The passage to Spain

Prelude: It has been quite some time since I crossed over from Ireland to Spain and it had taken me some time to write this, mainly because I’ve had issues getting pictures out of my phone. Unfortunately that came to an end as I left Vigo last night, since I managed to drop my phone in the water. So no more pictures of the crossing than I managed to extract before the unfortunate accident. Some experiences comes at a high cost, but I have learned one now – don’t use the phone as a camera while on the water. I will have to get a new one of course and some how get a SIM-card from Sweden to where I am.

I has taken longer than expected to get this post completed, mainly because of technical hurdles that has been exhausting but also due to events that has been mentally taxing. Not that the passage itself was particularly exhausting, in fact, after a few days at sea I actually felt much more energized than I have had for some time.

I was going places.

But, let’s start from the beginning as all good stories tend to do. Last Wednesday it was time to let go of the mooring in Kinsale for the last time, thank you Alan for letting me use it. It teached me some valuable lessons in how (not) to lasso a mooring. Having both tide and wind, sometimes fighting each other, it has been a challenge some times to moor. Slipping the line that last time was to let go of Ireland, in a sense.

At 8:30 in the morning it was a slow pace in the marinas as I passed them, and it is kind of funny to be filled with so much energy, anxiety, expectations and happiness with no one noticing. For everyone else, this was just like any other Wednesday morning, for me it was the ending of a chapter in my journey – or rather the beginning of my next chapter!

The only reason that I was leaving this day was that I finally had the last piece of the puzzle, the new anchor, on the bow. I ordered it the week before and the supplier was a bit concerned that it would be in Kinsale on Monday, that was my initial departure day, and as I mailed them on Tuesday I got a message that they were trying to figure out where it was. Once again DHL didn’t help much, since their only message in their tracking system was that it was “in transit” and that was the status since Wednesday the week before, just a day after I ordered it. I did check at Kinsale Yacht Club earlier in the day since I had two more parcels to pick up, but they hadn’t had it delivered. After returning from Cork where I returned the rental car I just took a chance and asked them again. This time there was a different person there and he said that he hadn’t heard anything, but as a service minded person he is we took an extra look around the place, and when we got to their yard – there it was in all its glory! It was late though and it would take even longer before I had it hung on the bow. But it was a beautiful sight to see, now I could go!

Long story short, I took the boat to the marina, since I highly doubted I would be able to get the anchor safely to the boat in the dinghy, met some fantastic women that had had their four years of sailing and just was returning to their homes again in the northern parts of Ireland. As I was about to set of on my adventure I just couldn’t let a good story pass, so I listened to theirs. It sounded fantastic, and was really inspiring at the moment! I would also extend my gratitude to them for helping me dock, without them I’m not sure it would have been as graceful as it was. But I digress.

Exiting Kinsale I was greeted by dolphins! Just as I passed Charles Fort they came and gave me a very joyous welcome and it felt as a good omen for the passage to come.

The main reason why I changed departure day from Monday to Wednesday was that I needed my anchor before I left, but also because the weather looked promising on Wednesday while Monday had turned a bit more ominous. The forecast was that I would have winds not over 20 knots (10 m/s) for the passage and it would start from southwest and after about two days it would turn to northwest instead. That meant that I would have to beat into the wind to begin with, which is not too fun, but later I hopefully could have the wind in a more favorable direction.

That didn’t happen.

As I left Kinsale and watched Ireland slowly disappear on the horizon I noticed that the direction that the forecast had suggested wasn’t possible. It was more or less straight into the wind and as we all know that a sailboat can not sail straight into the wind. So I had but one choice, go as close to the wind as I could. I set the wind angle on the auto pilot to 42 degrees – for obvious reasons – and noticed that my course over ground was less than 180 degrees, more towards 170 or 165, which meant that I would sail into the Bay of Biscay. A place that in general is not a fun place to be if things got ugly. So I was hoping that the wind would shift as promised and that I after a day or two could start going on a more westerly course.

