Saturday 25 November 2023

Mohammadia to Rabat, Morocco 🇲🇦

Wednesday 1st November 2023

Before we could leave Mohammadia, there were formalities to complete. Mark had to go to Immigration Police to retrieve the boat's papers (they keep them whilst you're in port so you don't abscond) and Customs to get clearance. Should be a simple task as everything was in order when we arrived.

Rabat is a tidal port and can only be entered two to three hours either side of high tide. We therefore planned a departure time of 10:00 so that we could take a leisurely cruise at 5 knots and arrive at Rabat at hight tide and if necessary, have some leeway too.

At 08:45 Mark went off to do the paperwork. Immigration/Police first. Time ticked on and over an hour later, we saw him arrive at the Customs office. He'd arrived at the same time as the dayshift and, as in offices the world over, no-one was going to see him until they'd had a coffee and a chat. And when the two officers on duty did get round to asking him what he wanted, they checked the paperwork and declared it all in order, they couldn't find the stamp for our passports. They told Mark that he'd have to wait for the boss and she'd arrive in a deceptively precise “seven minutes.” She arrived forty minutes later and was so pleasant and efficient that Mark calmed down. The paperwork was done. We could get under way just about on time.

No we couldn't. Mark popped into the office to say goodbye to the lovely old fellow in his two-sizes-too-big uniform. He wasn't there. An altogether younger, more alert officer was. His uniform fitted and he radiated keenness and ambition. He spotted a mistake in Offbeat's Customs permit and held on to our passports so that we couldn't leave. Luckily his keenness extended to fixing the problem efficiently and ten minutes later a colleague appeared with the correct permit. With smiles, shakes of the hand and “merci beaucoup” shouted over his shoulder he almost ran back to Offbeat saying “Sorted. Right let's get the f*** out of this f***ing s***hole.”

We finally headed out of Mohammadia at 10:25, going full pelt in case they were going to call us back. 

The journey to Rabat was pretty uneventful as we were under engine and we stayed about 5 miles offshore to make sure we didn't get tangled in those pesky fishing lines.  The sun was shining but there was no wind, only a gentle breeze directly on the bows.

About two hours from Rabat we saw Michel, our French neighbour from Mohammadia. He had mentioned that he may have problems with his engine so was going to take it slowly, so we veered over to him to check that everything was OK. It was, so we carried on.

About 5 minutes later we were called on the radio by the Moroccan Navy, asking us where we had come from, where we were going, how many people on board and why had we veered over to the other yacht.  Mark gave them the information they wanted and explained that Michel had engine problems so we wanted to check he was OK.  Happy with his explanations, they signed off.  But, boy oh boy, the Moroccans take security very seriously!

Two miles off the entrance to Rabat we called the marina. All the things we had read about entering the river had strongly recommended using the marina pilot boat to guide you in. They say that the estuary is shallow, has many sandbanks  and not many channel markers. Despite several calls on the radio, they did not answer. Fortunately, Michel had heard our calls on the radio and as he wanted to use the pilot boat too, he had telephoned them. He radio'd us to explain that the marina pilot boat was out of action so we would have to make our own way in.

As we drew closer, Mark took over the helm to guide us in.  Although there was still a slight swell, entering the river mouth was not as daunting as the sailors’ guidebooks said it was going to be. All those years entering much smaller and shallower tidal rivers on the East Coast of England gave us great confidence.

Oh my, what a sight.  After the horrors of Mohammadia, we were blown away with the beauty of the twin cities of Rabat and Salé as we slowly made our way up the middle of the channel.  To our right was the medieval wall of the Kasbah of the Udayas and on our left was the old town of Salé. 

Further down the river we passed surfers, making the most most of the last of the swell, the grand promenade with an old fishing boat converted into a restaurant and small rowing boats that are used as water taxis. To either side were the tall minarets of the mosques, the imposing and intact walls of the old towns and directly ahead was the rocket shaped 55 story Mohammed VI Tower and the ultra modern curves of the huge Grand Theatre of Rabat. 

