Beautiful Morocco

After reaching Gibraltar, we decided that rather than following the Spanish coast into the Med, as initially planned, we’d cross over to Africa and take a look around. This blog tells of the very different places and experiences we’ve had there in the last week.

Ceuta – Spain

On the north coast of Africa and only a sixteen mile trip from Gibraltar, Ceuta is one of two Spanish enclaves in northern Morocco. Dispensing with the political similarities between Ceuta and Gibraltar, we were curious to see what it was like so under light winds we set off from Gibraltar and crossed the straits using our new Parasailor sail for the first time since its commissioning.

Amalia is a big old girl, and generally requires a little over 10 knots to get going properly; on the day we had around 10 knots of wind and, rather then dragging her heels, she raced us across the straits; we were rarely under 6 knots the whole way:

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From a distance we spotted pilot whales and after a few hours arrived at our first ever African port.

Acting as Spain’s gateway to Africa, Ceuta is a bustling commercial town with some great colonial architecture. We spent a couple of days exploring the city and the highlight for us was the historic fortifications which, along with the rest of the seafront buildings, were at their most impressive when illuminated at night:

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In much the same way that Gibraltar is very British with some Spanish influences, Ceuta is very Spanish with some distinctly Moroccan flavours thrown in. There can’t be many places in the world where bikinis and burkas coexist so comfortably for example.

The market near the harbour had an amazing selection of fresh foods and fish. We ended up trying a dorado (fish) sausage that tasted so good we bought two – they’re still untouched in the galley as we’re not too sure what to eat them with. Any suggestions in the comments section below please!

Smir – Morocco

From Cueta we headed south and east into Morocco’s first port of entry. This is our first time arriving in a non-European port and we weren’t too sure what to expect in terms of Moroccan paperwork. As it turned out the paperwork took a while to complete but it was all done under the shade of a big tree with good humour and a friendly smile as they worked to fix their printer using a syringe to inject fresh ink in to a depleted ink cartridge.

Smir houses a large marina built as part of a holiday resort, and along with the local camel we soon became something of an attraction, having to keep the gate closed on the guard rail to prevent people climbing on board to take photos.

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The people here were incredibly friendly and helpful. One afternoon we decided to walk to town to get some supplies from the market. Someone at the marina told us it was just a couple of miles away, but they clearly didn’t understand what a mile was as an hour later we were still walking along the main road. We asked a group of men for directions, and they told us we should get a taxi the rest of the way. One of them tried to help us hail a taxi and, after a few minutes with no luck, his brother drove past in the local school bus. Helena had never been in a school bus before and was clearly both grateful and delighted when we accepted the offer of a free ride to town.

Chefchaouen – Morocco

Chefchaouen is the Rough Guide’s #1 attraction in Morocco. It’s a stunningly beautiful ancient walled city:

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The thing that makes it truly unique though is that nearly every building (and a lot of the streets and pavements) are painted bright blue.

In Judaism, blue represents the sky and the heavens so when Hitler’s growing power drove Jews from their homes in the 1930s, many refugees returned to safety in Chefchaouen and painted the town the vivid shade of blue it is known for today. Now most of the Jewish families have left, but the local government sponsors the painting each spring to keep the history alive.

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North east Morocco is an area known for producing vast quantities of hashish. An alternative theory for the painting is that the stoners all had a little too much to smoke one day and decided to paint the town blue.

Either way, there’s no denying that you sometimes get an overwhelming sense that you’re swimming when you turn a corner and find yourself immersed in blue – a very odd sensation.

El Jabah – Morocco

From the pilot guide, the next place to visit was a day’s sail along the coast to a small fishing town. Reportedly one of the most friendly places to go and see, it comprises of a small fishing harbour and a nearby bay suitable for anchoring.

We suspect that since the pilot guide was written, that something untoward has happened here as we were not welcomed with open arms but rather yelled at by a couple of fishermen and someone in an official uniform to get out of the harbour the moment we arrived. They instructed us to go to the next port along the coast – some 7 hours away. Rather than doing this and arriving in the dark at an unknown port, we decided to drop the anchor in the bay just around the corner and settle ourselves there instead.

It’s hard to get a sense from the sketches in the pilot book of the size of the bay and whether there are any dangers to be aware of when entering it. From what we could tell, there was good depth (over 7 meters) wherever we went and no dangerous rocks were apparent. We used a trip line when anchoring, but it lifted without no problems and was covered in lovely gooey mud.

A force 7 wind was forecast for the night so we decided to stay put an extra day. The bay offered good shelter from the fierce winds that night and we slept comfortably.

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The only problem we had was when a fisherman arrived to retrieve nets that he’d laid without marker buoys across the bay. As we’d had no idea it was there, we’d laid our anchor chain right over it and it took us quite a while to untangle everything.

The fisherman was a nice guy but he was visibly worried about the police who had started blowing whistles at us from their lookout station (you can just make out the white building on the clifftop).

The police never contacted us directly, but we suspect that there have been problems with drug smuggling here recently that may have involved visiting yachts. Did I forget to mention that the Tuesday market in El Jabah is a hashish market?

