Leaving La Rochelle to Cross the Bay of Biscay


Last Updated on November 18, 2019 by Amy

We have arrived in A Coruña safe and sound, and are very pleased with our first crossing. It took us about 60 hours, and we have learned quite a lot. We had some plans and expectations, and really everything went out the window.

Why is This Route So Popular?

This body of water between northern Spain and western France is notorious to sailors (and big ships too), and yet it’s where a good portion of boats start out their life.  Beneteau, Lagoon, Fountaine Pajot, and Nautitech are all built on this coast of France, amung others.

We stayed in La Rochelle at Port of Minimes, one of the largest marinas for pleasure boats in the world with 3,500 slips.

Weather Conditions for the Bay of Biscay

The best time to sail, according to World Cruising Routes, is May – August.  In Spring and Summer, the bay is cloudy and foggy.  In the Winter, storms roll in.  The bay is open to the west to the Atlantic, so swells roll in and onto the shelf that extends several miles beyond the western coast of France.

That being said, even on our small sailboat, there are not many places you can’t reach quickly.  You only need a small weather window to make the jump, and we took one in late November!

Is the Bay of Biscay Really That Bad?

Well, yes and no.  It’s some of the toughest sailing we have done in our five years aboard Starry Horizons.  Is that because the conditions, or because we were new to offshore sailing?  I don’t know, but we survived it – and so can you!

Sailing Journal

Nov 26th

It was the last day of work on Starry Horizons here in La Rochelle and a weather window opened for us to leave Friday!  We’ve been working to get the boat ready to leave and only had a few projects left.

Bay of Biscay Forecast

Nov 28th

We packed up and left La Rochelle at about 4 pm. We topped off fuel and once we were out in the bay we put the sails up. We sailed very conservatively, setting up the genoa and main with one reef. I went down to the cabin and rested.

We had a heavy discussion and planned on doing 6-hour shifts, starting at 8 and 2, with the understanding that if needed, we could end our shifts early and adjust. So, at 7 pm I got up and got dressed and started preparing dinner. Unfortunately, being downstairs and dark, I got a bit nauseous from the movement. Dinner was easy – cream of pumpkin soup with crab. After wards, David and I sat at the helm station together for about an hour, and decided that it would be best if I tried to sleep a bit and David would wake me up when he was too tired to continue. I went down and slept on the main salon couch.

Nov 29th

At 2 am David woke me up and I felt better. Getting dressed, I went out to the helm station and started my shift while David went to bed. It was quite cold out, so we have as many layers on as we could, including our foul weather gear. Getting dressed is definitely a bit frustrating, as the boat is rocking, you have to struggle with the layers and deck vest. Once outside, my nausea improved, but then I have to suffer with the cold! Kind of a lose-lose situation.

David and I had both seen bioluminescence shooting out in the wake behind us. At 4 am, something else caught my eye – dolphins! The moon had set, but somehow – from the stars or the bioluminecense – the pale skin of the dolphins was glowing! Their bodies swam just under the surface of the water, breaching occasionally. Not only were their forms glowing but their wakes coming off of their tails glowed like a white ribbon behind them, intertwining with each other as they swam, and the dolphins each cast off their own bioluminesnce net behind them.

I woke David up (he panicked – we have since pulled out the walkie-talkies to try to calmly wake each other up) and he observed the dolphins for a few minutes and went back to bed. I tethered myself to the starboard jackline, and walked up to the bow pulpit to sit and watch more. I could tell that there were dolphins under the bow as well as the few on our starboard side, but I couldn’t see them as well.

The dolphins were just the excitement I needed to get through my first night shift. I told David to wake up at 8, but he was up around 6:30, as I was spotting and dodging some cargo ships.

I went to bed and set my alarm for 10, when I got up and had breakfast. I relieved David at the helm, while he went down to sleep. We swapped again at 1400, having discussed that 4 hour shifts seemed more reasonable. Saturday´s dinner was a pre-made meal I had prepared using our vacuum sealer (which is not vacuuming, but I sealed and froze anyway).

Nov 30th

Sunday things started to get into a better groove. In the afternoon, instead of napping, we stayed in the main salon together and watched an episode of TV and had lunch. Our sleep quality was getting better.

So far are making pretty good time. Yesterday, conditions were pretty calm which was a nice way to get started, but last evening and into today things are picking up a bit. We had gusts of up to 30 knots AWS while sailing downwind last night and today the waves have swapped direction to more on our beam and become a bit more “washing machine” like. That means we get some good slaps against the hull everyonce in a while. Makes a loud bang but SH just shakes it off and keeps jetting along.

