towards the boat, and then letting go to see how fast I’d drift to the end of my 12-metre safety rope. I pulled myself up the ladder, and then unceremoniously let myself fall back in. I pushed myself to see if I could swim as fast as the boat. Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t, but that didn’t stop multiple attempts. It was just me, and the beautiful sea… Along with the occasional jellyfish whizzing past , and of course I was under the watchful eye of Hodge.

Nearing the entrance to the marina, and with the depth gauge starting to fall, it was time to return to reality. Pulling myself up the ladder for the last time, a cold-water shower on deck (warm in comparison to the frigid sea!) washed away the salt crystals. We snuffed our cruising chute and made our way back to shore. Sometimes, it’s the simplest things in life that make us the happiest, draining away the complexities and reminding us that stepping back every now and then brings perspective.

Sailing the Bay of Biscay – An Ocean Yachtmaster Qualifying Passage (Almost)

Well dear Reader, are you ready for an adventure? You know the drill, grab yourself a cuppa or a tipple of your choice, and join me on an action-packed sail across the infamous Bay of Biscay for our Ocean Yachtmaster qualifying passage.

A dolphin leaping out of the water at sunset in the Bay of Biscay
Read more: Sailing the Bay of Biscay – An Ocean Yachtmaster Qualifying Passage (Almost)

In lockdown 1 all the way back in March 2020, when Hodge and I first started living together, we decided we’d spend our evenings learning celestial nav and studying for our Ocean Yachtmaster theory. We spent many of our lockdown evenings with our heads in a book, whilst devouring a bottle of wine. And after a couple of months of study, we nailed it, and were both rewarded with a pass in our 8-hour ocean theory exam in the May of 2020. Since then, we’ve been conjuring up a plan to do our Ocean Yachtmaster qualifying passage. Despite both having done thousands of miles, and for me, an ocean passage, we hadn’t yet been able to meet the requirements of a qualifier, which are quite specific.

The basic requirements are a continuous passage of 600nm+, of which 200nm must be 50nm from any chartered object, with the ocean yachtmaster candidate in either the skipper or 1st mate role. We looked at our options, and the two that stood out were Bergen, Norway, or A Coruna, Spain. We decided on Spain, as it would tick off our bucket list dream of a Biscay crossing, and we’d heard that the Galician coast is beautiful, plus who can resist warm climes, and the draw of some tapas?! With a destination in mind, we set about building the plan and recruiting our crew.

The crew and prep

In terms of crew, I instantly thought of two of my former Clipper crew-mates, Nigel and Smithy. Both incredibly experienced, having sailed thousands of miles. They would know what is required on an ocean passage. They would also work well in the watch system, and would bring experience and knowledge. Hodge added one of his colleagues, a former marine, and artic-warfare specialist, Malcs to the crew list. Bringing some youth, strength and resilience, as well as some sailing experience (fastnet and various sailing adventures with Hodge previously). I’d not met Malcs, but he sounded perfect. Last, but not least I thought of my eldest brother, former RAF, he would be the perfect balance for our emerging crew. Again, bringing youth, strength, resilience. We had dreamt up the perfect crew. All with lots to give, all fearless and ‘up for anything’, they’re a fun bunch, with bundles of stories to share, and importantly they’re all up for banter (and some). We messaged them all in turn, my phone instantly came to life. Ping, ping, ping. Yes, yes, yes. We had our crew.

The crew mustering in Eastbourne, R-L Smithy, Hodge, Nigel, Charlie and Malcs

We decided to split into two watches, with Hodge leading one watch, and I the other. We also decided it would be wise to split Nigel and Smithy up, and Malcs and Charlie up. So that we had balance of age, experience, strength, etc between the watches. I drew Charlie and Smithy, and Hodge drew Nigel and Malcs, to form our respective watches.

