A nightmarish crossing of Biscay with minimal experience

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Chloë Peglau undergoes a Bay of Biscay rite of passage when she completes the famous Biscay crossing in winter with minimal boating experience

Have you heard the expression “through hell or high water”? I experienced both, simultaneously crossing the Bay of Biscay in winter and with modest sailing experience.

In January 2020, after the one year restoration of our 1970 S&S Swan Elixir, my friends Max, Harry and I left for the first leg of our world tour. We did some sailing trials, but never in bad weather, and I had less than 30 hours of sailing under my belt.

Crossing Gascony started out as almost straightforward sailing, watches and lack of sleep was a new routine to adjust to, but an accepted part of the process. We ate, took a nap and we crossed paths like Elixir passed the ships through the night. Slowly we got used to the rigmarole of undressing and re-dressing in our endless layers at the end and start of each watch.

Growing swell for our crossing of Gascony

On the third or fourth day – time quickly lost its meaning – we were celebrating our feat, we had almost crossed Gascony in January! Was it easy?

How presumptuous we were, was the real question.

As the day wore on the swell increased but we don’t care about the waves crashing on the bridge. Then darkness came and everything was less exciting. The sails were rolled up and reefed, until only the smallest foremast triangle propelled us.

Despite this we still stormed at 7-8 knots, surfing the following waves. The shifts have been reduced to two hours to limit our exposure to the freezing elements. My morale-boosting playlist was quickly silenced as the battery charge required for the speakers was no longer boosted by the solar panels, so it was just me and the noise of the speaker. ‘ocean.

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As if to show off, a wave cascaded over the port hip and filled the cockpit up to the ankles. I couldn’t have been happier with the money I spent on my inclement weather gear. All those hours working in minimum wage jobs were worth dry feet back then.

Fight fear

After my watch, I slowly got rid of the layered onion chrysalis from my wet weather gear. I went to bed to try and make the most of the scant four hours I had to sleep. My bed was already leaking at the head; the ice drops were not ideal, but this was made bearable by the fact that my small size allowed me to sleep lower on the mattress.

Harry’s bed was leaking the same way, and there’s nothing like miserable solidarity to cheer up. The boat rolled and heeled; it was not a comfortable place to sleep, especially since it was still only my first days at sea.

The weather was calm and pleasant the first few days of the crossing.

It was not just the movement, but the sound that repeatedly woke me to sleep. An incredible mix of water, waves, weather and rigging. It was difficult to distinguish what exactly evoked the greatest fear.

I was about to take it in my stride until I heard a loud crash in the cockpit, and shortly afterward I felt water against my feet. I turned on my lamp to see that now the foot of my bunk was also soaked. I curled up in a fetal position in my sleeping bag, the precious warmth now confined to the middle part of my bed.

My safe place had been compromised.

The night before, when I was scared, I put on my blankets and tightened my hot water bottle. I panicked and questioned my motivations, my skills, Max’s decisions about our safety and all of this led to the overwhelming feeling that I should be somewhere other than on this boat. However, I had nowhere to escape.

Leaky cabin

With each sound of the waves, fear mounted in me as I waited for the next surge of water. He was now coming through the window – tightly closed but with an old seal – because unbeknownst to me, the cockpit had now filled to completely submerge my window.

My selfish, adrenaline-soaked mind didn’t think of poor Max outside in a rage. I had to get off that boat, I could never cross it again. I made frantic arrangements in my head – could I take a bus from Galicia to the Basque Country where I have family? Would my friend with a van accept payment to pick me up and my things? Was it too much for a flight? And how could I handle my return to Cornwall empty-handed from the experience I had been bragging about for over a year?

Chloe driving Elixir in a quieter moment

I fell at the first obstacle. Perhaps I could flee, in Ghana or in India, a distant exile towards these countries of which I had dreamed. I cursed Max again. Why had I been left, a novice, to seal my cabin? The water came back, now by the throttle mounted on the side of the cockpit – I would never have known how to waterproof that! Finally, I moved to Harry’s cabin, a refugee.

The leeward fabric had slipped and I had no energy to mend it. I clung to the mattress to keep from being thrown out of bed as Elixir bounded along a port tack. I was becoming more and more sleep deprived and my decision to leave the boat more resolute.

The four hours had passed in a lucid waking state, and now it was time for my second watch. It was four o’clock. I put on my wet oilskins with heavy limbs in delirium.

I walked over to the cockpit and did the bare minimum of conversation with Harry. ” Ships ? “” What is the course? I tried to joke about my fear. Harry assured me that conditions were improving, and although I couldn’t believe it myself, it was true that fewer waves were breaking over the cockpit.

I hooked up and put my focus on the compass. Our bearing was 220º and all I had to do was keep the compass mark aligned with it for the next two hours. However, just two hours in a high water hell seems totally and utterly insurmountable.

Strength regained

The strong winds meant our weather vane had become useless, and it was my turn to play. The bar was terribly physical, and my neck and shoulders were strained against the force of the weather bar and all the Elixirthe mass.

Chloe, Harry and Max aboard Elixir

The outside world was different from the inside world, but that meant I no longer had the luxury of passing the time with a podcast or a playlist. I had to occupy my mind in a spiral, so I started counting – a metric measure of passing time.

Two hours and thousands of numbers counted were drawing to a close, and I desperately searched for signs that I had finished my sentence. My anxiety eased when I saw a stream of light through the portholes, but the time spent minding business inside meant my responsibility was extended.

My heavy eyes swayed between awake and asleep, losing sight of the red glow of the compass. My grip loosened as my hands wobbled at the end
limbs tense and sore after the battle. Eventually the hatch opened and unable to maintain an “okay” facade, I retreated into Max’s bed.

Enjoy the winter sun. Could have been a good time to catch up on sleep

Thick, sure, sleep came and I woke up to a new day, calmer seas and a calmer mind. I have spent the day resting and reflecting on the vast journey the mind can travel on through the 12 hour expanse of darkness.

I marveled at my newfound resilience and felt an even stronger love for my friends who had protected me. Elixir held on, and we headed for Spain.

Lessons learned:

  • Invest in decent weather protection gear. I’m generally a used bargain hunter, so I winced every time I shelled out for my next kit. However, being warm and dry was vital for the resilience I needed to steer and keep myself and the crew safe. I was very happy with my Musto MPX oilskins – unsponsored, just an honest review!
  • Test the watertightness of the boat before sailing. we had taken Elixir out for many day trips, but Falmouth Bay never offered the conditions we encountered in Biscay. Even with torrential rains from Cornwall, we didn’t notice the leaks. Looking back, I would have used more Sikaflex when replacing the bridge fittings and applied Creeping Crack Cure.
  • Sleep during the day. It was immediately obvious that the reason for my hysteria was extreme fatigue. As I was new to the night shift business, I didn’t realize how vital it was to catch up on sleep during the day. Even if you are new to sailing, get over the excitement of being at sea and rest as much as possible so that you are ready to spend waking hours at night.
  • Navigate slowly. We had seen the patch of stronger winds on the charts before our departure and allowed it to get a few days ahead of us. However, while sailing, we were quickly swept away by Elixirthe natural speed of, our plot of seeing her to her full potential allowed us to make up for the time we had tried to avoid.
  • Savor the experience. The resilience I built that night was invaluable. Less than a month later, we encountered more than 50 knots of wind in an acceleration zone in the Canary Islands. Knowing that I had crossed the Bay of Biscay allowed me to remain calm and rational in a situation that would have terrified me before.

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