Updated: Oct 30, 2021
“The AIS in the Bay of Gibraltar showed dozens of huge container ships on both sides of the bay and heading in and out. Rapidly moving ferries were also zipping up and down. How were we going to reach the marina without being mown down? "
After eight days out of the water, Matusadona was finally relaunched back into her natural habitat on Monday evening. Excitingly, we actually got to stay onboard during the relaunch, watching from on high as we were slowly lowered into the water. As soon as we touched down, the rigger was on hand to replace our third reefing line inside the boom and we were set! We decided to leave straight away and make the long trip to Cádiz in southern Spain. Our Hydrovane wind steering instrument had been waiting for us in Gibraltar since October 5th and we were also trying to leave for our crossing to the Canaries before the end of October which is the very end of the recommended departure season, when the prevailing winds push you in the right direction.
As we left Lagos and headed east along the southern coast of Portugal, we saw a full moon rising in the gloom in front of us, throwing a glittering streak on the water ahead of us. Behind us, the sun was setting, bathing our backs in a warm peachy glow. To our port (left) hand side we were momentarily excited by tail slapping. Then remembered that whales are not a good sign for sailors around here. A huge number of boats have been attacked by orcas this year. Luckily they were dinky pilot whales, rather than giant orcas and we could watch them communicating with the slaps of their tails without fear of our rudder being eaten. We continued throughout the night, watching the AIS for fishing vessels. As we crossed the Gulf of Cádiz, crossing into Spain again, the wind turned against us and we had to beat into it, tacking to avoid heading straight into it. As the day wore on, the waves got choppier and choppier. Short steep waves that didn’t give any time for the boat to descend, before another wave came. This led to the bow banging hard and us being constantly sprayed with saltwater. In fact we got much wetter than we did when crossing Biscay. Even though the waves had been much bigger then, they were longer and we were generally able to cross them diagonally or surf them, as they came behind us rather than in front of us. Our speed slowed and as we came into the Bay of Cádiz, the wind reached 28 knots against us and with this swell, progress was rather slow, jarring and miserable. We had been hoping to arrive at the marina before dark, but the arrival time kept being pushed back. We were approaching our first ever night entry for a marina.
The sun set behind us and as we entered the channel into the bay it got darker and darker. We couldn’t see the walls of the harbour and the breakwaters. The navigation lights of the port and starboard hand markers would flash on and off to guide us but every time they flashed off, it would be pitch black. We had to trust to the GPS accuracy of the chartplotter to navigate in safely. Luckily for us there was still a staff member on duty at 9.00pm and the Irish sailors we had befriended had been staying there a few days and sent us a picture of where in the marina the visitor berths were. As we entered the narrow entrance we managed to control the boat despite the strong tidal stream and gusty conditions. The marina crew member shined his torch to indicate where to go and he and the Irish couple were on hand to throw our lines to. We were safely docked in the darkness of night and we were very relieved to be there.
Our onward journey was to Gibraltar to collect our Hydrovane. We had made very good progress in getting all the way to Cádiz, but Gibraltar was still two days sail away. The Strait of Gibraltar can be dangerous to cross in a strong easterly wind called a levanter and according to our wind forecasting app, we had a window of only a couple of days to get through before the levanter would start up again. This was why we had to do such long passages even when the wind was against us. We had considered going the next morning to the next stop of Barbate, which is near where the strait starts, but we were concerned about the residual swell from the day’s strong winds and choppy seas. It also looked like the wind would turn against us in the evening. We decided to leave the following evening instead. The next day we had a brain wave; we wondered if we could hire a car and pick up the Hydrovane; it was less than two hours drive away. Unfortunately the warehouse we were collecting from said that we would have to pay customs duties on leaving Gibraltar and crossing into Spain. This would be a huge amount of money for such an expensive item. There was no option, we would have to go to Gibraltar by boat. The next problem was that there are only two small marinas in Gibraltar itself and both were full. We hadn’t been able to book any further in advance as we hadn’t known when we would be leaving Lagos and when we would be able to cross through the Strait of Gibraltar, as we had to check the wind forecast. There was a marina just over the border in Spain, but we would then face the same problem with customs duties. I called the warehouse again to explain the problem. “Don’t worry,” said the guy from the warehouse, “come to the fuel berth in the marina in Gibraltar and we will deliver it to you there.” This left us in the bizarre position of staying in a Spanish marina, motoring across the border to the Gibraltar marina to pick up our Hydrovane and then motoring back to our Spanish marina.
That evening we decided to leave for the Strait of Gibraltar. We were planning to arrive at Barbate, near the beginning of the strait no earlier than 10.00am. This was to ensure we would have the tide going with us as we entered the strait. The Irish couple and another boat had already gone to Barbate to stay overnight in the day and reported a terrible sail, strong winds against them and swell. We had originally planned to leave at midnight, but on hearing that, we thought there might be residual swell which would slow us down, and we thought we could just slow down if we were going to get there too early. We thus departed two hours earlier. The forecast had been for light winds, but small waves, between 0.7 and 1.3 metres. However, as we motored through the night the wind was dead calm, the sea was almost flat and we were heading for a very early arrival at Barbate. Also the tide seemed to be constantly in our favour. We had to progressively reduce the engine until we were just in tickover. Even so, we were still doing 4.5 knots and heading for an 8.00am arrival near Barbate. We were worried that the tide would be against us as we entered the strait, but decided there was no alternative but to keep going and if we had to turn the engine up high when the tide turned against us, then that’s what we would have to do. However, the tide never seemed to turn against us and we went at between 5 and 7 knots the whole way. This was due to the 2 knot surface current which runs eastward, which counteracts the tidal current even when it is running west. As we approached Gibraltar, the wind finally picked up and we could put up the genoa, or headsail. We sailed along happily with the wind behind us until we approached the Bay of Gibraltar and saw something very scary indeed.
