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.

Summer fog banks

It’s been a tricky few weeks working our way along the Portuguese west coast. There have been a few days with good sailing conditions and some wonderful destinations, but on the whole we’ve been motoring a lot more than we’d have liked, dodging gazillions of poorly marked lobster pots along the way.

We’ve grown to love our radar, and have relied on it to get us through the dense summer fog banks, made all the more interesting by the crazy fishing boats who don’t bother with automatic identification systems (AIS), and just motor around without a care in the world, not even sounding a horn to announce their presence.

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To help, we’ve made good use of MARPA (Mini Automatic Radar Plotting Aid) to monitor their whereabouts:

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The red triangles are dangerous targets which, once they’ve been manually identified, are automatically tracked by the radar which sounds an alarm if they get too close.

Here’s Helena adding targets while we both keep an eye out for anything we may have missed with the radar, like the lobster pot on our port side:

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Even when we get close, and know that there’s a boat out there, it’s a relief when it is finally spotted and we know we’ve passed it safely. Can you see the fishing boat in this photo?

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Well that’s my whinging done – in my next post I’ll be a bit more upbeat I promise and will describe some of the lovely places we’ve found along this stretch of coast.

Crossing Biscay

We set off from Trebeurden in northern France on Wednesday morning and managed to sail most of the day under light winds. We rounded Ushant at the most north western tip of France just as the sun was setting that evening, then turned left and aimed the boat towards La Coruna in Spain. From there, the crossing took another two days.

On the first day there was very little wind and we motored all day in the company of dolphins. That evening, as Maarten was lighting the oven to prepare dinner, there was a deafening scream of airplane engines and we were buzzed by a twin engined plane that had dived down to take a (much) closer look at us. I don’t know a lot about planes, but it looked to me like the plane from Raiders of the Lost Ark except that it was grey, not silver, and had ‘Marines’ painted along the side. I don’t know whether it was in active service or if it was an older restored plane, but it was a pretty spectacular sight either way.

We were expecting about 20 knots of wind from WSW on the final day of the crossing so motored out as far west as possible whilst keeping clear of the traffic lanes and the big ships. Positioning ourselves this way would allow us to sail into the wind at a fair enough angle to reach La Coruna.

The next morning when the wind arrived it was stronger and more southerly than forecast. Under heavily reduced sails and battling confused seas in excess of 3 meters, we beat our way on to Spain. Our original destination of La Coruna was no longer an option unless we wanted to motor directly into the wind, so we made course for Ria de Viveiro instead – a wide natural harbour that we could enter safely in the dark. Feeling exhausted, we arrived there and set the anchor for the night just after 0100hrs the following morning.

We’d like to say thanks to Maarten, who joined us for this trip. He has sailed with us many times before with his family. It’s always nice to see him, and having the extra hands on deck proved invaluable given the conditions this week.

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

Leaving England

We’re finally under way on our summer cruise to Portugal!

We set off at 7am from Ramsgate to catch the ebb tide in the English Channel, expecting strong wind and currents to take us south past Dover and Calais to our first destination: Boulogne Sur Mer.

And what a great day’s sailing we enjoyed. A solid F5 the whole way with wind speeds of around 20 kts and a current of almost 3 kts helping us along as we dodged the ferries outside of Dover harbour.

Our guests clearly enjoyed the trip. Patrice and his son, Ariel, were on board and at one point I though I might need a crow bar to get them off the helm. The autopilot didn’t get used at all but I expect this will change now that it’s just me and Helena on board again.

Patrice treated us all to some fabulous French cuisine at La Matelote which overlooks the beach in the evening. This morning he and Ariel left to catch a train back to Calais, and from there on to home in London.

Today, Helena and I have explored Boulogne. The heart of the town is a pretty medieval walled city with tight cobbled streets:

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Some of the shops were of particular interest for Helena:

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Tomorrow we will set off towards Dieppe where we hope to meet up with friends who are travelling towards the Channel Islands in their boat.

Republic of Ireland

Last weekend we left Amalia in Dun Laoghaire marina and stayed at an old friend from university's place in Dublin. We packed a light bag for the weekend and a box with a cat in it too.

Nicola was, as ever, a great host and took us on a tour of the city, starting at the Guinness brewery where we took a walk around the exhibitions before enjoying the best ever pint of the black stuff in their sky bar with great views of the city:

We then walked around the Temple Bar area, eating in a food market and enjoying public art installations before retiring to a bar for another round of refreshments.

On Sunday the wind was up so we took Nicola out for a day sail around Dublin bay. She proved to be a natural at the helm. Check out her look of concentration:

Even Buxton seemed relaxed with her sailing skills:

We have now moved south again to Arklow and are assessing the weather for the next leg of our journey.

Finally, these caught my eye in the supermarket this morning – proof if you needed it that we are actually in Ireland:

 

The Western Isles – Part II

Well I guess in the inevitable has happened and we’ve finally seen some true Highlands’ weather!

On the night of the 29th we had a quiet evening with good weather at anchor on the Isle of Ornsay. The next morning we had a great sail to Malaig, even Buxton enjoyed it – listen out for him purring in this video clip:

Our friends Brian and Jayne travelled up from Kent to meet up with us in Malaig, and we all set off the following morning, to head back out to the small isles.

While en-route, a quick re-check of the forecast showed that it had changed significantly and that a low pressure system was now headed our way, bringing with it gale force winds and rain. The anchorage we were headed to would have been too exposed so we changed course and headed south to picturesque Tobermory on Mull where we knew we could spend some time ashore. We ended up spending three days there, giving us plenty of time to visit all the attractions and to try (two bottles of) the local distillery’s whiskey.

Here’s a great photo I managed to snap of a double rainbow during a downpour yesterday afternoon:

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In case you’ve never seen it before, check out this YouTube clip of the guy getting very excited over a double rainbow. “What does it mean?”

This afternoon we left the shelter of the anchorage at Tobermory and set course for either Loch Spelve (if the wind did as predicted and dropped) or Oban (if it didn’t). This was our eventual track:

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As you can see from this, we decided not to go to Loch Spelve and headed across to Oban; here’s the reason why:

The video above was shot using my phone after we’d reduced both sails to the size of handkerchiefs, and started to head across the bottom of Loch Linnhe to Oban. This area was more exposed to the wind and swell coming in from the Atlantic and we had a consistent F7 for most of the way. The waves look quite harmless in this video but just after we stopped filming one caught the side of the boat and crashed over into the cockpit drenching me.

Rather than dropping as we reached Oban, the wind peaked to a F9 reaching 45 knots across the decks. Finally, just to add a little more spice to the mix, the local ferry started to follow us in but after a short VHF conversation with Brian, he very graciously agreed to slow down and give us time to get in well ahead of him.

Thankfully both Brian and Jane are very experienced sailors, and they’ve taken this week comfortably in their stride. They are great people and it’s been a pleasure having them on board and listening to their sailing stories from the years of living aboard their boat in the Caribbean.

Out for a sail on a windless weekend

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Helena and I went out for a sail with the cat this weekend. We really need to get him feeling at home on the boat. If you look closely you can see him in this photo.

There was very little wind but this gave us a change to fly our low-wind “Code-Zero” sail for the first time.

For such a big sail, it was surprisingly easy to handle. It runs on a continual furling line and is hoisted off the bowsprit on the spinnaker halyard. The material is very light-weight and this meant that I could easily furl and deploy it from the foredeck on my own. Looks pretty too right?