The highlight of our visit to Gibraltar was being collected from La Linea by Stephen Kalton, an old colleague of Bob’s going back to his Manchester days in the late 70’s, and being driven to Stephen and Lynn’s beautiful villa in Estepona. We spent the day there and were shown around the area, before returning in the evening, and then watching the rehearsal for the Queens Official birthday the next day, in the main square of The Rock.
The next day we set off from Gibraltar for Ceuta, a Spanish enclave across the Straits of Gibraltar, in a light easterly. It is only a 3 hour passage, and was uneventful, apart from identifying ships that were potential collision targets, and trying to understand the currents, which did not appear to follow the tidal flow charts!
After Gibraltar, Ceuta was almost a breath of fresh air, with friendly officials and taxi drivers, cheaper provisions and fuel, and an upmarket area alongside the marina as opposed to the fish and chip and tourist area in Gibraltar. It was bow or stern to mooring for the first time, and so Bob went in search of a suitable plank to use as a passerelle, and also refilled the Calor gas bottles for less than 3 Euros each. Camping Gaz the same price. The cost in the UK was around £14 each. How do Calor justify that?
We had planned to go to Marrakech, a two day journey via Tangier, but were told in Ceuta that we could only stay 4 days, so instead took a day trip by bus to the Spanish/Moroccan border, and then a taxi to Tetouan in the foothills of the Rif mountains. Once the capital of the Spanish protectorate, its status was abandoned in 1956 when Morocco gained independence. The weekly market was in full swing making the small streets and alleyways in the medina busy and colourful with Berber women selling their sometimes very meagre wares. Playing the traders in the souk at their own game was fun, and we left one trader complaining of a loss, yeah yeah! All in all though it was a great experience away from the boat, and we managed to do our own thing without being hassled by guides! Bob even had an excellent haircut for the equivalent of £1.80, and Elaine some attractive clothing! We lunched well in a courtyard restaurant recommend by The Lonely Planet and followed up with coffee and superb patisserie at a café recommended by the restaurant owner.
And so on to sailing in Morocco, with a first stop at the marina of Smir – large, expensive and virtually empty, where we had our temperatures taken by a doctor with some sort of electronic thermometer that was pointed at our eyes. They are looking for signs of Swine Flu. Smir is a holiday resort, and apart from a plush hotel and a few restaurants, there was nothing else to see, apart from a camel, incongruously offering rides from the car park! A very large private motor yacht arrived late in the evening, complete with a helicopter on the aft deck which provided some excitement and interest in the marina.
Our next stop was El Jebha, a very small fishing harbour, in a natural cove, with the Rif Mountains towering in the background. The coastline from Smir onwards is mountainous, creating a very interesting backdrop as we proceeded east. However, whereas the mountains used to be forested, the trees have been felled to make way for kif, or marijuana, which is apparently grown in huge quantities in the entire Rif area.
On arrival we were welcomed by Dave and his crew on Mystic Blue, a Contest 41, also out of the Hamble, the only other yacht there. El Jebha was only connected to mains electricity in 1997. Before that there were obviously no fridges, TVs and paraffin lamps were still used for lighting. The locals were friendly and hospitable. Mohammed who is responsible for the fisheries, introduced us to mint tea Moroccan style (made with jasmine tea, fresh mint and large quantities of sugar!) and cake cooked by his wife, and kindly took us round the weekly souk. It isn’t unusual for traders to arrive here from up to 30 km away by mule, heavily laden with merchandise.
There was an abundance of wonderful fruit and vegetables, herbs, spices, and livestock. Similarly to Tetouan, alongside gaudy western T-shirts, traditional female clothing was on sale including beautifully embroidered kaftans and jelabahs. Though the majority of the male population dresses in western clothes, it is usual for women to dress traditionally, sometimes in the most eyecatching robes and making, for us, an unusual fashion statement. So in order not to offend, covering up was the order of the day for Elaine when ashore, even in high temperatures!
The main trade in El Jebha is fishing, but unlike Spain and Portugal where the trawlers are driven everywhere at 10 knots, here they left the harbour slowly and quietly leaving hardly any wash. Sewing and repairing nets is a daily activity involving 10 -15 people sitting under sun shades and working from dawn to dusk.
The village is very basic and largely undiscovered by the outside world, with roads that are little more than dirt tracks. Consequently dust is everywhere! Sanitation seemed to be almost non existent, and black plastic bags of rubbish were strewn everywhere, with the accompanying unpleasant smells! But we wouldn’t have missed the unique and memorable experience El Jebha offered.
We happily spent a day at anchor in the bay to the east of El Jebha that could almost have been created by a volcano. Here we swam for the first time this year, and checked that the anodes were still in place. The water still had a slight chill to it, so it was not a very long dip, but the water appeared clean if slightly cloudy!
