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.