We spent months preparing the good ship, Ruby May. From adding safety equipment, bringing the mast down to fit a tri-light, and fitting a deck level VHF, through to replacing the battery charger, investing in a ships grade first aid kit (to include Morphine, epi-pens etc), and replacing the jack stays. We worked our way through every inch of the boat, to make sure she was the best she could possibly be for the passage.

Our daily jobs checklist onboard

Crew intros and a weekend sail to France

In February we arranged a crew meet up for a few beers and intros at the aptly named Anchor pub in Southbank, London. Everyone hit it off instantly, and the excitement started to build. We decided upon a weekend familiarisation sail to Dieppe, so that everyone could get to know each other and the boat a bit better. Hodge and I sail to Dieppe a lot, and it’s a town that we both love. We’ve got some fantastic ‘local’ bars and restaurants there, and so it was the perfect place to take the team.

In May, we had our weekend passage to Dieppe, getting into a 2-hour-on, 2-hour-off watch system on the Friday evening, we sailed over night. A beautiful broad reach sail, under a starry sky, we absolutely flew across the channel. Any nerves from the crew, were quickly lost, and a fantastic and speedy sail, saw us arrive into Dieppe for 7am. We had an obligatory ‘morning-cap’ drink on deck, before a few hours’ sleep. Exploring the beautiful town in the afternoon and evening, we had an onboard disco to finish the day off. It was a fantastic weekend.  Albeit the lack of wind, and hot weather on Sunday’s sail home, didn’t do much for the sore heads!

The countdown to Biscay was now on.

Final prep

In the final weeks before our passage, Hodge and I continued to prep the boat, deciding on 100 litres of fresh drinking water (stored in bags), along with 220 litres of diesel, and an additional 2 x jerry cans, in case of contamination. We also made batches of food, which were duly vacuum sealed and frozen. We would eat like kings. Curry, chili, chicken pie… we had it all. Along with some sweet treats of steamed stick toffee pudding and custard. The aim was to make cooking simply and easy onboard, keeping the crew on deck as much as possible, whilst also eating well. Food being so important, from both a calorific and morale perspective when on a long passage.

Meal plan and drinking water log

We designed a ‘logo’ for the trip, and had t-shirts made for everyone, typed up and printed a meal plan, along with a pee chart (to remind people to stay hydrated!), and a daily jobs check list. Between us, we thought of every last detail. Keeping a constant eye on the weather, sea state, and orca attacks, so as to start to think about our passage routing. The days were flying by, and on our team whatsapp group the sweepstake for eta’s was gaining momentum.

Time to go

It’s Saturday 25th June. And we all meet at Sovereign Marina, Eastbourne. Everyone settles into their cabins, and we inform the crew that due to the weather conditions (upwind) we’ll be slipping lines this evening, instead of the planned morning departure. Everyone is happy with this. We can’t wait to get going.

We muster on deck for a full safety briefing, and run through the passage plan, so that everyone knows what to expect. Discussing routing, we’ve decided to hug the South Coast down to Portland Bill, then head South from there, taking an offshore route around the TSS, so as to be offshore for the continental shelf at approx. 7 degrees. The weather isn’t looking particularly favorable – in our face for at least the first 2-3 days, there’s also a series of fronts inbound across the Atlantic, albeit they’re due to head North before getting to us, they will definitely impact the sea state. Nonetheless, this looks like the best route.

We head for dinner and draw straws to decide who’s going to be standing the first watch. My watch won, and we’re first up. It’s time to have a final shower, make any last phone calls to loved one’s and then we slip. Locking out of Eastbourne Marina, it feels so crazy to think that the next time we’re on dry land we will be in Spain! We’re like an excited bunch of children, the banter is flying about who’s the best watch and who’s going to win the sweepstake. We’re off. It’s just us, the sea and the stars. My happy place.

