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Finisterre to Gibraltar

An adventure of a lifetime...sailing Finisterre to Gibraltar

Cape Finisterre By Edward Olmstead

In the summer of 1955, a 22-year old Massachusetts native boarded a ship in northern Spain bound for Malta and spent the next three weeks having the adventure of his life.  Sadly, Ed Olmstead found his best life adventure in the high seas of the North Atlantic. Fairly soon after his return to the states, the dismayed young man took his own life.
Ed’s brother Bill, now 93, never got to know his younger brother very well, but has held on to this accounting of his beloved sail across the ocean in hopes of seeing it published someday. This excerpt is written first-hand by Ed, without any updates or changes to his writing style. We hope you will enjoy the trip!

In May of 1955, Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Phibbs, RN, and Commander Hugh D. S. Marshall, RN (both retired), with two others, sailed Phibbs’ big cutter from England to La Coruna in northern Spain. The vessel was Colonel Phibbs’ home as well as his means of transportation; he was bound for a winter berth at Malta.

She was a 19 ½ ton cutter built at Porthleur in 1904. Fifty-six feet long overall, 48 along the waterline, with a 13 foot breadth and draft of eight feet, she still carried her original gaff rig. With some modifications below deck and the addition of auxiliary power and a doghouse over the cockpit, she was still, after 50 years, a very sturdy and substantial vessel. She was christened, fittingly, OLGA.

When I arrived in La Coruna by motorcycle from Germany via Madrid, OLGA was berthed at the Coruna Yacht Club pier. It was by then the first of July; only Colonel Phibbs and commander Marshall were left aboard; the other two had jumped ship to join a fancy yacht, and OLGA had lain idle in harbor for five weeks accumulating tar on her lines and a nasty oil smear along the waterline. Attempts and raising a local crew had been unsuccessful.  

Colonel Phibbs offered me a berth to Gibraltar, and I accepted.

“I shall go crackers if I stay here any longer,” he said.

He was faced with the necessity of finding a crew very soon to take the shop on to the Mediterranean, or attempting a shorthanded run back across the Bay of Biscay to England.  In any case, he could not lie about indefinitely in Spain; British currency restrictions were severe and permitted only 50 pounds to be exchanged and spent abroad at the time. He could “vittle” in Gib for sterling, and he could “vittle” in Malta, but he could not afford to spend much money in Spain.  

Three was still a small crew for an ocean voyage in so heavy a vessel, however, and so at the skipper’s behest, I drove my motorcycle around to the nearby naval port of El Ferrol in hopes of finding another hand. When I returned, unsuccessful, skipper said:  “Right. Well, if we don’t start now, we shall never get anywhere. We’ll go to sea Monday if you’d like.”

I said I’d like that and James, as Commander Marshall was called, professed to have had enough of Coruna (they both pronounced it ‘Cuhrunna’). So it was arranged.

The morning of Monday, the fourth of July, was spent provisioning. I ran errands for skipper with the motorbike, and then left it for storage in a fruitery next to the pension where I had lived the previous few days.

Out to Sea

In the early afternoon we went to sea. The day was warm and hazy, with a gentle – very gentle – northerly breeze. We made sail off the yacht club, James at the throat halliards and myself at the peak, with skipper directing the gear, which was frightfully heavy. We set mainsail, topsail, staysail, and the jib, and stood off close-hauled on the port tack towards the northeastern side of the bay. Off the mouth of Ria de El Ferrol, we put about and made for the open sea.

Now, except for an incredibly dull passage by troopship from New York to Bremerhaven the summer before, I had not been at sea for two and a half years. As the afternoon wore on and the vessel heaved gently to the northerly swell, I felt my stomach respond unhappily to the motion. By early evening I was sitting in silent misery at the helm, while James chatted blithely and skipper puttered about below. At last I stood up and tried to move casually (it was actually a rush) to the rail. In a few seconds it was over.

At that moment skipper emerged on deck. “Uh oh,” he said.

