The Bay of Biscay on a Good Day (Sept. 24-28, 2018)

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The Bay of Biscay is located somewhere at the corner of your wildest dream-come-true and your worst possible nightmare.

You dread it, and you look forward to it—all at the same time. As it approaches, anticipation sets in. Then your excitement competes heavily with your fear—a fear you can’t quite convince yourself is not really there no matter how hard you try. The battle of conflicting emotions is like a rivalry football game that goes into five overtimes. The competition is neck and neck until the end, and you are never quite sure who will win the battle. It’s anyone’s ballgame.

My experience crossing the infamous Bay of Biscay tapped into every possible emotion—even a few that I didn’t realize I had. I battled extreme fatigue, gut-wrenching seasickness, dehydration, and muscles so sore I barely had the strength to even hang on while Seefalke was surfing violently on the sometimes 12-foot waves. But in the end, we made it through to sunny, beautiful La Caruña, Spain. I’m not sure I can remember a time in my life that I felt so physically and mentally challenged  . . . and accomplished.

It’s kind of like having a baby. Women experience brutal pain and discomfort during pregnancy and especially during childbirth. We put our bodies through extreme torture to create this tiny human that immediately gives us so much joy. With time, we can’t even remember what it took to get from the gruesome nightmare to the most remarkable dream-come-true. I believe this is how it’s possible for women to have more than one child. With time, you forget the pain and only remember the fantastic reward that completely overshadows the difficult journey required to get there.

This experience doesn’t even come close to the joy of motherhood. But I can tell you that it was something like that—the personal reward of making it to the end of the Bay of Biscay greatly outweighs the struggle. 

DAY 1

Monday, 24 September 2018 - Departure from Camaret sur Mer - 11:15

Our original plan was to get through the Bay of Biscay by the end of August. With all our delays getting Seefalke ready for her blue-water voyage, we missed that mark by a long shot.

It is not recommended for small leisure craft like Seefalke to cross the bay in the winter months. It’s not really a fun time for huge heavy freighters. The Bay of Biscay generally gathers all the leftover storm swell from hurricanes and huge depressions that form in the Atlantic Ocean. They find their way into the bay from many different directions and create massive waves and confused waters. Many sailors have described this as feeling like you are in a washing machine.

There are ships much larger and heavier than Seefalke sitting at the bottom of the Bay of Biscay’s 4,860-meter-deep waters.

We were lucky. We waited patiently for nine days in the Camaret sur Mer port in Brittany, France and finally found an opening—a pocket in which we would have northeasterly winds for four straight days. This would push us on a direct course with minimal wind changes all the way down to La Caruña, Spain.

It was our best chance, and we took it.

It was magnificently beautiful as we departed and began sailing into the Celtic Sea. The sun was shining brightly. The scenery was spectacular! We could clearly see the French coastline. Waves crashed against the gorgeous rock formations along the cliffs that gave us a strong wind shadow and protected us for a short time from the open sea—a very short time.

I asked Maik when we would officially be inside the Bay of Biscay. His response: “You’ll know it when we are there.”

A school of common dolphins swam toward Seefalke and played with us for a long time. The waters were so calm I actually lay on the deck with the pups and took a short nap as the hot sun kissed my skin. I was completely relaxed. But something deep inside warned me not to expect this for long.

About an hour before sunset, the waves began to swell and the wind grew stronger. At this point, the waves were rolling in from the Atlantic at only about 2 meters (6 feet) high. But I knew it—it was obvious we were now in the Bay of Biscay. The waves were already rocking the 11-ton Seefalke forcefully from side to side.

There was no land in sight—only the deep blue sea.

It’s at this point that you realize there is no going back. You are in the middle of the open ocean. There is nowhere to stop for at least three or four more days. It’s too deep to drop an anchor. You are committed. There is no choice but to push forward all the way to Spain.

There is some traffic in the Bay of Biscay, but we fortunately didn’t see much. The wind was strong but steady and coming from the perfect direction. The waves were getting larger—already some were 3 meters (9 feet), but they were pushing us mostly from behind. These were as perfect conditions and we could possibly hope for in the Bay of Biscay in winter. Maik decided we would sail in regular 4-hour shifts.

He took the first watch from 20:00 to midnight. I went down into the cabin with the puppies and tried to sleep. We were on a heavy tilt to the starboard side. Cap’n Jack and Scout were secure in their barricaded bunk and didn’t seem to want to even try to join me in mine. Our regular bunk is on the port side, so there was a feeling of constant sliding down to the right. It was like trying to sleep on a very slippery, slanted block of ice. I tried to get up at one point to re-position myself when a huge wave rocked Seefalke and threw me to the other side of the cabin. Hard. I banged the back of my head on a cabinet while my shoulder blades crashed against the corner of the cabinet.

