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.
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!