The first day

Sailing solo has its challenges, for sure. Having a boat that is set up to handle with a small crew helps in that sense, but it still have its challenges. I do get some questions from time to time how I do on a crossing when it comes to making food, sleep and so on. In general, since I sheet the sails to a certain wind angle and then let the autopilot steer to an angle relative to the wind angle rather than a specific heading it pretty much sails itself. I can do some trim if I notice that a sail is luffing (flapping in the wind) or if I think I can get some more speed out of the current wind. Other than that I just need to make sure to have the right amount of sails up regarding the wind strength. On this day I had rather consistent winds from south-southwest at about 12-14 knots (6-7m/s) all day and as I had set everything up I just had to wait for the next thing to react to. I sailed with one reef in the main sail, just to reduce heel to make things a little more comfortable. The hours started to roll by, after some time I had to make some food and since I had made some “minced meat sauce” (köttfärssås) as we call it in Sweden, I reheated some of it and made some pasta to go with it. Having fixed the stove gimbal was paramount for this crossing. If I had gone with my initial plan (“it gimbals some, I can just tack and cook on the tack where it gimbals better”) I would most likely only eaten cold food.

And then came the night.

Sailing in darkness is interesting. Everything changes, but then again, nothing does. Gone is the horizon, the vastness and the feeling of direction. Totally of a sudden all you have to relate to is the boat and its immediate surroundings. It is good to remember then that it is all still out there, the vastness and the ocean. I actually felt at ease for some reason.

Time to sleep. My plan was to sleep for an hour, do a ocular inspection of the surroundings (lights are easy to spot in the dark) and then go back to sleep again. I hadn’t seen one boat after crossing the shipping lanes, and then later the gas field, outside Ireland but I thought it could be a good thing to do. Just in case.

Do you know how much a sailboat sounds during a sail? I mean, it is only water swooshing by the hull, but wow, it makes a lot of sounds! And then having the autopilot buzzing and humming every now and then, well almost all the rime really, adds to the sounds for sure. When trying to go to sleep it definitely makes some loud noises. So that first hour of sleep was.. short. But totally of a sudden the alarm went off and I got up to check that everything was fine. And it was. I realized that in general if a boat would come to cross my path it would most likely not help if I sat dozing in the cockpit or sleeping in one of the aft cabins, I would more likely make errors on my own due to sleep deprecation than it would happen. So I took a captains decision and extended the sleeping period to two hours.

Oh, yes. How I sleep. Do I get into my PJs and tuck in? No, I sleep with my full foul weather gear on. With life jacket and everything. Because if an alarm would go off I must be able to react immediately, not spend a minute or two to get dressed first. And alarms did go off, albeit not any critical ones but mainly due to the wind speed increasing.

The autopilot has a range of different alarms that I can set, the one I ended up using was the true wind speed alarm, so I could sleep well knowing that if the wind would pick up I would be woken up and adjust the sails accordingly. But there are also relative wind speed (which means it takes to account that the boat is moving as well, making its own wind), the heading of the boat and so on. So I feel rather safe as I go to bed. I also have an AIS that will sound loudly if it sees a boat that is going to cross my path, so hopefully that will not be an issue either. One day, I can’t remember which, I was sitting in the cockpit, half-awake, minding my own business as I looked out over the side of Away and to my surprise saw a big transport ship to my port side, just a nautical mile away or so! AIS hadn’t warned, since our paths wouldn’t cross. It was a bit startling, but I realized that they probably had seen me on AIS a long time ago and had adjusted their course to be parallel with mine until they passed me.

Day two

To be honest, having the autopilot steering all the time gives me a lot of time on my own, doing whatever I want. But at the same time, having a boat that is constantly moving and heels over there isn’t much you can do because as soon as I get down into the salon I can feel a slight queasyness, that most likely could build to something more concerning if I let it continue. I did have issues eating warm food the first two days. Not that I couldn’t get the food down, it just took ages. Long enough to the food to go cold. But I knew I needed it so one mouthful at a time got it down in the end. This day was mainly spent in cockpit slumbering, which seemed as the best option really.

The day was very uneventful, really. Having winds at 15-17 knots made Away keep speeds normally between 7-8 knots, every now and then reaching 9 knots. All in all very comfortable.

Day three

After a day without seeing a single ship out there I finally started to get closer to the shipping lanes and they started to show up both on the horizon and every now and then close enough to be seen on AIS. Today I felt energized, not sleepy or drowsy at all. And one more interesting thing happened, since I suddenly didn’t feel that queasyness when I was down below! Probably I have adapted and having food was a delight again. Such a nice relief. Not only that, the sky was no longer mainly gray, but blue and the sun was finally warming my cold body. I won’t hide the fact that until then it had been a bit cold in the cockpit, but now it was just wonderful!

