Friday, October 23, 2009

Ok, my travelogue ain't all that

Sorry for digressing with the California trip. It was a good time, and really, the high points were reconnecting with AW friends from 21+ years ago... That and staying at the Hotel Del Coronado in a fifth floor full ocean view room with a commanding view of the Beach, North Island and Point Loma.

Sucks to be me, right?

Mister Peabody says, "Into the Wayback Machine, Sherman".

Finally, we had completed repairs on the Perkins 4-108 diesel, loaded food and water, and in a very breezy Friday afternoon, we began to get underway for La Coruna, Spain.

For excitement, we got pinned by the wind to the dock, so we had to get the help of three people to shove us off. WE got underway, drove over to the fuel dock and loaded up with a full bag of diesel, 50 gallons, and four 5 gallon jerry cans.


We passed through the entrance of the Bay of Brest in blustery 15 knot winds, with a light (but growing) chop. We came about on a of 200 degrees heading south-south west for Spain.

Dinner was a large can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew. What a mistake...

I had always enjoyed Hormel Products, especially the non refrigerated microwaveable foods. We had stocked up with 20 cans of Beef Stew because we knew them to be tasty and fast, filling meals.

Our problem was that after eating our bowls of stew, we were feeling a bit ill from being bloated and the sea sickness was finding its way into our souls.

Chris puked about every ten minutes, and I was not far behind with my sympathy puke. Actually, I was able to keep the technicolor yawn down, but felt like it could happen at any moment. It was important to me (anyway) that I keep up the appearance of stoic resolve. But during my off watch times I was bundled up on the floor, out of sight from Spousal Unit and Chris, barely keeping dinner down.

About 0200, I was feeling much better and was on the helm and noticed some strange lights up ahead. It was large and I could sense it was an Aircraft Carrier, but I kept quiet. The lighting wasn't quite right but then they vanished.

Maybe I was hallucinating.

I was relieved by the spousal unit and went below for another snooze. About twenty minutes later she called me up asking if there were any big ships in the area. I replied that there were, possibly an Aircraft Carrier. I came up on deck, sure enough, a big object with the lighting that a smaller ship would show.

It's called "Deceptive Lighting". Makes a ship look like it isn't. Only problem was that a hatch (Door; to you land lubbers) had been left unsecured and I could see passageway lights.

The decision to let a feminine voice challenge the ship via VHF was made, particularly that the Carrier did not respond to my calls an hour back. These Navy folks will answer a Lady, for sure...

She gets on the VHF and calls, "Unidentified Warship; This is U.S. Sailing Vessel Wildebeest Three to your North... I am heading South, what are your intentions?"

All of a sudden, I could hear hatches being closed and the regular navigation lights came on! It was the French Carrier, "Charles De Gaul" and they pushed the pedal to the metal and departed almost instantly, without a reply on the VHF 16.

About an hour later, I heard the DeGaul calling another vessel, and they identified themselves as the "French Warship DeGaul". Too cool.

WE continued pinching against the winds on our heading to La Coruna, but the winds were coming out of the South, so it was difficult to make way towards our destination. Fortunately, the wind had dropped to about eight knots, so it was comfortable, and we were motor sailing.

The sun came up and we all felt decidedly better, so we kept trying to make South-South West for the Western Part of Spain.

Clouds started building up through the day and we reefed our mainsail and tried tacking in the building winds. About 1700, the wind had built up to about 25 knots, and we rolled up the sails and motored into the growing chop. I was getting worried. We tuned into the BBC Shipping forecast on Chris' handheld. They mentioned winds of 16-20 knots. We wondered where in the Bay of Biscay could these winds be? They were gusting above 30 knots and concern was definitely growing.

The special deal with Biscay can briefly be described as such:

Bay of Biscay, vast inlet of the Atlantic Ocean, southeastern Europe, bounded on the north and east by France and on the south by Spain. The maximum width and length are 640 km (400 mi). The southern coast is precipitous and rocky. In the southeast between the mouths of the Adour River and Gironde estuary, the coast is low and sandy, with many lagoons. Low marshland prevails for 320 km (200 mi) north of the Gironde, but beyond the Quiberon Peninsula the coast is moderately elevated and rocky. Numerous streams run into the bay from the mountains of Spain and through the rivers Loire, Charente, Gironde, and Adour in France. The chief ports are Gijón, Santander, Bilbao, and San Sebastián in Spain; and Bayonne, Bordeaux, Rochefort, La Rochelle, Nantes, and Lorient in France. Among the principal islands in the bay are Belle-Île, Noirmoutier, Ré, and Oléron. Navigation is difficult and dangerous because of the prevailing northwestern winds and a strong current.