My watch – Smithy, Charlie and I

We have settled on a 6-6-4-4-4 watch system. With watches doing 6 hours each during the day, and then rotating through 4-hour watches overnight. I’ve previously found this system works well in terms of balance of sleep, but also in terms of rotating through night watches day-on-day. So, while on one day you’ll have sunset (8pm – 12am), and also sunrise (4am – 8am), the next night you’ll have the ‘graveyard shift’ (12am – 4am). Other popular watch systems mean that you either always have the fantastic sunset/sunrise, OR you always have the dreaded graveyard, which I’m not keen on.

At midnight, we kicked off the watch system, with the off-watch heading below for their first 4 hours of sleep. Charlie, Smithy and I, found our groove under a star filled sky, with Charlie the first to spot a beautiful shooting star as it whizzed past us. Ruby May rose and fell with the ways, as we started our beat along the south coast. It was the perfect start to the passage. All those months of prep, and we’re finally on our way.

Before long, we’re heading down below, and Hodge’s watch is up. We’re particularly delighted at the fortuitous timing, as a squall hits us just minutes later – we hear the drumming of the rain on the deck from the comfort of warm, dry sleeping bags and are relieved that the weather had courteously held off until after the watch change.

Sunshine sailing – on our ocean yacthmaster passage

By the time we’re back on deck at 8am, the sun is shining, and it is the start of a beautiful day. We’re down near the Isle of Wight. And there’s plenty of shipping buzzing around, heading in and out of Southampton, which keeps us on our toes. The wind is persistent at a F5/6, blowing from the South West (meaning we’re tacking) and it’s a bumpy ride. Among the crew, we just about manage to stave off the seasickness.

Hodge and I had decided that all meals will happen 30 mins before watch change overs, so that we eat together, and have all crew together at least 2-3 times a day. I make a lunch of sandwiches, which is always a challenge when on a significant heel. I just about manage to keep the ham and lettuce contained, and the crew are all very grateful for the effort!

I head to bed. Hodge and I are hot-bunking in the fore-peak, which is without a doubt the worst place to sleep on a boat, and especially so when going up-wind. With every wave, there’s an almighty crash, and at times it feels like you’re ‘getting air’ as the nose of the boat dives off the top of a wave into a trough below.

Dodging ships on our Ocean Yachtmaster passage

I lay in bed, full of adrenaline and excitement, trying to get to sleep. What day is it? I love this life. Time and the insignificant politics and monotony of land life melt away in their significance. I was made for this.

Dolphins and darkness

On night two, we’re on the sunset and sunrise watches. The two best watches by far. Is there much better than being at sea and witnessing the sun turn the sky orange and the stars pop out, equally witnessing the dawn of a new day, silently marvelling as the stars fade, as the sky turns pink, while the world sleeps. I think not.

The sun sets, and once again we’re in darkness, with just the stars for company. That is until we spot some shadowy figures off our beam. Dolphins! Every now and then I catch sight of them as they leap about playfully beside us. Fantastic company.

Unfortunately, we’ve not managed to keep sea sickness at bay, and some of the crew are now hugging the guard wire at the stern. The seas are building as 4 ominous fronts continue to march towards us across the Atlantic. Come on, turn North will you – turn North.

We’re now crossing Lyme Bay, a huge expanse of water, and one that brings fond memories for me. It reminds me of some great passages we’ve done before, like when we brought Ruby May home, or when we headed for Salcombe last Summer. It’s a fantastic bay to cross.

A warship passed us (not on AIS)

With the wind heading more westerly, we decide it’s time to peel away and start our journey SW. We throw in several tacks, carefully picking our way through the huge volume of shipping, including a warship and a support boat, which is always exciting to see.

After a dinner of lasagna, we head off watch. I relocate my bed to the saloon; I’m sleep deprived from the bouncy fore-peak and need some sleep, as conditions are set to worsen. The saloon is dreamy when on port tack, but horrific when on starboard. Is there really no rest for the wicked??

