Our passage through the Strait of Gibraltar had been a breeze this time. A favorable tide and light westerly winds had pleasantly carried our Classic 37 Two-Step
from the Atlantic Ocean into the Mediterranean Sea. Now, just over the bow, Paul and I could see our destinationthe Rock of Gibraltar, one of the Pillars of Hercules guarding the entrance to the Med from the European shore.
Across the Strait stood the second Pillar of Hercules, the mountain Jabal Musa on the African coast. According to ancient Roman legends, Hercules built the Pillars when he forced the Atlas Mountains apart creating the Strait of Gibraltar and opening the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Hercules inscribed the Pillars with the words "Nothing Beyond" and the ancients believed the Strait marked the end of the worldthe entrance to Hades and the Underworld.
At the foot of Jabal Musa, barely visible in the afternoon haze, we could just make out the tiny colony of Ceuta, a Spanish enclave attached to Morocco by a narrow isthmus. Like Gibraltar (which is a British enclave attached to Spain), Ceuta commands a powerful position between two oceans and two continents. Because of this strategic location, both Gibraltar and Ceuta have been fought over and held by many nations throughout the centuries, and as a result both territories have unique mixtures of culture, history, and architecture. This time through the Strait we were going to visit both places.
On a previous cruise, we had wintered in Gibraltar and had planned to cross the Strait to North Africa the following spring. But it was the winter of 1990-91 and the Gulf War broke out while we were in Gibraltar. Ferry service and flights to Morocco and other Muslim countries were cancelled so sailing over to Ceutaalthough a Spanish territoryjust didn't seem a prudent thing to do. "Next time," we sighed.
On this cruise we had chosen Gibraltar as our first port-of-call for several reasons. First, as a British-dependent territory, English is spoken and after weeks of struggling to communicate in basic Portuguese and Spanish we needed a break. Secondly, Gibraltar is a cruisers’ crossroads where good facilities and all marine services can be found, most within walking distance of the marinas. It is also a duty-free port so it is a good place to stock up and order expensive equipment or spare parts. Thirdly, because we'd spent time there before, we knew our way around and had friends whom we wanted to see.
"There's the dockyard ahead, Sher," Paul called from the helm. "That's where they brought Admiral Nelson's body back from the Battle of Trafalgar, preserved in a barrel of rum. Remember that story?"
"Shall we toast our arrival with a shot of rum?" I called back. "Marina Bay should come into view in a few minutes. Don't forget we have to report at the Customs Dock at Waterport before going into the marina."
I looked ahead at the familiar silhouette of the Rock of Gibraltar, a symbol of power and strength throughout history. Halfway up the slope, I could see the fourteenth century Moorish castle, evidence of past conquerors amidst the now British fortress. In 1704, an Anglo-Dutch force stormed Gibraltar and captured it from the Spanish. It has been British ever since.
With the Rock of Gibraltar towering 426 meters (1,397 feet) above us at its highest peak, we slipped along the western shoreline. There are three marinas in Gibraltar and also a good-sized anchorage. The anchorage is partly protected by the airport runway, which juts out into the bay due to the limited real estate on the six-square-kilometer (3.7 square miles) peninsula. It can be a little noisy at times but the airport isn't too busy, so it isn't too bad. If you plan to anchor, it's important to heed the marks and boundaries so you don't become a threat to aeronautical safety. You don't want to become airborne with your rigging tangled in the undercarriage of a 737!
Also next to the runway is our favorite marina in Gibraltar, Marina Bay. The staff, under the direction of piermaster Adrian Gilson, is courteous and helpful and the marina is clean, well-kept and reasonably priced at 6.25 Gibraltar Pounds per night, or less than $10.00 US for our 37-foot sailboat. Unfortunately, all three marinas in Gib (Sheppards and Queensway Quay are the other two) are subject to swell from time to time, but we like Marina Bay because there are several chandleries and a grocery store right on the quay making provisioning easy.
