18 Oct - Into Africa
34: 01.7N 006:49.3W
Monday 16 October was a busy day. We arose at daybreak for the drive back to Gibraltar from Olvera. No traffic to speak of and a good road especially from Ronda down to the coast made for a quick run. It passes through some pretty smart private developments near Marbella and is apparently popular with powerful motorcycles at weekends. We were chasing the new antenna for the satellite communications system and we knew it was somewhere in the no-man’s-land between DHL, Gibraltar Customs and the boat – roughly a mile square. By early afternoon it was installed and we quickly proved the telephony bit. Data was proving more problematic, but I knew that was a software issue and nothing to do with any of the kit. So we packaged up all the ‘returns’, went shopping and took the hire car back to La Linea before enjoying a farewell drink with our good friends Bob and Sylvia Sanguinetti, who provided such fantastic advice, support and entertainment during our stay at The Rock.
New antenna in place…
Tuesday was another early start to catch the best tide westwards through the Straits of Gibraltar. Basically, the water on the sea surface runs into the Mediterranean from the Atlantic all the time, topping up the levels that evaporate, whilst if you are a canny submariner you can find currents heading back out into the Atlantic if you go deep enough. The even cannier yachtsman and local fisherman also knows that there are stretches of west running tidal stream in the shallow water close to the Spanish coast and we opted to find these. It reminded me of clawing our way down the western Solent against the tide, staying in water less than 10m deep, except that here we had the wind behind us and the 10m contour line seemed quite close enough to some rocky bits! We flew west and we were soon off Tarifa in nearly 30 knots of wind reaching across the shipping lanes towards the top left corner of Morocco. The big ships were easy to avoid; more interesting were the fleets of fishing boats out of Tangers harbour who seemed to be sitting waiting for something to happen – usually just in front of us! No obvious gear out, chaps in the back discussing the football… not a lot of activity as far as we could tell.
We soon left them behind too and entered some pretty thick fog around lunchtime which stayed with us for the rest of the day. The wind was a bit up and down, mainly from astern and we did not need to make a very high speed because we had been told by the harbourmaster at Rabat to arrive off his pilot station at 1330 the next day (Wednesday). So we pushed along gently, sounding the new foghorn, watching the radar, dodging one fisherman who came out of the fog at 50 yards with no warning and as much surprise on their faces as there was on mine!
Towards evening a cold front came in from the west, bringing a little bit more wind but also a very active electrical storm. It was a long way off at first, but by 0300 in the morning it was about five miles away and quite spectacular. We put some essential electronics (spare VHF, spare GPS, IPad, mobile phones) in the oven in case the boat got hit by lightning and gritted our teeth. The light show was the most intense I’ve seen in over forty years at sea: continuous flickering, visible arcs of electricity every 30 seconds or so and about every 5 minutes one would earth itself into the sea nearby, sending up showers of sparks. The air smelt of ozone, the light was too bright to look at and I decided to speed up and try to keep the boat to the east of the main thunder clouds, which you could see very clearly on radar. The only problem was that then brought us closer to the coast of Morocco and increased the risk of snaring a fishing net around the propeller – there wasn’t quite enough wind to make ground away from the inferno without using the engine and the fishing fleet had come to join us.
Around 0400 it started to rain – heavily. By now, the thunder and lightning were just a couple of miles from us, but we were clawing our way south away from the worst of it. Under the clouds, the wind increased to a steady Force 6 and backed into the south west and we reefed down. Each cloud brought a 50o wind shift and by this time I was too close to the shore and had to tack out to sea and back towards the storm about every forty minutes or so.
By daybreak the worst was over. Statistically, the chances of being hit by lightning were very small, but it was a big old storm and you do feel quite vulnerable bobbing along underneath it. There were four or five other yachts within about 20 miles of us and nobody was hit. We all had odd electrical problems: over the course of the night I lost three navigation lights with blown bulbs and at one stage the wind indicator got itself stuck at 99 knots of wind! We recovered the phones from the oven before cooking breakfast and tried to dry things out a bit in the cockpit.
By mid morning, the sun was trying to come out and the wind had veered a bit as the front passed overhead. The next challenge was getting into Rabat: they often close the harbour because of the Atlantic swell which causes rollers to break in the shallow entrance. As far as we could tell, their criteria was a swell height of 2m and from where we were sitting onboard Escapade, it was pretty marginal. We spoke to the harbour master on the phone and an Australian yacht near us called them on the radio. They seemed confident that the harbour was open, but quite non-committal too. Ahead of us, we heard another yacht being turned away from the port of Mahommedia, some forty miles further on. The options were few: keep our fingers crossed that Rabat was ‘in limits’; press on to Mahommedia and just barge in; stay at sea another night and head to Essaouira (but the weather was due to deteriorate) or pull the plug on Morocco and head for Madeira (500 miles away) or the Canaries (470 miles away) – both upwind.
At 1330 we were one mile off the harbour entrance to Rabat in heavy seas. I was sceptical. The Aussie catamaran was 100 yards ahead. The harbour master was not answering the VHF. The Aussie announced that he was going in anyway and turned to port. We followed. Out of the murk a RIB appeared with two crewmen in it – the harbour pilot! ‘Full ahead, sir’ was his only instruction and we complied. The biggest waves were in the outer harbour, but they did not break as we surfed in at nine knots and suddenly we were safe! The sun came out, the harbour walls looked like something out of a Beau Geste movie and we were in AFRICA!
The Kasbah at Rabat
The rest of it was a doddle; we had very cursory visits from the Police and Customs who did not seem very interested in us (the Aussies had a visit from a sniffer dog but he was too fat to get below decks) and we found ourselves in a very modern, half empty marina on the opposite side of the river from the city of Rabat. Whilst everyone else had to make do with silly little finger berths, we were given a splendid alongside berth on the end of the pontoon. Hurrah.
Rabat from the marina at Salé
We lost no time in stepping ashore into the town of Salé. This used to be a famous pirate stronghold and is where Robinson Crusoe escaped from. Our berth was just a few yards from the ancient Medina walls; quite a contrast to the ultra-modern marina development and the slick and efficient tram service that crosses the river into Rabat. We opted for the medina – the old town with narrow cobbled streets, quirky drainage (especially after the overnight rain) and crowded souk. It was colourful, exotic, dirty, shabby and friendly. Nobody hassled us; we were the only Westerners in there and they took as much notice of us as they did of the huge feline population which occupied almost every spare bit of space. The standards of poverty are striking; I had the privilege of serving in Pakistan some years ago and thought that after the backstreets of Lahore and Rawalpindi I’d seen everything. Salé was right up there with that; the only place I’ve seen with significantly more destitution per square foot would be the shanty town on the outskirts of Djibouti, where everything was built of cardboard, hessian sacking and corrugated sheeting and most people were suffering from malnutrition. Here, the buildings are centuries old and there’s an undercurrent of mystery and romance amid the squalor. Nobody was starving, everyone had clothes and just about everyone was trying to make money or exchange it for stuff. The shops were full. Above all, the people seemed upbeat. Exhausted, we made a discrete tactical withdrawal and got some well-deserved ‘shut-eye’.
A smarter area of the medina at Salé. It felt awkward to photograph the more extreme bits…
Looking from Salé towards Rabat. Interesting that the graveyard occupies the prime real estate!