Our last week in France

We stayed 10 days in Les Sables D’Olonne. This is the longest we have stayed anywhere since leaving Gosport and it was nice just to stay in one place for some time. Our parcels all arrived safely and included some cruising guides for Spain and Portugal. We enjoyed some warm weather and to celebrate nearly two months in France we went out for a meal at a restaurant recommended by friends from the UK.

There were a number of interesting murals painted around the town, one that caught Graham’s attention was one painted on what would have been a rather drab electricity substation. Judith liked one painted on the end of a building on the seafront.


The Bay of Biscay

We spent some time planning and working out the best way for us to tackle the crossing to Spain. We were both apprehensive about the crossing as it was much more daunting than anything we had done before. We decided that the most important thing with the crossing was to make sure that we had the best chance of arriving in Bilbao during daylight. The crossing was about 200 miles so dependent on our speed could take anything between 33 and 50 hours. We felt that leaving early morning might make it difficult to be sure of arriving before dark so we chose to leave late Sunday afternoon and know that we would have two nights at sea and a reasonable chance of arriving in day light during the second day.

We enjoyed a restful and sunny Sunday before leaving at about 4pm, The first stop was the fuel dock to make sure that the boat’s diesel tanks were full. We started in the sunshine enjoying a good sail past the boats out that were having an afternoon sail. The wind was on the nose of the boat but we managed to keep a reasonable course to the wind. We continued on leaving the shore and other boats behind. The wind died and we had to motor for a few hours. We had a rainbow off our port side and a fabulous orange sunset over the sea,

The evening went on and it started to get dark and by now we were about 40 miles out and the wind had moved around and at 10:30 we were sailing again.

The swell started to build and we were about 50 miles offshore when a lightning storm started which went on for about 2 hours, this was accompanied by heavy rain. Judith went below for some rest and Graham huddled under the spray hood to keep watch and stay out of the rain. Lightning is not fun when you are in a boat with a large metal spike (the mast) sticking up and nothing else for miles, being dark it was difficult to judge how rough the sea was. We took the precaution of placing the Tablet and the handheld VHF in the oven as this helps protect electronics in the event of a lightning strike. We had put a reef in the mainsail before dark but during the early morning, Graham pulled in the second reef as the wind had picked up. There is a military firing range extending some 60 miles off the French coast between Bordeaux and the Spanish border, wind direction meant we clipped the north-west corner of this. There were plenty of fishing boats further in and we had read that the north part of the range is rarely used so we continued on our course.

By morning the weather had cleared but we had about 1.5m of swell making it a bit uncomfortable and Judith was not enjoying this one bit but we continued on (we had no choice really by this stage as we were 60 to 70 miles from the shore and there are no safe stops on route when making this crossing). At times the boat would shake from side to side we could hear the bottles, jars and crockery banging around. At one point the coffee cafeteria escaped from the locker and rolled around the worktop. Amazingly despite all the noise nothing was broken.

At about 1 pm in the afternoon the wind picked up to around 25knts gusting to 30knts, with two reefs in and only the small headsail out, the boat was moving along at 6 to 7 knts, the boat felt comfortable and was handling the wind well. We were glad we had reduced the sail, about here we meet our first fishing boats. We made a small course alteration to keep out of the way of the second boat.

Shortly after, we saw a sailing boat heading north under motor and on the AIS I saw another sailing boat that was heading non stop to Lisbon and not expecting to arrive until Sunday 30th!

We continued on with the wind constantly changing from strong wind to no wind. Sailing or motoring as the opportunity presented itself. We snacked during the day, Graham had a students favourite a Pot Noodle for dinner, Judith just had bread and Marmite.

The second night was much quieter than the first I almost took the second reef out as we were only doing about 4 knts. An hour or so later the wind had picked up again and we were hitting 7.5 knts with both reefs in and a small headsail so I was glad I had left the reefs in.

A large cargo vessel appeared in the distance, I watched it approaching on the AIS as it got closer it made a course change to avoid us.

During the night the winds died again so back on with the motor. Judith was resting below until called on deck to take over watch whilst Graham had a short sleep.

For the last 50 miles as we approached the coast the sea was flat calm and the clouds cleared, the sky was full of stars and the moon was rising.

Slowly the dawn broke and we crept up on the Spanish coast. By this time we were both very tired. I think I saw a whale or a similar blow nearby. The sea was flat calm and we felt as if we were nearly there, but it would be several hours yet.

Finally, we could see Bilbao, an overnight Brittany ferry from Portsmouth was overtaking us. It had taken us nearly 2 months to get here and it had taken them about 24 hours, however, I guess we had seen more along the way.

We thought we were nearly there but it is about 4 miles from the entrance of the harbour to the marinas which takes about another hour.

As we were tired we decided that we would anchor near Getxo and get some rest before moving into the marina the next day. We finally anchored at 8:30 am after about 40 hours of sailing, had some breakfast and slept for a few hours. In the afternoon Graham inflated the dingy and we went ashore to check out the marina.