Gee, that doesn't sound so bad, does it?

The winds drive the Atlantic Ocean into this large bowl. The problem is that the depths in the ocean are averaging a couple thousand fathoms, but Biscay is about a hundred fathoms! Plus you pile up waves, which reverberate off the rocky coast add some extra winds and you have the recipe for disaster, if you happen to be on a sailboat.

Define "Embayed": (navigation) Pertaining to a vessel in a bay unable to put to sea or to put to sea safely because of wind, current, or sea.

This is a condition where the current and wind will not let a sailboat into safer waters. Usually, if you have no motor you will crash into the rocks.

By sundown, the winds were 35 knots gusting to 40. We rolled all remaining sails and battened down all hatches and covers. I turned the boat into the wind and settled into a routine of smashing into the waves head on. We rocked violently in the moonless night and would have to turn my head each time I heard the crash of a wave, because the spray would rocket into my face. The seas tried to make the boat broach to either side, which would really risk our safety if we lost control.

This was turning into the worst sailing/boating situation I had ever been involved with on my own.

The knot log said we were maintaining about four to five knots, so I presumed we were heading west, which was good. By morning, when the winds had calmed we could resume sailing to La Coruna.

I traded two hour watches with Chris, and it was a mess. I slept in the cockpit so I could be available in a second's notice to help.

Finally, the longest night (This side of SERE School) was fading, the winds and seas were beginning to ease. Time for breakfast!

I went below into the tossed cabin and searched for something fast, portable and good. I found a large can of fruit cocktail and managed to get one spoon. The boat was moving around too much to get more utensils.

Climbed back to the cockpit and opened the can and the three of us shared the one spoon and devoured the tasty fruit.

I tried to snooze for a half hour to regain my energy, but it was still too bumpy to do anything down below. At 0930, I noticed the engine starting to sound a little muffled. Time to do a proper security check of the boat. I went forward and opened a floorboard to inspect a through hull and found water. I shut the valve (in case it was the leaker) and moved quickly to the engine room. I opened the door and gasped.

Water was up to the oil pan. The bilge was about three feet deep and water was up to the OIL PAN!!!!!

Had I not looked, we could have lost battery power and have really been in a pickle. I checked the circuit breaker panel and noticed the "Bilge Pump" switch in off position. I switched it on. It tripped off.

Again and again.

I grabbed for the chart to plot our position. We were sinking.

I called up in the most calm voice I have ever muster; "Could you start pumping the hand pump, hmmm?"


"Just start pumping, ok?"


I heard the sounds of pumping and I started plotting our position. See, during the night, I knew that we were far from land and did not do my normal hourly position plot. I presumed that we were about fifty miles further to the west than what we were. The GPS clearly put us at 150 miles due South from Brest. We had beat ourselves up and stayed in precisely the same spot all night, and to make matters worse we had burned about ten gallons of diesel for nought.

And we were sinking.

"Hey, the pump jammed!"

This was when I went very calm and started to think fast. We had a life raft, the wind and water were still choppy, the boat was still afloat, so we can still fight to save her. I noticed the water level had not risen, so maybe we were going to be ok... I climbed into the cockpit and made the news known to everyone;

"We are 150 miles from anywhere. The main pump is inop and the hand pump has clogged... We are in a lot of trouble because we have a leak and I don't know where it is. The good news is that the water is not rising so we seem to have stabilized, the bad news is that we are out of helicopter range for rescue. We will have to save this boat, no choice."

"Chris; you have the watch until I relieve you. Spousal Unit; I need you down here to pass tools and help me. I am going to pull the battery and tie it aside, then I will pull the pump out and see if I can fix it..."