We immediately fell in love with Rabat, even before we'd tied off our lines and completed the formalities. We had the now-familiar visit from the various officials and a short search of the boat, looking for contraband or drones. The Customs Officer, a young woman in her early 20s couldn't hide her surprise at such a small wardrobe, giving me a sympathetic look. Before leaving, the boss asked in a very serious tone of voice “how much wine do you have on board?” “Erm, one bottle of white wine” I stammered, worrying that we'd committed an infraction in this Muslim country. “Its not enough” he said smiling and declared that we were free to enjoy our evening. We did, dear reader, we did!

Friday 24 November 2023

Mohammadia, Morocco

 Sunday 29th October 2023

After a long night of motoring and dodging fishing boats and very little sleep, we were pretty shattered when we arrived in Mohammadia.  We knew that it was a working port with a marina set at the south east end of the port, but the descriptions we had read still hadn't prepared us for what we saw. There is the fashionable ‘shabby chic’ but this was just shabby without the chic. 

Being a busy oil, chemical and fishing port, it was noisy, dirty and smelly. The marina was basically three floating pontoons with boats moored to them.  When we arrived, there wasn't any space so we rafted up next to a motor boat that we had to climb over to get on and off. There were large fishing boats moored four or five deep on the other side of the inner harbour, reaching out only a few meters away from yachts.

Never mind we thought, we're only here for a couple of days and nothing a nice hot shower couldn't fix.

But first, we had to do the formalities with the officials. When entering Morocco, you and your boat have to be checked in with Immigration, Customs and Police and you are not allowed to leave your boat until these formalities have been completed.

First up was Customs. As soon as Offbeat was securely moored, Mark was taken to the Customs official. A sweet little man, who looked as though he was in his seventies and would now never grow into his suit and cap. He did the necessary paperwork and then came back to the boat to have a look at her and to check that we weren't carrying anything illegal (drones are a  big thing in Morocco as they are paranoid about being spied on). Happy that we weren't illegal traders, all three of us had to go with him with our passports. 

Next up was the Police. A couple of young men turned up on the quayside, took photographs of our ships papers and passports and then left. We think they may have been Port Police and Gendarmerie but as they never introduced themselves, we will never know. 

The Customs Officer then indicated that we had to get in his car. With our very limited French and his very limited English, we got into the car in good faith, not sure where we were going. I was rather anxious as we hadn't locked the boat and anybody could get on board. 

But, off we we went to the Immigration office on the Port where we were met by a lovely Moroccan lady who spoke very good English. It was quite a surreal experience. In between asking formal questions for the authorities, we had conversations about local customs (Friday is family day with CousCous - their equivalent of a British Sunday Roast), good spa treatments, children and grandchildren and where the best cafes and restaurants were. Mark felt bewildered but knew better than to interrupt three women, one of them armed with a pistol and the other two with sharp tongues!

By the time we had finished and walked back to Offbeat, it was time to have a hot shower, something to eat and a well earned glass of wine and discuss the next stage of our journey.  Three out of four's not bad, as we never did get hot water.

Based on the forecast when we left Spain, we planned to stay a couple of nights in Mohammadia to wait for the southerly winds to pass. By Wednesday/Thursday a northerly wind would set in to blow us to the Canaries.

In the meantime, we would explore Mohammadia and get Offbeat ready for the final passage. Jo and I went into the town to explore, but as it's a working town, there wasn't much to it for sightseeing.  There was a central boulevard that was pleasant, with cafes and restaurants, but that was about it.

Meanwhile, back at the marina and drama was unfolding. The fishing boats leave en-masse at six in the morning and return similarly around sunset. And all hell had let loose as one of the fishing boats, being towed by another, goes bows first into the side of the yacht behind us, causing damage to his rigging. As you can imagine, there was a lot of shouting and probably expletives as they tried to pull the fishing boat off the yacht. The next few hours and following day there was a lot of coming and going of officials to assess the damage.

We felt really sorry for Michel, the French owner of the yacht. A lovely guy who had been very helpful to us in translating for us with officials and marina staff and who hadn't planned to come to Mohammadia but had to because the entrance to Rabat was closed.

Witnessing this accident made us decide we shouldn’t stay there longer than needed. But, we had checked the weather forecast for later in the week and whilst there would be a northerly wind, there would also be 4-5 meter waves behind us, brought about by the storm hitting the Iberian coast 700 miles to the north (its amazing how far waves will travel in the open ocean without losing much power.) By Saturday (possibly our last day at sea), the forecast was for 25 knot winds, gusting to 35 knots close to Lanzarote, adding further to the swell from the storm. 

