Sailing across the Bay of Biscay presents unique challenges for even the most adventurous sailing enthusiast. The explanation lies in the unique geographical location of the bay. It is situated in the northeast Atlantic Ocean, south of the Celtic sea.
It stretches from Point Penmarc’h along the west coast of France down to the north coast of Spain, as far as Cape Ortegal and the water is shallow in many areas because parts of the continental shelf extend far into the bay.
The rough seas and violent storms experienced by sailors at the bay are attributable to its exposure to the Atlantic Ocean. According to the National Oceanography Centre in the U.K, strong winds blowing from America grow into swell waves as they travel towards Europe.
Swell waves about 20ft high are made bigger and steeper by high wind. The waves create high seas and violent storms which give rise to some of the fiercest weather conditions in the Atlantic Ocean. As the waves approach the continental shelf, they become shorter and choppier.
The weather in the Bay of Biscay is the single, most important cause of concern for ships and boats sailing across the area. The weather turns severe and harsh from around October when the gale-force winds begin to develop and persists till March of the following year. Depressions formed from the west bring in constant rain and thunderstorms simulating hurricanes which eventually crash at the bay.
In the past, the bay was dreaded for its legendary reputation for bringing disastrous consequences on ships that sail across it. At the beginning of the 2nd world war, several British and American ships laden with troops and supplies headed for France were reportedly sunk on entering the Bay of Biscay waters.
Earlier in this century, two yachts that set sail across the bay without an earlier warning of bad weather experienced a disaster on their way. As a result of unpredictable weather conditions, many ships heading towards the Mediterranean choose to sail in the calmer months.
Several incidents have been recorded in the past in which merchant vessels were reported to have lost direction in the storms, but modern cargo ships are now equipped to withstand the weather conditions. They also transport sizeable cargo, which can act as balancing weight. Mid-sized ships such as the Modern Express weighing 33,000 tons and 535 ft in length can do well on this route provided they don’t lose power.
When a ship loses power in such weather, it turns sideways onto the waves and then begins to roll around. The cargo may start moving to one side. The ship may still be able to right herself because the heavy engines lie below the waterline. The difficulty is in shifting the cargo because gale-force winds and high seas both of which are prevalent in the bay can hamper rescue efforts.
But the bay is not all bad. The fierce storms do not occur all the time. Occasionally, conditions are literally flat calm. Besides, the ships are better equipped these days and the weather condition does have to be fierce outside for it to have a destabilising impact on the ship. Best of all the bay is a paradise for whale watcher. The deep waters provide some of the best whale spotting opportunities in the world. Cetaceans gather here to feed because the nutrient-rich currents are forced from the depths by the mountainous landscape of the seafloor.