(I don't really call her Spousal Unit, That's her title but OPSEC requires I keep real names to minimum in this story)

The Wildebeest had three type 4 Delta Gel-cell batteries, each was bolted down to a wooden platform. Each battery weighs at least eighty pounds, so you want them to be tied down securely. The platform the batteries were installed on covered the bilge and consequently obscured the bilge pump.

I disconnected the #3 Battery cables and wrapped them in rubber and set the cables aside I unbolted the battery tie downs and pulled the battery away from it's mount and dragged it over by the nav station. The Spousal Unit sat next to the battery to make sure it did not slide back towards me. I unscrewed the battery table decking and opened an area I could reach into to get the pump. There was about two and a half feet of water over the pump, I found it and asked for a straight edge screwdriver. Using two hands I guided the screwdriver to the hose clamps and loosened. I got the pump free from the hoses and pulled it up to where I could see it. I disconnected the power cable and began to figure out how to clean and rebuild the pump. It was filthy with clotted oil, which the water had spilled from the engine bilge.

Many paper towels and degreasing agents later, I took the magnetic switch apart, cleaned it and reinstalled. I pulled the pump apart ripping out the little fibers and strings and gunk which had jammed the pump. I reattached the switch and pump assembly and reconnected power and dug my arms into the bilge again for reinstall.

I got up to triumphantly turn the circuit panel switch to "on", and the switch tripped.

And again and again.

Pulled pump back out and redo the whole process.

Finally, after about three hours of hard work, the pump came to life, and the water was drained in no time at all. And there was no new water filling in. I wondered where the leak was?

Saved again!

By now, it was about 1300 and we had a briefing for the crew. Every stitch of clothing was sopping wet, no storage area was untouched by the previous flood. We were still in the middle of nowhere, with a boat of questionable sea keeping ability. The winds and seas were what they were, gonna have to suck it up and sail. We can't make it to LaCoruna, but surely there is another port, right?

The mainsail was raised to the third reef and the headsail was rolled to it's third reef, this was a short as the sails can be... The Wildebeest is a Sailboat; Let's Sail!!!

The Spousal Unit opened up the Cruising Guide to the Costa Del Muerte, the rocky Northern Coast of Spain and found a safe harbor; Gijon, Spain. It had a breakwater we could sail into and best of all; It was directly South of us. That meant we could set the sails tight and sail into the wind (the fastest point of sailing) and hold a course of 180 degrees. The wind was from the West and was about 26 knots.

The Wildebeest began her run South with a bone in her teeth and the smell of Land in her nostrils. We began going as fast as eight knots, with the swells hitting us off the starboard bow.

Night began to approach and the winds began the same nonsense from the night before, only this time, we were in fighting mode. No more cowering with the motor on and sails rolled up. The shipping forecast still told us that our winds were 16 to 20 from the Northwest. Our winds were 26 to 32 from the Southwest.

While Chris and I were standing watch, about an hour on and off, the Spousal Unit stayed below charting our positions and draining water from the storage lockers with a bucket.

About every fifteen minutes I would hear a pathetic sounding, "Bucket, please". And I would open the hatch slide, grab the bucket of slimy water and pour it out of the cockpit.

She kept up at this for over eight hours while the boat rose and shook with each blow she received from the rollers coming from the open ocean. And she could not see what or where we were going, just marked the chart every half hour and held on tight. What a trooper!

Steering was tough. We were trying to move on course of 180, but the seas would smash into us trying to turn us left. The winds would gust which would try to pull us right. It was a fast balancing act, where the wheel would be spun hand over hand in what ever direction needed to keep course stability. The nose of the boat would climb a swell, reach the peak and fall left or right, depending on what the present force was.


I would sharply snap my head to the left and a burst of water would spray the back of my head, which had coveralls and a hat to keep me relatively dry.

Feel the boat start to turn to the left, speed picks up muscle the boat's heading to the right... and;


Turn your head or take a punch to the kisser!

"Bucket please"

All night long.

0600 came and the clouds began to thin, we could actually see the star and the imminent sun rise. We had survived the night. Our spirits began to rise and coffee smells began to rise out of the open cabin. The winds had dropped to a very manageable 15 knots and the seas were smoothing out. The Wildebeest was very easy to handle and she was keeping her speed up, we had another 25 miles to go to harbor and it was a beautiful day to be sailing.
The sun was warm as it rose and the winds dropped even more, I started to consider continuing on to La Coruna. Which was promptly rejected by She Who Will Be Obeyed.