I also got a windshift, not the 90 degrees or more that was predicted, but at least 30 degrees, and that was enough to alter my course out of Bay of Biscay and aim for the northwesterly tip of Spain as planned. With the windshift the wind some times picked up and as a consequence I needed more kicker than before (the kicker flattens out the main sail to reduce its belly and thus make the boat go faster), but as I tightened the kicker something snapped with a boom and I saw that the direction of the rope had changed.

The deck organizer had snapped.

Now, the kicker is not an essential function, so I wasn’t really worried and to some extent it can be handled with the main sheet and the traveler. The only issue was that when I tried to use the traveler earlier it was not in the best condition. But I think it was mainly because it hadn’t been used enough, since it slowly began to move more freely as I used it. It still needs a good clean none the less.

Both deck organizers on Away has been something that I have been thinking of replacing, since the pulleys are missing pieces and there are cracks in them. So that it broke wasn’t really surprising, but the real reason is that the kicker seems to be incorrectly retrofitted, since the line from the base of the mast wasn’t in the same plane as the pulleys of the deck organizer, resulting in a force pulling sideways (up away from the deck) on the pulley and eventually broke it. The line for the topping lift (that makes sure the boom doesn’t drop to the deck when the sails are lowered or doesn’t have wind) was also routed in a similar fashion but I moved its pulley at the mast base to make it go straight through the deck organizer.

A mistake as it seems. Or rather, I didn’t fully realize the consequences of the move.

As I was assessing the damage done with the kicker line I was given a little bit of a shock. The assembly holding the main sheet was falling apart! The pulley for the topping lift that I earlier had moved apparently had dual purposes. The pin holding the pulley also held this assembly in place and by pure luck I saw it before it got worse. I saw that the bolt holding the assembly was slightly bent, but I could probably persuade it back in place, but I needed something to hold it in place as I get it in position. Luckily before I left Kinsale I stocked up on different sizes of bolts and nuts, so I had the material that I needed. Worst case I could have used a screw driver, it is a classic. But first, depower the main sail and then get the tools to put the plan in action. Half an hour later all was back in place and I could once again sheet in the main sail and go faster again. Remember that during all this I was still sailing, albeit on reduced power using only the head sail. Having an autopilot is definitely a necessity sailing singlehanded.

Later I was accompanied by some dolphins again, always appreciated to have them around the boat! I think I also managed to sail trough a pod of dolphins hunting some hours later, since they were not really interested in the boat and they seemed to stay on the same spot rather than swimming in any direction. I hope I didn’t disturb them too much…

Day four

More boats, and finally I saw some recreational boats and not only commercial. A pair of catamarans on the horizon, probably heading from Spain towards France. The day was sunny and finally I saw the coastal line as a mist in the distance, first it looked like clouds, but after some time I saw that it was the coast. It was a really cool feeling to know that I just had crossed over from Ireland to Spain! First goal reached, I felt it was an accomplishment and an experience that I will build upon in the future. I had done the hardest part of getting to the Mediterranean, from now on I could do day sailing and skipping down the Atlantic cast of Spain and Portugal.

But I wasn’t there yet. I could have turned east and gone to A Coruña if I wanted to just get ashore and end up in a larger city. But my goal was to get to Fisterra since it was en route south. I kept to my plan and pushed forward. During the day I noticed that the wind was losing speed and in the evening I sailed into an area where I thought I saw rain clouds, but it was not rain but fog as I later discovered. But on my way there I once again was accompanied by a pod of dolphins. It was dark, so I couldn’t really see them but I heard them, splashing the surface and every now and then gave out a high pitched sound. So I had to check them out using my torch, which was kind of fun, since I could shine on them even though the water surface. It seems it got them curious since they started to swim into the light beam and jumping. I tried to film them, but it was hard since they are so quick and the film really doesn’t give a good representation of the whole event. But it was fun! Later that night I passed through an area of really strong bioluminescence, unfortunately it is such a weak light it is hard for a normal phone to pick up the phenomenon.

The wind died down even more and eventually the fog was thick enough to cut with a knife and the temperature dropped. I was doing about 1 knot of speed and yes, I could have sailed all the way if I wanted to. But it would take full day extra just to do that. The alternative was running the engine for 7 hours and to be honest, it wasn’t a hard choice. I took down the sails and started motoring. The fog made it a bit eery, since I couldn’t see anything and motoring at 7 knots at the same time. But I doubted that many boats would be stupid enough to be out this late in a fog like this. Some of the light houses along the coast was but a bright blob slowly flashing, but eventually I saw the one light house that I was looking for, Vaca de Fisterra.