There’s a storm coming

At watch handover, Hodge’s watch has managed to make great progress. Hodge and I discuss the weather. This weather system is still yet to turn north. All the forecasts, including our own seem to be wrong. The system should have gone north nearly 24 hours ago. And yet here we are, deep offshore, outside of the TSS, and it is coming straight for us.

As Hodge’s watch head to bed, I look up and see the first front line ominously towering above us. I make a call to reef, we’re heading straight for it. Just moments after we reef the sails, it hits us. We take a lashing of rain, soaking us through. And the sea builds further. The wind and gusts pick up. We’re pelted with rain for an hour or so, and the wind howls through the rig, shaking it violently. The front passes, and rain abates a little.

We look up and can see another front line.

We’re getting tossed about in all directions, as if Ruby May is our bucking bronco, we cling on with our rain-soaked hands, doing all we can to maintain our course. We’re at the mercy of the wind and the waves, taking it in turns to helm. Surrounded by white foam and froth. Wave after wave is crashing over the deck. Every stint on the helm is like a full body workout. My legs and arms are aching, as I wedge myself against the backstay to avoid being thrown about so much.

One of the bruises I sustained in the storm!

I instruct the crew to ‘double tether’. The conditions are brutal, and we cannot risk anyone being ‘unclipped’ for a single second. The crew duly comply, as the reality of our situation starts to set in. I can see a mixture of fear and excitement in their eyes, as they put their trust into both Hodge and I, and of course, the good ship Ruby May.

The conditions are brutal, by far the worst seas that I’ve had the displeasure of sailing in. Huge, breaking waves, tower over us, and are hitting us from all directions. I am so impressed with how Smithy and Charlie are rising to this challenge, both taking stints on the helm, they are fearless in the face of such conditions.

I can only describe it as being on a roller coaster. As we look up and see a wave building in front of us, we turn in to it, and the boat starts to climb, we rise and rise, and rise and rise, and there’s heart stopping anticipation as to what will meet us. Reminiscent of the climb on a roller coaster, where you hear click, click, click, only we have howling winds instead of clicks and this ride hasn’t been safety tested! Occasionally it’s a gentle glide down the top of the wave, at which point we all silently breathe a sigh of relief, but more often than not it’s a huge trough, into which we drop with an almighty crash as we accelerate into what can only be described as a giant hole. Either way, as soon as one wave passes, the next wave is waiting, building with an almighty terror ahead of us. It’s relentless. It is exhausting. Neptune is having fun with us today!

I refresh the navtex, this is not what is forecast. This is far from ideal. Poor Ruby May is taking a hammering. We’re two fronts in, the sea state is a mixture of ‘very rough’ to ‘high’ on the technical scale. The waves are now at the height of our first spreader, towering metres above us, so whatever it ‘technically’ is on the official scale, I can tell you it is not pleasant onboard. The crew are growing weary, exhausted, and desperate for this to end.

A snippet of the synoptic chart and the impending fronts – not fun!

At watch change over, Hodge and I discuss the plan and the forecast. We need to keep the boat and crew safe. I share some tips from our watch and pass on the order to double tether. Hodges watch head on deck, Hilariously Malcolm has applied factor 50 sun cream – he is in for a surprise!

The sea state and weather continue to build. We have been caught in a full-scale Atlantic storm. Down below, the conditions are equally relentless. I can hear every smash and crash. With every wave that hits, it feels like the boat could break up. The boat is creaking and screaming with every smash from the relentless waves. As I lay in the saloon, I run through emergency drills in my head. Grab bags, epirbs, spare VHF, it whizzes through my mind, as I remind myself of the important mantra of ‘don’t put your body where your mind hasn’t been’ i.e. have a plan. Always have a plan. Be prepared.

My mind starts to wander to life at home. I think of my kids. How I wish I’d held them tighter when I said goodbye. I close my eyes and can see their faces in a few moments of ‘quiet’ reflection.

