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
When I brought out my digital camera and showed them the instant picture display, boys began to line up for shots. They were handsome children, and I found it hard to imagine them growing up with anti-American sentiment. Even crusty fishermen smiled shyly, then hooted at expressions caught on film.
In the bonhomie, a couple of young men dropped hints about Spain-one asked for the compass bearing to El Ejido, the vegetable capital next to Almerimar.
I was touched by El Jabha's hospitality and painted a quick sketch of Ranger on the quay. Early one morning, as the warble of prayer came from the minaret, I slipped away and headed east.
It was uphill against a current of two knots, so it took a long day to motor 43 miles to Al Hoceima, a large port with a bad reputation. "This is one of the only ports in Morocco where yachts have never been welcome," Hutt warned. "It isn't uncommon for up to 10 officials to come aboard, all with their heavy boots on."
To my relief, one pleasant policeman walked up, took my papers, and said I was free to explore the city. Later, a coast-guard official filled out papers, too, but no one came aboard, and by nightfall I had my passport. But it was clear that Big Brother had kept track of me. They asked for the names of my mother and father.
On my way to town, I was greeted by a friendly, English-speaking young man who invited me to coffee. A college grad, he was dying to talk issues. But there was something else, and it came out when I resisted meeting again.
"Are you afraid I'm going to ask you to take me to Spain?" he asked. Then he admitted that he'd been stopped before. After crossing to Málaga in a raft with an outboard, he was caught trying to board a train to Barcelona.
A few Moroccans and many more sub-Saharan nationals die trying to float north to an economy that's 15 times stronger than Morocco's. Many others make it, and they're unofficially welcomed with jobs. Officially, the European Union funds better security, including fences around Spain's enclaves on the Moroccan coast, Ceuta and Melilla. Not long before I sailed, 15 people were shot to death trying to scale those fences.
I quickly distanced myself from my new best friend, but I did warm to three powerboaters who were remodeling a large motoryacht that had been confiscated in a drug arrest. We were tied up together on a new concrete dock optimistically called the "Ferry Terminal."
I walked up the steep steps to check the weather at a cybercafé, which had a French keyboard. With my deadline to fly home bearing down, I was tempted to leave Ranger in Morocco. Weighing my choices, I reviewed in microcosm the yachting situation on the African Med.
Al Hoceima would've been cheap, maybe 1,000 euros a year. But only two yachts were in the fishing harbor, and one of them looked abandoned: The sails were tattered, and grimy children climbed in and out of the open holds. Even if I hired a "guard," I might return in six to 12 months to find a hulk.
An e-mail from Hutt, whose advice I'd solicited, suggested that anti-Westerner sentiment was unlikely to encroach into the ports. He wrote, "My feeling is that your yacht would be safe. However, a changing political situation may unnerve you when away from the boat."
It costs more to board a boat at Marina Smir than at Almerimar, marinas at Spanish Ceuta and Melilla had histories of vandalism, and a new French marina at Saïdia, near the border with Algeria, hadn't yet opened.
Algeria is fighting a civil war. Hutt reported that the military assigned him a machine gun-toting escort whenever he left the boat. Libya, he understated, may be years from extending a warm welcome but "is no longer unsafe for the adventurous to visit."
That left Tunisia, 900 miles away, which, from all reports, is cheap and safe thanks to a virtual dictatorship that enforces a moderate Muslim culture.
A more practical issue prevailed in my case. I was out of time, and Al Hoceima didn't have a lift large enough for Ranger's nine tons. I bought an alarm clock to keep me awake for 24 hours, caught the next weather window, and motorsailed across the sea that divides us, East and West.
In a yacht, it's easy to skim the surface of a country's coast, like a water bug that never breaks tension. I'm embarrassed by how much I didn't know at the time of my visit: about Morocco's censorship of writers, its second-class citizenship for women, and, above all, how complicated the struggle is for the soul of Islam. The Alboran Sea divides a world in which Europe worships the euro and lets go of its god, while a growing number of Muslims cling ever harder to theirs.
But I also believe that from my little ship, the rhythm of a human heart beating sends out ripples that former strangers on their distant shore can sense.
After exploring Morocco, then covering the America's Cup in Valencia, Spain (see "Ranger's View of Sailing's Oldest Trophy," September 2007), Jim Carrier plans to keep exploring the Med's many dimensions.