Atlantic diary: Gibraltar

The phone rang and it was Cam. “I’ve bought a boat”, he said. “Come and sail it from Spain to the Caribbean with me.” 

All day we sailed west in the bright, clear light of Spain’s Mediterranean coast. But to the south, and ahead in the west, a dense cloud of something heavier than vapour hung low across the horizon. “Saharan dust” Cam said, which sounded very exotic to me.

The southern end of the haze had the yellowish tinge of the desert, slowly turning orange, then grey as the day advanced. The stuff ahead of us was white, and it also darkened in the afternoon, to the colour of an old smoker’s finger.

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In the little village of Almerimar, the harbour master had a sense of humour. “I know kiwi” he said. “Kiwi is not just a fruit, but also, a peoples.” He wasn’t impressed by our destination. “Gibraltar?” he sneered. “The English, no control. A lot of smuggling.” Eyes bulging at such hopelessness. “They don’t deserve it. They can not control it!” And finally, nodding: “they will lose it, for sure.”

The VHF radio was busy, especially at night, and mostly with the inane ramblings of bored commercial crews – maybe fishers – on solo watch. “Monkey wanna banaaanaaa! Banana want a monkeeeey!” Some jacked up fool a long way from home (and who knows for how long?) was going out of his mind and he didn’t care who knew.

We reached the rock two days later at four in the morning, tip-toeing our way past dozens of anchored ships of every size, shape and purpose. Maybe one of them contained the solo rambler.

Over VHF, a baby-voiced English man refused us a marina berth, despite our previous emails, so we made for a fuel wharf. We motored cautiosly into the inner harbour, gazing at the flood lit machinery of an oil refinery and some busy container wharfs. As we crept in closer, it seemed as if the bright city was rising out of the very sea around us. Buildings became taller, more varied, and closer together. Boats increased in both number and variety. The coast was nothing but wharves, with cruise liners, fishing boats, super-yachts and dinghies clinging to every inch of it.

People were clambering down the sea wall, lugging heavy bags full of who-knew-what, and we didn’t wait around to find out.

Suddenly, two high powered speed boats – tiny skiffs – came tearing out of nowhere, planing at high speed across our bow. Neither of them had any lights, which immediately stood them out as being dodgy as hell.

We watched cautiously as they came to a sudden halt at the foot of a sea wall, not far from us. There was no boat ramp, no wharf, no jetty or landing of any kind. Just a deserted street running along the top of the sea wall amid a few dark warehouses.

An SUV was parked nearby. People were clambering down the sea wall, lugging heavy bags full of who-knew-what, and we didn’t wait around to find out.

The next day we took the cable car up the rock, hung out with the macaques and gazed down at Gibraltar, Spain, Africa and the Mediteranean. And then, far off to the south, we saw it again: the low hanging haze. It moved fast and within a few minutes, everything was gone: Spain and Africa were no more. All that existed was us, the macaques and a few tourists, as the fog ploughed into the rock and stacked up in piles ten, twenty, fifty stories high around its monumental base.

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I thought of the guys in the skiffs with their bags of stuff, now hidden tight in the bilge of some factory fishing boat, itself long gone, as the fog smothered the world in which we would soon be cast. I thought of the junkies I’ve known, and wondered if any of the the cargo would end up in their hands.

And I thought about what lay ahead for us, too: four or five day’s sailing to Tenerife. Everyone knows the Somalian coast is dangerous for its pirates, but we were a thousand miles from there. And yet, why should Africa’s west coast be any safer, I wondered. And what about the skiffs? Guys like that must be everywhere. How many more of them might we encounter?

A day later, heading west again with Gibraltar receding astern, I peered through my binoculars to see minarets emerging from the same fog lying over Tanger, off our port side. And I thought, what a fool I am. Why had I left it so long to see these things? As we got closer I could see houses tumbling down the hillside in landslides of cubes, and the architecture was so dense and different to anything I’d ever seen before, I once again felt the surge of exoticism, and very far from home and family.

I’ve sailed all my life. But now, for the first time ever, I longed for the stability of solid ground, and all that comes with it: walks, gardens, builsings … And so, with Morocco receding into the mist behind us, and just a few days into a month long journey, I started to wonder just what the hell I’d signed up for.

Coming up next: our narrator’s unstable sense of perspective is further exacerbated by a dose of catastrophic gear failure and some goofy ocean wildlife.

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