Friday, 16 September 2016

Our passage through the Straits of Gibraltar

Passing through the Straits is one of those mythical navigational feats that leaves its mark on you.  When we bought Mareda, our plan was to go to the Med via the French canals, saving time and stress.  A friend tsk-tsk-tsk’d at our plans, saying that we had an excellent boat, that we were both good sailors, and that it would be a real shame to miss out on sailing around the Iberian Peninsula and through the Straits.  That remark planted a seed (fertilized by equal parts ambition and shame) that led to our decision to take the long / hard route around Spain and Portugal. 

There are entire books dedicated to strategies for passing through the Straits with a lightly-motored sail boat.  I somehow missed this in my research for our trip this past winter, but thanks to other bloggers, I managed to find the most important information to help us plan the least painful passage possible.

Patrick thought it would be funny to have a picture of the French flag flying over Cape Trafalgar, but the flag wasn't as enthused as he was.

Because of the busy shipping lanes, the capricious and often ferocious winds, and strong currents, the Straits has a reputation for being a place where sailboats can get into trouble quickly.  Our first task was to find a weather window with westerly winds to push us to Gibraltar.  In September, the climatology tells us that 60% of the winds are northeasterly, and those westerly windows have been few and far between over the last few weeks.  We finally found a 3-day period with light westerly winds and started looking at the currents.

It turns out that we are close to the neap tides (lowest tidal coefficients of the year).  The current normally flows from east to west starting at 3 hours before high-water in Gibraltar, but during the neap tides, they turn even earlier, starting between 4 or 5 hours before high water.  This is great news as it gives you an even larger time slot for planning your passage.  The currents are also weaker at this period of time.  Extracts from the Straits Handbook say you can expect 1.5 knots at neap tides, and we had up to 2 knots a few days before neap tides set in.

According to friend-of-friends Nick Ellis who posted his passage notes on Noonsite, there are 2 major pieces of advice to follow: 1) from Barbate to Gibraltar, stay in-shore of the banks.  The currents and swell are much less confused here and the passage smoother; and 2) take whatever local weather forecast you trust (we, like he, used wind guru) and double the forecast for winds at Tarifa; and whatever wind speed you actually have at Tarifa, double those for the winds you will have leaving the Straits and rounding up into the Algeciras bay.

Our weather window of interest gave us light winds (westerly 8 – 10 knots) and eastward flowing tides over a large range of hours. The last piece of the puzzle was sunrise and sunset. This is where everything broke down.  There was no way to coincide the current without either leaving in the dark or arriving at dark.  Because of the fishing nets and crab pots in the area and because we didn’t want to miss the beautiful scenery, we worked to find a solution for day-time sailing only.

If you don't put a wind generator park here, you may as well not put one anywhere.  300 days per year of over 30 knots.
Patrick (he wants it to be known) came up with the following plan:  Cadiz to Barbate, 40 miles of daylight sailing arriving with a favorable current; Barbate to the anchorage of Isla Tarifa, 20 miles, all daylight, all favorable current, arriving at sunset and leaving at sunrise; then about 18 miles from Tarifa to Gibraltar, from sunrise to around noon, all light, all favorable current. 

I would highly recommend this strategy except for one caveat:  the anchorage at Tarifa is uncomfortable even in good conditions.  You have to anchor far enough into the bay that you don’t disturb the high-speed ferry traffic.  A pilot boat comes out every hour to secure the zone for the ferries, and apparently we were deemed inoffensive since they left us alone (a relief after our experiences in Rota).  We arrived half-an-hour before sunset and left before sunrise.  The holding is excellent but we rolled all night long.  That, combined with the anxiety of the coming passage, led to a mostly-sleepless night.

** note:  we were told a few days later by a sailing school instructor from Gibraltar that we were very lucky to have been able to anchor in the harbor at Tarifa.  Apparently anchoring there has been banned since last year.  They had too many problems with boats impeding the passage of the ferries.  I suppose they let us slide through since we arrived at sundown and left at sunrise.

Refreshments in Tarifa with the sun setting on Africa in the background.

"Africa is just over my shoulder !"

Leave room for the high-speed ferries in Tarifa harbour.

