August 2002 : Gibraltar to Finisterre



Greetings from Muros, just south of Finisterre in the far north west corner of Spain – just over 600 miles logged this month.

We arrived in Gibraltar at the beginning of this month with several milestones to celebrate: the third anniversary of our departure from Bristol, crossing into the Western Hemisphere, and perhaps most significantly crossing the longitude of Bristol – and so achieving a circumnavigation of sorts - having travelled through a full 360 degrees! More were to follow – champagne consumption on Perdika has been high this month! Daughter Sarah decided to join us for the first week of August – which was very nice and gave us the excuse to cling on for a little longer to cruising mode, in the form of a final touristic fling around Andalucia – and Gibraltar, where she joined us.

Funny place Gibraltar. The geography of the place is very much more dramatic than I had envisaged. I had wrongly thought of ‘the rock’ as being the seaward tip of a mountain ridge, extending out from the Spanish mainland. It is far more spectacular than that – a gigantic rock all on its own, attached by the narrowest and flattest possible isthmus to a mainland of low and unremarkable hills - much more like an island than part of the mainland. As an administrative entity it is tiny – two and a half miles by half a mile with a population of under 30,000. The town, which runs along the bottom of the rock on the western side, somewhat lacking very much in the way of heritage architecture, appears to have decided that its appeal should lie in shopping. Much of it pedestrianised (and ‘beautified’ as they proudly announce) – it looks like one of the less characterful English provincial towns, with plenty of fish and chips and steak and kidney pies, plus all the familiar shop names. Does anyone’s heart actually thrill to the sight of a British Homes Stores? However, the upper rock is far more exciting. Arriving at the top after a suitably scary cable car ride, we were immediately assailed by some of the famous Barbary Apes, which seem to have overrun the rock – and we had been worried we might not see any! The views are terrific – especially out south across the strait to Africa – in fact to Ceuta – a Spanish enclave rather like Gibraltar on the mainland of Morocco and currently subject to a hot territorial dispute between Spain and Morocco (Spain’s position on enclaves is a hard one to fathom!) There is also the awesomely stalagtitey/mitey St Michael’s Cave, the Siege Tunnels – built against the first Spanish siege in the seventeen hundreds and vastly expanded in the Second World War – very impressive, various military installations and gun emplacements, and a Moorish castle. However, no beaches – and Sarah was intent on a quest for beaches and tapas during her week with us. And so, after a big shopping trip at the local Tesco, it was time to move on.

The Gibraltar Strait has a notorious reputation for adverse wind and current for those going westwards out of the Med. Boats trying to leave have been known to wait many days before being able to make the passage. It looked like our exceptional good luck that, for the very day that we wanted to leave, the forecast was of a lone day of easterly winds, after a spell of westerlies while we had been there and more to follow. Not only that, but the perfect time of day for us to leave to maximise west going tide, looked to be first thing in the morning, which fitted in perfectly with our rather ambitious plan to reach Cadiz – 75 miles away – by the end of the day. So what did we get? Headwinds gusting up to 30 knots and an east-going current! So much for forecasts and calculations. The saving grace was an incongruously flat sea – albeit ruffled by the odd rips and overfalls to be expected in a narrow strait. Progress was slow and we decided, as landfall in Cadiz in daylight looked impossible, to make a stop in Tarifa – at the very southernmost point of Europe. A great decision as it turned out. Sarah and I spent that afternoon sunning ourselves on the beach and then we all had a good ramble around the unexpectedly picturesque and trendy little town, before settling in to several rounds of tapas.

The following day, having rechecked tide times and predicted streams, we left early again - and experienced the same adverse conditions. We can only assume that after days of westerly wind, combined with the summer evaporation of water from the Med being probably at its peak, the prevailing easterly current was not to be easily reversed. In fact the area around the Strait itself was the worst, and we gradually picked up good current reaching Cadiz that evening, having enjoyed several hours of good sailing. Maybe the last outing of the cruising chute?