Morocco is still a country of polite officialdom, with an entry and exit stamp in the passport every time a visit is made to a port. El Jebha was an exception to this rule, with a very relaxed visit by the police, customs and harbour master, and confirmation of when we planned to leave.
Al Hoceima, 40 nm further east, with a population of 115,000, is a large town and fishing port. We arrived late in the afternoon with a breeze from the hills blowing us off a high harbour wall that was intended for ferries from Almeria in Spain. There was only one other yacht alongside owned by Jean Pierre, from La Rochelle, who was on his way home after 16 years at sea. He took our lines, and a welcoming committee of port doctor complete with face mask, and police waited for us to come ashore. Temperatures taken again, this time under the armpit, before we were allowed to meet anyone else! The pilot book warned us of endless forms and onboard visits, but times have changed, and after 20 minutes in the Gare Maritime terminal, we were cleared for entry.
The town is built on high cliffs surrounding the port, and is still being developed, but it is clean, modern, and everywhere we went we found people friendly and wanting to engage in conversation. A knowledge of French is almost essential though as it is generally the second language. In the early evening once the heat starts to dissipate the town comes alive, the main square a mass of fountains, and people wandering to various gathering points, mostly overlooking the beach and wide bay, or a promontory overlooking the port. The fishing harbour was packed with boats from the smallest of dinghies, to large trawlers, a number of which were hauled out into a shipyard for repair.
Moroccan hospitality is somewhat different from other countries! On our last evening we decided to have a final farewell drink at the King Mohammed V hotel, which has a terrace bar and restaurant overlooking the bay. Our drinks were bought for us by one of two delightful young brothers who were resident in the hotel, now working in the family engineering firm, but previously junior Morrocan tennis stars. We were left with invitations to visit the family home at Casablanca, which we would like to accept at some point!
And so to a windless early start for our final port on this coast, Melilla, which is another Spanish enclave. The sea was calm, and after motoring through a large number of small fishing boats, one offering us a freshly caught octopus, we were joined by several very large pods of dolphins, many of which played under the bow.
We delayed our arrival by two days by deciding to anchor in a delightful bay, the Cala Tramontara, which is open to the west, but with easterly winds it was calm and tranquil. Having anchored and launched the dinghy, at last we were able to enjoy swimming from the bathing platform in relatively warm water, and snorkelling over a nearby reef, as well as checking the hull. Whilst we had informed the police in Al Hoceima that we planned to anchor there, we had no idea whether we would be questioned on our arrival. We soon spotted either army or police at a couple of vantage spots on the surrounding hills, who seemed to be present around the clock. The area surrounding the bay was arid, with a Berber settlement in the hills, and we watched them decending with their mules to the well for water, and washing clothing in a communal wash area. There were several large wrecked RIBs on the beach, which we guess was the result of a drugs bust. These boats are used for running marijuana from Morocco to mainland Spain, only 2 hours away at 50 knots!
We were left in relative peace, with only a couple of Spanish jet skis spoiling the calm!
And so on to Melilla the other side of the headland, after Ceuta the second Spanish enclave or ‘plaza mayore’ (greater place) which oozes history. The old city wasn’t begun until after the Spanish conquest in 1496, then built up in four stages. It is a fascinating collection of modernist and ancient buildings, some eyesores, yet equally beautiful squares, gardens and streets lined with manicured trees. The current borders with Morocco were fixed by several treaties between 1859 and 1894, following an unsuccessful siege by rebellious Rif Berbers. The method involved shooting a cannon ball and seeing how far it went!
We thoroughly enjoyed our short visit along the Mediterranean coast of Morocco with its rich history, and will definitely return one day to explore more of the very different world that opened up for us. In order of friendliness and welcome to sailors, our conclusion to date is that the Portuguese come first, then the Moroccans, the French, and finally the Spanish!
Our passage north to Almerimar was 86 nm, and having had a windless 2 weeks, we were blessed with a SW to West strong breeze, that topped 27 knots on clearing the headland protecting Melilla, and then settled down at a steady 20 – 25 knots. This was brilliant, as it meant a beam reach with 1 reef in the main for the duration, with the staysail to start with, and then switching to a reefed genoa, full genoa, and as we approached Almerimar, more reefs.
During the passage we had another large pod of dolphins playing under the bow, showing us their white under bellies before leaping clear of the water. Shortly before closing the coast, an excited Bob startled Elaine with cries of Look! Look! And pointing to two small whales that were some 50 yards off the beam of the boat. Seeing rare mammals this close is a privilege, but as we were cruising at 8 knots at this stage, there was no chance of taking the opportunity to follow them at their sedate pace, and they were out of range before we had a camera on deck!
We completed the passage in exactly 12 hours, an average of 7.17 knots. Pipistrelle sails beautifully, and is so comfortable in these sort of winds.
Having reprovisioned, watered, and refuelled in Melilla (0.75 euros per litre), we are now set to head east for Majorca via Cartagena, and will be joined in Palma by our friends Alan and Margaret. More about that in our next blog!