I don’t feel scared. I firmly believe that there is no place for fear, nor for panic in a situation like this. You can not lead/co-lead a team and allow fear to exist. It’s in moments like these that you’re most needed, and a cool head is essential for everyone’s sake. Fear and panic have no place when you are a skipper.

After a moment of reflection it’s back to the situation in hand. We’re 50 or so miles offshore. In treacherous conditions. There’s no help here. With that, bam, the 3rd front hits us.

We’re all battered and bruised. Our precious Ruby May has sustained a fair amount of damage. Below decks a door has been smashed clean off. On deck, a shackle with a 3.5-tonne breaking point, has effortlessly snapped under the strain of the wind, like butter peeling away under a knife. The small portion of our foresail we’d left out for stability is shredded, and several of our brand-new lines are heavily chafed. This is just to name some of the damage we’ve sustained. Ruby May was holding up well, but she was without a doubt being pushed to her limits. The crew? Exhausted.

A chafed jib sheet, following the storm

We can’t go on. We just can’t. Hodge and I have a brief conversation at the next watch changeover. We need to get to a bolt hole, and fast. The reality of what this means for us both is that this won’t count as our much sought-after Ocean Yachtmaster qualifying passage, but we cannot go on. It would be foolish to do so. And a sailor cannot afford to be foolish.

The end of the road

I’m pleased to have spent an evening the week before we set off, studying potential boltholes for our passage. Having put this prep in in advance, it makes for a quick and easy decision in horrendous conditions. We decide on L’Aber Wr’ach, France.

The entrance into L’Aber Wr’ach, France, our bolt hole

Hodge and I are gutted, and emotional. We tell the crew, and individually they all agree that there’s no other option. There’s an instant sense of relief throughout the boat, as we turn towards France. Soaked through, battered and bruised, we limp slowly in the direction of land.

L’aber Wr’ach provides a tricky entry, with lots of unlit buoys (many of which aren’t charted) and a narrow, shallow channel. We tie up and thank Neptune for sparing us. It is 3am.

Smithy adjusting the French courtesy flag, which we’d never expected to use

We agree to wake up at 8am to assess the damage and make a plan.

Hodge and I curl up in the forepeak. We chat through the previous 18 hours, the relentless battle that we’ve just endured. We’re both sad, disappointed beyond words, with months and months of planning and dreams in tatters. But equally, we’re relieved to be safe, and to have avoided any significant injury or damage. I’m pleased to be in the comfort of Hodge’s arms, and with that we close our eyes.

Our sleep is rudely interrupted by the ringing out of the 8am alarm. After just under 5 hours sleep, we’re feeling refreshed and raring to go. It’s amazing how little sleep you can survive on, and how good sleep can make you feel.

Unfurling our jib, for repair

Right… what are our options? We can abandon our passage altogether and leave Ruby May in France. We can coast hop down to Spain. Or we can go for it. Hodge and I briefly discuss it. We assess the damage. And we decide on the last option, we are going to ‘do the bay’. We inform the crew one by one and give them the choice to stay or abandon. All of them are up for it. They are behind us, 100%. The boat comes alive again. Excitement spreads. Time to roll up our sleeves, we have jobs to do, and a boat to repair and get ready.

L’Aber Wr’ach marina, our bolt hole

We’ve got 350nm to go. The tide is favourable from 6pm. But if we leave at 3pm, we will benefit from a ‘mega push’ down the Chanel du Four. Let’s do it. As the saying goes, ‘time and tide wait for no man’. 

There’s a fresh energy in the air. We shower. Launder our clothes (all of which are soaked through), we refuel, and refill our water (for best practice as opposed to necessity). We undertake some much needed sail repair. Assess the lines and strengthen where needed. We replace broken shackles and carry out various fixes down below. Ruby May is starting to look ship shape again. It is such a team effort with all hands-on deck.

