Remembering the gale in Biscay

Matthew BiscayIn my book Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea, I write about crossing Biscay in a gale with my two sons Ben and Matthew, and Ben’s then girlfriend, now wife, Kate. I write about the way we had to close up the companionway with the washboards to prevent the waves coming into the cabin when they broke over the cockpit. Going through family slides I discovered just one or two photos I took during the crossing, one of which is of Matthew on watch alone taken through the crack in the washboards. I wrote in Spindrift:

“It was lonely work at the helm… It was also hard physical work, as the big seas coming over the quarter would slew the stern around to starboard and then back to port as they rolled past. Each one of us, when it was our turn at the helm, had to tune into this rhythm, so that without thinking we could anticipate the movements and steer a reasonably straight course. After a couple of hours, arm muscles began to ache.”

wave biscayA second picture shows one of those waves. It looks quite dark and menacing, although it seems nothing like as big as I remember, or indeed as I write about in the book.

“As each one reared over the stern we could look up into its curving underside. For several moments it would be a sense of colour that predominated, for as the wave prepared to break it turned from dark grey to deep green and then to a translucent turquoise streaked with white. Poised above us it was arrestingly beautiful. Then it lost its form and its colour, breaking into a mass of foam.”

Did I make it up when I described the waves rising above Coral’s cockpit so we were actually looking up into them? I think it more likely that when the waves were really big I was too busy managing the boat to worry about photographs. It also shows that while it is commonplace that a picture is worth a thousand words, the craft of writing can show aspects of experience that are not available to a flat photographic image. Writing evocative descriptions of the sea state is quite a challenge.



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