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Maiden Voyage – Portugal to Gibraltar

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Our first visitor came to stay this week.  We were delighted to welcome my great friend,  Paula Vickers, aboard.  Staying for one night only after a busy working week for Dial an Exchange in Portugal. Paula arrived on a sunny Friday afternoon and all too soon was jetting back to Blighty.  It was great to catch up.

Over the preceding few days we had spent all our time prepping the boat for sailing.  We checked the life jackets, took back the serviced life raft, fire extinguishers and the new EPIRB; refitting the VHF,  washed some of the lines to get the salt off, deep cleaned the deck and polished the chrome, translated labels from Dutch to English and hoisted the dinghy.  We also sorted the rope locker, marveling over the impressive collection of hose pipes and fittings, filled the tanks and stowed everything away safely, including Ian’s bike, which was shoe horned onto the bunk room.

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Saturday brought the arrival of ship mate David Heane who was to assist as crew in delivering the boat to Gibraltar, one hundred and eighty miles away.   Priorities, though, first we had to find somewhere to watch the rugby.  So, we grabbed a taxi into Monte Gordo and found a strange little sports bar where the rugby was in full swing and beer was on offer.

We were up bright and early on Sunday morning and the Marinera came to help us with the turning of the boat in the marina.  It was a beautiful morning with bright sunshine and flat calm which really helped us manoeuvre out of the restricted space.

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We gave our new friends Tristan and Sue of SY Minerva a wave as we passed by and headed off down the long channel of the Guardiana River and out into the Atlantic.

First stop, Mazagon Marina about 30 miles off.  We had very light winds initially but they built until we were able to deploy Genevieve the genaker, which quickly became Ian’s favourite sail.

This huge sail pulled us along at almost the speed of the wind.  We made much better progress.  We realised that since we were now in Spain protocol requires that one should change the courtesy flag on the starboard spreaders. We successfully removed the Portugese flag and attached the Spanish flag.  Somehow, the string to which it was attached had become jammed in the pulley and nothing was happening to lift the courtesy flag to the required height.  We added it to the list of jobs for the skipper to do the following morning.

Winds dropped so we chugged into the marina and were finally berthed by 2000hrs; a long day, but we all agreed it had gone very quickly.  We headed for beer and wifi and then quickly rustled up a spag bol and collapsed into bed.  Next day, we were up fairly early and the first job was to hoist Ian up the mast so he could fix the pulley.  IMG_2829He was trussed up tight in a harness and attached to  halyard.  We pulled him up to the first set of spreaders, winches creaking disconcertingly as he rose high above the deck.  Mission accomplished.  He fixed the problem and we were sorely tempted to leave him up there on the naughty step!

However, we decided to let him down so we could continue the trip to Chipiona.  We made good progress and were berthed early enough to grab a shower and head into town to replenish food stocks at the Allimentacione.

Moments after completing our provisioning duties, we walked down to the delightfully un-touristy town centre where we spotted a brightly lit bar on a street corner.  Serano ham legs were hanging from the ceiling like a collection of upturned, day-old, party balloons.  We suddenly noticed that we were all exceptionally thirsty, so we piled in and plonked down at the scrubbed Formica table and ordered beers.  We were presented with a menu by the friendly Spanish waiter and tried to match the overflowing and delicious looking tapas dishes on display with the names of the dishes on the menu.

IMG_2837Los Faroles turned out to be absolutely fantastic.  We were the vanguard of a run on the place and within ten minutes of us sitting down, the place was packed with Spanish families, couples and workers on the way home.  All chattering nineteen to the dozen and enjoying the tapas.  Fabulous evening, scrumptious food.

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New boat speed record

Next day, we set out to Puerto America at Cadiz.  The wind was strong today and we were tied up on the arrival pontoon by 1600hrs.  Absolutely shattered.

The port staff asked us to move to another berth just in case several 20 metre yachts might arrive and want to moor for the night.  So we had to un-tie  and go through the trauma of parking all over again.  My least favourite part of the day!

By this time, the wind had really got up and was 18 knots and gusting much more.  In a confined space this makes manoeuvring tricky, because big areas of the boat tend to act like a sail and make steerage challenging.  As we pulled up alongside the pontoon a particularly big gust began to push the boat away.  The breast line that was ready didn’t quite make it to the pontoon first time. Suddenly, the stern was being blown across and with no other boat in the pontoon there was nothing to cushion or stop our progress horizontally into the berthing bay.

With the bow being the only place to get ashore I was commanded to leap to the pontoon in order to assist David who was already there.  I prepared to make the leap from the pulpit, the highest point of the deck, calculating my trajectory so as to avoid the anchor and the bow spirit sticking out insolently in my way. It was at least four feet down to the pontoon far below.  As I rather nimbly, I thought, began my descent,  my left ankle kicked up hard against an errant spinnaker pole with enormous force.  Since the pole was firmly strapped on to the rail, it did not budge and my ankle received the most tremendous clonk. By this time I was airborne and cat-like somehow managed to land on the foot of my one dodgy, previously broken, ankle and judo roll to my feet.  Now, I was aware of a tremendous pain in my left ankle and realised that I now had two dodgy ankles to contend with!

Finally, we managed to sweat the boat I towards the pontoon and get her sorted.

After a medicinal snifter, whilst applying an ice pack fashioned from a frozen chicken fillet to my elevated limb, we all decided we needed a nap to get over the trauma of the berthing.

Awaking at 1930hrs we set off for Cadiz town, me limping on both sides, where it soon became apparent that something was happening.  There were people everywhere. We followed a group down a maze of streets off a huge square and came across a little bar on a street corner with a free outside table. We descended and abandoning any attempts to say more than ‘por favor’ and ‘gracias’ ordered a range of tapas by pointing at plates of food on other people’s tables.

