Falmouth to Spain & back

Falmouth - La Corunna - Falmouth

Boat: German Frers ketch, long keel with centreboard, 44ft

Cruise Narrative

Set off from Falmouth with a NE'ly breeze nicely pushing the boat out to the WSW, leaving the Scillies to starboard as the tack led us toward 12W. Five onboard with mixed experienced, with a watch system which involved two on at any one time to share the watch keeping duties. The boat had no self steering system, and so on the outward each person spent half of each period on-watch at the helm.  Once out of the English Channel there were few vessels around. Being before the days of widespread usage of GPS in yachts, there was only a Decca on board -  which was of limited value as we were for a large proportion of the time beyond range of the various Decca chains. Ideal circumstances in which to use the sextant! Watching the sun reach its highest point in order to obtain a latitude, used in conjunction with detail from the log book and further observations of the sun for 'sun-run-sun' fixes - proved adequate for fixing position and determining the course to sail. We became blasť about dolphins as they were present for hours at a time. On one occasion we sailed for a while parallel to a whale which was certainly longer in length than the boat (which was 44ft l.o.a.). It was always necessary to keep a look out - brought sharply home when we sailed through a collection of steel barrels floating on the surface - some ship having lost part of its cargo.

As might be expected in the area concerned, a forecast picked up on R4 mentioned an approaching blow during the Biscay crossing. With the only communication equipment onboard being a VHF we were self-sufficient in all respects. We had as a matter of course been sailing under conservative canvas but as soon as the stronger gusts arrived, sail was reduced to just the mainsail with three reefs in. By this stage three of the five onboard were taking a much reduced role in the proceedings. With gusts to 55 knots, the sea was heaping up. Strangely whilst steering the boat through the night it all seemed kind of 'surreal', as if I was standing in the centre of an oil painting of a seascape. Could see the crests of the waves out in the dark night - but wasn't worried. However down below was a different story. Firstly my saloon berth - under the port and starboard berths were water tanks, now partially empty, and the noise of water sloshing along them was fairly loud making sleep difficult (poor design), then the foot of the keel stepped mast was making the saloon floor creak and crack disconcertingly (using fairly liquid between mast and floor boards periodically make a huge improvement in reducing the worrying sounds), and the anchor locker (which could be inspected from within the fore cabin) was discovered to be full of water (hawse pipe needed plugging), but most notable of all 'irritants' was the roar of approaching waves (which whilst in the cockpit had been 'drowned' out by the sound of the wind and the muting comfort provided by woolly hats and waterproof hoods) subsequently crashing heavily onto the coach roof. There were times when I distinctly felt queasy - but it was a case of persevering.

In due course the wind started to die down, which conveniently occurred as we turned SW toward La Corunna. In fact during the last morning it fell away to a complete calm - though there was still a low swell running.  The Towers of Hercules (reputed to be the world's oldest lighthouse) signified our proximity to La Corunna. The passage culminated with using a new skill, dropping the anchor astern whilst making toward the pontoon to secure bowlines. Five days it had taken under conservative canvas and a route which had allowed a large margin for 'bad weather'.

Three days were spent in la Corunna - with lots of eating, drinking and resting squeezed into them. The plan for the return was to head across Biscay with a brief stop at Belle Ile, then another direct passage to Falmouth. Did all go according to plan ? Not quite.

The wind decided to resolutely blow from the NE. With some experimentation I discovered that whilst making to windward the boat could quite happily steer itself with the wheel locked off, all that was needed was to put in a tack every couple of hours. The downside was that it left little to do whilst on watch. There seemed little point hand steering when the boat was quite happy without a hand on the helm. Quite sunny and warm in the fresh to strong winds. This tempted you to take off waterproof jackets - but every 20 mins or so spray would fly over the cockpit coaming to catch the unwary! With the wind seemingly not wishing to change direction, and with windward progress slower than would have been the case with a freer wind, the plan to stop at Belle Ile was dropped. Consequently the return leg felt somewhat of an anti-climax and though the return in ideal conditions would have involved a more direct track than the outward passage - it was evident that it would take longer significantly longer if the wind didn't shift.

