Surfing the English Channel

If there ever were a time to gain confidence in a boat, or to get the wits scared out of you, it would be during a gale.  Gales might spring up, like an uninvited guest, along a passage after the best possible forecast has been cautiously selected.  That is not the case, however, when departure for a passage occurs willingly into an all out gale.  Welcome to our wild ride across the English Channel!  We haven’t sailed Detour in very strong winds; and even this story could have been much worse, so we are fortunate to have had a trial run during “reasonable” gale conditions.  I enjoyed it so much that I simply could not contain my excited nerves and so threw-up (only twice, thank my lucky stars).

Brian and I had been waiting for a weather opportunity to cross the English Channel and potentially continue along to cross the Bay of Biscay as well.  It was early October, but late in the season according to our weather research and forewarning from fellow sailors.  We were so tempted to travel via France; the bilges could really have used a re-stock of wine and we had a good friend to visit along that way.  Biscay was not to be reckoned with during October, and if the days slid into November forget it!  We’d be wintering in England – or France should we get “stuck” in the bay.  Yikes!  So on the first real opportunity, we set sail.

We slipped Detour off the guest mooring in the Dart River mid-morning to catch the outgoing tide so the current would be in our favor once we entered the open channel.  A weather update on the VHF as we exited the river said, “gale expected soon,” and at the mouth of the river we were greeted with eight-foot waves.  We motored out, so as not to miss the window behind the gale which was forecast for 20-knots of north-northeast wind for the next three days.  We needed to be only a bit west of Falmouth to hitch a ride on that forecast and it would take us across Biscay.  Eight-foot waves at hand, Detour pounded up and down.  “Let’s get a bit farther,” we encouraged ourselves, “it’ll be alright once the sails are set and we’re on course.”

A reefed genoa had us flying along, once on course, sailing approximately nine-knots.  The auto pilot struggled; during a gust Detour would turn beam to the wind, then we’d heel significantly.  The auto pilot would correct itself, but with much effort.  We experimented, by hauling up the centerboard to determine if it might improve the auto pilot’s performance.  With the centerboard raised, Detour no longer went beam-to during gusts.  We were surfing!img_0223

Longer than 24-hours we traveled in 30-knots of wind, gusting 35-38 knots.  Detour was controlled, and actually fairly comfortable aside from random, larger than average waves which wold strike suddenly and give us a good rocking.  We kept a 2-hour watch schedule during the first night, then gradually lengthened our watches as the passage progressed.  The forecast did ease as predicted; leaving us with a very pleasant downwind sail along the Bay of Biscay.  Sunrise was accompanied by pods of dolphins.  Days were sunny, soon putting an end to the need for our foul weather gear.  Nights were clear, starry-skied but still a bit too cool for one layer.  Eventually the wind died and we motored to keep with our good luck and make tracks southward.  We docked at the end of 653 nautical miles at Leixoes, Portugal.img_0241

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2 thoughts on “Surfing the English Channel

  1. We used to feel the same way about riding a front when we were your age; but, now that we are in our seventies, we tend to wait for more mild weather windows. Right now we are in Wrightsville Beach, NC and we’re thinking of going outside to Charleston today; but, even though the wind direction would be favorable, it is forecast to blow 20-25 kts gusting 30, we decided to wait another day for the 10-15kt forecast.

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