I tried to find a comfortable position to rest, but it wasn’t easy. I had to bury my arm underneath the mattress to support myself from sliding and also had to leverage my right leg against the bunk on the opposite side of the cabin. Nothing was flying across the cabin. Everything on the outside was secure, finally. But as I tried to relax, I could hear so many things moving around inside the cabinets. I could hear pots and pans banging against each other. I could hear forks and spoons being shuffled around inside one cabinet. All the coffee cups and dishes were being tossed around. Seefalke was being shaken like a martini. It was loud and annoying, and felt like I was inside a haunted house full of drunken, rowdy ghosts rattling heavy chains determined to prevent me from sleeping.

I got no rest.

DAY 2

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

I took my shift at midnight. Again, this is one of those times when the sweet dream intersects into a nightmare. On the one hand, it was a gorgeous night—clear, black skies with millions of bright, sparkling stars. There was a full moon casting a brilliant spotlight onto the gigantic waves. Sometimes, I would look behind me at a huge wave rolling in and see a couple dolphins surfing in the wave.

It was so cool!

On the other hand . . . it was terrifying!  

When you see a huge, swelling wave coming toward you, your first reaction is, “Wow! This is so beautiful!” Before you can even get the words out of your mouth, that same wave slams against the side of your ship’s bright orange hull. The freezing cold saltwater drenches you and throws you violently to the other side of the cockpit with so much force you can barely catch yourself.

At least with the bright moon lighting our way, I could see the waves rolling in which gave me an chance to brace myself before contact. We always wear life vests, but we also strap ourselves in the cockpit in these kinds of conditions. And with Seefalke’s four-foot deep, center cockpit, we are protected on all sides. There is a feeling of safety and security. For this I’m grateful. But for 240 straight minutes, I stood in the middle of the cockpit with my legs spread a little more than shoulder width to balance myself, and I just held on with both hands as tightly as I could. It’s pretty much all I could do. 

Meanwhile, Maik and the pups slept comfortably below.

It’s so interesting how Maik can turn off his ears. He can hear the slightest flap in the sail from a deep sound sleep, but he told me later that the clankety-clanking pots and pans and silverware tossing around in the cabinets didn’t bother him at all.

When I went back down at 04:00 I was exhausted. I couldn’t do anything about the heavy waves and the rocking sailboat, but I decided to do something about the clankety clanking in the cabinets. I grabbed our six huge fluffy beach towels and began stuffing them into the cabinets to try to cushion the tossing around of all the stuff. For the most part this solved the problem, although I spent the next three days continuing to make adjustments to this system.

Meanwhile, I simply could not sleep comfortably on the bunk with the heavy tilt and rocking boat. And I needed some sleep. Desperately.

I thought about crawling into the other bunk with the pups, but this would cause discomfort issues of a different kind. Their area is small, and I would have to curl up into the fetal position and also share the space with them and all the dog hair. I thought about moving into the stern cabin, but I didn’t want to leave Cap’n Jack and Scout. They were doing fine, but I could tell they were a little afraid. I just didn’t want to leave them.

So I got creative.

There is a narrow walkway between the two bunks. I threw down a sleeping bag and crawled onto the floor.  This was perfect. I had both bunks to cushion the motion and protect me from sliding in either direction. It was like I was in a baby cradle. It was still rocking, but at least I wasn’t being slung all over the cabin. I could sleep without having to hold on to something, and for me this was perfect. At some point during that shift, the pups joined me. I awoke with four velvety Beagle ears tickling my face. I finally got a little sleep and returned to the cockpit at 08:00 for my next shift, while Maik joined the pups in the baby cradle on the cabin floor.

The waves were HUGE at this point—some of them were 4-meters (12-feet) high. And they were constant. Sometimes when you are sailing you have a period of heavy waves and then there are breaks with calm smooth waters. But we had zero breaks from the waves. They just kept coming. Sometimes they were 2 meters, sometimes 3 meters and sometimes 4 meters. But they were ALWAYS there. The wind was blowing at a steady 20 to 28 knots the entire time with occasional gusts of more than 30 knots. It was like this for three straight days.

