Nip up to Bristol airport, catch a flight to the French town of Bezier, hop on the boat and whip her back around to her new home in Weymouth just in time for tea a fortnight later.
That was the plan. As with many British travel plans this summer, French infrastructure had it’s part to play, dooming a routine flight into something that came close to resembling Train, Planes and Automobiles. A last minute flight change saw us touch down in north Spain, catch a bus into the town of Girona and finally find a train that would take us over the border to the quaint little coastal town of Port Vendres.
There we were then, Hagg and I, taking time away from Blue Eye preparations to deliver the beautiful Dufour 40 that his dad, Nick, had recently acquired. With a cabin each, two heads, and a spacious cockpit, Azur provided a comfort that our wee Blue Eye doesn’t quite match!
The trip would serve several purposes. First and foremost, it would bring Nick’s boat home where he could immediately set about familiarising their pet spaniel with the floating home. I’ve never known a dog to run away quite as much as Cassie, so I guess the experiment can go either way.
Aside from canine priorities, the 2500 nautical mile passage would be a serious test of our sailing ability and stamina, and it would be invaluable doing it under the wisely eye of sailing veteran (sorry Nick!), Nick Haggett, to whom we both owe a great debt for all the work and advice he has given us in the build up to our own adventure.
And lastly, this would actually be the first leg of our circumnavigation, because as it stands Blue Eye will not be replicating this journey back to England after she enters the Mediterranean through Suez Canal in the years ahead. Hagg may wake up with a changed heart on this matter one day, but – knowing what I know now about the conditions of this leg – he’ll have to find himself new crew to slog it up the Portuguese coast back to blighty! But I think we’re both pretty happy in the knowledge that a tough 10% of the mileage of our round the world trip is already banked.
So with lockers full of France’s finest stubby lagers, cupboards rammed with baguettes, and a fridge full of cheeses, jams and pates, we slipped Azur’s lines, hoisted her sails and ogled at the glorious speed at which the wind could drive us along.
There’s little more a sailor could ask for than favourable winds, a fish on their line and the sun shining. It would transpire that the sails were about as much use as the fishing line we trolled for the 610Nm leg down to Gibraltar, as the wind died and clearly all the fish had too. There was, at least, sun.
Indeed this first section of the journey was characterised by the light and variables. That is, wind that puffs and gusts a bit from here and then a little from there, before largely just giving up altogether. As such, time spent off watch duty frequently involved afternoon naps interrupted by the flapping of sails, followed by the knowing grumbles of the watchman as the wind veered, backed and died. He would then stumble about deck as the remaining swell rolled the slowing boat side to side, inevitably banging a knee or elbow in increasingly frustrated efforts to remedy the still flailing sail, leading to loud cussings, more stumbling, a winch handle dropped on a toe, and further cussings.
Eventually order would be restored on deck, but crashing and profanities were replaced by the rumble of the engine. Come exiting the Gibraltar Straits – 110 hours on from departing Port Vendres – the engine had been run for 97 hours. A lot of sail boat engines won’t do that in a season.
After a few days of weak winds, it became the muted common feeling that the sails could bloody well stay tucked away and the sound of the engine would just have to become a part of life for the time being. As such, the watchman’s main concern became that of dodging fishing boats. Now, it is widely recognised across the nautical world, including amongst fishermen themselves I’m sure, that fishing boats can do as they damn well please. After all, if they have to constantly get out of your way then just where do you expect to get your Captain Birds Eye snacks from? As such, they are a nuisance. Admittedly, whilst actively engaged in fishing they are rightly granted priority over sailing vessels, but it appears that this has been interpreted as a universal, irrefutable, non-wavering, get-out-of-my-way-I’m-a-fucking-fisherman, mandate at all times of the day and night.
