Across the Dividing Sea
A sailor cruising in the Mediterranean leaves the European comfort zone to make a voyage to Morocco. A feature from our August 2008 issue
Right when I needed them, the dolphins appeared. I was entering North African waters, and when three of them arrived to frolic in the bow wave, I found their playful curiosity reassuring.
It was April 2006, the conflict in Iraq was ongoing, and the United States was widely despised in the Muslim world. I was sailing Ranger, my U.S.-flagged 35-foot Allied Seabreeze yawl, into Morocco, a Muslim state since the 7th century.
Which is why, despite my trepidation, I was going.
After sailing from the United States to Portugal (see "Ranger's Refit-and the Real Rewards," June 2003), I'd planned to explore the Mediterranean. In yacht-speak, that means Europe: the Balearics, France, Italy, and Greece. My original goal, half serious, was to someday sail into Monaco and have a drink with the prince.
But as I sailed from Portugal through the Strait of Gibraltar, Africa loomed on the southern horizon, the proverbial elephant in the room. At the strait's narrowest point, the "dark continent," here just eight miles from Europe, appeared an inviting blue. Its allure grew as I studied a chart of the Med, the whole Med, and began reading about the history of this ancient sea.
Daily headlines from a post-9/11 world only exposed the depth of my ignorance of this region. Phoenicians, Romans, Christians, and Moors had ridden its currents and winds, leaving in their wakes diverse cultures. The current upheavals in Iraq and among its neighbors were but the latest manifestations of the divisions that have flourished in the area.
The northern half of my chart was a well-known entity: wealthy, developed, and expensive for yachtsmen. Spain's Costa del Sol, where Ranger had spent two years on the hard, was chockablock with condos and centers of tourism in which Spanish was the second language. Where condos hadn't sprung up, Europe's vegetables grew under miles of unsightly plastic greenhouses.
I still hoped for a beer with the prince, but 100 miles to my south lay a coast whose foreignness to me begged understanding. As I weighed the risks, I reminded myself why I leave safe harbors: I do it to learn something new. This time, my subject would be Morocco.