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Strait of Gibraltar Strategies

Heavy shipping traffic, strong currents, and plenty of breeze make navigation through the Straits of Gibraltar a tricky affair.
There are some places on the planet that are just pure magic for me, and the Strait of Gibraltar is one of them. Many sailors we know are familiar with this tempermental stretch of water are surprised that I feel this way.

"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 Strait of Gibraltar has been the subject of myths and legends since ancient times. The Romans believed it marked the end of the world and the entrance to Hades. Hercules is said to have created it by forcing the Atlas Mountains apart. He marked the entrance with two great pillars, one on each shore, and posted a warning—Nothing Lies Beyond. The Pillars of Hercules still stand—the Rock of Gibraltar on the European shoreline and the great mountain of Jabal Musa on the African coast.

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.

The narrow straight funnels both the wind and current, though there are some surprising eddies.
Another challenge is the heavy ship traffic. Nearly 200 ships a day pass through the Strait, but they do keep to well-defined shipping lanes. Tarifa Radio also monitors this traffic and gives reports at 15 minutes past the hour and more frequently when the visibility is poor, so it's a good idea to maintain a listening watch when in the area. There is plenty of room for sailboats and other recreational vessels to sail to the outside of the shipping lanes, a strategy safer for everyone involved. However this brings up the next obstacle—the current.

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.

The southernmost tip of Eurpoe comes into focus.
For a long time it was thought that the current was due to evaporation in the Mediterranean and that water flowed in from the Atlantic to compensate for water lost in the Med. Now it has been discovered that there is a very deep west-going current that serves to counter-balance the constant east-going surface current and it has nothing to do with evaporation. Whatever the reason, it complicates the balancing act of winds and currents, and in the rare instances of prolonged easterly winds, this constant current can reverse. Be especially wary of strong east winds that kick up large seas against that east-setting current.

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.

With the right current and tidal calculations, navigation aids appear where and when they should.
Plan several waiting days into your itinerary to be sure you navigate in good conditions. The Strait gets its bad reputation from impatient sailors bashing into head seas and getting nowhere (or into trouble) fast. Regardless of what direction you're heading through the Strait of Gibraltar, there is a good selection of ports along the coast to wait for weather. Eastbound sailors generally wait at Barbate, Spain, and those heading west usually choose Gibraltar or Duquesa on the Spanish coast, or Ceuta Marina on the African shore. Good reference books are the RCC Pilotage Foundation Guide, Atlantic Spain and Portugal which has the most information on navigating the Strait, on ports to the west of the Strait, and on Gibraltar and Ceuta. For information on ports to the east, see their guide "Mediterranean Spain: Costas del Sol & Blanca" that also includes the port of Gibraltar, but no detailed information on navigating the Strait.

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.

Tricky winds and currents in their wake, the happy crew readies for landfall inside the Mediterranean
With light westerly winds and a good forecast for the Strait, we motorsailed past the treacherous shoals of Cape Trafalgar where Nelson's famous battle occurred in 1805 establishing England's supremacy at sea, and entered the Strait with Jabal Musa towering in the afternoon haze. Dodging ships, we rounded the point at Tarifa, the most southerly point of mainland Europe, and glided past the hundreds of windmills on the hills. On the golden beaches below, windsurfers took advantage of the accelerated wind—and so did we. As twilight began to fall we spotted our destination—the famous Rock of Gibraltar poised like a lion, the second Pillar of Hercules beckoning us to begin new adventures in the Mediterranean Sea. We had passed through the gates again. Pure magic.


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