Smithy and Nigel about to start work on the sail repair

After a lunch of Omelette, duly cooked by Smithy. We slip lines. Excited and thankful for our decision. The storm is now long gone, and the conditions couldn’t be better.

Making our approach for Chanel du Four, a rare moment when both watches are on deck

There’s excitement, and jokes on deck. And in the evening, we enjoy a curry for supper, followed by a surprise hot pudding with custard. Much to everyone’s delight. It’s a beautiful day, there’s an incredible rolling swell, pushing us along. A pod of dolphins joins us, and a spout of water shoots into the air off our stern, a whale? Everyone is happy. This is why we’re here. Spain, here we come.

Hodge and Malcs looking forward to Biscay proper

After dinner, at 8pm, we recommence the familiar watch system. As I head off watch, we’re doing 9.5kts. This is better sailing than we could have dreamed of, and a far cry from the previous 48 hours.

At 12am return to deck, for the start of the most incredible watch of my life.

Shootings stars, and phosphorescence. Pinch me now!

At the start of the next watch, we’re heading towards a cardinal buoy. The plan is to stay North of that, round it and then get onto a heading for A Coruna. We’re all alone out here. The sea state is perfect. The sky is clear, with just a blanket of twinkling stars.

I spot two shooting stars, and a meteor with an incredible trail of glitter blazing across the sky behind it. Off our stern, our wake is alive, sparkling with magical phosphorescence. It’s absolutely mesmerising.

It’s my turn for a stint on the wheel. And from the corner of my eye, I spot a torpedo like object flying towards us, under the water. Incoming at high speed, it has a round nose, and is probably 1.5m -2m in length, hurtling through the dark sea, it’s lit up. A dolphin! My goodness, what a sight. It’s quickly joined by another from our port side, and another. They’re glowing, like they have a string of LED fairylights wrapped around their bodies. I have never in my life witnessed anything quite like it. They’re leaping off our bow. I need to go and see this.

Smithy takes the wheel and I excitedly make my way to the bow. What I’m met with is like nothing I’ve ever seen. I can see fish, lit up by phosphorescence darting away in front of our bow as we break through the still water. The dolphins spot them and in turn break away to feast on their catch, before returning to the bow where they’re leaping and frolicking. I cannot believe my eyes.

Excitedly I call both Smithy and Charlie to take a look. They too, cannot believe what they’re seeing. It is the most magical thing I have ever seen. I feel beyond privileged. I close my eyes, to try and capture the images in my brain. I will never ever forget what I’m seeing here.

The sparkles, the dolphins, the fish, it’s majestic. I never want it to end. I can’t wait for Hodge and the rest of the team to be on deck, and to see it too.

With full stomachs, the dolphins leave us. And we all marvel at what we have just witnessed. It’s nearing watch changeover, and we excitedly share our story with the oncoming watch. Alas, as we head off, cloud descends, the stars disappear, the phosphorescence vanishes, and I’m so sad that they didn’t get to witness what we did.

A new day

Hodge and I have taken to sleeping on the saloon floor, in the hole where the table would normally live. It’s in a central position, so fairly stable. It’s less noisy and bouncy than the bow, and it’s very secure and surprisingly cosy. I close my eyes and dream of the dolphins and magic that was the previous watch.

The hole in the middle where the blue and white striped duvet is, was where Hodge and I slept for most of the passage!

At 8am, I’m back on deck. It’s more sunshine, and another beautiful day in the Bay. The sky is blue, littered with just a handful of fluffy, white clouds, and there’s plenty of wind to keep us pushing on. We’re joined occasionally by a pod of dolphins, which always create excitement, and of course, a photo opportunity.

We are thrilled to break the 500nm mark. And head for the major milestone of the passage, the continental shelf. It’s at the shelf, which is effectively an underwater cliff, that the Atlantic Ocean piles up, often creating huge swells. As the seabed rises from some 5000 metres, to a mere 150 metres in just quarter of a mile.

