In the Grips of Gibraltar

Arriving in Gibraltar pictured in background
Arriving in Gibraltar pictured in background

We were held captive by the currents of the Strait of Gibraltar. Like a hamster just spinning in its caged wheel, we were trapped, not making any headway. The Strait was infamous for this. Finally, at the end of the day after a good eight hours of basically treading water, the "Rock" was still grandly displayed before us across the horizon just as it was when we left the harbor earlier that morning. We gave up and hiked across the water to the isolated Spanish enclave port of Ceuta, bordering Morocco on the North African coast.

Much like Gibraltar is a British possession encased within the boundaries of Spain, so is Ceuta Spain's claim on this tip of Morocco. It's almost as if Spain thumbs its nose at Britain: "If we can't have that plot of land, we'll stare you down from across the water." Although we could still see Gibraltar across the Strait in the distance, the day didn't seem as futile if we entered a new harbor for the night, rather than completely admitting defeat, returning to Gibraltar to regroup in the morning for a second attempt at a departure.

The Strait is infamous for its quick-changing and very strong currents—a phenomenon due to its geographical configuration that literally funnels the wind and currents from its widest point at the juncture of the Atlantic Ocean to its narrowest, barely nine-mile width just before spilling into the Mediterranean Sea. We had already experienced some of that power upon our arrival in Gibraltar about 10 days earlier, sailing down from Cadiz, Spain. A little after the noon hour on the day of our arrival, we saw Morocco on the African coast for the first time. It was quite a feeling to be sailing between the two continents of Europe and Africa, both visible at the same time: Africa on starboard, Europe on port. On the marine radio we heard ship traffic from Casablanca, Radio Tangier, Tarifa, and Gibraltar. It was clear and sunny, and calm blue waters. Perfect. Then all of a sudden we heard the swish and swoosh of choppy water behind us. It sounded as if someone turned on a faucet full force. Looking behind us, it was quite odd as the surface was suddenly rippled and galloping toward us. It caught up with us, rippled under us, and surrounded us in a slightly choppy sea, like a pot of simmering bubbling water. It generously pushed us on down the waterway to Gibraltar. So this was the quirky current we had heard and read about. It wasn't uncomfortable at all, nor dangerous—just a really odd occurrence—as if a line was drawn in the water dividing the calm water from an advancing agitated frontier: a flat, almost cute, inoffensive "tidal" wave.

For our departure from Gibraltar, we read over the nautical instructions that gave pretty explicit descriptions—almost to the exact times and distances from the coast—of how the current would and could change with an outgoing tide, and sidle up to a parallel course depending upon the tidal shifts. We had studied this and didn't exactly "pooh-pooh" the information, but we really didn't realize how precise it was or that it would really behoove us to follow the instructions to-the-letter! After our first failed attempt, we considered ourselves forewarned and the next day we followed the predicted times of the current changes practically with a stopwatch.

Portugal Almost Lost, Then Found

Gibraltar was to be our last stop in Europe, our gateway to Africa and new cultural experiences we were greatly anticipating! After leaving the Ria de Corcubion in Spain just about a month earlier with an eventual destination of Gibraltar, we spent some time in Portugal—a pleasure to discover. It was our first new country since leaving France, other than Spain, which we had already visited several times in the past by land and by sea. Living relatively close in nearby Bordeaux, it was easy to go to Spain, although somewhat daunting since it was still under the iron hand of Franco. In Portugal we discovered Porto (famous, of course, for its wine), the summer resort town of Figueira da Foz, and finally Lisbon.

The anchorage for Porto was actually located in the industrial harbor of Leixoes, and it was there that we skirted an early disaster by the skin of our teeth. Leixoes was a small harbor and there were several of us anchored there. Some sudden squally weather with strong winds whipped up during the night and around 4 a.m. I was awakened by the fact that the boat was not bobbing with the same usual rhythm as I was accustomed to at anchor. I'm a light sleeper and such dissonant things always seemed to wake me. I raised myself on my elbows, peeped through the porthole, and saw that Cowabunga was racing toward certain disaster, whizzing past other boats and towards the rocky jetty; the anchor obviously wasn't holding anymore. In a flash Michel and I were on deck in the pelting rain, engine roaring, and literally able to steer Cowabunga from the rocks just moments and feet away from doom. We had only begun our dream voyage and couldn't believe that everything almost ended there, so close to our starting point in France.

