Yachting Monthly Biscay Triangle Rally 2005

Southerly 135RS - "Moondance"

Having decided to take a 'sabbatical' in 2007, when we are contemplating crossing the Atlantic we set about acquiring our 'ideal' boat. Having considered the pros and cons we reasoned that buying a new boat was the best strategy for us. The Blue Water Biscay Triangle Rally suited both our timing and our idea of giving ourselves and the new boat a good 'shake-down' before tackling bigger horizons. Our proposed agenda required a build deadline based upon decisive decision making on our part (alien to our normal family 'democratic' process) and a committed build schedule from Northshore, which undoubtedly pressured both parties somewhat. Our celebration on completion (to deadline!) invoked a mixed reception from the factory crew involving both an obvious and entitled sense of pride, and a fear that Lester would henceforth be shortening the production schedule on all 135's!

The Biscay rally consists of three legs; a run of about 480nm from Torquay to La Coruna, a second run of 360nm to La Trinite in Brittany, and a final leg of about 240nm taken in as many stages as suits the participants returning home.

Our rendezvous in Torquay was the predictable mix of excitement, and trepidation. Having spent the last six months waking at various times during the night in the middle of either an equipping or a catastrophe scenario, both Sally and I felt that arriving in Torquay was the moment at which there was no turning back.

Introductions were made and strategies agreed. The weather was poor but suggested some favourable sailing conditions. In the event we agreed to leave according to the original deadline, with a robust easterly promising a swift channel passage west.

The Mayor of Torquay arrived resplendent in a ceremonial chain that could have served the kedge anchor and together with his good lady wife we were bid fair winds and good passage. Twelve yachts exited the harbour for a brief ceremonial departure that involved a short parade and a timed start. This being a 'cruising rally' there was no element of competitive racing whatsoever. Consequently we all jockeyed for position in the most gentlemanly fashion and, at the sound of the gun, took off with a gusto that would have impressed the America's Cup. (It should be said that at the previous evening's soiree there were a number of interesting challenges and bets laid down, all in the best of spirits)

Cleverly positioned (?!) and quick out of the starting blocks Moondance lead the field in the close company of two Contests; a 48 and a 44. As fate would have it these three boats were to be the only three that would complete the full intended rally, to La Coruna in Spain, La Trinite in France, and back to England.

The weather was fairly miserable but the sailing exhilarating as a 4/5 easterly allowed us to goose-wing, (initially with the MPG, and then with main and Genoa) down the channel at about 8 knots. Our spirits were high, if a little damp. As the evening encroached we were making the kind of westerly progress that only extreme optimism would have allowed. We had determined that we would take advantage of the easterly and make at least 8 degrees west to avoid completely the Traffic Separation Scheme near Quessant (Ushant).

Night sort of crept up on us and when the rain set in the exhilaration faded into a more workman-like set. I have to confess that we had on board the addition for our first leg to La Coruna of Will (Dr Will Cave for the archivists) who was a sailor of considerable experience and a person of indomitable spirit. It was the presence of Will that ensured that we really were sailing Moondance to her full capabilities, and she responded magnificently. As we got into the night I became a little nervous over our sail arrangement and the shifting winds; consequently we adopted a port tack and settled into our first all night passage.

Sally, Will and I implemented a 3 hour watch system; 9-12, 12-3, 3-6, and 6-9. Being technically 'skipper', I felt that it was my duty to take the first graveyard watch of 12-3. It was a fairly lively night with the wind (predominantly easterly) blowing a good 20+ knots and steady rain. Coming off watch at 3:00am I should have slept soundly, but I was not yet acclimatized, and the sea was too boisterous.

We were to learn later that within the first 24hours three boats turned for port with small problems or concerns; in the case of one boat circumstances were sufficient to force an abandonment of the rally.

The following day was much of the same although mercifully the rain did not persist. We made good progress west, however we also found ourselves increasingly pushed north. It was clear that we were trying to round a summer low in the Bay which was refusing to clear off west. By the second night the wind was building and we were feeling the pressure of being pushed off course. We had tried to head south, but ironically were now being forced to continue west.

We had all been pretty much rushed into finding our sea-legs and it was during this period (but mercifully only this period during the whole rally) that everyone bar Max and Will suffered some expression of sea-sickness. By the time I came off watch at midnight the conditions were getting quite rough, and it was with some relief that I handed over to our experienced crewman Will. Fate would have it that the next three hours were the toughest and most demanding of the rally. The wind built to a steady 30-35 knots and the sea to a very rough state; more erratic than big. Sleeping down below seemed impossible, although our three children managed it magnificently.

