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Cruising the Mediterranean Sea: France to Morocco

by Hugh & Heather Bacon 2 Dec 2020 16:59 UTC
France to Morocco © Hugh & Heather Bacon

In the last article from Memories of a Circumnavigation, Hugh and Heather cruised the Mediterranean Sea northbound from the Italian Island of Sardina to the South of France. They entered French territory at Calvi, Northern Corsica and then continued to Villefranche on the French Riviera. They day sailed via Rade D'agay, St Tropez, Porquerolles and on to the Iles du Frioul off Marseille. Some 25 NM west of Marseille, they reached Port Napoleon at the mouth of the Rhone river where ARGONAUTA I was to spend the winter 2004/05.

We now continue with the passages of ARGONAUTA I from the beginning of their journey in 1997 in the Caribbean, until the completion of the circumnavigation in 2006, when they crossed their 1997 outbound Caribbean track. Later they continued to Victoria, Canada bringing their odyssey to a close.

In this episode we depart France, cruise the Spanish Coast to Gibraltar and continue first to Spanish Morocco and then on to Mohammedia, Morocco on the African Atlantic Coast. Our objective for this season was to cross the Atlantic to the Caribbean arriving late January 2006 thus completing a circumnavigation.

We returned to Port Napoleon Marina on June 29, 2005 laden with boat parts. Flying from Canada to Paris, we had made our way to Southern France in a rental car in the course of which we visited several wine districts. By the time we reached the marina, we had accumulated many bottles. Heather enjoyed visiting the local market in nearby Port St Louis, sampling French cheeses and we were surprised to find a little bistro whose proprietor had been to Australia and served kangaroo. Some became part of our frozen provisions.

At this point some eight years into our cruise, the yacht was technically very much refined and we as crew were at peak capability. We felt ready for anything and looked forward to the challenges posed by our third ocean.. We had done extensive provisioning and the fruits of our wine district probes were safely in the bilge. Heather remembers one final bit of excitement: "It is a bad day when you hear a holler and see your husband's feet sticking up out of the sail locker. Hugh's diligent cleaning had found him trapped head down, unable to exit!@.A European cruiser asked Ado you help need?@ I was relievd she accepted and I was withdrawn by my feet!

As with all passages, there is a specific season favoring a westbound Atlantic crossing. Typically, cruisers depart European start points aiming to reach the Canary Islands sometime mid-autumn. Pleasant, stable Northern Hemisphere sailing conditions normally prevail although ex-tropical storms and hurricanes reaching up into the sub-tropical north Atlantic can occur late summer and early autumn. Most cruisers aim for a Caribbean landfall in the Windward Islands of the Lesser Antilles. Often this is St Lucia, the landfall for the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers known as the ARC. The ARC is especially popular with those cruisers starting from Europe with the Atlantic as their first ocean. The ARC heads out from Las Palmas, Gran Canaria Island late November arriving in the Caribbean before Christmas. Most independent cruisers plan to arrive in Las Palmas after the ARC departure which in 2020 was November 22.

Sunday, July 24, 2005, with a good weather window we departed France. Midday we carefully made our way via the narrow, shallow channel into the Gulf of Lion Within a couple of miles we encountered heavy fog which persisted throughout most of the passage. Radar was on full time and we used the foghorn once or twice. We avoided all traffic but were glad it was Sunday with fewer freighters heading for nearby Port Fos. Once established on course we beam reached in wind from 140 degrees at 10 knots in light seas making between 5 and 6 knots. Soon, everything outside was dripping wet. We always maintain a watch in the cockpit but we realized that there was no possibility of seeing lights beyond perhaps 20 meters. Eventually, we went below and monitored our radar, steering using the secondary autopilot control head.

Early morning, the fog lifted and by mid-morning we anchored in Port Cadaques, Spain. There we relaxed for a couple of days before continuing along the Costa Brava towards Barcelona. Southerly winds made many anchorages uncomfortable or even untenable. The few good anchorages were crowded. In sheltered Cala Aiguablava, it was especially busy but we managed to fit into a tight spot where in our swing, we just cleared all rocks and moorings. We spent the afternoon surrounded by happy families in paddle boats and other hotel water craft.