“Quite alright,” I said lamely, “quite alright,” and resumed my place at the wheel. But I rather think that skipper wondered what kind of a lubber he had signed on, for I declined to go below for supper. It was arranged that I should stand first watch from eight to 12 midnight, but that James should curl up in a blanket in the cockpit, as insurance, I suppose, against my running the ship onto the Spanish coast that was now receding into the twilight some four miles off our port hand. We were still sailing very gently westward toward the great bend in the Iberian coast north of Cape Finisterre.

After 9 o’clock it commenced to get dark and before long we picked up the light at Sisargas Island, a pale, feeble pulse (as most Spanish lights were) away on the port bow. Skipper stood for a long time at the windward rail studying a dark mass of cloud spreading across the northern sky, then turned and with an abrupt, “Right, call me when you see the next lap post,” disappeared below.

James rolled up in his blanket on the cockpit floor, dozing. The ship was silent. We ran without lights. About 11 p.m. the breeze freshened from northwest and the vessel began to move briskly. My seasickness had disappeared and I felt fine on this, my first nightwatch at sea since January 1953, in the Bahamas.

At midnight the log read 24 miles from La Coruna. James was up, and a few minutes later skipper bustled on deck, pulling into a jacket.

“Alright, boys, bugger off,” he said. But I stayed on deck for awhile, eating a delicious Spanish orange before going gratefully to my berth in the fo’c’sle.

During the early morning hours we passed Cape Villano and altered course to the southwest. At dawn the wind had died and Cape Torinana slid out of the early morning haze at eight o’clock. It is here, some 10 miles above Finisterre, that the coast turns almost due south, and Cape Finisterre itself does not point west toward America, but south toward Africa.

We rounded the famous headland at 1:30 in the afternoon, in bright sunshine and a very fresh northeast breeze off the land – “rounded” it quite literally, much to my chagrin, for skipper had decided to anchor in Corcubion Bay. It seemed to me a shame to waste so fine a wind, but probably he felt that with James not in the best condition, and his only other hand an American of as yet unproved quality, he ought to stop and await developments.

The afternoon breeze was gusty and strong as we sailed close-hauled into the bay behind the cape. Close to the land, the puffs were quite violent, Force five of six, and the stronger ones laid the heavy vessel right down on her ear. We tacked smartly in Corcubion Inlet, which is a long, deep arm of the sea somewhat more than a mile wide at the mouth; a good anchorage in anything except a southerly. Behind, the Spanish hills lay green and bright in the sunshine.

At Anchor off Corcubion

We anchored off the town of Corcubion and immediately began to drag down onto some rather scruffy looking Spanish coasting vessels, one with the elaborate name ‘Virgen de la Luz’ painted prominently on her bows. At last, we succeeded in holding, got the sails down, and greeted the customs officials as they struggled out against the wind in a skiff.

Now, Spanish officials are very polite (in comparison to our American breed, they’re very, very polite) and not at all difficult to deal with, but they are prepared for any eventuality and go about armed to the teeth. So our visitors came aboard accompanied by two Guardia Civil with pistols strapped at their hips and carbines slung over their shoulders. They examined the ships papers, our passports, asked a few questions (with myself as rather a fumbling interpreter), accepted a tot of Scotch whisky and a few English cigarettes, and we were allowed to go ashore.

Skipper was not much for shore excursions, but James and I put the dinghy overboard that evening and found our way to several of the local wine shops. We attracted considerable attention, partly because the Spaniards are, by nature, curious, and openly so toward foreigners, but primarily because of James’ well developed beard. The men stared, women snickered and nudged on another, and children flocked about in frank curiosity at the bearded ‘Ingles’. It was a pattern that was repeated in every port of call that summer from Portugal and Andalucia, to North Africa and Malta. I rather think James enjoyed it.

“Te gusta la barba?” I asked one little fellow, about 10 years old. “Do you like the beard?” but he only grinned, hugely and bashfully.

We stayed at anchor off Corcubion all the next day while outside the northeast wind raged ceaselessly under bright hot skies and at night patches of cloud tore past the face of the waning moon. James and I explored the countryside and as we rowed back to the ship on the evening of the sixth of July, I said bitterly, “It shall be flat calm in the morning.”