There is also a huge Safeway within walking distancea great place to stock up on all those British goodies you haven't seen for a while. Marina Bay has the best view of the Rock and is a festive place where everyone comes to enjoy a drink at one of the pubs or a meal at one of the quayside restaurants.
After clearing in, we were directed to a slip at Marina Bay and tied bow-to at the pier, picking up the lazy line that ran to the stern mooring provided in every slip. It seems pretty rare that you have to drop an anchor and do a traditional Mediterranean mooring these days. Then began a blur of provisioning and socializing. We took some time out for exploring as well. A stroll down Main Street is a cosmopolitan crush with proper English "bobbies" (police officers) patrolling the streets, maintaining order, and offering assistance to anyone lost in the confusion of narrow streets in the old town. But a visit isn't complete without a drive or hike to the Upper Rock to see the mischievous Barbary apes. Legend says that Britain will rule the Rock as long as the apes remainso they are well cared for! And what a view from the topthe Atlantic, Mediterranean, Europe, and Africa all in one breathtaking panorama.
Soon it was time to head to Ceuta. Despite our excitement about visiting Africa at last, we were feeling a little apprehensive. Paul and I have been cruising internationally for 10 years now and have dealt with many cultures, language barriers, and all types of cruising conditions, so we are pretty confident that we can handle whatever comes our way. However, Africa was new for us. We had never dealt with a Muslim culture before and, despite our reservations, wanted to broaden our understanding and experience in this part of the world. So we decided to make landfall in Ceuta since it was a Spanish outpost attached to Morocco, where we could ease gently into a new and unfamiliar culture.
Although it is only a 15-mile sail across the Strait of Gibraltar to Ceuta, we had to choose our weather carefully. The narrow steep-sided Strait funnels the winds and tides, accelerating their speeds and creating horrific conditions if one is against the other. The worst condition would be a levantera strong rainfilled wind from the east. Since our course to Ceuta was to the southeast, a levanter would have made it a very unpleasant bash but of greater concern was the reduced visibility crossing the heavily traveled shipping lanes. Two hundred ships a day pass between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean through the Strait, and attempting to dodge these monsters in the rain and fog wouldn't have been a smart move.
We had a sparkling day with very light easterly winds and set a course of 178 degrees. Under main and jib, we dodged the parade of ships while dolphins played at our bow and the familiar silhouette of the Rock of Gibraltar grew smaller and mistier off our stern. As we approached the center of the Strait, the strong current over-powered the effect of the wind and began to set us eastward, so we reset our course to compensate. With our bow now pointing at Tangier, we crabbed our way to Ceuta.
Then the ancient fort atop Ceuta's Mount Hacho appeared out of the afternoon haze. Like Gibraltar, Ceuta has been occupied by many civilizations over the centuries from the Babylonians, Phoenicians, Moors, Portuguese, and now Spanish, to name a few. With pounding hearts we dropped the sails and powered into our first African port to see what kind of dockage we could secure in the old harbor. What a shock when our eyes met a beautiful, fully equipped, shining new marina! Floating docks, shower blocks, restaurants, and an amazing swimming complex of artificial ponds, islands and gardenall financed by the European Fund for Regional Developmentawaited us. Cost? About $13 US per night for our 37-foot sloop. All our preconceived notions of Ceuta being an outpost disappeared.
Yet the old Ceuta was still there. Women in robes and veils, eyes downcast, passed us on the crowded narrow streets. Dark-eyed men called to us in an unfamiliar tongue to buy their wares in the city market where skinned rabbits and other unidentifiable carcasses hung in the stalls. Ancient towers, ramparts, fortifications and even a moat, blended into the cultural whirl of crowded modern apartment and office buildings. Even the playground at the newly built McDonald's included an old-style stone castle!Our first visit to Africa certainly wasn't what we expected. But that's the fun of cruising--you never really know what lies ahead.