Hodge stays on deck with my watch to witness the shelf. We’re a mile or so out and are joined by a pod of dolphins. I head to the bow with Hodge, and we watch them leap and race. It’s a fantastic sight. And an unforgettable moment. The dolphins escort us over the shelf and into the Abyssal Plain. We now have 5,000 metres of water below our keel. What an incredible feeling.


The swell at the shelf, was quite a non-event. I think that because of what had gone before, it felt relatively minor to us. Which was both a relief and a mild disappointment. Nonetheless, it felt like an achievement. We were finally offshore proper.

In L’ Aber Wr’ach we’d made a temporary repair on our tattered foresail. And thus far we haven’t dared to unfurl it. We’ve run a sweepstake as to how long we think the foresail will survive. Bets range from 1 hour 30 mins (not very optimistic), through to 35 hours (that’s more like it). We all muster on deck, gathering like excited children, and watch as our weary foresail unfurls in all its glory. I start the timer. But as we stare upwards, it becomes apparent that we are all way out with our guesses. The repair is already starting to tire. And it’s the source of some disappointment, but also hilarity that within just one minute we decide to furl the it away again.

Heading off watch, I curl up in my pit on the floor and reflect on the passage so far. I can’t sleep, and instead make a list of what’s worked well on the trip and what hasn’t, so that we can capture any learning’s for next time. Conscious that every minute I continue to muse, is another minute of lost sleep, I put my list away and close my eyes.

Preparing fresh pain au chocolat for breakfast

Malcs heats up our pre-made chilli con carne and we enjoy it on deck. It’s delicious. I’m back on watch for the 8-12 shift. We’re very quickly joined by a pod of dolphins, and Smithy and Charlie duly make their way to the bow, as we enjoy our first really decent sunset of the passage. It has been a perfect days sailing. Our following watch (4-8am) gives us our first sunrise, and it is spectacular. There’s a high moving in, which is giving way to a beautiful and much welcome sunshine, but unfortunately the wind is retreating. The sea state is flat.

I cook us some fresh pain au chocolat for breakfast and cut up some melon. What a treat.

Charlie and Smithy – we were the ‘noisy watch’

Our watch is very much the ‘noisy watch’. We spend our hours on deck amusing each other with stories. Charlie in particular fascinates both Smithy and I with his incredible stories from his military career, which at time have us in stitches, or at other times in disbelief. When we’re not entertaining each other with stories, we play silly games like ‘would you rather’. This game sees us cover important topics, such as ‘would you rather be attacked by one horse sized chicken OR 100 chicken sized horses’. The watches pass quickly and are always a pleasure. I see Charlie rarely, as we both lead busy lives, and it’s great to have the opportunity to spend some quality time with him.

At watch changeover, we all catch up, and have an extended handover. We’re now sub 150nm until we reach A Coruna, you can feel the excitement in the air. I don’t want it to end. I pop below to look at the chart, and with that there’s a shout from deck. “Sam!! Come on deck, there’s some lazy dolphins” Lazy dophins?? What on earth. I clamber up the companionway steps, and to my surprise, next to the boat is a pod of Pilot Whales! We fall around laughing at Smithy’s ‘lazy dolphin’ comment. The whales are beautiful, majestic creatures. Swimming beside us, they surface slowly before dipping just below the surface again. Every now and then there’s a spurt from a blow hole. We’re soon joined by another group off our port quarter. How fantastic. Every box has now been ticked! We leave them in our wake, and slowly they disappear from sight.

I head to my pit. There’s a calm sea, with gentle swell. I lay down, and start to drift off. When there’s a shout of ‘Spouts! Spouts’. I dart up the steps and there’s a massive spray from a blow hole off our beam. And with that, a large black body surfaces and dives. I return to my bed on the floor with a smile on my face. My alarm angrily awakes me a few hours later, rousing me from a deep sleep. And I’m delighted to note that we are now sub 100 miles from our destination in Spain.