We’re keeping things pretty conservative with the sails as we’ve also been using the engines almost constantly (one at a time) to try and get enough hours on them so we can service them in Spain. Right now, we’re running half our genoa with no main and still touching upwards of 7-8 knots as we surf.

I am excited to see what watches will be like once we are in warmer climates. I enjoyed being outside because the fresh air and view helped the seasickness, but it was so cold out! We were very good about always having someone on watch out at the helm at night, but during the day it would be very easy to keep watch inside. Our instruments do a great job – we really enjoy having the AIS as our primary vessel avoidance tool. It is fascinating to see what kind of boats they are (typically cargo or fishing), where they are going, how close we will come to them (CPA) and the time of CPA. The radar is good too, but we didn’t see anyone on radar that wasn’t on AIS. I wonder if we would be able to see anything unlit with our naked eye at night.

Dec 1st

Monday we took our last shifts (me 7 – 11, David 11 – 4) and then we were both up to prepare for coming into A Coruña. We docked at the visitor dock, helped by a dockhand we had called on channel 9. He told us to check in at the office at 8 am, so we went back to bed for a nap!

For our next passage, we have agreed that I will try something for seasickness (I am thinking the relief band) and David will expect to pick up some slack when I am not feeling well in the beginning. We will keep 4 hour shifts at night, but once we are settled in, day shifts will be more casual. I will pre-make more meals in the vacuum sealer, as that was the best meal we had.  We also added a few projects to our list, to make passage-making easier….David will tell you more about that.

Dec 2nd

Since we left La Rochelle at 4pm on Saturday, the 60 hours we were using for passage planning meant that we were going to arrive in A Coruña early in the morning while it was still dark.  While not ideal (and something I don’t plan on repeating on a regular basis), the entrance into A Coruña is wide open with no tricky obstacles to avoid.  We consulted our charts and Google Earth and determined that the risk of entering during the dark was minimal and would be preferred to our two other options.  One: slowing down the boat while on passage or Two: kill time outside the harbor until it was light outside.

The first option would have been tricky since we were already significantly under canvassed and needed to run our engines to get their hours up.  When we approached the coast of Spain, the appearance of the fishing fleets at almost exactly 00:01 (I’m convinced Dec 1st marked the start of a new fishing season) made staying outside and dodging them for hours a very unappealing option.  As it was, I counted 16 vessels on the AIS that were designated as “Fishing” and had to dodge about half of them as they were coming out of their harbors.  (Yes, I know this is not “half” of the entire Spanish fishing fleet, but it sure felt like it that early in the morning)  I’m convinced this is what caused a few of the “were you drunk driving?” comments.  And for the record, no I was not.

So at about 0500 we entered into our final approach into A Coruña, and were all tied up in the Marina by 0530.  After a few hours sleep, we checked in at the office and immediately began to accomplish work on the boat.

Watch the Video:  Crossing the Bay of Biscay


  1. Well done David and Amy to get to A Coruna. You did not say much about the weather, but 60 hours is good. I have read the comments by others on Stugeron. The active component is cinnarizine. This drug does work well and is approved in may countries and banned in others such as Australia and New Zealand. I have used this and have some in my yacht, it is perhaps the only drug that will help recover you after vomiting. However be warned, the reason some countries will not approve this as it has a reputation of inducing Parkinson’s decease – which you do not need, it is a one way trip. I think if you can get use to the Hellia’s motion in time then tough it out and see if you can adjust. Best of luck.

    1. Thanks Colin, that’s why I am interested in the ReliefBand. I know my seasickness is not that bad (no vomiting) so it doesn’t make sense to take something for my lethargy and nausea that has a bad side effect (especially since most of the side effects of these meds are lethargy). I think on our next passage (soon) I’ll give the ReliefBand a test run, but I expect once we get good nights of sleep, I’ll be just fine.

  2. I still keep my bet on Stugeron. Seems to have the best results with the least effects. And you can balance your dose, with up to 225mg/day. By your description, seems that you will do with 3x25mg.

  3. Great report of first leg of the voyage. Sounds like you really had a great start and learned some things to use on the next portion of the trip. The cold makes it quite a bit more difficult, I bet. You will be leaving the cold for a while soon.

  4. Really enjoy your posts and am looking forward to our own lift off in the summer! While in Spain, consider Stugeron. Many cruisers recommend it although it’s not approved in the US.

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