As ever, If you’d like to see more photos and movies from our journey, then take a look at our Facebook page.

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The Algarve to Gibraltar

We left Portimao, and some very lovely neighbours, last Wednesday, the 13th May. We headed for the anchorage at Culatra, near Faro, and spent a lazy day there exploring the small fishing town of Armona. The pace of life here seems a million miles away from working in London, there are no cars, sandy streets, and it was fun to watch the fisherman bickering over one too many beers in the afternoon sun.

IMG_0704We were treated to another colourful sunset there that night:

IMG_0723The next morning we were up early and headed out just as the sun was rising and headed for the river Guardiana, that separates Portugal from Spain.

We’d been looking forward to exploring the river, but when we got there the wind was up and with it the waves. Given that we have a 2 meter draft and that there’s a sandbank running across the river entrance with a clearance of just 2 meters in places, we thought it a little too dangerous to enter given the state of the sea.

Instead we pushed on another 15 or so miles and headed to Mazagon, switching our courtesy flag to reflect our change from Portuguese to Spanish waters:

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Mazagon turned out to be an economical (just €20) but fairly bland marina to spend the night, so in the morning we headed out to sea again and on towards Rota.

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Rota was a real highlight for us. We loved exploring the winding streets of the old town. They offered shade from the sunshine, good places to eat and something of interest around every corner.

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To cope with the heat, the buildings have a heavy wooden outer door that leads to a shaded courtyard or entrance lobby. I found them beautiful and fascinating and couldn’t help but poke my camera lens into a few of them:

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Our dilemma in Rota was whether to stay or move on. In order to get into the Med, we would need to pass the straits of Gibraltar. This meant waiting for a suitable weather window that would allow us to pass one of the worlds windiest places at the southern most tip of Europe: Tarifa. The Wind in Tarifa is said to blow over 30 knots for 300 days of the year. It is impossible to take a sail boat through this pinch-point into the Med unless the wind is with you, or you pick one of the remaining 65 days of the year when the wind isn’t so strong.

All the forecasts we read indicated that there was only one day in the next week that would allow us to enter the Mediterranean; in two days time. If we didn’t get to Tarifa for this day, then we’d have to wait for at least a week before we could leave. As lovely as Rota was, and as close as it is to Cadiz (another place we wanted to see), we decided to push on again and head for Barbate, and then on to Gibraltar.

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Gibraltar doesn’t have much to offer in the way of beautiful architecture, or atmosphere. However, on the plus side, there’s a Morrisons here and a litre of diesel costs just 44 pence. So we’ve filled our galley with all the foods we miss from home, and our diesel tanks are now filled to the brim too.

Time to move on again! Where to next?

WiFi Internet access on board

I’ve finally got our Internet access working the way I’ve always wanted. Now, whenever we arrive at a new destination, we can flip a single switch on our main panel, sniff out a nearby WiFi network and get online.

In a marina finding a WiFi network to connect to is straight-forward. When at anchor, it means searching for a decent WiFi signal from a coffee shop followed by a trip to buy an espresso or two, and leaving with their network password in our pocket.

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Unlike much simpler solutions which can be plugged directly into a PC’s USB port, we have a large, permanently mounted high gain antenna which is capable of connecting to networks miles away. Once connected, our ship’s WiFi router allows all our devices (laptops, phones, iPads) to share the same Internet connection without having to re-enter user names and passwords.

Today, our neighbours have been complaining about the poor quality of the WiFi provided at the marina, yet we’ve had a reliable connection all day and have even been able to stream video.

This setup is the result of a couple of years of trial-and-error using a variety of hardware, made all the more difficult as everything has had to be restricted to 12 volts.

In this article I’ll give a brief overview of how it all works. I hope it proves useful to others who’d like to set up a similar installation in their boat or camper van.

A list of parts:

A similar all-in-one ‘Pro’ solution from a commercial marine vendor can be expensive, but if you buy the parts individually and are willing to spend a little time setting it up, then you’ll be left with change from £200:

  1. Ubiquiti Bullet M2
  2. 8dBi Omni-directional antenna
  3. UV resistant CAT5 ethernet cable
  4. 12v power over ethernet (POE) injector (to power the Bullet)
  5. USB powered WiFi router
  6. 12v to USB power adaptor (to power the WiFi router)

The Bullet is the key component in the system. It attaches directly to the high gain antenna and contains all the jiggery-pokery-magic that sniffs out WiFi networks for you. I bought the Titanium model (actually made from aluminium) as it looks much more robust and weather proof than its only slightly cheaper plastic counterpart. I chose an 8dBi antenna, as higher gain means a narrower beam angle that might miss a WiFi base station. It works well, and given clear line of sight has a more than adequate working range of over 5 miles. I found the guys at broadband buyer really helpful when I phoned for advice on this, and they helped to select a model that was more suitable for marine use, and very reasonably priced too.