I don’t think I was always so passionate in my dislike my fishermen. But then it wasn’t until recently that, one, I ended up hot, flustered and near asphyxiation in my own lifejacket, and two, being just feet away from being mown down in heavy fog… both courtesy of incourteous fishing boats. On occasion one, a calm Mediterranean night had suddenly gifted me wind and I was chuffed to have Azur cutting through a flat sea at 8 knots. I could see a light off in the distance which niggled at me as it was dead ahead, but the clear night made it easy to see that it was a way off still. Eventually, reluctantly, I abandoned the helm to the autopilot and went downstairs to check the AIS system, which informed me that ahead of me was a sailing vessel headed in the opposite direction.
Glad tidings, as Nick would say, this would be a simple port-to-port passing, with a wave blindly into the night at one another as we congratulated ourselves for a) using the wind to get to where we want to go, and b) for not crashing into one another despite the vast amount of sea area where the odds of collision have got to be about the same as us having fish for lunch.
Things proceeded differently. To keep my sailor friend to port side, who was following an increasingly erratic and unpredictable course, I was finding I had to sail up to the wind more and more, thus losing speed and sea room. Maybe we’d collide after all… how ridiculous that would be.
The minutes ticked by, the space between us lessened, and my nerves grew. So I bottled it. The noiseless drive of the sails was replaced with the noisy drive of the engine, allowing me to maneouvre Azur out of harms way but at the expense of the best sailing for days. I squinted an angry squint into the night for this apparently not-so-friendly sailor, to find that this was no sailor after all. This was a fish murderer who’d lied about his identity on AIS and was not displaying his fishing night lights.
Cursing the smelly, inconsiderate, nocturnal bastard I set about bringing back the wind to the sails and peace to the engine. It was in the midst of some, perhaps overly zealous, winching that the winch handle snagged on the toggle of my lifejacket that inflates it. Cue a sudden whooshing noise that had me seriously confused for the short space of time it takes for the cylinder to inflate the lifejacket, upon which confusion became replaced by realisation, which was quickly replaced by the panic that breathing had become genuinely difficult.
I finished sheeting in the jib just as Nick arrived on the scene to find his nice new lifejacket tightly wrapped about his red-faced and cussing watchman. He helped me out of the suffocating situation and I silently retired to bed, vowing never to trust an AIS target marked ‘sailing vessel’ again, for fear it would be a fish murderer in disguise.
The second fisherman incident we will come to on our arrival in Weymouth. First, another near 2000 Nm lay ahead, and the easy part was behind us. We’d avoided the dreaded mistrals of the Med and the funnelling gales of the Gibraltar Straits, but there would be no way around the reliable nortadas of the Portuguese coast. These trade winds blow down 300 Nm of coast from the north completely uninterrupted, spreading out for hundreds of miles offshore and whipping up a sizable ocean swell. Thus it was for three days and nights that we smashed through wave after wave with no sign of the wind dropping or the seas abiding. Leaving one poor sod on watch outside for three hours at a time, the other two crew members would crawl into the relative safety of their bumpy bunks and half-dream, half-pray for the calm waters of the Med where problems extended no further than rogue fishing boats and prematurely inflating lifejackets.
To add to the challenge, we had to overcome shipping lanes, seasickness and the deteriorating ability to be human. I looked back at the logbook days later and found one comment that read: Beating. Very swelly. Shipping lanes. Chunder. Up until that point we had religiously filled out a log every two hours, but a day passed between this insightful confession to beating up the coast of Portugal and the next entry.
Slowly, conditions improved. Eating, talking and generally being conscious were all re-introduced to daily life. The occasional cup of tea was braved, and I even risked making a lentil curry for a hungry crew, though it turned out that what was at more of a danger than my potentially scolded skin was the sanctity and functionality of Azur’s toilet. Indeed, the next day Hagg emerged from the head and announced with a mix of shame and triumph that the facility would not be available for the remainder of the journey. Thankfully, Azur had a second one…
The stretch up the coast of Portugal, then, was thought of as the second part of the overall passage, and the third and final part was to begin when we finally broke through the top of the northerly winds and into the southwesterlies that would carry us home.