The sunshine is beaming, and there’s not a single cloud or even a plane in the beautiful blue sky. On the AIS there’s not a vessel to be seen. It’s just us out here, in our own little bubble. The sailing is incredible, and we’re doing a steady 6 knots. We see 4 more pods of whales on my next watch. Incredible.

I take a sextant reading, just for fun- our hopes of this being a qualifying passage for our Ocean Yachtmaster faded when we ran to the bolt hole of L’Aber Wr’ach. I’m on the wheel, and spot something floating in the water up ahead. It’s dark, and fairly big. What is it. We strain our eyes, and then realise it is a large plank of wood. We bear away to avoid it, when we spot another plank up ahead. We continue to see plank after plank throughout the watch. An impact with one could do some serious damage. They’re really quite substantial in size. We decide it is prudent to position someone as a look-out up on the bow.

Charlie up on the bow, spotting Dolphins

I enjoy my time on the bow, I always do. It’s my happy place. Peaceful, and like a mini escape. I keep a sharp eye and enjoy the sound of the sea rushing past our hull. What a beautiful day. Taking turns we rotate through 30-minute stints on look-out duty. We spot several more planks, and at watch change, we brief the other watch accordingly.

The Spanish courtesy flag flying high, with the Galician coast in the background

The final watches come and go quickly. There’s a shout of land-ho. And we see the shadow of the Spanish coast. It really is beautiful. As we get closer, we can make out various buildings and towns dotted along the coast. As night falls, the Galician Coast comes alive, with twinkling lights scattered between the darker patches. We use the lighthouses signal lights to help us navigate. Over head the stars are shining. I will miss this.

As we head down for our final off-watch, we hand over. And know that when we next come up on deck we will be in our final few miles. I have mixed feelings of excitement and also sadness, sad that this wonderful adventure is coming to an end, but excitement to be so close to land fall in Spain.

All smiles from Hodge, as he takes us into A Coruna, Spain

Hodge comes to wake me from my sleep. We are indeed nearly at A Coruna, and we all head on deck for the final bit of pilotage and to see our arrival. Using buoys and navigational aids ashore, we meander our way in. We have made it to Spain!

We make our way into Club Real Nautico Marina, and are met by a friendly Spaniard. Hodge glides us on to our berth and we tie up alongside. We’re met by both Smithy and Nigel’s partners and celebrate with a few glasses of fizz. It’s 8am, but it’s the afternoon somewhere right.

Enjoying a glass of fizz on arrival
Celebrating in A Coruna
View from aloft – I did a quick rig check on arrival

What a fantastic trip. The trip of a lifetime. An incredible achievement, and adventure. Albeit it we’re unable to submit the passage our Ocean Yachtmaster qualifying passage. Nonetheless, we’ve taken away lots of learning’s and incredible memories. And it means we will get to do another passage sometime soon of course.

I’d like to say a special thanks to Malcs, Nigel, Smithy and Charlie for being such fantastic crew, and for making the trip so enjoyable. And of course, a massive thank you to Hodge for doing such a great job on the passage planning, boat prep and all of the other hard work and effort, and as always being such a great team mate. Here’s to our next Ocean Yachtmaster qualifying passage!

——- Fancy Sailing the Spanish Coast for yourself?——-

I can vouch first hand that sailing the Spanish coast, is simply incredible and an experience not to be missed. The Galician coast is beautiful, with countless, picturesque towns lining the cliff tops. The Galician region in particular is well known for ‘The Way’ (The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, is an ancient pilgrimage trail. Made up of a vast network of roads and paths, pilgrims travel these to arrive at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.) But did you know that there’s now a sailing equivalent?! Called, Sail the Way, this incredible pilgrimage with a twist, will take you along the beautiful Spanish coast. An adventure not to be missed, you can find out more, and sign up for next years edition here.

Heading home – time to say goodbye to A Coruna