But let's start from the beginning:  On the passage from Cadiz to Barbate, we had 2 1-hour periods of thick fog that were a bit disturbing, and at the exact moment that the first fog bank hit us, we heard a loud and repeated “boom – boom – boom”.  After a moment of panic, memory kicked in… this is not the first time I’ve heard that noise at sea.  I ducked down to look at the chart plotter:  we were in a military firing range.  I had heard Spanish war ships talking on the radio earlier in the day.  We have a similar zone in Brittany and were once chased off by a pilot boat clearing the area before a bombing exercise.  We weren’t disturbed further by the continual booms since there were lots of small fishing boats around us and we figured we weren’t in the direct line of fire.

Barbate was a very nice, nearly empty port with a large supermarket about 15 minutes’ walk from the port.  The big fishing nets that nearly block the entrance of the port in summer were already gone and we had smooth sailing on a direct course to Tarifa.

The handbook got it absolutely right.  The previsions were for 8 – 12 knots winds, and we had 18 knots as we approached Tarifa.  The winds grew from 12 to 18 within an extremely short period of time, and thanks to being forewarned, we put 3 reefs in the mainsail expecting the worst.  (We didn’t really think we would need 3 reefs but we wanted to test our little-used 3rd reef and decided this was a good time.)  With 2 knots of current pushing us along as well, we were often sailing at speeds of 7 knots with only the deeply-reefed mainsail.  We were somewhat protected behind Tarifa and doused the sail with 13 knots in the nose as we set the anchor.

Straits sunrise.
The next morning, the forecast was for 8 knots of wind.  We had a very variable 10-15 knots as we left Tarifa.  Since we had 2 knots of current and the wind was from 177 degrees behind us, we opted to just unroll ½ the genoa with no mainsail.  This configuration worked well and allowed us to adjust our sail area as the wind went from 15 to 6 knots, then back up to 15 again as we progressed down the Straits.  Right on time, as we rounded up into the bay, the wind suddenly accelerated to 18 knots, and did a bit of a pirouette, turning first to a close reach then falling off to a beam reach.  Our lovely tail current went away and even turned against us slightly.  We continued rolling and unrolling the genoa to adjust our speed to avoid cargoes and ferries, but as we progressed further into the bay it became necessary to launch the motor.

Mareda, bottom left under Tarifa.  Me: "I always thought the Straits would be more crowded.  Where is everybody?"  Wait till you turn the corner...
...And there it is: The ROCK !

We pulled into La Linea (on the Spanish side of Gibraltar) and were surprised to find that it was relatively full and busy, after having had nearly-empty ports since leaving the Algarve.  The waiting pontoon is the same as the gas pontoon to port as you enter, although after 5 years in service, the marina has still not put up any sign signaling that it is, in fact, the waiting pontoon.  The dock is very high and concrete, with large widely spaced bollards rather than cleats, so it’s a good idea to put your fenders up high and prepare long lines if you aren’t a 15-meter boat.

The most beautiful berth we've ever had.

My wind chute, unwittingly in Gibraltar colors for Gibraltar National Day.
After lunch and a well-deserved siesta, we made contact with our new Dutch friends Dorette and Victor sailing on Mamira Fenna, who left Cadiz on the same day as us but preferred a one-hop over-night sail to Gibraltar.  Comparing notes afterwards, they also confirm that the wind was double what was predicted for Tarifa, and double again for entering the bay at the end of the Straits.

All in all, we had a very smooth passage.  The anxiety was worse than the actual event, and I wish I could turn that experience into something that would serve to lessen my anxiety in the future.  My hands bothered me a bit, and I was slow in some manoeuvers as I tried to use the winch instead of my hands as much as possible.  It’s going to take some time to get used to new ways of doing things, and unfortunately, the knowledge that my hands are slow and weak now adds to my fears about sailing in potentially difficult situations. 

We are THRILLED to be here !  Our berth is the most beautiful we’ve ever had: a full front-row view of the rock.  We learned as we signed in that we were arriving on the eve of Gibraltar Day and festivities are in full swing.  The port is modern and comfortable, attractive and CHEAP !  After having paid around 32 euros per night for most of the ports in the Algarve and southern Spain, we are in this beautiful spot for less than 20 euros / night.  For a 30-euro fee, we have internet on the boat, we have a large farmer’s market about 15 minutes from the port, and of course, we have Gibraltar and all that duty-free fun at our doorstep. 