I felt sure of it, and it was. We started early in the morning under power, and made sail in the open bay inside Finisterre. But there was no wind. We drifted about helplessly. It was here that I was exposed for the first time to the most maddening sound I have ever heard: that of 2,000 pounds of mainboom slamming back and forth with a terrific jerking of traveler blocks and slatting of dead sail, ready to take one’s head off at a clip.

In the afternoon fog set into the bay, thick and muffling. We were four miles southwest of Finisterre and soon the great diaphone began sounding through the wet quiet.

By late afternoon, when there was still no trace of wind, skipper decided to put into the harbor at the town of Finisterre, two miles north of the lighthouse, rather than flounder about in the fog. The engine was started and we headed northwest through the murk, feeling our way in toward the foghorn.

Before long, the horn was abeam and quite loud, and then it fell away astern and we could hear the sound of waves on the beach, though we had seen no land. It was growing dark. I sounded continuously with the lead and finally came up with bottom at 10 fathoms. We heard shouts. And the faint whisper of surf. And then suddenly, almost magically, we were surrounded by dishing dories each filled with six or seven black booted men.

“Hola, muy buenas,” I shouted.

“Buenas tardas,” was the reply.

“Donde esta el puero?” I inquired.

“Aqui, aqui,” with much pointing and shouting, they were then alongside us. We took two in tow; their crew clambered aboard. Great palaver and figures about, all pointing and shouting, skipper handing out English cigarettes all around, brown fingers grasping, myself gesticulating furiously, and James aft at the wheel defending himself against two zealous fellows who were bent on personally steering the vessel into the harbor.

Darkness and Thick Fog at Finisterre

So we arrived in darkness and thick fog at Finisterre. But we had heard stories of these people, that they were scavengers, that an aircraft had come down on the peninsula during the war and when authorities arrived they found it picked clean, absolutely stripped. True or not, we pulled all loose gear inboard from the rail and posted an anchor watch until the small hours.

It was hazy and overcast in the morning, and absolutely windless. So James and I went ashore to the town for fresh food. It was an incredibly dirty little place, dust blowing across the tiny plaza in front of the church, animals and tattered children about, mingling, great high wheeled mule carts clattering, and blocks of building stone abandoned, inexplicably, in the middle of narrow dirt streets. From a back alley the oddly pitched sound of Galician bagpipes, plaintive and monotonous. All about was the rank, sweaty, indescribable odor of poverty.

That afternoon James and I walked the two desolate miles out to the Finisterre lighthouse to talk to the keeper and his wife and eat raw maracas, a species of snail fresh from the sea below.

On the morning of the ninth, we sailed and ran into light headwinds in the bay.  All that day we tacked slowly south along one of the most beautiful stretches of coast that I have seen.  From Finisterre south to Cape Silleiro, a distance of over 50 miles, the shore is indented by a series of lovely deep bays the Spanish call ‘rias’, strewn with islands at their mouths and backed by high yellow-green Galician countryside. Their names are fittingly beautiful: Muros, Arosa, Pontevedra. The finest of all is Vigo Bay, toward which we were now heading.

A breeze sprang up from the northeast at dusk and blew quite freshly off the land. Lights came on along the coast, clashing, and the vessel fairly flew south in a rising sea (or so it seemed to me at the helm, feeling her get her legs out under me for the first time.) It takes a good deal of air to move a 19 ton fifty-six footer!

James turned in after supper, for he had the midwatch. Skipper was back and forth from deck to chart table, looking for his “lamp posts”. He piloted with a very simple RAF-type of handbearing compass which I’d not seen before. One simply holds the instrument at eye level, finds the mark or light in the prism, and glances across the lubber’s line into the bowl. The bearings obtained are remarkably accurate.

We had a great time. Skipper would shout from below, “Look for a lamp post on the port bow.” And I’d watch, time the light, and yell back, “I make it group flash four and three every 20.”

“Right-o, Salvora Island,” he replied.

At midnight, the wind was holding a steady Force Five, northeast, and we had logged 13 miles in two hours. Although I had been at the helm steadily since late afternoon, Except for a break for supper, I was not a bit tired and having too much fun to call James. So we heaved the ship to for five or 10 minutes to identify marks and obtain a fix; skipper intended running the narrow northwestern passage into Vigo Bay between the Bayona Islands and the mainland.

