This, our very first month out of Bristol, has given us immediate experience of both the highs and lows of cruising life. Hopefully we have passed the test and qualified to continue on!
Our departure from Bristol was low-key - not to say anti-climactic - after the frenetic buzz of the annual Bristol Regatta and the final few weeks of preparation and talk. Following several weeks of scorching hot sunshine, we stole quietly out of the Floating Harbour in a dismal grey drizzle, escorted by my brother David in his boat Royce, and waved farewell by my parents and friends John and Eve - just four little waving figures receding in the mist as we headed out down the River Avon. This was how we wanted it - sort of. We needed to get on our way - ready or not - fed up with just talking about it and frazzled by the constant requests to come up with a definite departure date. That, plus a feeling of trepidation that our voyage might not measure up to the expectations of a grander send-off. The driver of a passing harbour ferry called out a farewell, adding "I envy you!" Just at that particular moment - in miserable weather, with a nasty forecast ahead of us and exhausted by weeks of stressful preparation - we didn't feel enviable at all. Worse - we couldn't even decide on an immediate destination. A remarkably inauspicious departure!
Off down the Avon our spirits began to lift - we were on our way at last! We'd broken free - to go anywhere we chose! This mood was rudely shattered when, just into the Severn, a graunching noise developed from the engine compartment. However, after several heart-stopping moments Chris diagnosed a minor fault with the automatic bilge pump and put it right. The relief was immense - but unfortunately short-lived. As we passed between the Islands of Steepholm and Flatholm the old 'surging' sound from the engine - which we thought we had cured - came back to haunt us. We had said all along that if we encountered problems with the boat, we'd get them sorted out en route rather than spend more time testing in Bristol. That was the theory - but we hadn't really expected to face it in practice quite so soon! We decided to keep going, and all things considered, the passage from Bristol - which we finally decided should be to Padstow, via Porlock - motoring into a light headwind, turned out to be not so bad. Just the one drama, when having waited off Polzeath beach for a couple of hours until the harbour gates were due to open, we pulled up the anchor to move into Padstow, whereupon the engine cut out and wouldn't restart. Hurling the anchor back into the water to avoid being washed up on to the beach by the incoming tide, we bled the engine and all was well.
We enjoyed our time in Padstow. Fixing the engine was the top priority of course, but there were plenty of diversions - brass band concerts, a wheelbarrow race, carnival procession and a flood! However, our 12 days there began to seem like a lifetime, in our eagerness to get going. We thought we'd got away once - but out into the channel, the fuel problem turned out not to be fixed after all. The good news was that both the new wind-vane steering and the Cetrek autopilot worked a treat - which was some consolation. At the end of that day we retreated back into a stupendously full Padstow - a record one hundred visiting boats there for the Eclipse. Good old Malcolm, the impeturbable berthing master just managed to squeeze us in. My brother, who had set off at the same time as us and reached St Ives, where we had planned to anchor together for the eclipse, also returned later that evening. He'd decided the rolling St Ives bay wasn't for him when he was overtaken by a surfer! Padstow was under solid cloud cover for the day of the eclipse, and the much hyped event seemed set for disappointment. The light weakened barely perceptibly during the morning as if threatening a storm - real darkness seemed most unlikely. However, just a minute before totality, the sky suddenly started to dim dramatically in a surreal succession of waves - like a series of lights being switched off one after another - followed by a minute or so of complete darkness. Awesome!
Our fuel supply problem became a community puzzle amongst the dwindling number of yachts left in Padstow after the eclipse - not to mention a professional engineer we called in. Others had experienced problems of the same sort - but no one had a solution. We had to abandon our plan to visit the Scillies, with time running out for Biscay. Finally, with the help of a skipper rafted up next to us who turned out to be a Barry lifeboatman and diesel engineer, not to mention much dogged perseverance from Chris, we cracked it. The engine passed the 'overnight cooling test' and roared into life the following morning, and we were out of the gates and on our way - Malcolm cheerily calling out "see you tonight". No way! With the wind against us for the first leg to Land's End, we were enthralled by the sound of our happily purring engine. Rounding Land's End the sun came out and we started sailing. It was so so good to get out of the Bristol Channel!
Given the long range forecast for the notorious Bay of Biscay, we knew we were in for a wait of 3-4 days in Penzance. In fact, we were there for a week - and made good use of our time. The boat is now enormously much better organised than when we left Bristol. With hindsight, this was a vitally needed shakedown period. On the cultural side, we went over to St Ives by train to visit the stunning Tate Gallery and Barbara Hepworth's Garden - very much worth the trip. However, we were beginning to dread the prospect of having to admit to the September meeting of the Bristol Sailing Association that we were still in the UK! We had done our final food shop several times all ready to go, and then been balked by the forecast. A high over Greenland was sending an apparently unending succession of lows further south than usual - right across Biscay. Things could have been worse. Another boat left after four weeks having a new engine installed, only to limp back into the harbour the next day with a prop problem. We were rafted alongside a French yacht having its fuel tank flushed out. The skipper told us "All boats eez beeg problem". How true - we are coming to realise!
At long last the day came - Monday 23 August - when we got a 3-5 day forecast for the Biscay crossing which whilst not exactly inspiring seemed the best we could expect. After yet another last minute shop, we departed Penzance for our first long passage all by ourselves. Almost immediately visibility dropped dramatically. We didn't so much leave England as it left us. However, the wind was perfect for getting well out west. By early evening this perfect wind began to strengthen with quite boisterous conditions as we headed towards the shipping lanes in the gathering darkness and continuing gloom. The watch system I had envisaged degenerated immediately into ad lib snatched respites in turns whenever possible. On and off watch were equally sleepless and unpleasant! Hurtling along at well over 7 knots quite out of control is a more than exhilarating experience when there are only two of you on board - and one of them is me! We prudently put in a third reef, and with a tiny genny kept roaring along at a more controlled 6 knots.
Next morning the wind had died and we were surrounded by fog. Daytime seemed hardly different to night - white rather than black - but equally impenetrable. Radar and Cetrek performed brilliantly as our third and fourth crew members. Grudgingly the visibility improved over the day and we enjoyed some watery sunshine for a short time, although the sea had become horribly rolly. 115 miles in our first 24 hours. We took watches in turn continuously day and night, with short periods together at changeover time, both finding it difficult to sleep, and neither of us with much appetite. Not that the Biscay Diet was such a bad idea after some rather disgraceful over-indulgence in Penzance and Padstow! The third day dawned very much brighter - although the sea was still far too bouncy. We both spent most of the day awake, and began to enjoy the passage. That night's watches were not such a test of endurance - I positively enjoyed mine, sailing along well, listening to the World Service. Next day I woke (finally having managed to sleep) to bright warm sunshine and a calm sea. With disappointingly little wind we were motoring - but given recent experiences, trouble-free motoring seemed almost as good as sailing. Major shipping showed up on cue at mid-morning, as we crossed the track between Ushant and Finisterre. The prospect of arrival in Spain was coming up sooner than we had expected - just as we were getting into our stride! That evening in an eerily calm and glassy sea, ghosting along under sail at 2 knots, we sat watching whales popping up and down around us. Easily as long as the boat, they seemed completely unaware of us. At last - this was what it's all about.
The lights of the Spanish coast showed up in the early hours, and after 436 miles we moored up at the Real Club Nautico of La Coruna. We have a wonderful view of the Castillo San Anton, and are surrounded by an international community of yachts. The perfect surroundings for popping the champagne to celebrate the achievement of our first foreign landfall!