We had what was, in retrospect, good luck as we neared Barcelona. Predictably both convenient marinas were full but it was suggested that we try the new one, in a developing area east of the city. Port Forum was so new it was not in the cruising guides. Rates were much lower than established marinas and we had it mostly to ourselves apart from a mega yacht whose crew spent all day polishing their boat.

Heather traveled through Spain in 1963 with another single girl. The Costa Brava was just being developed, rapaciously. The Costa del Sol was still virtually unspoiled. They discovered sangria, gaspacho, paella and much more. By 2005, the coastline of northern Spain was lined with ugly high rise hotels. In summer the beaches were wall to wall people. Now, one could buy sangria or gaspacho in the supermarket, as well as a package containing all ingredients for paella. Young senoritas no longer are accompanied by chaperones when they walk out at night. We spent a couple of nights in a downtown hotel on Las Ramblas. The quarter is filled with enthusiastic Spanish socializing well past midnight. We took the hop-on hop-off bus visiting Gaudi's church and some of Miro's creative art and enjoyed the many fine restaurants.

August 8, we departed for the Balearic island of Mallorca. We sailed most of the overnight passage and arrived off Cape Formentera at dawn. Pollensa was an excellent first anchorage Next we headed for another perfect but crowded anchorage at Port Colum on the east coast and not far from Palma. A cousin and longtime Brit expat hosted us and we experienced a very positive aspect of the island under her guidance. She had a party at her villa and we met many Spanish families around the pool. Nephew David who had flown into Palma had an opportunity to meet some relatives.

We continued towards Formentara which lies just south of the party island of Ibiza. Overnight, winds died at 0300 hrs. I started the engine and noted significant vibration. I suspected a line fouling the prop but then noticed fluorescent objects in our wake. I tried reverse and forward again but got more vibration and maximum 1200 RPM!! David and I eventually realized we were passing through an intense concentration of jelly fish and the propeller was acting much like a high powered food processor. Close inspection of the wake with a torch clearly identified chopped jelly fish. At times the wake was totally fluoresced. It took over an hour before we cleared the mass.

We anchored off Isla Espalmador near Formentara. This is about as isolated an island as one can find off Spain. It is a sand island barely above sea level. Mostly inland it is dunes and mud flats. Nice place to kick back for a while. It does draw many summer boaters but we arrived midmorning and there was lots of room. On our second day, we had a less than delightful anchoring experience as two huge motor cruisers rafted together off our bow on top of our anchor, the second without deploying its own anchor. They were not particularly interested in our concerns and in this case, British Canadian relations were not flourishing. Fortunately, winds were light and we departed next morning as the raft had swung away from our bow. Next day we continued to nearby Ibiza then moved on to the mainland and arrived at a marina in Gandia. Friends had booked a slip and met us at the dock. Once secured, we cracked a bottle of cava and were invited to stay with them in their nearby villa with pool and bath. Heather grabbed her Badedas and leapt to the occasion. It was a hedonistic pleasure to visit their villa in an orange grove, swim in a pool and sample the local orange liqueur.

Our land experiences were great. We always tried to get a feeling for the country by traveling inland so we spent a couple of nights in nearby Valencia. Again, we found it useful to take a Bus Turistico: hop-on hop-off. It afforded a good general view but we also walked a lot in order to explore the narrow streets and marvel at the impressive architecture including Saint Mary's Cathedral where we saw what is reputed to be the Holy Grail.

By now, it was time to get on to Gibraltar so we continued cruising down the Spanish coast calling in at Cartagena and Motril. Neither of these are tourist destinations. Cartagena is a Spanish naval base. We were quite a novelty when we tied up at the city pier for the night. Local girls asked permission to take photos of our handsome young nephew!

Motril was a necessary stop to shelter from a major wind storm heralded by a strange conical white cloud.