Safe to say that the look on Jo and my face was enough for Mark to decide that this was a no-go. He even admitted that he'd find it “a bit intimidating.” But what to do instead? We could go south to Agadir, but that would be another 48 hours at sea and we still risked being hit by wind and swell or we could motor north back to Rabat and stay there until the weather calmed down. Rabat won.

It would mean that Jo didn't finish the crossing to the Canaries with us, but she would get to visit Casablanca!

So, decision made, I spoke to Michel who kindly phoned Rabat marina to check there was space for us. Hooray, there was, and he was travelling there himself, to escape Mohammedia.  We decided that we would leave at 10:00 on Wednesday to catch the high tide needed to enter the river to Rabat marina. Relief all round.

And We're Off!

 Friday 27th October 2023

With final checks made, we were on schedule and ready to leave as planned. With Mark on the helm, Jo at midship and me at the bows, Mark put her into gear, we slipped our lines and reversed out of our berth. 

And then the engine died!

And despite Mark's best efforts, it was not going to restart immediately. Drifting slowly between two rows of expensive yachts, we aimed for the solitary berth behind us that was unoccupied. Using all of our combined experience, we clicked into gear as a team and managed to get all eight tons of Offbeat into a position where we could secure her safely between two other boats with no damage done.

Unsure whether it was a fault with the engine, or if we'd simply run out of fuel (we had run the tank low because fuel is cheap in next-door Gibraltar), Jo and I were dispatched to the fuel Dock with can in hand whilst Mark started a process of elimination to find out what it could be.

By the time we returned, the engine was purring away nicely.  Turns out it was air in the fuel system, probably introduced as Mark was demonstrating to Jo the four-valve fuel supply system that he had fitted. 

After a nice cup of tea and a wave goodbye to the marina staff, we at last motored out of Alcaidesa Marina and headed to the fuelling dock in Gibraltar to fill our tank and spare cans. We then headed towards Algeciras to wait for our time to depart.  On our way across the bay, we had a pod of dolphins visit to say adios. Or, we hope, ‘hasta la proxima vez.’

Under engine, we headed out of the Bay of Gibraltar at 16:00. The sun was shining, visibility was good and sea state was calm. Just no wind!  We knew that we were going to have to do most of the journey to Mohammedia under engine so we prepared ourselves for what could be a tedious 48 hours. 

Heading towards Tarifa, the gateway to the Atlantic, we kept to the 18-20 meter contour line. Two reasons for this. Firstly, the currents heading east (we were heading west) were less strong and secondly, if there were any Orcas lurking about, they don't normally attack boats in shallower waters. A couple of hours out of the bay and just passed Punta Acebuche a Sun Fish appeared. Fin flapping, we ventured to the 30 meter line to investigate, but it disappeared and our speed dropped by half as we hit stronger current. We scurried back to the more benign water further inshore.

By 21:00 Mark decided we would cross the very busy shipping lane in the Straits of Gibraltar earlier than planned. By this time we had 3 to 4 knots of current against us and we were not making good progress. We knew that once on the Moroccan side of the Straits, the current would be with us. Mark raised the mainsail for the crossing, just to make us more visible to on oncoming ships.  The crossing was really good, averaging between 6 and 7 knots speed over the ground. We first had to dodge a huge cruise liner steaming west and then another ship called us on the radio because our manouver put us on a collision course with him. We agreed to change course to keep out of his way too. By the time both ships passed safely ahead of us, the current had pushed us 1.5 miles back towards the Mediterranean.

On we motored, taking in the nighttime sights of Morocco. By 23:30 the tide had changed and we now had 3 knots of current going our way, giving us an overall speed of 8 knots. The stress of the shipping lanes was behind us and we knew from the charts that there were overfalls to one side of us, but it shouldn't be a problem. 

[Note for non-sailors. Overfalls are areas of rough, shallow seabed that can cause lots of turbulence in the sea if the current is strong.]

So, Mark went down to get some rest. Jo was on the helm and I was on watch. We could feel the sea starting to get different, the waves coming at a faster rate and at a higher level. 