The AIS in the Bay of Gibraltar showed dozens of huge container ships on both sides of the bay and heading in and out. Rapidly moving ferries were also zipping up and down. How were we going to reach the marina without being mown down? There was also an airfield to contend with which runs right to the water’s edge and you have to keep clear when planes are taking off or landing. We tried to stay calm. We had experience in Southampton Water of large busy shipping lanes and we had made it across the Channel at night. As we clicked on each ship, we could see that actually many of the ships on the sides were not moving. Most of the ships coming in and out were going to stop at the ports on either side. Our marina, just over the Spanish side of the border was right at the top, so the plan was to keep to port, going around the ships that weren’t moving and then cross over at the top where there would be fewer moving ships. With a bit of manoeuvring, slowing down and speeding up to avoid the ships that were moving, this strategy paid off and we made it to the marina in one piece.
As we had arrived in the afternoon we decided to stroll over the border to Gibraltar. Armed with our passports, we took the 40 minute strange walk to this British Overseas Territory. Just after the border you walk across the airfield where you can see planes lining up to take off over the water. In the main plaza were English fish and chip shops alongside Mediterranean style cafés. The duty free high street boasted English brand shops selling duty free cigarettes and bottles of spirits. The following evening we went back over the border to watch James Bond at the cinema. As we were collecting our tickets, we suddenly looked around and saw that we were the only people wearing face masks. It felt very shocking. We knew that in England face masks are no longer required, but everywhere we had been in Europe masks are still obligatory when indoors. In France you need a vaccine passport even to sit outside in a café to drink a coffee. In Portugal, many restaurants require your vaccine passport to eat indoors. In parts of Spain and Portugal we would estimate more than 50% of people wear masks when walking outside in the street. Gibraltar is such a small little place on the tip of Spain; they even drive on the right hand side. It felt so strange that this English insistence on ‘freedom’ from mask wearing was being so eagerly followed.
I’ve always wondered why Gibraltar voted quite so overwhelmingly to remain British, which it has been since 1713 - 99% in the last referendum in 2002, which rejected the proposal of sovereignty shared between Britain and Spain. Having visited, I was still perplexed. While there is no VAT, the official language is English, they use the Gibraltar pound and have a range of English shops, many of the people there were not English or even Spanish and many of the shop workers didn’t even speak English at all. Many of the English people there were clearly tourists and not residents. It’s true that many of the workers were walking over the border from Spain each day and therefore wouldn’t have a say, but I was still surprised at quite how definitive the 99% is. But as Joseph Garcia, Deputy Chief Minister of Gibraltar and Historian, explains, it’s not really to do with being British at all; as a British Overseas Territory, Gibraltar is not part of the United Kingdom. It has its own Parliament and they feel they exercise autonomy under this arrangement. Certainly the Gibraltarian flag is much on display everywhere, not the Union Jack. Meanwhile, successive Spanish governments have indicated they would expect more integration. Historic resentment of Former Spanish Dictator, General Franco’s thirteen year siege of Gibraltar also looms large in viewing its larger neighbour as a threat. Gibraltar’s successful economy and very low unemployment rate also means that Gibraltarians are extremely resistant to change, even with Brexit.* However, as the lack of masks demonstrate, there are clearly stronger cultural ties to the UK than Garcia might admit to.
The next day it was time to collect our fifth crew member - the Hydrovane! We now had to cross the border by boat to Gibraltar. This involved motoring out of our marina, passing huge anchored ships, crossing the airfield - the runway goes right to the water’s edge- and motoring down the other side to a fuel pontoon. We arrived at the fuel pontoon at the allotted time of 3.00pm. We filled up with duty free fuel and waited. And waited. We called the warehouse as we were worried that more boats would want to come and use the fuel berth. Eventually at 4.00pm the drivers arrived with five huge packages and our fifth crew member was on board. We motored back. The Hydrovane has a wind vane and its own rudder. You can adjust it to sail at a certain course and it works even in strong winds, unlike our autopilot. This would mean that while crossing to the Canaries and across the Atlantic, we won’t have to hand steer, which is hugely important for making the journey less tiring. Not having this piece of equipment and our tight steering wheel was what had made the Biscay crossing so arduous in addition to the huge waves. We are now officially Ocean’s Five and excited about our upcoming longest passage to date all the way from Gibraltar to Tenerife.
* Garcia, J., 2019. Gibraltar Will Never Accept Shared Sovereignty. [online] Foreign Policy. Available at: <https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/02/28/gibraltar-will-never-accept-shared-sovereignty-uk-spain-brexit/> [Accessed 23 October 2021].
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