As I rounded the peninsula the fog started to disperse, showing me a shoreline littered with lights from streets and houses. A beautiful sight! I only had a paper chart of the area and it was not as detailed as required, so I had to go in a little by feel. I had read on Noonsite that there was a beach where I could anchor, and there was a breakwater that I needed to get behind to find it. I finally found the blinking light of the end of the breakwater and after that I found some boats at anchor. So I guessed I was where the beach was, or at least near. So reduced power and started looking at Navionics that was mapping out the bottom below. It was about 8 meters deep and I was arriving at low tide, so I knew it would be at least 3 meters deeper at high tide, so I had to go further to find shallower waters to anchor in. 5 meters. 4. 3. 2,5. Okay, time to go back out and scan a circle to make sure there was deep enough to anchor without any risk of touching the bottom.

Then all hell broke lose and I was thrown forward in the cockpit. I had run aground, hard. I threw the machine in reverse and backed out to hopefully avoid getting stuck. But in hindsight it wasn’t a big risk. It wasn’t a graceful touch, I had literally hit rock bottom. From probably 3 knots to 0 in a blink of an eye. I checked the scan and saw that the bottom didn’t drop back down as I thought, but it actually rose as I went out from shore, down to about a meter. F**k.

Well, I haven’t dived on the keel yet, but I expect it to be lacking some paint at the least.

I went back to where it was deeper and dropped the anchor. Gathered my thoughts and decided to stay there and get some sleep, it was almost 6 in the morning and I had been awake near to 24 hours, more mistakes were guaranteed if I tried to do something more before I got some sleep.

In the morning I saw that I had anchored between the port and the beach, and if I had gone some fifty meters further in I would have run aground on breaking cliffs. Luckily I decided to go back out to “deeper” as I did, even if I did run aground it wasn’t that shallow so that it would have potentially damaged the hull.

So, time to pull up the anchor. The Rocna was working flawlessly, but dropping anchor on a rocky bottom is always dicy, since the anchor easily can get stuck. I ran the windlass slow as I can’t use the engine to push the boat forward at the same time, since I have to be in the bow to handle the windlass. Slowly I pulled the boat a meter forward, let the chain sink again, pull it up again, let the boat move forward. And repeat until the anchor was directly under the boat. Now lets hope it wants to come up and not get stuck.

And it got stuck. F**k.

Yeah, why not. Why one disaster when you can have two, right? So I tried to let it out again, to see if it wanted to let go of the rocks. No. Down again, let it reconsider. Still not interested of getting out of the water. What now? I let out some extra chain, went back to the engine control, gave her a slight push forward and stopped. Back to the bow, pushed the button to the windlass. Yes! It had let go. With the anchor came a ball of kelp up, so some up and down movement with the anchor and they let go.

After that scare I motored over to the beach where two other boats were anchored. It is a reasonably long beach, but I wanted to have some shelter from the breakwater so I anchored between them, of course on a reasonable distance.

And there I am today.

I had one issue when I tried to turn on the anchor light last night. It was dead. Probably an effect of the impact, since I had it running all night when I was motoring. I checked the power all the way from the switch to the cable running up the mast, that was not a power issue. So today I climbed the mast on my own, pulling the bulb and yes, it was broken. So now I have to find a new bulb to replace it with. I think it is the same type in the mast light so I could probably use it to get it to work, but that means getting up there again. Which isn’t really optional, I have to get up there soon anyhow. As a bonus I got the issue with the mast head light fixed, as I followed cables for the anchor light a cable once again had a corroded connector and was severed by just touching the cable. Honestly, don’t use cables that isn’t tinned in a marine environment, they will not survive. Will not. Ever.

Oh, yes, I almost forgot. The navigational lights in the bow died in the last night as well. Starboard was flickering like mad (which was spectacular in the fog) but port was dead. I knew I had done a quick fix as I left, but this bad? Interestingly enough the cable to both terminals on port had corroded and broke as I touched them. In less than a week! I will have to take a look at them tomorrow. Another quick fix is coming! And a plan to replace all the cabling in the boat as I go. Did I mention that I initially couldn’t run the windlass backwards, only forwards? Yes, another corroded cable and dirty fix. Having junction boxes that isn’t sealed is rather useless, or think that if I just add enough electrical tape then water won’t find its way in. Let me tell you as secret: a cable that isn’t perfectly round will always allow water to find its way in to the copper. Always. Don’t try to fool yourself. It will. Nothing wrong in that, just don’t expect it to last in a marine environment.

And with those words of wisdom I’m done for now.

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