More than 5 million years ago the Mediterrean was bone dry. A big basin cradled by mountain ranges. Europe and Africa were one continent, with a vast lifeless plain between them and a mountain range on the western side. A narrow strip of land connecting Spain to Morocco. The Atlantic Ocean knocked relentlessly at those sheer cliff walls until it made a small crack in the rocks. The small crack gave way and the Atlantic sea water cascaded down under enormous force until the Mediterrean sea bed was filled to the brim. This massive downpour created the strait of Gibraltar, the funnel through which the Med is connected to the Atlantic. It stretches over 60 km and its width ranges from 14 to 44 km, with about 280 m water underneath.
The strait of Gibraltar has always been of high strategic value, to control the entrance to the Med. Sailors delight or sailors hell? That depends on the circumstances. Even the ancient Greeks concurred on that. They called it the ‘pillars of Hercules’, which demarcate the end of the world… and before them the Phoenicians spoke of the pillars of Melgart.
Why is it so tricky sailing there?
- Tides: These big bodies of water have worked out their own tidal time schedule and don’t care too much what their neighbor is doing. The Med only has minor tidal play, think of modest waves and neat tidal lines on shore, a distinguished lady who can misbehave and act up at times but is generally even tempered. This is opposed to the Atlantic. She is rough, greedy, likes to make huge waves, rant rave and roar. When tide comes in she doesn’t do it halfway. She engorges as much as she possibly can. In the strait of Gibraltar those tidal differences meet, the big waves crash into the small ones, making it one of the points why it is an interesting sail. But that’s not where it ends.
- Current: There is a strong current running east towards the Med, where the Atlantic penetrates deeply into the Med and replenishes her waters. Our distinguished lady is no pushover and sends a deeper counter current of the more salty Med water back towards her Atlantic sister.
- Wind: To complete the game we need to invite brother wind. He really digs a good party out there. Due to the high mountains on each side the strait of Gibraltar functions as a funnel for the easterly and westerly winds. This means that a harmless steady wind speed of 17 knots will turn into gale force wind in a matter of seconds. Needless to say, the strong winds affect the current and the tides.
The end result, the combined factors of wind, tides, current and counter-current, make passage quite complex and dynamic.
It is not a trip to undertake unprepared!
Our last blog left you at La Linea de la Concepcion, the Spanish side of Gibraltar.
On advice of other cruisers, we had come up to the rock of Gibraltar and navigated into the bay by daylight. A quick look at our Ipad shows you why they may have mentioned that (note: each triangle represents a ship). When we thought we had the armada coming for us while crossing a shipping line at night, moving towards Gibraltar was another kettle of fish! A busy bee hive of boats coming in and out at high speed, doing whatever, like Italian drivers in Rome. Huge oil tankers, container ships, cruise ships, tourist boats, cats, monohulls, small and big fishing boats. All thinkable shapes and sizes, moving at different speeds and in different directions.
In this mad house of watercraft we spotted 2 triangles sticking out, lying dead still, floating on the surface. Both pieces looked big enough to start evasive action, avoid collision, and warrant further inspection. Our binoculars could not tell us if it was some type of buoy or rubbish drifting around. We were on the alert, trying to avoid ‘tip of the iceberg’ scenarios. As we came close our surprise was big. In this whirlpool of sea traffic chaos 2 real life sharks were having a sun tan! We are not sure if they were juvenile great white or basking sharks. But sharks they were.
We passed the rock of Gibraltar. This name is derived from the Arabic ‘Geberak Tarik’, or Tarik’s mountain, after the Arab Tarik who crossed from Morocco to the rock in the 800s. A handsome piece of rock sticking out of the sea, sometimes wearing a veil or cloth of clouds like Table Mountain. We motored past the different marinas, the British airport and onto the worker’s town of La Linea de la Concepcion. We anchored in front of the beach, with view on the rest of the bay.
Exodus’ captain had been studying this specific passage for months and monitoring weather conditions several times a day. While Winnie’s mom (who brought the boys down from Belgium) was still visiting, the weather decided to afford us a favorable eye. This could not be ignored and action had to follow. If we were to make it across safe and sound in the next week, we had to leave before day break on the 4th of July. Else we would have to wait at least a week for another gap.
We dropped off Winnie’s mom early morning on an abandoned shore of the sleepy town of La Linea de la Concepcion, lifted anchor and started navigating through all the boats in the bay. The easiest way to describe what the bay looks like at night is a city of light. The problem is that it is very difficult to distinguish between the types of light. Where do the lights of the big oil tankers end and the lights of the dock or town start? Which ones are boats? Which ones are harbor, city, supertanker, cargo ship, ferry? And how do you get through the maze? You rely on your instruments quite heavily as your eyes will surely deceive you. At least we had sailed through it during the day and had some kind of reference. All went smoothly as we set sail for the strait, leaving the busy bee hive behind us, enjoying a beautiful sunrise as the land mass grew smaller.
Behind us the lights of La Linea and Gibraltar faded out, the dark silhouettes of the cargo ships contrasting with the faint pastels of the sunrise. Ahead of us the land masses on either side were getting more distinct. Morocco on portside and Spain on starboard.
Based on the weather forecast we decided to jump straight to Faro. We had a sail of 140 sea miles ahead of us. All kids were fast asleep in their beds. Having taken all the first hurdles, the captain decided to take first watch and sent his crew down to get some extra sleep. Wind was blowing 22 knots, we had 2 reefs in, jib out, making nice progress. After an hour of shut eye Winnie felt something amiss. The wind generator was making sounds she had never heard before, Exodus squeaked and groaned gently, as if trying to break the world record sprinting. Lying inside the cabin it was as if the boat had stopped touching water and we were flying at high velocity. Coming outside one look at the wind speed meter and the smirk on the captain’s face revealed what was going on. Wind was pumping 36 knots behind us. On top of that the outgoing tide and big waves increased our hull speed up to 11 knots, peaking at 13! That is almost double from our average 6 miles. And 6 miles average is already pretty decent for your normal cruiser. Exodus seemed to love her little ride, or should we rather call it her bodysurfing the waves?
She was cleaving through the water smoothly, swaying and swooning on the swell. Like some kind dance, sensually turning her butt, straightening out to stay on course, rocking and rolling, being lifted on the waves light like a feather. We got funneled through to the other side, safe and sound.
Of course that was not where the strait’s effect stopped. We got blown and pushed forward for the next few hours. At some stage the wind went over 40 and snapped four mast sliders on our mainsail as we came through a gybe.
We were already in Portuguese waters when the kids woke up. They had had a good night’s rest. They wondered why we looked a bit disheveled. The wind was still blowing nicely so we had a smooth sail to Faro.
We anchored in front of Ilha Deserta in Faro. The first thing that stood out after being at the howling sea for several hours was how quiet and peaceful it was in there.