Next thing we knew, it was like being in a washing machine.  The waves suddenly got bigger, steeper and were coming at us from all angles.  Mark came back on deck and took over the helm as it was really hard to maintain our course in these conditions.  We had found the overfalls! 

An hour later and we were through the overfalls. What an experience. In the pitch dark it was teeth-clenching, white-knuckle scary. Looking back, I just have to share Mark's note from the ships log  “3.5 nm NW of Tangiers. Overfalls of Tangiers were f***ing awful! But, it gave us 7-8 knots SOG, so there's a bright side.” He did mention to Jo and I something about “we'll know better next time we make this journey” at which point he was told in no uncertain terms, never again!

By 02:00 Saturday morning we had rounded Cape Spartel and set our course for Mohammadia.  Although we were at least 5 miles off the coast of Morocco, we could see the bright lights of Tangiers twinkling away in the distance, disappearing slowly as we rounded the headland until we were left with only the winking light of the lighthouse to say goodbye from the Straits of Gibraltar.  Only another 30 hours to go!

During the night, the wind increased and we could raise the mainsail and jib as there was enough wind to keep 5 knots and save fuel.  But, true to form, after a couple of hours the wind dropped and we were back to engine.  At least we had a full moon to show us the way.

Apart from a couple of collision avoidance manoeuvres from fishing boats, the rest of the night was uneventful. I have to say though, I'm loving the Morrocan approach to navigation lights on small fishing boats. Decked out with flashing neon lights and flashing disco balls, they are a sight to behold, like a surreal one-man discotheque.

The rest of the morning passed without much to note.  Fuel and oil checked and topped up, weather forecast on our Navtex receiver noted, progress checked against our plan. All was good.  One of the reasons we had left when we did was because of the storms heading east across the Atlantic.  Whilst the storm itself would not reach us, the sea swell caused by it would. With a 5 meter high swell west of the Straits of Gibraltar, we wanted to be as far south as possible. 

By mid afternoon we were 11 nautical miles offshore and there was enough wind to put the sails up and get an average of 4.5 knots. Again it only lasted a couple of hours, but it gave the engine a rest.

Early evening and we spied ships on the horizon. We could see at least four masts so thought that it must be some sort of regatta. They must have been doing a similar speed to Offbeat as we never caught them and they didn't disappear over the horizon. A little while later, the AIS (like a radar that gives information about ships around us) showed it was in fact a single four-masted sailing ship, the Star Clipper. We knew a lot about this gorgeous ship because our friends Richard and Edita had sailed on her from the Caribbean to Malaga via the Azores. And we had seen her ourselves in Malaga. She was ahead of us some 4 nautical miles, heading toward the coast, so we decided to change course a little and give chase to see if we could get a photo as the sun was setting. Unfortunately we didn't reach her before sunset and later we really wished we hadn't tried! 

On we ploughed under engine and after we'd had our evening meal, Mark went down first for a sleep.

By 22:00 we were in the depths of darkness except for the moonlight and some very bright lights from fishing boats in the distance.  No disco balls here, just the bright lights that would disappear and red flashing lights indicating where the fishing nets were.

With Jo on the helm and me on lookout, we planned our course to avoid the red lights. The bright lights of the fishing boats had disappeared and there was nothing showing on AIS to indicate any boats ahead us so we kept our course, leaving the red lights to starboard.  As we approached a red light, which was about 100 meters to starboard, the radio erupted with Moroccan voices shouting very loudly in Arabic and French, spotlights came on from a vessel on our port side which came towards us at full throttle.  

Shit, it's either pirates or customs.  

With hearts pumping, I quickly took over the helm from Jo and turned Offbeat 45° to starboard, leaving the red light on my port side.  With engine in full throttle, I was out of here.  However, they continued to give chase.  This brought Mark out of his deep sleep and up on deck. As they were right behind us, he told me to slow down to see what they wanted. 

In very expressive language, which we didnt understand, we got the impression that we had motored into the middle of their fishing nets. I had just missed going over a fishing net that sits on the surface, which would most likely have got tangled around the propeller. Using hand gestures they were trying to tell us that we needed to get out to sea, as far away from them and their nets as possible.