After some dinner, we opted for an early night and went to bed at about 9 pm. Just after we got into bed we heard someone outside shouting “Hola” and taping on the hull. Graham quickly pulled on some clothes and investigated to be confronted with three gun-toting men in black uniforms alongside in their RIB. Graham’s first thought was that they were not happy about where we had anchored, it was marked on the charts and mentioned in the pilot guides as a good anchorage but no one else had joined us anchoring in the harbour. We really did not want to have to move the boat. They were customs officials, I invited them on board, showed them the documents they required and they were very friendly and apologised for disturbing our sleep (being Spanish I do think they really could understand how anyone could go to sleep at 9pm). We had managed to be in France for two months without our passports being required, there was no official record of our presence in France ( not counting Google, Amazon, Virgin Mobile and our credit card companies). We had only been in Spain for about 12 hours and we were now recorded as being here.

So how was the journey? We had looked at the wind and weather a lot before heading off but we did not see the lightning storm forecast. The winds were variable, the forecast had indicated this, our focus had been to make sure that there were no strong winds forecast. Perhaps we should have looked for a more consistent north-west to northeast forecast, I think that would have meant waiting at least a week. The boat handled well and always felt safe and in control. We had debated finding extra crews for the crossing, the logistics of this is difficult as the departure and arrival dates are always subject to change as they depend so much on the weather, this makes it difficult for the crew to plan travel. In hindsight, it would have been good to have one or two extra people on board to help with the watches to ensure that everyone had ample opportunities for rest. We made it to Spain safe and sound and we are really please with this and look forward to exploring the Spanish coast. Neither of us has holidayed in Spain and it is the very first time Judith has been in Spain. Our son told his mum she was a true explorer arriving in a country she had never been to in her own boat,


Bilbao is the largest city we have visited since leaving the UK. The Marina is some 5 or 6 miles from the City centre close to the popular beach resort of Getxo. The weather has been hot so the beaches have been packed. The harbour is surrounded by large mansions dating back to the early 1900s when rich Spaniards started to have holiday homes in the area.

Public transport is great here and we have used the metro to travel in to the City centre, the most famous building here is the iconic Guggenheim Museum, the building being as much an exhibit as the art displayed inside, indeed to Graham’s philistine eyes the building was a greater work of art than some of the contents (2 packets of condoms propped up against each other!).

We enjoyed walking around Bilbao and a lunch of pintxos, a Basque version of tapas.

Closer to the Marina there is the oldest working transporter bridge where you are carried across the river suspended in a large gondola. The bridge was constructed between 1890 and 1893, the bridge was damaged during the Spanish civil war and repaired in 1941. The current gondola dates from 1990, There are two similar bridges in the UK still in operation. One is at Newport and the other at Middlesborough. We once used the one in Newport Wales but we think that this one is in a more attractive setting (sorry Newport).


We will be having to leave the boat here for a few weeks as we are taking a short trip back to the UK for family reasons so it may be a while before we next update the blog.


  • Carole

    Absolutely brilliant blog. There is a book in there! Especially like the photo of Judith with a huge happy smile! How intrepid – our neighbours and I are fascinated and wonder why there isn’t a photo of your gun toting Spaniards! Hope all is well for your visit back home. Love and hugs Carole x

  • Ruthie C

    As always a great read, thank you. I agree with Philip as to his comment on you being an explorer. My thoughts will be with you over these next few days as you make the journey back to be with you Dad. X

  • martin shipley

    Great to read all your stories and see lovely pics sorry your Dad is not well Judith will think of him and yourselves at this worrying time God Bless Martinx

  • Andy Lockyer

    Graham and Judith, A fascinating read as always and what an exciting crossing to Bilbao. Judith, sorry to hear that your dad is unwell if there is anything that we can do then please let us know. We always have a spare room. blessings Andy and Ruth

  • Adrienne

    We have really enjoyed reading your blogs. What an adventure you are having and so brave.
    We will keep the neighbours informed at John and Graham’s coffee morning today.
    Take care and keep the writing. Our thoughts are with you.

  • Judith

    Every blog update increases my respect for you both. What intrepid explorers you are & what adventures you’re having! Agree with Carole re the book. Will be thinking of you & praying for you as you’re back in England.

  • Robin Williams

    Exciting crossing across the notorious Bay of Biscay and sounded like a great passage with kind wind gods. Always want to go to Bilbao especially the museum. Sorry to hear of your sad news, I’m sure you will have that extra crew with a little wise advise. I can see where the love of sailing cane from. Looking forward to reading your adventures in Spain

  • Amanda Biss

    Wow, what incredible adventures Graham and Judith – living the dream!
    Great idea to document your travels and fantastic memories.
    All the best for more fun times. Amanda

  • Julia Salter

    Afternoon Graham & Judith,
    What an amazing Blog, it’s all so stunning.
    Terry has always wanted to take me to the area around Bilbao.
    I can see why now. xxxxx.

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