Gibraltar – an encounter with the Royal Navy

The adventures of Chili III
Peter & Belinda Vernon
Mon 8 Nov 2021 20:34

Position 36:43.5N 003:43.6

Marina del Este

Time to leave the Atlantic and enter the Med. We decided to break the passage in Barbate (30 miles west of Gibraltar), in part for old times sake. We were towed into Barbate del Franco, as it was called in 1992, on board Foreign Exchange – (our Rival 34) after the engine fell off its mountings and have fond memories of discussing stainless steel fabrication in our linguaphone Spanish and being offered freshly cured anchovies by our lovely next door neighbours.

Back to 2021. The passage from Cadiz rounded Cape Trafalgar of UK shipping forecast fame and we started out with a very lumpy sea. But with strong winds on the beam and 2 reefs in the main we cracked along nicely at 8KN.  

Before long the huge and impressive Atlas mountains of Morocco appeared ahead and with it the realisation that we’re within a few miles of Africa. There is real sense of satisfaction and wonder that, just over 3 weeks after leaving Scotland, here we were in a very different part of the world; a different climate, culture, architecture, cuisine, language, histry, landscape and flora. These transitions on small boat are always exciting and somehow wonderful. I still find it extraordinary that, mainly under wind power in such a short time it is possible to travel with your belongings to a completely different part of the world. This is one of the things that makes sailing so special.

After 4 hours the wind died to nothing leaving us with a very unpleasant chopped up sea. Not the most fun – probably caused by currents and shallow water off Cape Trafalgar. Ah well – to be tolerated. We tied up in the impressively built and half empty Barbate marina in time for dinner on board.

After a morning of planning and domestics we set off at 1330 for Marine del Este on the Costa Tropical (west of Malaga). There was very little wind (E2/3) and so set off motoring which continued until we finally picked up a westerly breeze at midnight well into the Med. We had a lovely sunny day and super clear visibility meant great views of Morocco and Tarrifa (the most Southerly town in Europe). As we approached the Straits (just 8 miles wide) through the inshore passage for small boats it became very busy with ships of all shapes and sizes – massive 12 story cruise ships, 1200 ft tankers and container ships, trawlers, warships, etc. Channel 16 has never been so busy. Passing the rock of Gibraltar was a significant moment for us and brought back great memories – a poignant sunset moment.

An incident worth recording….as the sun was setting we noticed ship approaching astern. It was about 200 ft long and looked like big commercial trawler but no fishing gear in sight.  As we watched it on AIS it was clear that it was on a collision course. She was overtaking us and so we had right of way. We held our course as the stand-on vessel. Then, on Channel 16, she was called up by a Royal Navy patrol boat with no response... and still no change of course. We held our course. The patrol boat then read a very articulate riot act about infringing UK waters and instructed the vessel to leave immediately. Still no response. No more than 200m from our stern she turned to starboard (dark by this time) and the patrol boat with fast rib behind accelerated to take up a position between us and the mystery ship. More Navy comms, no response. Eventually, having seen them off, they returned to base.

Two thoughts occurred. The captain of the ship broke the Colregs so far as we were concerned – it happens – you can’t rely on compliance. And secondly, the Navy is rigorously defending UK rights over Gibraltar in quite an aggressive fashion. We heard two more riot acts being read that evening. It seemed over the top.

By midnight we were sailing slowly with a W4 behind us. At dawn we arrived at Punta de la Mona near Almunacar on the Costa Tropical. It felt like a Spanish Amalfi Coast – high cliffs with villages clinging to the hills around them. Most definitely we had arrived in the Med.