Who knew a 30nm journey to our planned port of Tangier, Morocco could take 5 days? Well, we found out how that’s possible on a sailboat…
On our first attempt at leaving Gibraltar, we had looked at the tidal stream atlas and decided on a time of the day to leave, it turned out to be a not-too-early 9 am start and we knew it was going to be a windward sail so tacking, something we are quite used to but little did we know just how strong the tides really are in the Gibraltar Straights.
We cruised out of the anchorage just north of the border of Gib (so actually in Spain) at a speedy 6knots across the bay in lovely flat seas, we dodged the giant container ships anchored in the bay as we headed for the Southwest side of the bay.
When approaching one of the ships a little too close for comfort we tacked a few times so as not to lose the wind when going past what is basically a huge wall stationed in the water.
Not even 10 minutes later the water started to get choppy, an indication that the tide in that area was strengthening and the wind was going over the surface of the water in the other direction to the flow of water, Hannah Penn powered through under full sail, we felt good that this sail was going to go well.
At this point the wind speed increased to about 30knots, we reached the other side of the choppy water where there was a strange calm area of sea, we dropped the mizzen as the wind was not going to let up and at the same time found we had left the ladder down in the water at the back of the boat, I took the helm and Adam had to retrieve the ladder with his long arms as we were very healed over.
After sailing into the calm water we noticed our SOG (Speed Over Ground) dropped and our heading which was once a very good into-wind angle suddenly point further and further downwind.. to the point where instead of going forward we were actually headed backward at a diagonal straight into the Mediterranean sea!!
Clearly, the tide was doing something very strange, a phenomenon which we had read could happen around a headland we were passing, Punta del Carnero, leaving the bay and entering the Straights, we had to start the engine as our speed, eastward towards the Med had increased to a staggering 2.5knots whilst still sailing West!
By this point, the wind was still gathering in strength and we knew we were not going to make it to Tangier so 1.5nm into our journey through the Straights we looked into bail-out options, luckily at that moment when motoring at over double the RPM we would usually run the engine at and only managing a meagre 1.5knots over the ground we saw a little cove which looked relatively sheltered in the prevailing conditions, we took that opportunity and headed in checking our trusty Navily app on the way, one review was good enough for us!
We approached the tiny cove (Cala Arenas on Navily) which should have had over 2m of depth below the keel, the depth meter suddenly started dropping much quicker than expected, with 0.8m under the boat we quickly made a turn into the wind and slightly deeper water and dropped anchor, let out 30m immediately and let the boat settle in what was turning into a gale!
So we had arrived in this little cove at about low tide, and this made it lovely and sheltered with a big outcropping of rocks to the windward side of the cove, the wind still howled but the water was flat, we hunkered down after letting out a bit more chain and putting the anchor snubber on to dampen the forces on the boat.
After looking at the tidal stream atlas again wondering why it was so difficult to get into wind we realised we had got the tide timings wrong, by 3 hours! after mistakenly thinking the titles for the pictures were above the relevant information, when in fact they were below.
Waiting it out for 2 days
We stayed in the cove for two nights whilst keeping an eye on the weather, each high tide it got a little choppy as the rocks protecting us got partially submerged, so we created a swell bridle which allowed the boat to sit with her bow into the waves but side-on to the wind.
On the 3rd day, we decided it wasn’t worth us trying to get out of the straights until the wind shifted from a Westerly to an Easterly, which was due to happen in another 2 days’ time, so that day we made sure the tides were right and we upped anchor and set off back toward Gib, and fast downwind, down-tide sail that saw us doing over 8knots.
We rounded the corner into the bay and anchored up in the lee of the wind in the southwest corner of the bay.
We tucked ourselves in close to the shore and made the most of our extended trip near Gibraltar by going snorkeling and watching The Witcher on Netflix!
Second Try for Tangier
So the time came when the wind shifted to an easterly giving us a downwind sail, perfect! Now reading the tides correctly, which included making sure you had adjusted for the different time zones (being so close to Spain, Gibraltar and Morocco our phones didn’t know which country to pick up!)
We headed out again and this time was much faster, expecting a very windy sail we only need the genoa out, and even then we only had all of it out for about 1 hour till we decided we would have more steerage if we furled some in. Still, we maintained about 7knots SOG.
We stayed close to the north shore of the straights, well out of the shipping lanes to the south of us, this gave us a little protection from the building waves in the center of the channel.
The time came when we need to make a slight turn south and venture more into the open water, soon though we found ourselves being thrown around a lot in the steep waves which were forming due to the strong tides and equally strong wind, we tried for about 30 mins to make our way out but decided it would be too dangerous when we hadn’t even got a 1/4 of the way across and one wave threw the boat sideways-on to the waves, which were easily higher than the deck. At that point, we turned back north to more sheltered water.
Carrying on, on the north shore we made our way to Tarifa, a Spanish town with an outcropping of land which gave perfect shelter from the building conditions.
We tucked ourselves in behind the breakwater where a number of pro kitesurfers were having a great time in the high winds and flat seas.
Taking shelter from real storm-force winds
We were forced to drop anchor in water much deeper than we would usually choose, about 8m under the keel, which meant we had to let out about 50m of chain because we didn’t want to interrupt the kiters and decided we would move closer after they had finished.
Into the afternoon the wind grew stronger and stronger. We contemplated an alternative anchorage, heading off a little downwind, but it was far less protected and we found ourselves motoring back to Tarifa and moving closer to shore.
We had about 5m of depth, the usual ratio which we use when we anchor is 15m + 2x the distance from the seabed to the bow, so in normal conditions, we would have let out 35m max, but as the wind was due to blow at over 110kph we decided we should probably use the whole lot, which is 60m! and then we used 3 snubber lines equally loaded to the front anchor bollard and two outer cleats to reduce to load that any one line would take as we sway from side to side in the gale.
The evening brought winds of over 50knots (92kph) and it was expected to rise during the night, with the anchor alarm set and with howling winds we tried to get some sleep, it was a restless night, and waking in the morning we found that our wind instruments were no longer working and the boat had a thick veil of salty sand plastered to the front of everything, the windshield, rigging, masts, deck, but at least we didn’t move an inch in the night, our storm anchoring tactics had held firm.
And that is how you achieve going nowhere in 5 days!