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
I left my base of Almerimar, Spain, and because of currents, which set east from Gibraltar, and because I was singlehanding, I sailed west toward the Rock.
"Sailed" is a hopeful term in the Alboran Sea, where calms erupt into 30-knot blasts that suddenly die. For a couple of days, Laurel and Hardy changed my sails as I cursed the wind, sold my boat, or opened champagne and drank a toast to my good fortune, sometimes all in the space of an hour.
After two blissful nights at anchor, spent lying on my back and studying the stars, I took a slip at Sotogrande, Spain, the largest resort and privately owned residential development in Andalusia. Located north of Gibraltar and catering to a British clientele, the development seemed full of car salesmen and their remarkably chested companions. Taking the slip proved fortuitous, however, because next to me was Graham Hutt, author of North Africa, the cruising guide published by the Royal Cruising Club Pilotage Foundation. I'd practically memorized Hutt's book, a mix of history and warnings laced with an enthusiasm for exploring the African Mediterranean. He assured me of a warm welcome in Morocco and handed me another book he'd written. I turned in, a little nervous about crossing.
I needn't have been. In bright rising sun and flat calm, the Pillars of Hercules rose from a deep-blue sea, framing the strait. It's a dramatic sight that evokes images of a time when the known world ended here-Nec Plus Ultra, or Nothing Beyond. I motored past Europa Point, crossed the wake of Columbus, who changed all that (Spain's motto became Plus Ultra, or Farther Beyond), and threaded a convoy of tankers that followed his path.
As Gibraltar and the West slid away in a blue haze, North Africa loomed as a dun, mountainous outline. I don't know where I'd got the impression that the Sahara came down to the sea, but as I approached closer, Morocco turned green.
The dolphins arrived below Monte Hacho, the southern Pillar of Hercules, which marks both the Africa continent and the Spanish presidio of Ceuta, a remnant of colonial times. A huge catamaran ferry from Algeciras, Spain, slid into port. It runs every hour, takes 40 minutes, and costs 18 euros, about US$30.
Marina Smir, just south of Ceuta, is run by a Spanish corporation. I pulled up to the control tower and was greeted in hearty English by a friendly marinero. Efficient clerks in a bright, modern office signed me in, swiped my credit card, and directed me around a corner to a cluster of uniformed men playing cards, their TV tuned to a soccer match.
One of them took my passport and disappeared. Hutt had written that in the 1990s, police and customs officers harassed yachtsmen, made "extensive and indiscriminate searches," and demanded baksheesh, or bribes, of whiskey and cigarettes. The reputation lingered, perhaps, because the marina was virtually empty. Only two other yachts were there, and they were leaving because of the high fees, about 16 euros a day, three times Almerimar's off-season rate.
So imagine my surprise when, 15 minutes later, my passport came back, stamped in Arabic, French, and English. I was led to a convenient quay, welcomed to Morocco, and left alone. It was the first of many surprises.
"Is it safe?" I shouted to the marinero.
"Very safe," he said, giving a wave.
The second surprise was beer and pizza, in the only restaurant open. Marina Smir is a clean, upscale establishment with a palm-lined court of empty storefronts. Moroccans strolled by in slacks and skirts, half the women in scarves and robes. They snapped photos of each other in front of an ostentatious motor-yacht. Next to me, two young men sat with their pizza, beer, a cellphone, a pack of Marlboros, and a digital camera.