About 30 minutes into this shift, I was still settling in and trying to find a comfortable balancing position. I saw a few dolphins flipping around in Seefalke’s wake. This was just so cool! I never get tired of seeing them!  Scout came up to the cockpit for a quick potty, and it was nice to have her with me. The pups are such good company, especially when Maik and I are working in shifts and are never awake at the same time for several days. It can get lonely. Cap’n Jack and Scout are not very good conversationalists, but they are great listeners! I find myself just talking and talking and talking to them. They don’t seem to mind.

At around 09:30, I could feel my belly begin to contract. All of a sudden, I felt weak and dizzy—and nauseous. Oh, no. Please don’t let me be seasick!

I reached for my potato with my left hand and began reciting the Greek Alphabet (those of you who regularly read this blog know that this is my cure for seasickness). But it was too late.

I leaned over the port side sea rail while everything inside my belly spewed out of my mouth with great force. It still amazes me how the seasickness can be so forceful. My entire body contracts and jerks me from my feet. With each heave I can feel my limbs become lifeless. It rips away all your strength. It holds your will to live hostage at gunpoint. You just can’t move.

Meanwhile, while leaning over the sea rail completely helpless, the massive 3-to-4 meter waves continue to roll in. The wind still blows forcefully at around 25 knots. I was holding on to the drum winch for support between heaves. Generally, when the seasickness hits me, it’s just the end of any possibility of being productive after that—at least until the waters begin to calm. But this time, I knew there was no way that Maik (or anyone else) could easily handle the Bay of Biscay by himself in these heavy conditions for two more days and two more nights. I just had to keep going.

At noon, Maik woke up and was going to come up for his shift. I told him I couldn’t return to the cabin and if he wanted to sleep some more, it was ok. I wasn’t going anywhere. I couldn’t leave my little corner of the cockpit, or my grip on the drum winch.

He slept another hour then joined me. I wanted to stay in the fresh, cool air because that was helping a little. I tried to lay on the cockpit bench, but it was too hard to hang on. After two more hours, I finally gave in and went down to sleep in the cradle on the floor.

Each shift got more and more difficult.

At this point, the waves and the wind were at their heaviest. I was green and weak and feverish. My face was broiling hot. A whole sack of potatoes couldn’t help me now. And even if they could, I couldn’t let go of my grip. I didn’t have a spare hand with which to hold one. My arms and shoulders were aching from constantly holding on and trying to maintain balance.

Maik wasn’t feeling too great either. We decided we would take two-hour shifts through the night because four hours was just too much in these conditions. This meant shorter spurts of sleep, but a bit less brutal for the helmsman.

For me, through the entire night each shift was like déjà vu all over again.

Sail, puke, sleep, repeat.

Sail, puke, sleep, repeat.

But the bright full moon continued to light our way.

DAY 3

Wednesday 26 September 2018

My stomach was empty. In the past 24 hours I had eaten nothing but half a gummy bear, which I threw up before I could try to make an effort to eat the other half.

On my next morning shift, I awoke to knotty charley horses in my calves, back spasms, and a pounding headache. I felt so weak, my legs could barely support my own body weight. I knew the dehydration had set in. I needed to eat something and drink something.

I was able to slowly nibble away half a banana, half a cracker, and a few sips of water. This helped. It gave me just enough strength to throw it back up shortly after consuming it. I was feeling dreadful, but I knew I needed to push on. I needed to keep going for Maik . . . and for myself.

I told myself that no matter how badly I felt, I would not miss a shift! This became my goal and my quest. And at this point, we only had one day and one night to go. We were on the home stretch.

Even while I was feeling so icky, I couldn’t help but notice that it was such a beautiful day. Bright, clear, blue skies and an ocean as deep and vibrant blue as anything I could ever imagine. It was glorious!

We continued with four-hour shifts during the day and at around 17:30, something amazing happened!

I heard a loud blowing sound that sounded like a distant foghorn at first. I looked to the port side and through the gigantic waves I saw a huge grey form on the surface of the water that was at least three times the size of Seefalke and only about 30 meters away. I only saw it for a couple seconds and then saw only a huge grey tail splash in the air. I believe it was a sperm whale, but I’m not positive. It was definitely a whale. It was so close to us. And something told me we were going to make it.

I didn’t have time to grab a camera so I have no proof. You’ll just have to believe me. I yelled down at Maik sleeping on the floor. “I just saw a whale right next to us! Everything is going to be ok!”

At this point, I was just grateful to be out there. I didn’t care that I was sick and tired and hungry and hurting. I was lucky enough to see something that most people only see in other people’s photos or movies. I searched the water to try and get another glimpse of this remarkable creature. But he was gone. As instantly as he had appeared, he had vanished into the deep blue sea.