The wind abated after four days although still F 3 from the west. September 8, we decided to make an overnight dash for Gibraltar as the wind was forecast to intensify. Throughout the night we bashed along and arrived at Gibraltar Customs by 1500 hours Friday. Marina space was scarce and expensive so we anchored in the roadstead by the airport runway. David and I jerry jugged 150L of diesel which was about half the price of fuel in Spain

It turned out to be a four day long weekend in Gib: September 10 is Gibraltar Day, so we enjoyed a rock concert and fireworks. Hundreds of Llanitos (Gibraltar borne) turned out dressed in red and white, many wrapped in the Union Jack and/or the Gibraltar flag. We heard political speeches in the main square eschewing "Joint Sovereignty" and strong words in favour of independence. The proliferation of Union Jacks on everything from baby carriages to apartment windows suggested that many prefer the status quo: self governing colonial status. David and I did the obligatory Rock tour taking in tunnels, defenses and apes. We also visited a historical cemetery where many British sailors lie, casualties of various sea battles including the battle on October 21, 1805 at nearby Trafalgar. As we know, victorious Admiral Lord Nelson, killed late in the battle, was taken back to England as a national hero. The body was preserved in a barrel of brandy; no refrigeration in those days! Later at our next port of Ceuta, several British yachts were gathering to sail up to Trafalgar for the 200th anniversary of the battle.

We had a good weather window Monday, September 12, to cross the iconic Strait of Gibraltar to Spanish Morocco: Ceuta about 15 NM straight south. Back to Africa! It was a boisterous beam reach in westerly F4-5 winds. Only minor course alterations were needed to avoid traffic and in less than three hours, we sailed into the wide, sheltered Ceuta outer harbour. The welcoming marina staff soon found us a suitable slip. There we washed the rig and prepared the yacht for the Atlantic.

Ashore, we walked the ramparts of the massive fort built by the Moors in the 1500s. It is a dinghy tour delight as one can go from the marina, around the fort via a salt water moat and into the sheltered beach area on the south side of the narrow isthmus. While we were there, would be immigrants to the EU stormed the border, some were killed. These were desperate Africans from many parts of the continent trying to better themselves. Cruisers leaving Gib came across an empty inflatable with shreds of clothing, no people. They towed it to Gib and the authorities said, "Illegal immigrants..." Probably overloaded and swamped... if no one claims the boat in a year it's yours."

We pondered whether to go on to Morocco as marinas were limited and anchorages few. An alternative was to head for the Madeira Islands. Still, visiting more of Africa was attractive so we decided to make for Morocco, either Sable d'Or near Rabat or Mohammedia near Casablanca. Monday, September 19 one hour before daylight, we left Ceuta at high water plus two hours with F3 to 4 easterly winds. We could not have timed our passage through the Strait of Gibraltar any better! We encountered only a 3 K negative current for about an hour. Nearing abeam Tangier we had an ENE wind at 20K and were sailing with a boat speed of about 6-7K; the favorable current gave us a speed over the ground of up to 9K.

Wind overnight meant a broad reach southbound although early morning it died so we motored on towards Sable d'Or. While no charts indicated the existence of a marina, the Imray North Africa Cruising Guide and our 2004 version of C Map NT showed a marina called Sable d'Or. So in good conditions we followed our C Map. We stopped following C Map about 300 meters from a low cliff; no marina in sight! Local fishermen confirmed there was nothing and explained that about a mile further south, there was a small enclave enclosed by two break waters but added at low tide, the approach was too shallow for a yacht. Soon after, we were intercepted by Moroccan authorities in a RIB. They came alongside and politely explained we were in a restricted area. We gave them our particulars and they advised us that the so called marina was not viable and in any case the area was out of bounds. We later learned that the King has a summer palace nearby and had decreed that there would be no marina at Sable d'Or!

We continued south to Mohammedia Marina. The marina people were most helpful in moving a small motor yacht to make space for us. It was a med-moor situation. The submerged stern lines were just long enough to cleat although years of aquatic growth had to be removed with Javex. It was an incredibly tight squeeze and I wondered how we would ever get out again. It took four helpers to warp us in. Bow to, the yacht was secure but the slip was suited to a 30 footer rather than a 44 footer. We had to do some creative fendering by deploying our four foot 2 x 6 board! Price though was low at only Dirahm100 per night. (Under CAD $14). A bonus was a nearby yacht club and pool!

September was much too early for an Atlantic crossing. Mohammedia turned out to be a pretty town with good amenities and very attractive central gardens. Train service was excellent. It was thus an opportunity to do some serious travel in what was now our sixth African country.

We would spend close to two weeks in Morocco before resuming our cruise into the Atlantic Ocean.

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