After a week of research to decide where to leave the boat for the winter, we’ve decided to winter-over here in Linea.  The marina prices and travel prices from Malaga are much better than anything else we’ve seen along this coast (even though it’s still expensive… 7 months costs the same as 1 year at home).  It is a strange mixture of sadness and relief to think about leaving the boat already, but staying here will save us more than 1000 Euros compared to pushing on up the coast.  In the meantime, we are really enjoying Linea / Gibraltar.  It’s the first time we’ve experienced “house boat living” where we stay in one place for 3 weeks.  It’s calm, friendly, beautiful, and we have lots of tourism and entertainment options around (but note: it’s important to have bikes here !).  We have made friends here and we, of course, have lots of work to do to prepared the boat for 7 months of abandonment. 

It feels like an abrupt ending to the first leg of our big Mediterranean adventure, but sailing is all about patience and opportunity, n’est-ce pas?  We’ve packed a lot of experiences into the last 4 months and feel better prepared for the next leg of our journey.  We’ll call that a successful season.

Thursday, 15 September 2016


We thought the Puerto America of Cadiz would be bigger.  The entrance is extremely narrow with a low floating wave-breaker pontoon at the entrance with a tight turn.  The small Real Club Nautico on your left as you enter has large pontoons for big boats and the Puerto America marina is clearly aimed at small local boats and a couple of pontoons for visitors.  Like Rota, the marina was practically empty when we arrived and the port office just told us to pick any spot we wanted.  The finger berths are large and in reasonably good condition.  There is no internet from the marina office, but we learned that you can get wifi access from the Nautica Benitez shop next door for 2 euros per day.  The signal was good enough for email and gentle net surfing from the boat, and our one-day access lasted for 3 days. 

The winds were blowing stiffly from the east, not very promising for heading through the Straits of Gibraltar.  No problem, we said, we will enjoy visiting Cadiz for a few days.  A few days turned into 7 before the winds became favorable, so we had time to get to know Cadiz.  We had visited a few years ago in winter and found the town a bit boring and depressing, but summer brings another atmosphere. 

Lazy photo-journalist confession again:  pictures with no context coming up.

Posted on Thursday, September 15, 2016 | Categories:

Monday, 12 September 2016

Chipiona and Rota

After the rather barren surroundings of Mazagon, we were looking forward to a little civilization at a summer resort and headed for Chipiona.  We pulled up to the waiting pontoon and Patrick went to the office to register and get a spot.  He came back with a funny look on his face, saying that there were no visitor’s spots available because of work on the docks, but at the last minute they managed to squeeze us into an owner’s spot with the understanding that we had to leave before noon on the next day.  Better than nothing and we enjoyed Chipiona for the evening that we were there.  Nothing special, just charming streets, architecture, restaurants, bars, boutiques, and ice cream shops !

The next small hop down the coast was to Rota.  The marina was practically empty when we arrived and we only saw a couple of non-Spanish boats while we were there.  The town is charming and there is enough to hold your interest for a few days.  When we arrived on a Sunday, we noticed lots of boats moored off the beach between Rota and the US Military naval base on the other side of the small bay.  We decided we would spend our last night there at anchorage.  Bad idea.

Rota Marina
Rota Market
We pulled up around 6pm and anchored about 200 meters from the naval base jetty, where we could see naval ships of all sizes peeking over the breakwaters.  We joked that we were under surveillance and should remain appropriately clothed, and that this would not be the right time to bring out my big camera and start taking pictures.  There were 3 other boats in the area and we settled in happily with sundowners in the cockpit.

Just as the sun was going down, a small high-speed pilot boat came around the corner with a blue siren flashing.  They went to a small fishing boat first (“great…it’s just for that guy who’s too close”) and then they came straight up to us.  With a loud-speaker, they said “Do you speak English?” too which I responded “Yes, I’m an American.” This seemed to puzzle them (or perhaps disappointed them as they were all geared up to harass some French frogs).  The nice young man kindly explained to me that we were too close to the naval station and that we needed to move at least 500 meters away from their jetty.  We moved and put the anchor down just as the sun sank.