Phew, OK. They weren't pirates, but they weren't happy either!

No problem, we could see Star Clipper in the distance so we would follow them. It looked like they had come too far inshore too and surely they would know how to get out to safe waters.


With me on the helm and Mark and Jo on lookout, we started following Star Clipper.  We were in an extensive area of small boats and surface nets marked by flashing red and green buoys, some fixed lights (which were dim) and some not marked at all.

It was like going through a minefield. You knew they were around and ahead of us, but not precisely where they were. As instructed, we were heading out to sea. Star Clipper was getting further away so we were on our own.

Next thing we knew, there was another fishing boat coming towards us full pelt, all shouting and pointing.  What now? That was when we then saw a very dim red light, which was just off our starboard bow and was slowly coming down the side of Offbeat.

In what feels like slow motion, I put the engine into neutral and then Mark shouted to reverse to stop the boat. By this time, the small fishing boat with half a dozen fisherman on board were at our side shouting at us in a language we didn't  understand. I put Offbeat in neutral as Mark tried to talk with the fishermen who by this time were at our stern and very very close. They hauled on a rope and it became clear that we were on top of their net and in danger of getting it tangled around our propeller or rudder.  The fishermen carefully manoeuvred their boat and the net to disentangle it. 

After the dramas of the evening, the rest of the passage was quite uneventful. We stayed as far off shore as possible but still had to dodge twenty or so trawlers.  At least we could see them as they were well lit and most of them had AIS transmitters so we could quickly make sense of their course and speed. We had long ago realised that if the AIS shows that a fishing boat is doing around 3 knots, it is trawling and can't change course or speed quickly, so is to be avoided. But when there are 10 or more of them ahead of you, deciding how to avoid every one of them becomes very complicated.

The sun rose on cue as we approached the Moroccan shore. Five miles from Mohammadia Mark called the marina on the radio but the port control answered who in turn spoke to the yacht club (a term I use very lightly!). Yes, there was space for us so we could enter.

Thank goodness, what an adventure that had been.  Time for some well earned rest. Little did we know what was waiting for us!

Wednesday 15 November 2023

Kicking our heels in La Linea

Our first night in La Linea brought an air of both excitement and deja vue to Offbeat. We found ourselves in a similar position to when we set sail from Ipswich in England. 

We hadn't been quite ready, but we knew that we had to make the physical and emotional break from the town otherwise we may have forever continued to find jobs that needed doing before setting sail. This time would be different though, as we knew that we would return to Estepona sometime in the future. 

And if we had any lingering doubts, these dispersed at the sight of a spectacular sunset. Our plan was to stay in La Linea until Jo arrived to join us as crew and then set sail a few days after that. Unfortunately Maria couldn't make the journey with us as her plans had changed (I hope we didn't put her off on the journey down!). 

Over the next few days we would be studiously watching weather, checking forecasts on various sites and planning our 5 day sail to Lanzarote, which is the first island you come to sailing to the Canaries from the North. Although I had stocked up on food in Estepona, there were still more provisions to buy, meals to be planned and crew rotas written. Plenty to keep us busy.

But, before that, a bit of exploring of La Linea was called for. Whenever I arrive at a new town, I like to go exploring and get a feel for the place and people. Most important is to find a good bread/cake shop, a bank and a supermarket. So, off I went on Monday morning to see the sites and get some bits for lunch.

Set in the province of Cadiz, La Linea de la Concepcion (known locally as La Linea, derived from the word línea, meaning line or boundary) it is often referred to as the gateway to Gibraltar as it divides Spanish territory from the district of Gibraltar.  

Spain and Britain have been battling over ownership of the Rock since 1704 and culminated in the closure of the border from 1969 to December 1982, with full public acccess only from 1985. With frontier crossings now open 24 hours a day, Gibraltar is a tourist hotspot, particularly as it enjoys duty free status.

Highlights of my wanderings were the beach on the Mediterranean side. Miles of golden sandy beaches, with structures that would be at home in a 1950s setting. Plaza Farinas, with it's Casa de Cultura and palm trees shading numerous cafes. And Plaza de la Iglesia with its shrine of the Immaculate Conception, with its simplicity and beauty and the Three Grace's Monument based on the Greek mythology of the three Charites, Aglaea (Shining); Euphosyne (Joy) and Thalia (Blooming).

