Sailing over Bay of Biscay in October
October 14-18, 2020
Finally the day had arrived and on October 14th we started sailing over the bay of Biscay. Normally all books say that you should sail over Biscay as early as possible, as the further into autumn you go the likelihood of bad weather increases.
As we departed late from Sweden (late August) we knew that finding a weather window for Biscay might be hard, but we hoped that we would make it across anyway. Today with the good and detailed weather forecast finding good weather info is easy, but still it might be unreliable. The weather system is complex and no forecast can be fully relied upon.
We checked the winds and waves several times every day for Biscay and for our weather window the forecast stayed the same up until our departure. This is a good sign and shows that the forecast might be correct. If the forecast were to change every day it is a sign that anything can happen and maybe not a good time to start a crossing. But our weather window was very stable so we felt safe starting our crossing.
We had also prepared a lot of food for our crossing, filled up our freezer with already cooked food so that we only would need to cook pasta or rice. We had made overnight oats with berries and peanut butter that we could only grab from the fridge for an easy breakfast. And finally made some energy bars, chocolate balls (to eat with the coffee) and warm drinks to make for the night. We downloaded podcasts so that we could have something to listen to while on night watch.
We left Roscoff about 9 in the morning after eating a steady breakfast. We sailed along the French coast all day, and around sunset we passed the strait between mainland France and the islands outside Brittany. It was dark when we headed out into the bay and we saw all the lights from France disappear behind us.
It was a still night with no wind and clear skies. We went by engine all night as we wanted to get over the bay as fast as possible. During the night we where accompanied by a lot of dolphins. Which was really cool. Later in the night we had phosphscenic light in the water making the dolphins look like torpedos around the boat. A very cool experience.
The morning started with a beautiful sunrise accompanied by the dolphins. We ate our first overnight oats with a cup of tea. It was a sunny day and the wind picked up so we could sail. We listened to music, a podcast, read and enjoyed the sun. We saw even more dolphins and sat on our bowsprit looking at them jumping around the boat. You get amazingly close to them when sitting there.
By evening the wind picked up even more (as we knew it would do). It was south-easterly winds so no huge Atlantic swell where gonna hit us, but still the waves got a bit big. We set the main on the third reef and changed from the genoa to a smaller headsail and started our night watch. For Biscay we tried with 2-3 hour shifts. It worked fine as it wasn’t that many days but for a longer sail we might need to take longer shifts. We’ll see how we do it.
The waves made Petra very seasick and she spent her night shifts watching the boat accompanied by a bucket. It was a tough night but still even though all the tiredness and throwing up we got through the night.
When morning came we made sure to eat, drink and rest. As Petra threw up a lot it was important to eat and drink to get energy back. And equally important for Thomas. Even though it is very tiring preparing food in the waves (even if it is only cooking pasta) it is important to do it. It won’t get easier the hungrier you get!
The wind and waves calmed down during the day. We got our energy back but wondered how exhausting our final night at Biscay would be. To our relief it was better than we thought. It was another calm night, and we motor-sailed through the night. We had our shifts and by this time it was no problems falling asleep (the first night was a bit harder). During the night we started seeing the lights from Spain and the winds where considerably warmer than our first night.
We got another beautiful sunrise together with dolphins as we approached Spain. Even though we saw the coastline early we wouldn’t arrive to A Coruna until after lunch. We motor-sailed the last bit as there was almost no wind and found ourselves a spot in the marina. When checking in at the harbor office we showed our passports, ships papers and insurance policy. Earlier when we sailed through northern Europe we have never needed to show any papers (except when we where visited by the coastguards).
So, to summarize sailing over bay of Biscay in October:
- We where really lucky to find a good stable weather window so late into the season. Throughout our crossing the forecast turned out to be very accurate and every change happened right on the expected time.
- Even though we had a tough second night we weren’t super-tired when we arrived to Spain. And now a couple of days after we feel like it was a good crossing and that doing it again for a longer period (with warmer weather) might not be impossible.
- The cold nights are pretty though. We where lucky we only got a little bit of rain, since cold AND rainy nights are even tougher.
- Having good food prepared was a really, otherwise it would have been much tougher.
- Having an offline playlist with music and podcasts downloaded was also really nice.
- Having dolphins around the boat is amazing!
We hope that by posting this, we will help future sailors plan their trips. Just want to highlight that we are no experts, just done a sailing trip like this once. We just want to give hope to other sailors that maybe has no choice but to cross the bay late in the season.
When we were about to sail over Bay of Biscay late in the season we only heard horror stories and that crossing this late would be impossible to sail over Biscay after August; from sailors we met in marinas along the way and as comments on our Instagram. Weather is not binary, you could encounter really bad weather in July also, but it is less likely.
We managed to find a good weather window in October, and we are not the only ones that have crossed the bay late in the season. It is not as impossible as people make it sound like sometimes!
But if we would sail again we would leave earlier so we wouldn’t have to stress over finding a window to sail across the bay. It is also nicer to sail when it is a bit warmer. The nights were really cold. But sometimes you don’t have a choice but to leave late in the season, and then the hope of sailing south should not be abandoned. It is not impossible sailing over Bay of Biscay in October.
But a tip from us, even though we have limited experience; be careful and remember that a forecast is just that, a forecast. Look at different weather sources and different models (this of course also goes for any longer passage at any time of the year 🙂 ) and you will hopefully not have any unpleasant surprises. The big swell that the Bay of Biscay is known for might also be avoided by taking a more offshore route and avoid sailing “into” the bay.
Video from our Bay of Biscay crossing in October. We speak Swedish in the video but have added English subtitles for all our videos.
Santander hosted the most recent edition of the World Sailing Championships in 2014, attracting over 1,000 sailors and 400,000 spectators across two weeks of competition on the Bay of Biscay and the Bay of Santander. And Kiel, famous for hosting the internationally renowned Kieler-Woche regatta, is a regular stop on the Olympic circuit, welcoming world class sailors for a week-long festival of sailing which is combined with the largest summer festival in northern Europe.