Now, surely, they saw where we were… we were on their radar from the beginning.  But they waited until HALF PAST MIDNIGHT to come back to us, sirens and flood lights blaring into our windows, screeching out “You are too close to a US naval installation.” I fumbled around in a panic and pulled on some shorts, stumbled out into the cockpit and we started the whole thing all over again.  “Do you speak English?” “Yes, I’m an American.”  I then explained that his colleague already visited us and told us to move 500 meters from the jetty and that our chart plotter showed that we were more than 500 meters away.  He said that we needed to be east of a red beacon light on the shore, about 200 meters further away.  We turned on the deck lights, dug out our headlamps, and fired up the instruments to prepare to move again.

As we motored to the area they suggested, we noticed that we were getting dangerously close to some rocks.  The other alternative was getting too close to a roped-off beach area, where the risk would be to get the rope wrapped around a rudder in the middle of the night.  Fed up with the whole thing, we just decided to head back to the port of Rota.  It was well-lit and we knew the port already.  We just tied up to the waiting pontoon, pointed ourselves in the departure direction, and set our alarms for a dawn departure.

All of the towns along this coast are proud of their links to Columbus' voyages.  Many crew came from this area.

It turns out that we were happy to have returned to port, since the winds picked up to 15-20 knots unexpectedly during the night.  The next morning, we still had 15 knots and quite a lot of swell and chop to push through, but we just gritted our teeth and pushed through the 5 miles to Cadiz.  The military had a last parting gesture for us, though.  They patrol a large square area in front of their base that is marked on the charts but with no indication that we are not allowed to pass.  However, as we headed on a direct route for Cadiz, we noticed the warship turned to intercept us and turned its stern to clearly indicate the limit of their zone.  We tacked out to make a large swing around their zone and were very relieved to be finished with that area.  When we arrived in Cadiz, we had an email waiting for us.  The port of Rota noticed we had spent the night (from 1:30 am to 7:30 am) on their waiting dock and said we could pay the 30 Euro fee in Cadiz if we preferred.  You can run but you can’t hide.

Saturday, 10 September 2016


Mazagon: rhymes with pain-be-gone?

We finally tore ourselves away from our snug anchorage in the Ria Formosa and continued on our journey with a light 8 to 10 knots in the nose, zigzagging our way to Mazagon.  The cargo traffic at the entrance of the channel was impressive but there was enough room for everyone (but our AIS system was very handy to see who was moving and who wasn’t…).  The marina is large and modern and we discovered a grocery store that delivers at the top of the hill in the town. 

We used Mazagon as a base to visit Huelva.  We had no intention of visiting Huelva, but I couldn’t stand the pain anymore and had to go to a clinic there.

When we began this blog, we said we would tell it like it is, warts and all.  We’ve been open and transparent about most of our sailing life, but as a rule, we don’t like to whine. (Well, okay, whining about sailing matters is what the blog is all about, but personal matters are a different story). 

I began having pain and stiffness in my hands a few months ago.  Normal, I thought, since we use (abuse) our hands a lot on the boat.  In Lisbon, we took the time to go to a clinic because I started losing feeling in my thumb and index finger.  The diagnosis was a contracted muscle that was compressing a nerve, and I was given anti-inflammatory drugs to take.  The situation improved.  Two weeks ago, the pain returned in both hands and fingers, and closer inspection showed bony nodules on 3 knuckles.  Certain movements give me sharp pain that takes my breath away, and by the end of each day, two of my fingers are more-or-less useless.

Honestly, don't know what to look for...
We went to another clinic in Huelva, the biggest city next to the port of Mazagon.  The doctor only spoke Spanish, but with the help of a few of the secretaries who knew some English and French, we managed to get through an exam and x-rays:  rheumatoid arthritis and carpel tunnel syndrome in both hands (seems to be a buy-one get-one free deal).  In a flash, I remembered with horror the deformed hands of my great aunt Ruby, and stories of my aunt Caroline who couldn’t get out of bed some mornings before her treatment made life manageable again.  Both of my parents have undergone surgery for carpel tunnel syndrome in the last years. 

