Day 131 – Thanksgiving day on the Bay of Biscay

Day 131  25th November 2010

Thanksgiving Day

Crossing the Bay of Biscay

Position At Midnight – 48°21.8’N  07°43.7’ W

This was the first day I wrote nothing for my blog on the day of the event.  Normally, I write in a notebook as it is all too easy to forget the events of the day, and then write into the laptop when it is more comfortable, or I have sufficient battery power or the time or inclination, however today was a day I shall never forget.

During the night, I wrote ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ for John in the log book.  I had promised him home made pumpkin pie since Halloween, and I was looking forward to making it.  I planned roast chicken, cranberry sauce and potatoes and a medley of vegetables with some gravy. Yummy.  I’d never had a Thanksgiving dinner, but after the day’s events I sure had a lot to be thankful for.

During the night, we started to make our way across the Bay of Biscay. The winds were not the predicted Force 4 – 5 but picked up to Force 7.  The waves were building and we were pitching and rolling worse than any other time.  This was typical motion when running with the wind. It was virtually impossible to sleep. In my bunk I felt almost weightless as I was bouncing off the bunk and unable to hold on each time the bow crashed in to the turbulent sea below.  I created a little handhold, just a loop of string secured with a bowline fastened to the bookshelf beside the bed and tried to sleep with that around my wrist.  I was sliding out of the bunk, the lee board nowhere near high enough to keep me securely in place. (Due to the hundreds of charts under the mattress, well maybe not hundreds, but a lot, raising the mattress too high) Trying to climb out of the bunk during a squall, the boat was heeled so far over that I struggled to get out of the bed.  As I managed to get out, I fell forward and added another bruise to my already purple patchworked arms and legs.  I was desperately tired, and struggled to plot our position on the Bay of Biscay passage chart.  It was difficult to work out the position of the ships and ensure we were safe from collision, but I took care and plotted the course of each of the 5 ships I could see on the AIS, and by looking outside. We were making fantastic progress and were on course to make perhaps 150 miles this day I did not tarry too long on deck as the inky black waters seemed to surround me on every side.  The wind howled and the boat crashed through the water.  The decks were soaking and I was getting colder.  The rain was falling in biblical proportions followed by hailstorms.  We were being tossed about like a cork in a bathtub. The Bay of Biscay was throwing everything at us.  I prayed for morning to come so that John could take over and I could be relieved. 

At 6am, I turned in, at this stage my bed was damp and cold as the waves had managed to make their way down the hawse pipe again.  As I finally got to sleep

I was startled by a shout from John at about 8am,“Meraid! Meraid! We need to shorten sail”  I threw my clothes on (I never actually undressed that night) just hat, coat and boots, grabbed a swig of water on my way past the galley and went on deck to help. 

What greeted me was frightening, the waves were really big and stretched as far as the eye could see and we were going to face this for hours! The wind was blowing at 35 knots and the mainsail needed a reef, and then had to be jibed.  Faraway was screaming along at 7.5 knots, occasionally surfing at 9.5knots (twice the speed she is happiest with.) 

I was guarding the helm and watching the waves as John reefed the main.  He needed to know how much further to winch in clew pendant. I was holding a line to take pressure off the main while he put the reef in.  I looked astern and noticed a bank of waves that looked different and shouted to John “The waves look a bit different, there’s a lot of froth on them.  Hold on!”  John confessed later that he thought, “She doesn’t know one wave from another” and didn’t really give it a second thought.  I, on the other hand, was not clipped on, and as I looked around again, I saw a big wave maybe 12 feet high frothing and foaming and chasing up behind us. We climbed it.  Immediately, John roared “Watch for the next one!” 

I looked behind me and there was a huge hollow in the sea, the water looked 10 to fifteen feet below me and a wall of water 15 feet high towered above me.

“Oh God!” I whispered to myself, my heart pounded and I held on for dear life.  I heard nothing more……………

The boat broached about 20 degrees and the wall of water crashed down.  I felt some of its force hit me on the back like a sledgehammer smashing on a rock.  I felt no pain, just the almighty force. I kept holding on. I didn’t know what to expect next Visions of crew on racing boats being flung about like skittles flashed through my mind, I removed the scene, replacing it with me still securely holding on to the dodger rail.  I was drenched, waiting for another wave to sock me, but it didn’t come.  I was quiet and continued to look around for more of these rogue waves. .  My hat had gone. The stove pipe and the stove head were washed overboard, knocked out of its casing and a gaping hole on the deck left in its wake. Strangely, I didn’t feel cold or fear, probably shock though I still don’t know for sure!  The sea reminded me that her moods are as fickle as those of any woman and I thanked the Gods for safely taking us through.  It took almost 2 hours battling the conditions to finish the task and once again, I climbed into bed.  John shouted down to me.

“We have bullet proof sails up there now!”

I lay resting, unable to sleep when a cry came.

“Help me! Help me!

I jumped up, dropping the writing pad and pen (I was writing a letter to my nieces at the time) and stuck my bare feet into my boots.  I rushed outside in flimsy clothing, no hat or coat on (I’d been drenched, remember?) and had nothing to eat since 7pm the evening before.  I started to shake!  A combination of fear, shock, hunger and adrenaline swamped me.  John was lightly dressed too and the first time I’d seen him outside without a hat! The boat had jibed and it took the two of us to push the tiller over in the conditions.  It only took a few minutes to right her and once again I returned to my bunk.  I tried to eat some porridge, knowing that I needed to eat to keep my strength up and retain my health, but the bowl was snatched away and half the contents tumbled to the cabin sole.  I had no appetite and felt apathetic! I scooped the spilled porridge up, and finished the remainder.  I tasted nothing.

Neither John nor I ate anything much that day.  I was totally shattered and John seemed to have lost his normally voracious appetite.  He did not even have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich……..

Eventually we talked about the events of the morning and John said he would have steered the boat to avoid broaching and being pooped.  He of course has 40 years of sailing experience and I have 4 months. He said that I was fantastic under the conditions and did superbly.  I was very pleased at his vote of confidence. 

I went to bed at 6pm, can you believe it?  John went a few minutes later.  The watch plan was to get up every hour, John at 7pm, me at 8pm etc.  The night was long.  The watch schedule was tough, and still I didn’t sleep.  I read some of Rosie thinking I would doze off, but the 87 year old granny was taking up sailing, eyeing up a young man zooming along in an MG convertible and I couldn’t leave the book down. My fingers were hurting and swollen, probably from the way I had held on for my life earlier.

I was alive and well! Very alive! Very, very alive!

Happy Thanksgiving Day!

Menu today – The bleakest menu of the voyage so far!

Breakfast –Tea, half bowl porridge (other half got flung across the floor)

Lunch – Half a banana, fig roll, glass water

Dinner – A cup of soup with some leftover rice from last night

Snacks – An apple, pear and 3 fig rolls

Meraid Griffin

Freelance writer, adventurer and public speaker. Descibed in the Sunday Times as a 'modest explorer'. Nothing modest about me.

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