On adventure upon the high seas, part 3

Friday 28th September, Bay of Biscay.
SW force 3, 1050 mbar.

I sleep uneasily. The ship rattles, the wooden partitions of the cabin creaking with the pressure of the waves on the hull. Everything creaks and groans. The ship rolls and pitches strongly, and I am tossed from one side of the bunk to the other, and resort to trying to brace myself against each wall with my feet. But the motion is not because the weather is rough outside. In fact, sometime around 3am I awake to almost total stillness, only the gurgle of water under the keel. It feels like we’ve slowed almost to a stop. I can hear Michael and Martin talking on deck, and a barking sound as the engine is started, sending reverberations through the ship. The wind has dropped and changed direction, and we need the engines to keep our speed up in order to get to A Coruna in time for Charlotte’s flight back for work in London on Monday.


Around 6am I climb up to the cockpit to take watch. It’s dawn, and the sun still lurks behind the horizon, although its light has set low clouds on fire with pinks and oranges, announcing its arrival. After a few minutes on deck, I see the first of them – incredibly quick, incredibly close, just a metre or two from the boat, grey, glistening, smooth, and streamlined: dolphins. Three or four of them ride alongside our bow-wave in the near darkness, leaping clear of the water in pairs, in perfect unison. After a while they drop behind us, perhaps put off by the sound of the engine.


The sun rises behind the clouds, and the rest of the crew join us. Rigging the genoa and letting out the full sail, we pick up speed to reach an impressive 7.5 knots and kill the engine. Realising the game is back on and with no diesel engine to distract them, the dolphins return – the full pod of perhaps 20 or more. They dance about, dodging in and out under the boat, leaping up in pairs and threes, racing each other through the bow-wave. Just them and us in the empty ocean.

To see them is to smile. They’re enchanting, effortless. And very hard to photograph.

A lot of gulls appear around us too, assuming if there’s dolphins then there might be fish to spare. The bay turns out to be quite different from its reputation – and very different from my experience of the Channel. It’s calm outside, sunny, with sparse clouds. Time passes.

That evening, another Thai curry, another long night watch under a near-full moon on a glassy sea. The wind turns around to the north, blowing from behind us. My efforts to let out the genoa to pick up more of the changing wind do not go according to plan when I fail to notice that the hank of the rope was left on the winch; the ropes are tangled. I admit defeat and wake up the captain to sort out the sails. It turns out I did the right thing but badly, and with genoa and mainsail trimmed, we pick up speed on our way due south.

The tailwind causes the boat to pitch and roll as the waves overtake us, blown from behind. It makes the simplest of tasks difficult: do not attempt to piss standing up, while pouring tea successfully requires synchronising kettle and cup, as both are now moving. By the time I head below at 4am, the warm front has arrived and swamped us in cloud. The air is suddenly damp, chilled. The bright moonlight has gone and the glassy sea is darker, more menacing, the white caps of the waves now a snarl of teeth in the darkness.

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