My treatment: more anti-inflammatory drugs, some light drugs to stop the deterioration (Chondrosulf), and some mega-vitamins that supposedly target carpel tunnel problems (so says the doctor… I’m not a big believer in vitamin supplements for someone who eats a well-balanced diet.  I’m not too sure this Chondrosulf stuff is very effective, either).  I’m told I’ll feel better in 1 month once all the supplements have time to kick in.  In the meantime, the doctor suggested that I not put my hands under any stress or tension.  Right.

Normally, I wouldn’t complain about or even divulge health problems, but this one directly affects our sailing life.  The winch is my new best friend, and I’ll need to rely on it more often now instead of just giving a good tug with my bare hands as I normally do when something needs a small adjustment.  Little by little, I’m finding new techniques to get the job done with minimum stress.  Still, it does put a crimp in things and I try not to think too much about the future right now.  I’ll get a more thorough diagnosis when I get home, and yes, I’m going to try a gluten-free diet.  The good news I’ve found is that gin is supposed to be helpful for arthritis.  Always search for those bright spots…
Posted on Saturday, September 10, 2016 | Categories:

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Culatra Island

Note: south of Lagos, we entered an internet dead zone.  We've only been able to get text emails and basic weather info for the last 2-3 weeks on the boat, and even the cafes and bars seem to have very limited internet.  The next 3 posts, coming in rapid succession, are brought to you from the fantastic staff of the Cadiz tourist office, who have let me sit in their air-conditioned waiting room. Note: south of Lagos, we entered an internet dead zone.  We've only been able to get text emails and basic weather info for the last 2-3 weeks on the boat, and even the cafes and bars seem to have very limited internet.  The next 3 posts, coming in rapid succession, are brought to you from the fantastic staff of the Cadiz tourist office, who have let me sit in their air-conditioned waiting room.

The trip from Albufeira to Culatra was typical, with motor sailing in the morning and finishing up with about 18 knots in the afternoon.  We entered the Ria Formosa at about 1 hour before high tide and even in a period of low tidal coefficients we had lots of whirlpools and counter currents to liven up the entrance.  Once past the channel entry, the bay opened up and reminded us of the Morbihan Gulf at home (but less beautiful, of course).  We were only flying the genoa as we sailed down to the anchorage area and we suspected that we might have problems with the furler, since we had problems the last time we had sailed downwind with the sail see-sawing back and forth in front of the genoa stay (now know/think we should have hauled in the sail a bit more to limit any rotation of the furler drum).  As we neared the mooring field, I convinced Patrick that we should try to roll up early in case we had problems.  He agreed to a short test roll (he who always wants to sail right up to the dock) and we discovered that we did, indeed, have a very stuck genoa furler line.  I couldn’t undo it with a few tugs as I did the last time it happened.  We quickly turned the boat around, headed back out into the bay away from the other anchored boats and took all the tension off the sail.  With the deafening flopping of the sail, Patrick went forward and managed to get the first too-tight wrap undone and we rolled the genoa up half-way until it got stuck again.  The whole process took about 10 minutes but it felt like an eternity.  I was envisaging either trying to anchor with a wildly flapping sail, or taking down the whole genoa and trying to stuff it into the forward cabin hatch until we could calmly look at the problem.  Fortunately, that wasn’t necessary, but with nerves already frazzled, this latest incident made me wonder what the hell we were doing out here.

Drying out in Culatra

Despite being August in the Algarve, there's plenty of room for everyone (with a lifting keel) in Culatra

Faro in the background
The anchorage is very protected and despite the hundreds of boats around there’s plenty of room for everyone (especially if you have a lifting keel!).  The Rocna dug into the sand/mud mix with ease and we spent a quiet night on a mirror-smooth bay.  The water is warm and we’re living in our swim suits, diving off the boat any time we need to be refreshed.  There’s enough of a breeze to keep the inside temperature comfortable and nights are fresh.  Patrick went shell fishing at low tide just behind the boat and made himself a big clam pasta dinner.  (I’m too squeamish to eat shellfish from a zone I don’t know well.) 

