"Has your mate gone daft?" a British cruiser once asked Paul when I was waxing poetic about an upcoming passage through the Strait. "Both you and I know," he confided, "that ditch is a bloody pain. There's no politer way to describe it."
The Strait of Gibraltar is only 8 nm wide at its narrowest point and connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean. At the same time, it divides Europe from Africa and it is this phenomenal convergence of oceans, continents, and cultures that makes it so exciting for me. The fact that it is also a tricky body of water to navigate just adds to its power.
|"But here we discover another fairy tale characteristic of this mystical body of water—regardless of the state of the tide there is a constant east-going stream in the center of the Strait! There are various theories on why this is."|
The first time Paul and I navigated the Strait aboard Two-Step was in 1990. On that trip, we made a night passage from Barbate, Spain, near the entrance to the Strait to catch the in-going tide and take advantage of a brief window of westerly winds. It was a clear, star-filled night, and as we slid through the darkness along the outside edge of the busy shipping lanes, we could hear ships from around the world calling to nearby ports—Casablanca, Tangiers, and Gibraltar—places that, until that night, existed only in books and movies for us. As if that wasn't enchanting enough, a golden sun rose up out of the Mediterranean Sea at daybreak as if welcoming us into a new world. Silhouetted by the rising sun was the majestic Rock of Gibraltar and the Atlantic Ocean was behind us now. To port was the European shore, and to starboard we got our first glimpse of Africa—the towering peak of Jabul Musa rising out of the morning mist. Now tell me that isn't magic.
There are several hurdles to overcome when navigating the Strait. The first one is wind. Because the Strait is so narrow and steep-sided, it funnels the wind, accelerating its speed. Just 10 miles away you can be sailing in very comfortable winds, but in the Strait the force of the wind is often two to three notches higher on the Beaufort Scale than outside. As a result, separate reports are given for the area of the Strait. Tarifa Radio, located half-way through the Strait, broadcasts weather reports in English on VHF ch. 10 every two hours starting at 0100 hours. They offer radar assistance if necessary, and repeat the weather information if you need it. They also monitor VHF ch. 16 and ch. 10.
Just as the narrow Strait funnels the wind, it also funnels the current. Inshore tidal movements can attain three knots that diminish as you move more centrally into the channel and into the shipping lanes. But here we discover another fairy tale characteristic of this mystical body of water—regardless of the state of the tide, there is a constant east-going stream in the center of the Strait! There are various theories on why this is.
After a few times through, the strategy we developed for entering the Mediterranean is to arrive at the Punta Camarinal after slack water and use the east-going current to help us through the next, and narrowest, 15 miles. Leaving the Med is trickier since you have a head current as you go westward if you venture anywhere near the middle of the channel. We use our tidal charts and plan to leave Gibraltar in time to catch the west flowing tide close inshore. We also try to make this transit on a light wind forecast, since everything is accelerated in the strait. A strong following wind will kick up such high seas that the passage is bound to be bumpy.
On our most recent passage, we set sail from the anchorage at Tavira, Portugal, planning an overnight passage to arrive at the entrance to the Strait in the morning. But en route we got a weather update reporting there would now be strong easterly winds through the Strait for the next few days. We decided to forego the night sail and do some coast-hopping instead. With Spain's new prosperity due to the European Union, numerous marinas have been built in the last few years, and we enjoyed the comforts of the facilities at Mazagon Marina near Huelva. We next sailed on to enjoy a day exploring the historic city of Cadiz established by the Phoenicians in 1100 BC.
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