It was delicious! Swordfish, anchovies, sardines, potatoes and sea bass.  All the while the crowds were building up along the street adjacent to us.

We heard drumming and a procession of people marched past us clad in white robes and hooded headgear, topped by an enormous point; like extended dunces hats with a KKK mask attached, swiftly followed by three crosses. Ahhh! Now we could see that it was an Easter Passion Procession.

The file of people continued to go past down the narrow street.  A huge and ornate wooden sarcophagus was carried by, then finally an elaborate silver one with a model of Mary Magdalene perched on the top. Everyone clapped and then almost immediately started to disburse as the heavens opened.

Luckily, we were kept dry by the huge umbrella above our table. We waited for the shower to abate and then headed back to the distant marina.

Next day we set off to Barbate.  The last, most Easterly port of call in the Atlantic.  We left after an engine check, hoping to complete the 37 mile trip in good time.

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There was very little wind, however, and quite a moderate swell, so we wallowed about making slow progress.  Eventually, we pulled up at the visitors pontoon at dusk.  The light drops very quickly here so by the time we had negotiated a berth via Google translate with the security guard, it was really quite dark.  The marina was well sheltered and so we smoothly slipped along side the finger pontoon, no heroics today, to park quietly there for a few hours.

In double quick time, we rustled up a supper of ham, cheese, salami  salad and potatoes; showered and set the course for the following day’s sail to Gibraltar.

We decided to leave at 0500hrs the following morning.

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(Poor David would be glad to get back to work next week, for a rest!)   The distance was at least forty miles on a straight course and was further complicated by tidal streams and currents with which we needed to coordinate as we squeezed through the Straits of Gibraltar. (Dire Straits?)

Not only that, there were the usual plethora of man made obstacles to avoid, such as; massive tuna nets laid over vast areas, military exercise zones, underwater cables suspended two metres below the surface. All of these are charted so routes can be planned accordingly, however, we would be sailing in the dark for that added extra challenge!   We would need to be able to identify all the different flashing, occluding and constant lights in our sight lines so we would know where we were in relation to the chart.  Also, in coastal waters, car headlamps can be a bit off-putting too!

In addition to that, there are the veritable mine fields lobster pot floats to keep an eye out for and skirt round.

During the week we had become accustomed to being alone on the wide open sea.  Sighting another sailing boat was unusual.  We spotted the odd ship in the distance and checked their identity on the AIS tracker.

So, as we approached Tarifa, the part of Europe closest to Africa, we were interested to see things becoming distinctly busier on the traffic front.  There is a traffic separation scheme, for large cargo vessels, operating in the Straits.  We saw it in action.  We checked the details on the AIS of one of the ships as she passed us by some two miles away.  345m long and 50m wide! Yes, that’s correct! 345m long! The circumference of her deck being almost a kilometre!  And then there’s us – 13m long.  Definitely don’t want to get in the way of one of those.

There are entire books written about transiting the Straits, with warnings about overfalls, currents and counter currents as the Atlantic squeezes into a narrow eight mile stretch of water.  For example, it is said that the wind blows at Isla Tarifa at 40 knots for 300 days of the year.  It is also said that, ‘If the wind is light at one end of the Straits it will be blowing hard at the other.’  This is exactly what we experienced as winds built during the course of the day.  Luckily for us it was one of the other 65 days on which we passed Isla Tarifa,  our half way point, and although we had planned to anchor in the lee of the island to eat lunch and have a nap we decided that with the fair wind we should just crack on.  By the time we reached the mouth of the Bay of Gibraltar the wind had reached 30 knots.

We tonked on with the wind behind us, gybing three or four times.  Exhausting work, winching in the main sheet each time on a powered up sail.  It was precarious to put the preventer on the boom each time we gybed but somehow we manage to do it all whilst cooking and eating  scrambled eggs on toast.  IMG_2842The skipper was on the helm so David had to feed him!

Suddenly, we saw The Rock of Gibraltar ahead.  Straits screen shotThere were vessels everywhere, travelling in every direction, at ridiculous speeds!  I was detailed to keep track of them all.  A large red vessel crossed in front of us and we skirted her stern.  A huge cargo ship surged past our starboard beam at twenty four knots.  Ships lay at anchor on both sides of the bay, either waiting to off load cargo at Algeciras or Gibraltar.  Fuel ships hugged up against other vessels to fill up their tanks.   We bravely sail in amongst these giants.  The wind is strong, the waves moderate and the current carries us along.  We make good progress even with two reefs in the sail and half the head sail in.

Before long, we spy the breakwater up ahead.  We head for the reception pontoon and two mariners are there to help. Wonderful.

We complete the copious paperwork for the fifth time this week and are allocated our berth.

We limber up for the gymnastics associated with parking our boat by rearranging the fenders and recoiling our lines.  We complete the calisthenics necessary to to kick our legs over the rail, mooring lines in hand, and perch, precariously on the rail.  The finger pontoon looms ever closer.  Notoriously thin and wobbly, they are not the greatest thing to try to jump on to.  Their minimal width does not allow an extra step to counter forward motion.  It must be a standing landing.  David jumps with the grace  and delicacy of a man half his size and age.  He makes it, with barely a wobble and hooks us on.  The wind pushes us away.  We utilise another cleat and manage to pull clear of the boat next door.  A bow line is attached and all are sweated in against the wind and current to sit us fairly close up against the pontoon.  No damage done, except to David’s finger which is scraped, bruised and bleeding all over the pontoon.

IMG_2917So happy to have survived the Straits (not so dire, after all), sailed 180 miles, and to have arrived in this spectacular spot, under the Rock, tucked into the marina of the appropriately named town of La Linea.