The island has very little to offer other than a few mini-markets with the essentials, and a few restaurants and bars whose principle attraction is free internet.  Friends from home flew in to Faro to visit with us for a few days.  We took the ferry over to Olhao and its farmers market to load up on fresh food.  After a couple of days lazing around at anchor, we rented a car and drove up into the hills to see some of the back country and the lovely old town of Faro (post to follow).

In all, we stayed at anchor 14 days and gave ourselves time to refresh and reassess the next few months, which will, we agree, be done at a slower pace.  In the beginning, we weren’t too cautious about our fresh water reserves (330 liters), rinsing off with fresh water every time we came back from a swim.  We hadn’t intended to stay so long.  By the last day, we had to go ashore with 2 jerry cans to give us enough for the last day, and we limped into our next port with the water pump sputtering air.  Good to know your limitations!  As for the electricity, we had no problems at all thanks to the solar panels and sun-filled days.

Some reflections on beaching the boat in a warm climate: 

1) It’s great to be high and dry, but unless you’re in a zone of pure sand (rare), low tide can be quite a smelly affair.

2) When the boat is out of the water, the interior can get quite hot, since you no longer have the waterline to keep things cool.  With good ventilation (which we thankfully have) this isn’t a problem, but if you think those beers you stored under the floorboards will keep cool, think again.

3)  Unless you beach perfectly horizontally (rare) your water gauges will read false.  Don’t panic.  Just check again once you’re floating.  

4)  In zones of light winds and strange little whirlpools of currents, it is possible to settle down onto your own anchor and chain.  In warm water, you can plunge into the water just before the boat settles and gently push her off the chain or move the chain.  In colder water, I’m not sure I would attempt this.  That said, one night we did settle onto our chain and there was no problem.  We just checked to make sure there wasn’t too much tension on the chain or windlass.  Settling onto the anchor would be a problem, though. 

5) Remember that when the boat is out of the waterline, you don’t have a seawater intake to flush the toilet.  The holding tank keeps the flush from going out into the water (or rather, plopping down on the sand), but you still need to flush and you don’t want to use precious fresh water resources.  Before the water slips away, take a bucket of seawater and have that handy for flushing.

Posted on Saturday, September 03, 2016 | Categories: ,

Portimao and Albufeira

Note: south of Lagos, we entered an internet dead zone.  We've only been able to get text emails and basic weather info for the last 2-3 weeks on the boat, and even the cafes and bars seem to have very limited internet.  The next 3 posts, coming in rapid succession, are brought to you from the fantastic staff of the Cadiz tourist office, who have let me sit in their air-conditioned waiting room.

The anchorage at Portimao is fantastic, with beautiful ocre-colored cliffs, good holding, and plenty of room.  We were looking forward to a few calm nights after the chaos of Lagos and its nightclubs around the marina.  Unfortunately, even though we were quite far away from the actual town of Portimao, the sound from the techno-club carries over the water and we were treated to another few nights of boom-boom-boom.  We tried to get into the spirit of the thing, telling each other is was summer in the Algarve, we could catch up on sleep during the day, etc.  That attitude exercise worked until 2 a.m., when we decided that we really were bothered by the noise and would leave earlier than planned.

Albufeira is a marina nestled in a crack in the cliffs with wonderful protection from the wind, although it does get a lot of swell if winds are southerly.  We pulled into our rather narrow spot without any misadventure (Patrick checked out the spot before we even left the welcome dock).  There is nothing in the marina area of Albufeira except restaurants and nightclubs.  As a treat after more than a week of techno and dance music, we were treated to a night of “best of Sting” followed by a drunk Irishman screaming out pop songs from the Irish pub.  Mercifully, they ended their shows at midnight.

We knew we would be anchored for many days at our next port and had friends coming in, so we needed to load up on food.  We ended up taking a bus into town to a major grocery store and made our way back to the boat in a tuk-tuk taxi just in time to cast off the lines and make it out of the marina for the hop down the coast to the Ria Formosa near Faro.  As usual, the option was to head out in a rush or to stay for 3 or 4 more days because of bad weather.  It feels like we’ve been pushing ahead like this for weeks.  I found myself getting very frazzled and knew I needed a long rest. 

Posted on Saturday, September 03, 2016 | Categories: ,