"We're going to Gijon".

"Ok, fine."

View Larger Map

We arrived in the port town of Gijon Spain at about 1400. I signed us in and we were assigned a berth. We tied up and tried to find some dry clothes.

View Larger Map

The last twenty seven hours saw us travel about 180 nautical miles, easily the best distance we had ever seen. In retrospect, it was the finest sailing I have ever done in my life.


We got some dry clothes on, pounded the pavement to a "Theederia", where there was some seafood tapas to be had.

Our waiter spoke no english, but he ordered the best value platter with the Fruita Da Mare and brought out wines and beers for the three sailing vagabonds.

We noticed that the Waiter would stop by a table and grab a bottle, which looked like a bottle containing hooch. He would solemnly stare straight ahead and pour into a pint glass, about a quarter full. The Waiter would slam the glass down and the patron would grab the glass, pound down as much as he could in one gulp. Then with careful disdain would fling the dregs over the floor.


I had to have me some of that fire water, oh yes!

We managed to communicate to the Waiter that we wanted a taste, he shook his head like we would be sorry and gave me the business.

He pounded the glass and I started to sip and the waiter said, "NO, NO"!

He motioned I needed to pound it down in a fell swoop.

So I did.

It was English Hard Cider.

Like Strongbow.

We were in a "Theederia", which is spelled "Cideria". Duh!

Lessons Learned:

One: Know your boat and all systems. I got lucky because I vaguely knew how to find the bilge pump.

Two: Have back ups. I should have known that the shower drain pump was just two feet away from the bilge, I could have cut a hose attached to shower pump and pumped out the bilge in less than fifteen minutes. Also, I could have used the engine water pump to do the same.

Three: Make sure you know of any modifications and how they can mess up your boat. Someone used a loop of line and wrapped it around a lazerette hatch. This defeated the sealing characteristics of the hatch, thus letting in hundreds of gallons of water that was unnoticed until almost too late.

I am responsible for all that happens when it goes bad, credit goes to those who were instrumental in keeping us not only afloat, but to actually go and have the most glorious sail anyone can ever hate. The Spousal Unit and Chris were the stars!

We did 180 miles in 27 hours. We have never matched that performance, since.

We have full respect for the Bay of Biscay. Most sailors know it is the most treacherous waters in Western Europe. It can lull a person into sloppiness, then slap the cluebat of reality upside yo' head!


One day after we arrived, the rescue boats were bringing in boat after boat. There was broken masts, broken legs and broken spirits. Some said they would never sail again. One boat had a skipper have a heart attack and his wife tried to sail into Ribadeo (Next Harbor to the West of Gijon) harbor without good charts. Our Danish friends from "Fair Rose" tried to help guide them in. The story ended badly with the lady crashing her boat on the deadly rocks with no survivors.

Wildebeest III had no idea of the deadly drama going on just twenty miles away. We had barely made it in safe before the big blow started, which was occurring while we enjoyed seafood, beer and Cider.

Gotta take the good deals, even if they don't look like good deals.

We were just starting on our adventure...


Buck said...

OK... I'm running out of superlatives and am loath to write still another "wow." But: Wow!

You are a MUCH braver man than I, Darryl. So is your Spousal Unit, come to think on it. :p

Barco Sin Vela II said...

Thanks, Buck.
You are correct about her bravery. Very, very stout in a fight, and she has crippling arthritis in her ankles which makes sailing painful. She did all that I described while enduring pain she describes as "Red Hot Pokers" in her ankle joints.

Glenn Mark Cassel said...

Been to the Bay of Biscay, once, in the winter of 75-76. It sucked: rain, wind that northwest wind raising the sea state. And it was cold. And then we went north to the Norwegian Sea!
Dinty Moore Beef Stew always requires at least 1/2 bottle of Tobasco.
And you and your missus have sand for the taking on the adventure. A lot of sand and I envy you.

Barco Sin Vela II said...

ORPP; You are correct, tabasco is necessary to make it edible. Unfortunately, I keep going back to that feeling of being ill.

Glenn Mark Cassel said...

I do understand all too well, there shipmate!