After Porto, we made an unscheduled stop in Figueira da Foz due to engine problems, the first major breakdown of many more to come. We had been disappointed in general with the somewhat dirty and disheveled harbor of Leixoes/Porto, and Figueira da Foz was a pleasant surprise: much more quaint and clean. Portugal of the 1980s was emerging from a long previous period of dictatorship regimes and was somewhat the "third world" pocket of Europe. Still lacking a lot in modern-era comforts, horse-drawn carts were common along with women carrying basket-laden loads on their heads, and babies on their hips. We rarely saw any baby strollers and we garnered many a curious look as Michel carried Brendan in a "back-pack" baby carrier—a fairly novel item at the time, even then for more developed European countries, let alone the still "third world" Portugal. We also discovered a new odor as street vendors hawked dried and salted cod everywhere. Cod was the national dish, and by the looks of the infinite numbers of stalls and vendors, it would seem this fish was mostly what they ate.

Once well-anchored in the small harbor of Figueria da Foz, Michel went on an exploratory expedition to find some information or someone who could help us out with our engine. At the small tourist information office he discovered, there was a local chapter of the Lions Club, of which Michel was also a member back in our home area near Bordeaux. Mario Cardoza was not only a member but also a garage mechanic, and a most generous and congenial host. He repaired our engine, took us to meet his family, took us out to dinner, and insisted that we do our laundry at his home. We were overwhelmed.

Lisbon was our next stop, a major gathering spot for cruisers to regroup before heading out to various pre-Caribbean destinations like the island of Madeira, the Canary Islands, or the Azores. We were corralled in the "foreign yacht" harbor with about 50 other cruisers of all nationalities. Centrally located near the heart of town, Sean immediately spied the nearby metro station, anxious to give it a whirl. Here we began to recognize a cast of characters—boats we met earlier while in the northern coast of Spain. Among them was a German boat "Herman" we nicknamed The Phantom. We had come across this family several times by now in various harbors and they were beginning to confound us! It seems we always left long before they did, but then there they would be in the following harbor way ahead of us! How did they do it??


We were already seeing some changes in our children in just these two months since our initial departure from France. Sean at 3 years old was beginning to notice sunrises, sunsets, and the rare moments when the moon and the sun shared the sky at dawn. He began to understand the concept of a coastline and notable promontory points and how those figured in our course. He was intrigued by maps and charts and how that translated into what he was seeing outside. He liked to have us pinpoint where we were on a children's map of the world he had in a book, and then he would indicate our position to Brendan. He was beginning to get used to the incline of the boat under sail, and understand when things just weren't right and how changes in the wind necessitated maneuvers to change the sails. He began to know what the lines or "sheets" and halyards were for, and which ones moved what. He was becoming adept at descending into the dinghy and crossing from boat-to-boat when we were tied up several abreast at certain docks.

Brendan, approaching 7 months old, was still in his own discovery mode of the world. I do wonder, though, if he ever found it strange that the scenery outside was never the same. Although the only home he had ever known up to this point was the boat (after he was born, we brought him home directly onboard Cowabunga from the hospital), he had never really sailed until we left France just two months earlier when he was 5 months old. He had been used to the boat in a docked, non-moving position. To be sure, however, the constant rocking of the boat was ready-made for a baby. There was never a need to rock him to sleep.

Nevertheless, even though we were constantly with our children, we were beginning to sense that they were sometimes more irate than they should be, and I think it was due to lack of personal, individual attention. They had this sixth sense that we were preoccupied. It was easy to get too wrapped up in everyday chores, repairs, and the "to-do" list and the kids could feel that. We needed to find a better balance, take more "days off" here and there, devote more time exclusively to them: time in a park, out for a walk, discover a local zoo...We made an effort to pay particular attention to this beginning with Lisbon.