You’ll need a short patch cable too. I decided to make my own and bought some RJ45 connectors and a crimping tool from eBay (it’s possible to learn how to do just about anything on YouTube). This also meant that I could terminate cables where I wanted to rather than having untidy coils of cable hidden behind panels around the boat. The cable tester proved invaluable as the first few leads I made had faults in them.

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The trickiest item to find was a decent antenna bracket; they were either ugly, poor quality or laughably expensive. In the end, I had one fabricated from stainless steel specifically for the job – it looks great and only cost €20.00.

Putting it all together:

I’d spoken with a few vendors of all-in-one WiFi solutions at the London boat show, and the general opinion was that the ‘sweet spot’ for a WiFi antenna is about 3m above the water line. We already have an Navtex antenna mounted on the pushpit, so I just added the WiFi antenna to the same pole and ran the CAT5 cable from there inside the boat.

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In the  closeup image, you can see the bracket I had made, and the nice weather proof fixings on the Bullet Titanium model. The only cable that runs to the Bullet is the CAT5 ethernet cable; the POE injector sends it power up a pair of otherwise unused wires in this cable.

At the other end of the CAT5 cable, the remaining components are attached to a plywood board:

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Power from the switch panel (1) is supplied to the POE injector (2) and the USB power adaptor (3), which in turn powers the TP-Link WiFi router (6).

The CAT5 cable from the Bullet plugs into the POE socket of the injector (4) and 12 volts is sent to power it up. The network signal from the bullet is sent back down using different wires in the same CAT5 cable and relayed via the patch cable (5) to the TP-Link WiFi router (6).

The TP-Link WiFi router creates our ship’s WiFi network (to which we connect all our devices with a single password) and it forwards all requests for web pages to the Bullet.

The plywood board is backed with heavy duty Velcro which holds it snugly at the back of a cabinet by the chart table. The blue monkey-fist knot allows the board to be easily pulled out for maintenance.

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Network configuration:

Wiring the components together is relatively simple. Configuring the networking can be quite tricky and I suggest that you get this all working on a bench before even thinking about installation. If you have some experience configuring networks, then you’ll be fine – if not, it might be worth buying a friend who has experience a couple of beers.

As far as I’m concerned, the trick to configuring everything is to be methodical and take small steps. Start with the Bullet and no WiFi router. To do this replace the patch cable shown above with a cable connecting the LAN side of the POE injector directly to your laptop or PC. Then follow the configuration instructions in the Bullet’s user guide. Set it’s network mode to ‘Router’ and enter the I.P. settings you want it to use.

Once you’re in a position where you can connect to a remote WiFi network using the Bullet, it’s time to start thinking about setting up your own local WiFi network for your devices to connect to. Again, do this with the Bullet turned off so that you can focus on the WiFi router. Importantly, you should make sure that the WiFi router will use a different subnet address from the Bullet. So, for example, if the Bullet is configured to use 192.168.1.X, then the WiFi router must be configured to use something like 192.168.2.X. Once this is working as you’d like, use the patch cable to connect the Bullet to the WiFi router and you’re done.

You should now be able to connect to the Bullet’s configuration pages via your local WiFi network and search for remote WiFi networks:

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Sort the networks by signal to noise ratio.  Counterintuitively the best signal will be the one with the lowest value; in this case, the Vodafone network shown at the top of the list. Select this network and click the button to make the Bullet connect to it.

You should now be able to connect any number of devices on board to your local WiFi network, and they will all have internet access.

 

A good start to 2015

We’ve spent most of our first week back on Amalia socialising with friends and family. We met up with Martin, Olga, Ricardo and Sofia, who are in Portimao visiting Olga’s parents, and sailed with them to Alvor for lunch. Alvor is a lovely anchorage if you’re careful to mind the sandbanks, and a favourite spot for kite-surfers along this coast:

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We ate sandwiches there as we watched an Italian yacht struggle to free itself from a grounding (see our Facebook page for more pics and discussion).

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Helena’s brother drove down from Coimbra with their parents, and we ate out at a great little restaurant we found in Ferragudo when we were last out here at Easter.

The Portuguese certainly know how to cook meat, and I could barely walk straight when we left.

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We also had a visit from the UK Parasailor agent on Thursday, to commission our new sail. So far we’re very impressed with it and how easy it was to use. We’re looking forward to trying it out in a slightly stronger breeze, but even in 5kts of wind, we managed to get the boat moving at over 3kts – not bad at all for a heavy boat like ours. Here’s a photo taken by Martin as we sailed back into Portimao harbour:

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I’ve finally got the WiFi setup on the boat working as I’d like, which must be a relief for Helena as I’ve had the boat apart running power cables around:

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There’s been a fair amount of trial and error involved in getting this to work properly, so I’ll write a more technical blog later this week explaining how it all ties together as I’m sure it’ll be useful for anyone trying to set up a 12v WiFi network in a boat or camper van.

Apart from our friendly neighbours, there’s nothing left in Portimao for us now so it’s time to start moving again. As ever, If you’d like to see more photos and movies from our journey, then take a look at our Facebook page.