We handed the topsail in the dark and rounded up on an easterly course for the island passage. The moon was shining above the hills as we ran into smooth water under the lee of the coast and bore away to pass the island to starboard. Channel bell buoys clipped by close aboard, winking faintly, and then we were through into the broad lower reach of Vigo Bay with moonlight on the water, and a hot land wind, and the lights of the town away across the bay.

Things Always Look Different from Seaward at Night

James came on deck, sleepily, awakened by the shouting. I told skipper that I could take us into the yacht club at Vigo, since I had been there by motorcycle two weeks before.

“Can you find it in the dark?” he asked doubtfully.

“Absolutely,” I said.

But when we sailed up past the lights of the town, it was not so easy. James took the helm and I searched with the glasses, but saw nothing except the indistinguishable bulk of warehouses on the wharves. “A little farther,” I shouted, not so confident now.

We ran into the wind and lowered sail. I commenced searching again with the glasses.

“Where is it, chum?” skipper asked impatiently.

“Damn, I don’t see it,” I replied.

A grunt. Then I saw it; the flagstaff, the high observation deck. It was all very plain and staring me in the face.  “There’s the bloody thing,” I shouted.

“Humph!” was what I heard in return.

We crept in slowly under power, skipper at the helm, toward the stone pier in front of which was the anchorage.

“How much water is there?” skipper asked.

And I, stupidly, thinking he meant had I read the chart and did I know the depth, said, “I don’t know.”

“Well, there’s a lead, chum,” he said.

I took a cast, found bottom at eight fathoms, there was a shout from aft, James slipped the pawl on the windlass, and the anchor fell away with a terrific rattling of chain.  It was 3:30 a.m.

Afterward in the saloon I apologized for not seeing the yacht club right away. “Oh, that’s all right,” skipper said. “Things always look different from seaward at night.”

“It was a great run, wasn’t it?” I was terrifically keyed up. I had been eight hours at the helm and felt marvelous. One should never stop at such moments of physical exhilaration, but keep going on and on. To me, that night was the high point of the voyage.

Next day, the wind was still fresh and gusty. We remained at anchor, washing clothes, watching the sailboat races off the yacht club, and taking water aboard in tankards filled at the pier and brought laboriously off to the ship against the wind in the dinghy.

On Monday, James and I made our excursion to the marketplace, accumulating a great wicker basket full of food which, for half a duro (about six cents then), one of the market girls placed on her head and carried the 400 yards to the pier.

Bound for Lisbon

We sailed the following morning, the 12th of July, in flat calm, bound for Lisbon or any convenient port of call short of there. The next six days were painful. We made ponderously slow progress down the coast of Portugal through a succession of calms and faint headwinds and fog. We stopped for a day at Porto Leixoes, a good manmade harbor at the mouth of the Rio Douro, near Oporto, went on in a suggestion of favorable air, and met again the same exasperating conditions.

The night watches were terrible, four long hours squinting into the binnacle with scarcely enough steerage way to hold course, the log line trailing straight down in the water, and the maddening slam-slamming back and forth of the mainboom. In desperation we sheeted the mainsail in flat to lessen the chafe on both the gear and our nerves, and drifted.

Once skipper came on deck after a protracted spell at the chart table and quoted sarcastically from the Admiralty pilot: “Southerly winds in summer are very rare along this coast.” At that moment we were attempting to tack south past the great bare headland know as Cape Mondego.

On Saturday afternoon, 17 July, we anchored off the yacht club at Cascais, Portugal, a summer resort and yacht racing center (one-time site of the Star Class Internationals) at the mouth of the Tagus River, 20 miles west of Lisbon. Cascais is completely exposed to the south, and the fact that dozens of small yachts were moored in the open roadstead with no harbor of refuge within miles was adequate proof that we were experiencing an unusual spell of southerly weather.