Coming into good weather never happens like you imagine it to. We’d dreamed of vicious winds and waves relenting in unison with the sun emerging from behind the clouds, and we’d tack toward home applying the sun cream as we turned. In reality it was a slow and tedious change. But eventually, at 0200 hours of another night at sea Hagg finally thought to hell with it, this will do, and pointed us in the direction of England. The final leg, and perhaps the best.
Out came the cake and birthday presents inbelated celebration of Nick’s birthday (it was a few days previously but it hadn’t felt like a particularly jovial occasion at the time), and spirits were lifted. We were treated to many dolphin displays, though all were agreed expectations had been higher. Atlantic dolphins are getting lazy in their efforts these days it appears.
What more than made up for this was the whale. Or whales plural I suppose, but most were too far away to appreciate anything more than spouts of water blown into the air. The whale I refer to was as spectacular a sight as you can hope to see on the ocean.
My first reaction was undoubtedly one of awe. Awe at the sheer size of the thing, because merely the portion of the beast that breached the water was at least the length of Azur (which is 40 feet, or roughly 13 metres). Thus what quickly followed awe was a distinct feeling of vulnerability. Not that whales are typically aggressive towards boats, but aggression is often not the source of injury. Think of that sizeable fella in your local pub on a crowded Friday night. The one having a great time, laughing and gesticulating wildly in all directions, coming dangerously close to knocking over at least one drink in the vicinity. Well sailing within such proximity to this colossal animal felt like we were just one clumsy wag of a tail from at best a spilt beer, and at worst a spilt boat.
Of course, nothing so terrible happened at all. If anything we seemed to spook the whale as it descended below and out of “harms way” and we carried along toward home. Come Friday afternoon Dartmouth could be seen to the north as we crept up the English Channel, the first land sighting in nine days. We could almost taste the awaiting fry up in a greasy Weymouth café the next morning. Little did we know then that the most dangerous part of the journey still lay ahead.
Nick and I awoke that Saturday morning to find Hagg tense and with foghorn in hand. Both were justifiable, because we were motoring through fog so thick you couldn’t see 30 metres. None of us had seen anything like it and were grateful to have modern technology at hand to naviagate us, although in times like that a radar is a comfortable backup we didn’t have.
This is where my dislike for fisherman was hammered home. Through the still morning air the sound of an engine reached our panicked ears as our eyes helplessly searched for the whereabouts of the source. It quickly grew louder and demonstrably belonged to a vessel larger than ours, given the accompanying sound of its wake as it ploughed towards our position
Out of the fog it loomed, packed with hasty and excited fish murderers, heading dead for us. As soon as he saw it Nick swerved hard over to starboard in an evasive move that might otherwise have seen us be smashed into. Had a collision occurred I’m not convinced they would have taken the slightest bit of notice, so we stared at them with all the evil our eyes could muster given our mouths were too gobsmacked to know what abuse to hurl.
I am, of course, being flippant, to an extent, in this generalised fisherman rant. We passed by several other boats heading out to see what they could catch, and they all sailed slowly and cautiously. But there’s always one isn’t there.
It was a beautiful (and slightly relieving) sight, coming into Weymouth harbour where you actually sail right through the town centre. People were bustling around, carrying out their normal business, and nobody paid the slightest attention to the three unwashed, stubbly sailors who came in that morning. Apart from James and Nick’s family who were there to greet us that is. Cassie, the dog, was actually the first to spot us amazingly.
Overall, then, we can proudly look back on what was an extremely successful trip, taking us less than 17 days and with only a broken toilet to add the jobs list. And thinking ahead to our trip with Blue Eye, Hagg and I feel that if we can negotiate the fishing boats of the Med, sail into heavy seas such that the nortadas provide, and navigate thick, thick fog, then sailing back down south should be a breeze.
Watch this space to find out how long it takes me to retract that sentence…
You can watch our video for this journey here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_050YgnBV38