The start of our crossing is calm and we hoist our sails so we are ready to sail in the night when the wind picks up. We motor into the darkness thinking we could always turn back in the morning if we are not happy. The sun sets and we are heading in the darkness parallel to the Raz Du Sein – the jagged reefs and powerful races that project out from the Brittany coast. There are some ships around and one is lit up brightly and has a helicopter coming and going from it. It is not on our AIS (automatic identification system – all commercial vessels have this) screen though and dead ahead so I call him up on the VHF to find out it is a French customs cutter out on Manoeuvres. He tells me to turn to the South so we pass clear of each other. This I do but I quickly get back on my course as he passes as I am reluctant to get swept onto the Raz.
I am worried as to how I will cope with the lack of sleep. Bryony needs to be looking after Bryher and keeping her happy through the night so It's down to me to keep us on course and safe through the darkness. At this time of year we have around 12 hours with no light so it is going to be a long night. As we clear the Raz and leave the ships behind I dare to take my first 11 minutes of 'sleep'. I set our cooking timer and after a last look around I lay down in the wheel house and rest. 11 minutes is the time in which a super tanker can come up over the horizon and run you down so if the sea is clear of ships you should be ok to do this. There should not be a super tanker heading towards this stretch of coastline so the risk is low. If we were in a shipping lane or on a steamer track there is simply no way you could do this.
On waking I get up and out the wheel house and look around for ships. There are none so I take another 11 minute nap. We are some 50 miles inside the shipping route that passes outside the Bay and the sea here seems to be empty for us. At one point I look over the side to see millions of small jelly fish all around us. I hope they don't get sucked up into our cooling system and cause us to over heat.
At 4am I switch off the engine and with the wind now up a bit we are sailing along at 6 knots. The sea is up a bit also and Bryher is sick in our bed but goes back to sleep ok. I grab a few short naps throughout the night and by dawn I feel like I can do this. The autopilot is doing a great job of holding us on course as I rest or trim the sails. I can now fiddle with the settings to get it to stop the mad hunting this way and that which is noisy and wastes power.
Just after dawn breaks we are crossing over where the continental shelf drops off from a depth of a few hundred feet deep to 4 kilometres. The sea is a bit confused for 30 miles but settles down into a longer and more gentle swell pattern. Bryony & Bryher wake up and make tea and toast and we talk over the night and how we are feeling. We decide we are all ok and should keep going. Hurragh! The plotter says it's 250 miles to NW Spain. We pick up lots of dolphins this morning which keeps Bryher happy and we film them for a bit with a 'go pro' gaffa taped to a stick getting some good under water bow shots.
We are circled by a small bird who appear tired and in need of a rest. It dares to alight though and sits out on deck looking a bit worse for wear. At lunch time we see what could be a shark feeding on something. As we come alongside it thrashes and disappears. The wind is piping up nicely and South Star seems to be almost alive charging southwards throwing waves out from her bow. For the first time I think South Star is excited to be heading South.
We have covered 116 miles in 24 hours and as the sun sets for a second night we are in good shape and making 6 knots under sail. The wind increases a bit and we get up to 8 knots for a while. My fingers are firmly crossed as our new rig is not well tested yet but the wind drops a little for the night and we carry on. My sleeps have been extended to 20 minutes now as 11 is just not enough. There are no ships now and we are alone out here so it feels ok to extend it a bit. Occasionally you can hear some fishermen chatting in Spanish on the VHF but that is all. Our little bird is somewhere asleep and I hope he is warm enough.
I am deeply tired now. Not even coffee can help me. It is more about staying hydrated and grabbing any chance to close your eyes. I can fall asleep almost instantly and get my rest but I can feel it getting harder to pull myself up again to check for ships.
Bryony comes up to check on me and as she comes up through the hatch in the wheel house floor she hears the cooking timer ring. When she reaches me it has stopped ringing and I am asleep again. We change the timer for one on my phone that rings loudly and does not stop and I give myself a mental kick up the arse.
In the morning the little bird is up early hopping about and peering into the wheel house looking for some breakfast no doubt. I am glad he made it through the night. Bryony & Bryher are up and making eggs on toast. We are all in good spirits and the miles are ticking by one by one. Once we have eaten Bryony takes over for the morning watch and I go below for some proper sleep.
The penultimate day passes easily. It's not too rolly and we are making good progress. Bryher seems happy enough playing in the wheel house. Bryony has made sure we have some surprises to keep her happy. A set of crayons and paper and some new 'Alfie' books keep her going. She really took to the colouring in but her crayons kept rolling away. I am sure she would rather be on a beach playing but there will be plenty of that to come. I am absorbing the feeling of being out here. I put on some music and douse myself down with sea water as a baptism. Washing away the stress of the last few months. Bryher has an early night and Bryony joins me for a jacket potato and a chat in the wheel house before she too slips below leaving me to the sea and another long night.
The night passes in the same way. Getting any minutes in the sleep bank whenever possible and keeping us going towards Spain. South Star is going well and has a run of 116 miles sailed in 24 hrs. Not bad for an old MFV. As dawn approaches I see more in the way of ships so we must be getting close to the coast now. Our speed drops and I have to start the engine to clear a trawler that is close by. The engine noise wakes the girls and they come up to the wheel house to see the dawn and carry on some rest there.
The last day! Visibility drops a bit and we are 30 miles from the small Spanish ria of Cederia. The fog gets worse and I call up a passing tanker to make sure he knows we are there. It's times like this I wish we had an AIS transponder so ships can see us clearly. As we get closer to the coast the fog starts to burn off from the top down. First we see blue up high above. It gets thinner and thinner until suddenly we are standing in sunshine. Bryony calls out 'Land Ho!'
A mountain range appears ahead and we can see Spain! We loose the layers of wool and oil skins and laugh and hug and pat South Star fondly. We have arrived. Not in yet but it's warm and we bloody made it across the bay!
This feels good. Not only the accomplishment of crossing the bay of Biscay but in an old boat whose life we saved. We are all happy to be just where we are right now.