Having crossed the shipping lanes in the English Channel, people were beginning to predict arrival times at Falmouth (temping fate!). The wind fell away very light, at which point it was discovered that there was an electrical problem. Instead of making port late evening, we spent the night sailing slowly with battery powered emergency lights rigged. During the following morning, the engine was persuaded to start and charge returned to the batteries.

With the boat back in it's usual berth, five grubby individuals had one decision to make - whether to go ashore and shower or breakfast first.  Unanimous vote for breakfast!

Lessons Learned

This cruise provided a number of interesting points:


Hints & tips

A strong blow in a boat of suitable design is nothing to especially worry about - though it might be uncomfortable!

Some changes to the boat might have made it more tolerable (e.g. smaller water tanks and/or internal baffles), sorting out annoying items such as noisy mast foot, etc prior to departure. I.e. more preparation = less anxiety.

One of the problems associated chartering boats for such trips is that some of these changes would not have been possible.

The crew were "unknown quantities" - I having volunteered to join them with the objectives of the cruise already determined, the boat selected, and the boat 'provisioned'.

On longer offshore trips it is people's temperament, character and attitude that is more important (particularly if expecting heavy weather) than say accepting volunteers on the strength of their experience attained during only relatively short coastal sails during summertime in light / moderate conditions. People's characters, constitution and temperament is unlikely to change whereas reefing and steering are skills that can be quickly learnt.


Qualifications and claimed experience alone are no guide to the indication of  'performance' of individuals on such trips and their character & ability once faced with heavy weather.

Peoples backgrounds provided a useful indicator as to their likely ability to perceive in tougher times and over longer cruises. A services background, an occupation which involves working outside, and participation or organisation of their own adventurous travelling are all positive indicators.

If you have know people for a long time you will have a good knowledge of their character and strengths and weaknesses, in other instances it is worthwhile trying to get potential crew onboard during shorter trips during which you can assess their suitability.

Managing crew expectations is essential and is starts well before a cruise. There is less disappointment if a cruise is not mis-sold before it starts. A skipper has to be realistic in that it may go against a natural inclination toward encouraging otherwise reluctant candidates simply to ensure company during a cruise! Everyone onboard should know exactly what conditions might be encountered, and I make a point of indicating to volunteers both the anticipated and worst possible scenarios - both from relating my experiences and from providing them with copies of other yachtsman narratives in the same cruising area selected to provide accounts of both 'good' and 'tough' heavy weather trips.
The boat was poorly provisioned. The quantity of food carried was insufficient - if you wanted/needed extra you were conscious that someone else could end up going without.

If we'd have had a dismasting - then we could have arrived in Spain very hungry.

Build a list for a cruise and refine during each subsequent cruise

 Try to fill, the crews stomachs at each meal which reduces desire to snack. Keep a pile of snacks for night watches and dole out equally, keep a hidden pile for heavy weather

 A kitty should have created before the trip, with the contribution set at a level to cover the expected outlay plus a small amount for contingencies. This was no doubt a factor in the poor provisioning (as well as poor planning), it also proved problematical collecting in the money during the trip - all of which was avoidable .

If chartering inspect the boat beforehand and see whether suitable design, equipped and prepared for the anticipated cruise. On this trip the boat had already been inspected and chartered before my 'signing on' - it seemed that the reputation of the owner who has experience of command of tall ships was relied upon as an indicator that his own yacht would be suitably prepared for the intended trip. I think having your own boat is a better option, as you will be familiar with it's strengths and weaknesses and have carte blanche to make whatever modifications are necessary. Personally I carry more equipment on my own boat than the average cruising yacht, items which take up space which I hope never to use earnest - but adding a margin of safety.
Was the cruise a success and enjoyable. Yes and yes - though the return passage was an anticlimax (nothing but sea for seven days with the boat sailing itself). Everyone had signed on to experience an ocean passage, had limited time available, and were quite content to undertake a 'there and back trip to Spain'. No one expected there to be holiday time in Spain - any time there was regarded as a bonus ! Everyone was interested in the event of the passage itself. I have been on other boats where motivations were more mixed, including people who happened to go along because in their own words "I had nothing better to do".  People falling into the latter category can easily end up with disappointment.

People's reasons for volunteering as crew is another worthwhile factor for a skipper to consider when accepting them.