We sailed with a partly furled 'staysail' and a very small 'main'. Moondance drove through the aggressive sea with some assurance; sufficient to impress an old salt (of nearly 40 something!) like Will anyhow. She also made us feel both reassured and pleased with our choice of 'cutter' rig. We have no extra storm sails and in more severe conditions feel they may be needed, but as things were we felt the furled main and stay could cope with some pretty tough going. By dawn we had come through the worst.

Day three was all about making progress south. The 3am-6am Watch was greeted with the kind of dawn that justifies the pain and suffering of a rough Biscay night. On the far horizon of an orange and blue sky we could just make out the profile of another sail. It was a good sight, and a pleasure to make visual contact with one of the other rally boats. Since everyone else was enjoying the sleep of the relatively calm seas and I was enjoying the slow warming morning I remained very relaxed about our general sail trim. As time passed it became evident that the boat behind was slowly but surely closing. Prompted by a little bit of pride and the emergence of a naturally competitive crew, we decided to hoist the MPG. This prompted the coincidental hoisting of a spinnaker, and there ensued a couple of hours of competitive sailing in the company of 'Goldeneye', an Oceanlord 43; one of the rally yachts that was going on to join the full circumnavigation rally. Rather smugly, we delighted in the fact that that they were unable to make any further impression upon us - that is without the use of some rather dubious tactics.

Our son Max had been trailing fishing lines for a couple of days, testing the theory of both the 'pink squid', and Gary Fry's instructions on the finer points of home made 'divers' (passed on to Sally on the occasion of the Queen's sail-past and inspection of the fleet in the Solent). We had just sat down to lunch (inevitably) when his hours of careful and varied baiting hit the jackpot. An especially fine tuna of perfect six-crew size was landed (duly gutted, cleaned, and stir fried!)

In all the excitement of landing Max's prize we failed to notice that 'Goldeneye' had crept up to within a couple of boat lengths, in mysterious fashion. It was with a cheery wave they passed us with the call "...just needed to run the engine for a bit to charge the batteries". (OK so it turned out that Goldeneye did have a major battery problem which they needed to address in La Coruna).

The following day was bright and breeezy; a superb sailing day. Strong winds on the beam, bright skies, lively but not threatening seas. I was still feeling a little numb from the previous 48 hours, but Max, (our 18 year old cynic) took the opportunity to 'discover' that sailing a yacht could be both seriously exciting and challenging. Simply too tired to restrain him, he indulged himself in testing the various relationships between heeling, speed, and thrills.

We earlier picked up a message to say that the Falmouth coastguard had been trying to reach "Moondance". I had tried to contact them through my SSB radio but had failed to make a coherent connection. We were naturally concerned. Now in our late night approach to La Coruna the Spanish coastguard came on the radio with a request for "Moondance". A brief and pleasant exchange established that infact both authorities were seeking the whereabouts of a single-handed yacht of the same name which had gone missing on passage to The Azores. Though relieved to know there was no bad news pursuing us, our thoughts and hearts went out to whoever was out there, travelling under the same name, and, we felt, same 'spirit' as it were. As we neared La Coruna there were a few big ships easily identified and avoided and a number of fishing boats, much more difficult to anticipate in their behavior. Below decks the noise, through the hull, of an accompanying pod of dolphins actually woke the crew. What a great welcome! On the whole the approach at night was very straightforward, there being a very 'open' and well lit shoreline. After berthing I was exhausted and just a little disappointed that the late hour and general fatigue shortened what had been a keenly anticipated celebration. Sometimes there is nothing that quite rivals a good bed.

The Marina at La Coruna is undergoing some developments, and we were limited to a portacabin for toilet and shower facilities. That said, they were a very welcoming, and hospitable, and La Coruna is a fine place to spend some land time with lots of good eating and imbibing for those that like that kind of pampering!

As part of the Blue Water rally we were treated to a very pleasant evening as guests at the Royal Yacht Club; normally a very conservative and quite forbidding establishment that we were allowed to temporarily invade with pent up small children.

