Travel How the Bay of Biscay earned its reputation as...

How the Bay of Biscay earned its reputation as 'Europe's Bermuda Triangle'

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Another aggravating factor is the clockwise circulation of the North Atlantic’s waters driven by the Gulf Stream. This influences the bay’s currents accordingly, unleashing powerful waves exacerbated by violent storms and gale-force winds that come from different directions. According to Davor Dubravica, a captain with Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, the worst areas are near the entrance to the English Channel where heightened swells present challenges for ships which suffer increased rolling and pitching.

The situation worsens, not surprisingly, during the winter months when the area is battered by low pressure systems and the tail end of hurricanes originating from the Caribbean and North America. “The Bay of Biscay has some of the world’s most powerful and destructive storms,” says Dubravica. “Recently, sea conditions escalated to heights of 10 to 12 metres (32ft to 40ft) accompanied by winds reaching 50-60 knots.”

The silky summer months

The above paints a picture of the worst-case scenario, but it’s a different story in late spring and early summer which are considered to be the best times to cross this feared stretch of water, though fog can sometimes be a problem. There are also many occasions when the bay can be silkily calm, as Mike Deegan, head of fleet operations for boutique line Noble Caledonia points out.

“The bay can be challenging on occasion, but nine times out of 10 it can be like a millpond,” he says. “Besides that, this area is one of the last great wildernesses and the marine and bird life to be seen there are amazing. Around a third of the planet’s cetacean species can be spotted as the combination of cold and warm waters, along with deep canyons, make ideal feeding grounds. Some of the birds on migratory flights that are thousands of miles bring to life how amazing this phenomenon is and the vast distances covered.”

How captains prepare

For cruise passengers wanting to sail between the UK and the Mediterranean or further westwards, there is no way of avoiding the Bay of Biscay. For ship captains, the only way to mitigate this is constant monitoring of weather conditions and, if necessary, delaying departure or finding an alternative port, though some cannot handle larger ships or may close in rough conditions.

Dubravica stresses such vigilance is crucial if storms threaten and ships need to prepare by securing heavy items, closing portholes and shutters as necessary, as well as emptying swimming pools and hot tubs. “Masters, responsible for navigating the ship, play a crucial role in storm avoidance,” he explains. “They must be familiar with potential storms, understanding their characteristics and behavioural patterns. Taking action depends on multiple variables, including the ship’s circumstances and whether it is at anchor, moored or at sea.”

According to Dubravica, it would be highly unlikely for a storm to blow up without prior knowledge via radio, navigational warning systems and satellite alerts, though ship captains may need to take early action to ensure an effective response to the conditions. Above all else, they should never underestimate what the bay is capable of.

“The Bay of Biscay deserves its reputation,” says Dubravica. “Ships should be aware of the dangers and monitor weather conditions accordingly.”

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