It was still dark when the alarm sounded early Saturday morning. Heavy rain was rapping on our cabin roof four feet above my head and the room periodically glowed with lightning. For the first leg of our transatlantic passage, it wasn’t feeling like an ideal send-off to me.
Winter can bring turbulent weather to the region, so after one near-start followed by another patient week of waiting at Alcadesia Marina; we jumped at the opportunity to move when an improved window presented itself.
The Strait of Gibraltar is a narrow seven nautical mile (13km) stretch between southern Europe and the top of North Africa. Affected by tides, wind, differing salinity and sea levels, the ‘jaws of the Mediterranean’ can be notoriously difficult to cross. That day winds were light and although we departed the Bay of Gibraltar on high tide (to take advantage of an ebb flow with the onset of low tide) at times we were making just over 2 knots headway against the current (approx. 4 km/ph). I can’t imagine the battle if exiting with any kind of westerly headwind or misinterpreting the tidal influence.
Yet time passed quickly with finally my darling’s first fishing extravaganza. Within a half hour of entering the strait Mike had hooked a bonito. Shortly afterwards Dad’s line was running with a good-sized tuna. At that point I expected they’d put the lines away, when what little room was left in our well-provisioned fridges were full. Throwing the lines back ‘for fun’ another 10 – 12 kg worth of tuna was cut into steaks and the freezers were full too. Three fish caught in less than three hours, each one bigger than the last. It was a fish bloodbath for our poor vegetarian hitchhiker Ausrine and our fishing drought was farewelled along with the ‘dead Med’.
On crossing the merchant vessel separation zone, we could almost high-five the crew of an overtaking container ship as they passed so close. Then, seven hours after departing Gibraltar, we finally cleared Cape Spartel at the far north western tip of Africa (a 26 nm passage). Hello Atlantic Ocean!
Conditions on the first two days were far from ideal. A wicked storm had hit the Canary Islands and mainland Morocco the day prior and we were feeling the flow on swell and winds. The second day was the worst of the trip. I woke bleary-eyed to relieve those on watch and distinctly remember my stomach dropping at the sight of the rolling ocean.
Dad estimated the swell at 4 – 5 metres with another metre or so of confused sea chop on top. It was bleak and the wind was already up to 20 knots, gusting to 30. Winds were tight forward on the beam and a cross swell resulted in lots of movement and regular slamming of waves under the hull. To avoid seasickness in rough conditions Mike and I usually live on the upper deck under the bimini, with a clear view of the horizon, fresh sea breezes and a smoother ride than lower levels. But on this trip the temperatures were freezing so it was only an option for short stints. Excluding our iron-stomached captain, it was the queasiest we’ve ever felt. A feeling shared by our new crewmate Ausrine; being her first time on a sailing boat – in the Atlantic no less!
Struggling to eat, sleep and stay positive in those first few days, Mike and I both admitted to having second thoughts if we were capable of the Atlantic Crossing – a trip that would take four times longer at 15 – 20 days. It had so far proven a total mind game, but we knew with following seas and trade winds, the Atlantic trip would hopefully be more enjoyable and, in the end, incredibly rewarding.
Impacted by the far-reaching Atlantic swell, Morocco’s coast offers little in the way of accessible, protected ports (hence why we decided to leave the boat in Gibraltar and take an overland trip during our recent visit). A friend in Gibraltar mentioned the commercial shipping port of Mohammedia (11 nm north of Casablanca), with its long southwest facing breakwater, was an accessible option in any conditions. After much deliberation and trying hard to pinch up into a southwest wind and swell, we were relieved when Dad made the decision to take a break and head for the coast.
On that rough second day at sea we’d listened on the VHF radio as a yacht asked the Coast Guard for assistance. They’d lost manoeuvrability with a sail and lines in the water wrapped around the propeller. On dark, another catamaran contacted us via VHF asking if we knew where in Morocco they could get repairs. They were limping back to the coast with a broken support stay on the mast. But the most disturbing development came when Ausrine received a message from a Romanian ‘hitchhiker’ friend who’d departed Gibraltar on a French boat the weekend prior. Caught in a Force 8 storm (40 knot winds) the yacht’s weak motor could not outrun the wind and waves, pushing them dangerously towards the Moroccan coast. In distress, a cargo ship had come to their assistance but after rescuing Ausrine’s friend, the yacht smashed into the ship knocking another crewmember into a coma and sinking the yacht. Sadly the skipper was missing, presumed drowned – a sickening reminder of the dangers and importance of keeping an acute eye on the forecast.
Stopping in Morocco for 18 hours and stepping ashore for two, we finally had the appetite to cook our fish and after Mike made repairs to a slipped lazy jack line on the mainsail bag, Ausrine bravely headed up the mast exclaiming her trademark “oh gosh!” all the way to the top.
Departing Mohammedia late afternoon and passing Casablanca on dark, we found ourselves travelling closer to the coast than recommended (about 10 nm out). Night watch was intense keeping lookout for fishing boats with barely a light, or others travelling in complete darkness that would blast torchlight in our direction if we came too close.
During the passage we were blessed with more playful dolphins than we encountered over two summers in the Mediterranean. On entering the Atlantic, the dolphins have been bigger, pods larger, aerial tricks more spectacular and length of visits longer. Ausrine was ecstatic that her first time seeing dolphins would be a pod of 40 – 60 that surfed the bow by moonlight and frolicked alongside for close to a half hour.
Other wildlife action included a tired seagull that desperately tried to land on the bow net several times without success, albatross soaring overhead and our first flying fish that beached itself on deck.
On the home straight to the Canaries and distancing ourselves from the coast, we benefited from favourable sailing conditions over the last two days. We finally got winds on the back quarter (12 – 20 knots) and following seas on the last day, making life more comfortable. Oh and the sun came out!
Drama came on the final day when winds increased quickly and we tried to de-rig our blue reaching sail that had not furled correctly. Underestimating wind load in the partial flapping sail, the rolling furler leapt from Mike’s hands. Threatening to be yanked overboard (yet fortunately clipped on), I could then no longer hold the sheet line so Dad yelled to let it run out. After a few tense minutes assessing our options, the sail was partially dumped in the sea to control the wildly flicking missile at its base, then dragged back on board. Another important lesson learnt and a static safety line has already been added to avoid the scenario arising in future. Once again, our captain’s uncanny ability to stay calm amid the commotion, assess the situation and give clear directions was much appreciated by the crew. (“smooth seas do not make skillful sailors”)
Thankfully after this event the wind blew steadily and consistently from the north, across the starboard rear quarter. We set the main and foresail, barely touching them again for around 16 awesome hours.
Lights on Lanzarote’s east coast came into view around 4:00 am on Thursday and at 6:30 am we dropped anchor off an exposed beach to catch up on some zzzzzz’s; later that morning sailing south to the slick new Lanzarote Marina at Arrecife.
Deducting the 18-hour stop in Mohammedia, our time at sea was 101 hours or just over four days. Covering around 640 nautical miles, we’d averaged 6.4 knots (slow and uncomfortable at the start; speedy and surfing by the end). Queasiness and lethargy resulted in my disinterest in snapping many photos, so apologies there are few to share.
With the first leg of our transatlantic passage under the belt, grateful thanks must go to our captain for getting us to the Canaries safely; also to our kind-hearted Lithuanian hitchhiker Ausrine for joining us, adapting quickly and finding her sea legs. We will soon say farewell from Isla Gran Canaria and wish her well on her own Atlantic adventure and onward travels in South America.
PS: promise my next post will be wonderful memories and photos from our Morocco adventure. Happy festive season everyone!