La Coruna was where we first felt contact with the real blue water cruising circuit, all heading south! La Coruna was also to some extent a parting of the ways for the Rally. One group went on to join the round- the-world rally, some just ambled south to do their own thing, while another turned east to amble in pursuit of his own pleasures. There remained the three boats that had first crossed the start at Torquay; two Contests, Zipadedoda, and Nimue, together with us. We decided to tackle the next leg, from La Coruna to La Trinite on the west coast of Brittany as a convoy of three, staying reasonably together. The leg was an anticipated 360nm.

We were in many respects three quite different boats. Zipadedoda, a Contest 48, crewed by just David and Jenny Kerr (who had previously seen many sea miles and adventures in a Fisher) was the most technically sophisticated in the rally fleet, with electric winches and in-boom hydraulic furling, satellite telephone etc. Michael Hartshorn's Contest 44, Nimue, probably boasted the most experienced crew (himself, his wife Anne and their frequent sailing buddies Nigel and Sally Dick); they were certainly the liveliest; Michael was always to be relied upon for some fun, and it was he who had set up all the original 'challenges' on the first night in Torquay. It was interesting to note that at sea Michael was also extremely well organized and disciplined about matters such as proper log-keeping.

Both the Contests had significantly bigger engines than our Yanmar 56hp. Although we were quite happy with the pace that we were able to maintain we found that the Contests did have to ease off somewhat to maintain the 'convoy' and in the later part of the leg pulled away to leave us to rendezvous later at the prearranged destination.

In the event, we did two and a half days motoring to reach the Baie de Quiberon from La Coruna, as the wind, though a consistent 15-20 knots remained stubbornly on the nose. This was definitely a case of 'cruising' to meet the prearranged schedule of the rally; given the wind direction we would, if on our own, have changed our route to enjoy a sail.

The main adventure of the leg was our uncertainty and concern for our fuel level and range. We knew that the 'staged' gauge was a difficult thing to read accurately, and we had simply not had enough motoring hours with Moondance to have developed our own consumption figures. As a consequence we were persuaded by the ever helpful and resourceful Michael of Nimue to take on board an extra 70 litres while the weather was calm. This we did by roping across half a dozen jerry cans while on the move. Quite an exciting exercise which was the better executed by having a fit 18 year old on board to 'receive'.

Although we would have probably reached our far shore on our own fuel, it was very reassuring to have put the extra in our tanks; and later the weather did pick up to the point that transferring fuel would have been impossible. Two nights and three long days at sea were enlivened by a number of spectacular dolphin pod visits. Our second night found us following (approximately and in a very uncertain manner) Zipadedoda in a 20 mile detour to avoid a huge stretch of French fishing boats. The sea was a little rough and visibility not tremendously good (especially through a pair of wet specs) and on more than one occasion I felt that silly old paranoia that a large French fishing boat had actually altered course to get in our way !

By the evening of the third day we were able to make the final approach to the beautiful sandy bay of Ile Houat which although very popular and quite full of French boats felt like a haven of tranquility. A little bit of tricky and careful pilotage saw us through the various channels and safely to anchor to the warm welcome of our fellow boats. For myself the following 24 hours were just the best land hours spent on the whole trip. Forget your Marina facilities and fancy Yacht clubs, this was bay and beach life like I signed up for. We had great fun to-ing and fro-ing in our notoriously 'pink' dinghy ~ a very fetching accessory that was subject to much unfair derision from, in particular, the very sophisticated Zipadedoda.

(To explain, we had purchased an extremely 'pink' dinghy, 1) to encourage our youngest daughter to sail with us, 2) because we reasoned it was the best way of preventing 'dinghy theft' in those far away harbours, and 3) because it was on special offer at the boat show, and seemed like a good idea at the time; maybe we had been drinking at lunchtime.)

Anyhow our revenge was sweet on the beautiful blue-hulled Zipadedoda when the children got up at the crack of dawn to swim our 'pinky' across to her stern and Nigel, Michael's co-conspirator on Minue took a splendid set of photographs of the two nestled together. These are now circulating to the eternal embarrassment of David Kerr, who has no doubt already planned his retribution.

A day wandering the island was followed by a superb barbeque. It was very tempting to impress and perhaps bamboozle the French by beaching Moondance, but having never actually practiced the art we thought the potential for embarrassing mishap was best avoided.

La Trinite could hardly have been a more marked contrast. The sail across the bay was a good one in a fresh south easterly, but our arrival was like (how I imagine) finding a place for your towel on the beach at Benidorm. La Trinite, home port of the legendary Eri.