I ate a whole banana and an apple and three crackers. I drank a little water. I wanted to get my strength back. I wanted to find a way to embrace this challenge and get to the end.

As expected, the food didn’t stay with me long. It left me at around the same time Maik came up for his shift. But at least my insides didn’t taste like stomach acid anymore.

DAY 4

Thursday, 27 September 2018

After another night of familiar four-hour shifts—sail, puke, sleep, repeat—I was awakened around 08:30 by an exhilarated skipper. “Baby, get up here!  I SEE LAND!”

I came charging up to the cockpit and almost burst into tears! It was way, way, way off in the distance. But yes, we could see Spain! Maik had raised the Spanish courtesy flag during the early morning hours, and it was glorious to see it flying high on our mast!

We were still about 7 hours away, but the end was in sight!

We began to see beautiful birds gracefully flying overhead and grazing along the surface of the water. I thought about the old sailors who were at sea for months and even years at a time. They didn’t have weather-predicting technology, or GPS or other instrumentation to guide them—only a compass. Some of them would travel with a cage of ravens. They would release one and if it circled overhead, they knew that they were not close to land. But if the raven began to fly in a certain direction, they knew that land was near. The sailors would follow the flying bird toward land.

More dolphins greeted us and played in Seefalke’s wake. Within a couple hours, after three straight days with no break from the nonstop heavy waves, the waters finally began to calm a bit. All of a sudden, we were floating on a sea of glass. It was so clear and smooth I could see my reflection in the water.

We were trying not to celebrate too much. Sailors are very superstitious, after all. So we chatted a little about the adventure. Maik just kept saying that as bad as it was, it was the best possible conditions we could have ever asked for during this time of year. In his matter-of-fact way, he just kept reminding me  . . . “The wind was always coming from the right direction. We didn’t have to tack or change directions. We had a straight course all the way to our destination. The waves were behind us or beside us and never against us. The sun was always shining. We had a full moon to light our way every night. There were no storms or squalls.” 

He always has a way of helping me see the positive side of things.

He told me he was proud of me. This made me so happy. Maik is a wonderful man, but he doesn’t hand out compliments very often. It’s just not his style. I was proud of myself. As bad as I felt almost the entire time, I never missed a shift.

With the calm waters, my appetite began to return. We still had about four hours to go, so I went down and cooked some pasta so we could put some warm, solid food in our bellies.

But our challenges weren’t over yet.

A very heavy fog began to roll in. We saw a huge freighter in front of us and the top half of this gigantic ship was hidden completely by the fog. Soon, the ship disappeared from the surface of the sea completely.  It just wasn’t there anymore. It was eerie. Once again, the wonderful dream was interrupted briefly for a bit of a nightmare.

Soon the fog was all around us. We literally could not see five feet in front of us. Zero visibility. And worse, other ships could not see us.

We received AIS signals on the plotter that there were three ships close to us. We could hear their loud, long foghorns blowing in the distance. We could tell one was in front of us, and two off to the starboard side. But we couldn’t see them at all. And we had no idea how far away from us they were. They blasted long horn signals. We blasted long horn signals.

If there is restricted visibility, ships are required to blast their horn every two minutes. If you are using the motor, the signal required is a long, eight-second blast. If you are under sail, the signal is one long blast followed by two short blasts. We kept blasting away and just held our breath hoping that we would all avoid each other.

Soon the fog lifted, and we could see again. The Spanish coastline was coming into focus and bursting with vibrant color. We were communicating with Helmut Hombergs, the former captain of Seefalke, with whom we planned to meet in La Caruña. He took some cool photos of us approaching the port. It has been amazing to spend time with Helmut the past few days and hear all the cool stories about his experiences sailing Seefalke.

It feels incredible to finally be in Spain. In the next weeks, we will sail to several ports in Spain and Portugal on our way to Morocco!

This is the thing about nightmares. You eventually wake up. The nightmare is now over and the dream of making it through the Bay of Biscay is a reality. From the beginning, I feared this passage. At times I couldn’t even think about it without having a bit of a panic attack. I warned my family and friends to avoid Googling The Bay of Biscay until after we had crossed it.

We met one sailor in Helgoland who told us he sailed The Bay of Biscay with his wife during the winter, and she has threatened to divorce him ever since.

Now it’s in our backwater. I’m glad we did it, and I feel an incredible sense of accomplishment. But I’m not sure I ever want to birth a Bay of Biscay baby ever again! At least that’s how I feel today. Ask me again tomorrow, and the answer may be different.