Head Banging in Cadiz

Our final stop before Gibraltar was Cadiz, Spain, mainly just to rest up. To this day it is most memorable in our minds for another barely-averted catastrophe. We were sailing out of the harbor at sunset for an overnight sail to Gibraltar. Sometimes for a short trip like this, it was easier to sail at night given the daily routine with Brendan (bottles, diaper changes) and since it would only be one night with our four-hour watches a piece, we could always catch up on our sleep the following night in the anchorage—if nothing unexpected came up weather-wise or some sort of equipment failure.

As we cleared the harbor and the ocean opened before us, we set the sails and cut the engine. It was a bit choppy with some swell—pretty typical. I took the wheel so Michel could set the wind vane "pilot" at the stern of the boat. We had a routine for this and I assumed he was doing the "usual" in getting the ropes ready. As I held the course, looking straight ahead, I was awaiting Michel's customary instructions. I kept waiting...he wasn't saying anything, which I thought was odd. I finally turned around to see what was going on and there he was, unconscious and sprawled out on the back of the boat with a bloodied head. The boom of the mizzen mast (the smaller mast at the rear of the boat) was flailing about and had banged him in the head. Due to an oversight, neither one of us properly tied it down as we were leaving the harbor, and the choppy swell sent it on a collision course with his head! I abruptly left the wheel, rushed to shake him and assess his wound. He quickly came to, albeit rather woozy for a short while. He had a big nasty, bloody bump, but that was about it. No need for stitches. We realized how lucky we were that he wasn't knocked overboard—and that I might have realized too late if that were the case. Nevertheless, when I was off watch I still wasn't at ease, not able to sleep, wanting to keep an eye on Michel for signs of a concussion or some other latent damage.

Gibraltar was fun—an odd mix of a bit of England, misplaced at the southern end of Europe. It was awash in a colorful blend of properly costumed traditional British "bobbies" directing traffic, veiled Moroccan woman, elegant in their glittery traditional robes, Spanish day laborers, and the eclectic international yachtie crowd docked at the very foot of the "Rock," preparing departures to the open Atlantic or onward through the funnel to "The Med" at this juncture of the two seas. I was somewhat incredulous that this venerable monument rising right out of the water just yards ahead was the real deal, and not the Prudential Insurance logo I had seen time and again on TV growing up back in the States.

Biking to the Rock
Biking to the Rock

We took a few days to explore the area, biking up to the actual Rock and encountering some of the famous resident monkeys (the Barbary Macaques), walked the town streets, and took in the changing of the guard. Michel earned a scolding from one corner constable as he rode past against traffic on a busy one-way street on one of our small bikes with Sean seated in the front child's seat behind the handle bars, and Brendan in the baby pack on Michel's shoulders. A dangerous circus-type human pyramid stunt, offered the officer, with two young children! You should know better! Indeed, we should have.

Of Bogart and Bergman

After tending to grocery shopping and some baby-updating housekeeping details for a growing Brendan (sewing a new lee cloth for his bed in the front V-berth section that he shared with Sean, along with a few other custom-made items that would allow him more mobility around the boat), we were ready to sail. Next stop, Casablanca—the stuff of legends. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine setting foot there. Images of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, iconic movie scenes and dialogue, a place where a kiss was just a all danced in my brain.

We were, nevertheless, somewhat apprehensive before undertaking this leg of the trip. Although we had read a lot of yachties’ accounts of sailing to Morocco, and met others who spent considerable time there and recounted wonderful tales, Michel harbored some hesitations, albeit even some prejudices given France’s long, and tumultuous North African colonial history with Morocco, Tunisia, and in particular, the bitter war with Algeria that permeated French life and current affairs during his childhood. Michel's own family history was particularly affected by the Algerian war in that his father was a combatant as a career military Gendarme officer. Michel wasn't sure what to expect in Morocco, nor how he would be treated being a Frenchman.

But first we had to get out of the grips of Gibraltar and indeed we learned our lesson well from our failed first endeavor the previous day. After a one-night respite in Ceuta, we tried again. The second attempt was successful and came off flawlessly, like clockwork. Michel deftly navigated our course, orchestrating our maneuvers and syncing our path practically to the very minute the current was predicted to shift to a parallel course with the tide. We said good-bye to Europe, and the Strait spit us out. We turned around to face Africa. My, what a feeling that was.