Time was becoming a factor in our voyage now. A new crew was expected to join at the Gibraltar within the week, and at our present rate of progress, there was no telling how long we might be in making it. So when a gentle northwesterly sprang up the following evening, we parted in haste on a South by East course for Cape Espiche. The breeze held gently throughout the night; in the morning we shaped a course across the bight between Espiche and Cape St. Vincent, the extreme southwestern corner of the Portuguese coast.

The day was beautiful and clear with wind abaft. We set a squaresail for the first time. The yard was a long thin timber lashed when not in use between port shrouds and bowsprit, thus making a very effective liferail forward. The sail was made fast to the spar, a steel plate holding a jackstay was run aloft on the staysail halliard, and the yard itself ran up on the jackstay. The whole rig, homemade, was simple by ingenious, the only drawback being that the yard could not be braced very far aft because of the proximity of the shrouds. However, I believe this is an inevitable feature of squaresails rigged in fore-and-aft vessels.

A Perfect Sail

But with the wind on the quarter, as it was this day, the sail was perfect and pulled beautifully. In the afternoon the wind shifted to northwest and freshened to Force 4. The squaresail pulled like a team of horses. Before long we were sailing at seven and a half knots in perfect Portuguese trade wind weather, with bare clean sky, empty horizon, and the sea a deep intense blue, as blue as the Gulf Stream – Technicolor stuff.

At 7 o’clock the log read 105 miles from Cascais and we still hadn’t closed with the coast. The squaresail was handed, and then the topsail, the wind now being Force 5 or 6, and we rounded up astern of a tanker and ran in toward the land in a tumble of sea.

Skipper was in the galley and I was in the saloon setting the table for supper when the vessel gave a terrific lurch. There was a whooshing sound on deck, and in an instant a torrent of water flashed through the open skylights into the saloon. I hear a great clattering in the galley, cursing, and skipper emerged and said, “Ask the helmsman if he’s happy in his work.”

Drying myself with a towel, I stuck my head out the companionway and said solemnly to James, “The cook wishes to know if you’re happy in your work.” James replied ‘yes’ amiably and I relayed this to skipper.

“Then tell him to steer the bloody ship if he wants his supper!”

It wasn’t James’ fault, however. The seas were really quite high.  And besides, is it not for moments like this that one goes to sea?

We sailed right up under the lee of Cape St. Vincent at dusk, just as the light commenced flashing, and found smooth sea in the shelter of the coast. We remained close in to the land for 20 miles, and then bore away to the southeast on a course to cross the Gulf of Cadiz.

The wind held fresh, Force 4. At midnight we were logging six and a half knots in a gentle sea. Once again, I felt the night too fine to go to sleep. Away on the port hand was the loom of a light on the Portuguese coast, the light itself dipping now and then above and below the horizon. Ahead were innumerable small twinkling which lights, a fleet of fishing vessels. The night was find and starry.

We sailed in among the fishing boats before the wind died at 3 o’clock, and skipper took the helm.

First Sight of Africa

The next day the wind was gone and we were another day to Cape Trafalgar, of Nelson’s fame. At noon of the 21st we slid into the Strait of Gibraltar, past the walled Moorish town of Tarifa, the southernmost point of the continent of Europe, and then with a fresh easterly blowing dead through the straits, across on a long hitch toward the African coast.

Now, faraway places may have lost much of their great allure for some in our shrinking world, but at the age of 22 this was my first sight of Africa, and as we closed with the coast, I felt suddenly thrilled looking up at the great stark cliffs of Spanish Morocco. The sight seemed a fitting climax to our passage.

We put about and laid across on the starboard tack for Gibraltar Bay. The wind fell capriciously, but the surface current flowing in through the straits from the Atlantic lifted the vessel steadily eastward.

Effortlessly, in hazy warm sunshine and still air, we floated into the bay. Away in the distance lay the bare, sun-eaten hills of Spain. Above us, “the Rock” stood massively under the blue Andalusian sky.

I had the honor of running up the British ensign as the Gibraltar police came out to greet us. The log read 275 miles from Cascais. We had sailed something over 600 miles from La Coruna.

Voyage’s End

An hour later we were berthed alongside an old minesweeper in Cormorant Camber, voyage’s end.

Gibraltar




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