Oh, and I found a wonderful bakery, selling scrumptious tarta manzana and bread and butter pudding, known locally as 'puddin'. That shop became a regular on my daily walks!

Mark's sister Jo arrived on Thursday, but so did the bad weather. High winds and torrential rain set us back our hopes of heading off at the weekend. The long term weather forecast foresaw gales coming in across the Atlantic from the west, hitting the coast of Spain and Portugal, the Bay of Biscay and up as far as the UK. With it came waves of up to 5 to 6 meters. We decided to stay put until things calmed down!

Jo and I decided to use the time wisely and have a day out in Gibraltar. It's one of those places you have to go to at least once. 

Taking the cable car up to the top of the Rock, the views over the western side of Spain were spectacular. We also had a great view of the marina, although we couldn't quite make out Offbeat. Once at the top, we were visited by the monkeys, albeit with a glass screen between us and appreciated the views across the Mediterranean. It was such a beautiful clear day that we were able to see the Sierra Bermeja and make out the coastline at Estepona. 

Back at ground level, we had a wander around the town. It's quite a unique town, a blend of English and Spanish, set in the 1950s. However, when the 18th century soldiers marched past in full uniform carrying muskets, it was like being in a parallel universe!

That evening we decided to eat out, so went to the restaurant of the local yacht club. When we arrived, the restaurant was laid out for a 25th wedding anniversary but no problem, we could eat there too.

By the time we had finished our meal, the party was in full swing and the dancing had started. Next thing we knew, we'd been invited to join in with the party and we were all up and dancing.

We finally got back to Offbeat at about 1.30 am. A great end to a very surreal day.

During the course of the next couple of days, we continued to watch the weather, looking for that 5 day window to sail to the Canaries. 

By Wednesday it was clear that we weren't going to make a clear run to Lanzarote as southerly wind was forecast for Monday and Tuesday.  But, what we could do was leave on Friday and head down the coast of Morocco to Mohammadia. Although it would mostly be under engine, we could wait there for the wind to arrive on either the Wednesday or Thursday. 

So, we had a plan!  We would leave La Linea at 2pm on Friday, fuel up at Gibraltar and be ready to head out of the Straits by 18:00. 

Mark had worked out that if we left Punta Carnera around 18:00 local time, we would go close inshore and stem the 3 to 4 knot flood tide to Tariffa. We would then cross the busy shipping lanes in the Straits at slack tide around 21:00. Once near the Moroccan shore we would then have 1 to 3 knots current lift from 22:00 for 4 hours.  And when we reached Cape Spartel on the north-west  corner of Morocco we would turn south-west  for about 30 hours and adjust our speed to arrive at Mohammadia on Sunday morning.

The next couple of days and final preparations were made. Fresh food bought, water topped up, sails, rigging and engine checked and the details of the route put into our electronic navigation gear and drawn on our chart.
Friday morning and with final checks and sea stow completed, lunch prepared and the sun shining, we slipped our lines just before midday.

This was it, our adventure was about to begin!

Friday 10 November 2023

Leaving the Mediterranean

 Sunday 15th October 2023

With a heavy heart and a knot of excitement, we released the lines on Offbeat and headed out of Estepona.  After 5 years, we were leaving the Mediterranean to start our adventure in the Atlantic.
Our first stop was Alcaidesa Marina in La Linea. With a great view of the Rock of Gibraltar, we would wait for a good weather window and our crew. Mark's sister Jo would be joining us to help sail Offbeat to the Canary Islands. We had planned to have four crew members, and Maria our intended fourth crew member joined us on the sail to La Linea. Mark took some teasing from his friends for having a crew entirely of "mujeres".

True to form in the Mediterranean, the sail was not a sail, but a journey under engine as the wind was only blowing 5 to 8 knots. And no dolphins, just a splash in the water, possibly a tuna.

The highlight of the journey was whenour good friends Richard and Edita came alongside us in their motor boat to say goodbye. It really meant something us that they made that special effort and took some great photos of Offbeat.

During our time in Estepona, we have made some very good friends and we will miss them. We plan to return to Estepona in the future,  but in the meantime, hopefully great adventures await.