A day in Cadiz – cheating on the sightseeing by means of their ‘camera obscura’ – the only one we have ever encountered outside Bristol, gave us an instant overview of the whole city. A morning’s strolling around the streets and plazas and an afternoon on the beach set us up nicely for the evening’s tapas ‘crawl’. Next Seville. We had contemplated taking the boat up the 56 miles of the Guadalquivir River to make our visit. However, this would have taken the best part of two days and as Sarah was only with us for a week, we decided two hours on a bus from Cadiz would be a more efficient use of time. Seville is an extraordinary and fabulous city – a great destination for anyone (in the UK) thinking of somewhere for a long weekend. Its two flamboyant star attractions are conveniently situated side by side. The Alcazar – the fantastic Moorish style palace is a wonder to behold with its exquisite decoration, courtyards and gardens. The Cathedral is equally as splendid – built on a breathtakingly gigantic scale in Gothic style with the stunning juxtaposition of the La Giralda belltower forming one corner – the remnant of what must have been a most magnificent mosque. Also something we find quite odd in Spanish churches – the propensity for dressing up the religious statues in real clothes – like great big dolls! The time between these highlights was spent on siestas and tapas crawling – plus a flamenco performance. Flamenco has to be one of the more bizarre and incomprehensible musical/dance forms we have witnessed during the entire trip. Passionate and mercurial – "tap dance meets whirling dervish with pmt" is how Sarah described it – perfectly capturing the rapid changing from beatific smiles one second to livid foot stamping the next! It is a musical form with entirely unfamiliar rhythms and tones – definitely not sing-along stuff! Wonderful to find that there are cultural forms on our own continent as weird and foreign to us as anywhere else in the world.

Sarah left us in Seville – it was quite a relief that unlike our experience with so many other visitors, things had gone more or less as planned - and she did not jinx our engine! We returned to the boat in Cadiz feeling that this marked the end of cruising mode for us. From here on, the plan was to be entirely weather-driven – stopping only when the inevitable prevailing adverse wind became too strong – wherever and whenever that might be. The next leg took us past our 30,000 mile mark (more celebration) to Cape St. Vincent. Here we encountered an extraordinarily abrupt change in weather - one day sweltering uncomfortably in the cockpit under the burning sun, the next shivering inside the boat under duvets – sunny southern Med style sunshine meets cold North Atlantic reality. A great temptation to turn south rather than north at this point! Although the sun has since returned, it has never again been at such intensity – and we have become rather delicate after so long in the tropics! The very next day a more ‘northern’ sun appeared and we spent a beautiful day, waiting for a strong northerly wind to ease off, under the desolate but majestic cliffs of the twin capes of Sagres and St Vincent on the far southeastern tip of Europe.

The Atlantic coast of Portugal and Spain has a dreaded reputation for northbound sailors, with its prevailing strong northwesterly winds during this time of year. There is even a school of thought which suggests sailing out west to the Azores, and then back northeastwards to the UK, for better wind angles. However, we were not taken by the idea of another 1,500 or so extra miles at this stage of our trip and opted – veterans as we are of the Red Sea – for the 360 mile straight slog up the coast. We gave ourselves plenty of contingency time and on the whole it turned out nothing like as bad as we had anticipated, and we enjoyed a better than expected ratio of sailing to motoring. Conditions were mixed – basically it was either windy or foggy. Cape St Vincent was heard but not seen as we rounded it, very close by, judging by the apparent proximity of the doleful fog-horn blasting out at us. Of course, we also had GPS, radar and our wonderful Cmap to guide us! The fog gradually lifted and the150 mile leg to Peniche was achieved without much trouble – and more celebration – the biggest so far, as we crossed the track of our passage westwards out of Lisbon three years ago and thus completed the circle!

We spent a very happy few days in Peniche – Portugal’s premier fishing port and packed with fish restaurants. We were held up there by the weather, as I think we had secretly hoped might happen, giving us time for a little jaunt inshore – to visit the stupendous fourteenth century abbey of Batalha and also the quaint little medieval walled town of Obidos – both very much worth seeing. The first part of the coast was supposed to have been the worst – but for us things got more difficult from then on. We left Peniche – having checked out a spectacularly situated castle on an island just offshore which we could not resist – bound for Muros – 210 miles away and well within two days we thought. However, after the first 24 hours, the wind became too strong, and the seas too high to make reasonable progress, so we diverted into the huge commercial port of Leixoes. Although the wind had been howling on our arrival at night, we woke to a surreal calm surrounded by fog, giving the bleak and forbidding industrial harbour an unexpectedly ethereal look. Once the fog had lifted later in the day, we set off, again bound for Muros. A few hours later the wind picked up strongly and after a very boisterous night averaging only around 3 knots, we diverted again, to the Islas Cies after 70 miles – realising as we did that this might well be our last opportunity for a very long time to spend time in an idyllic anchorage such as this – white beaches, rocky outcrops, pine trees … what are we doing, giving all this up? However, after a couple of days of this idyll we decided to buck the forecast for the 40 miles up to Muros. A big mistake – our slowest leg yet beating into winds of 20-25 knots, a hard 13 hour slog.

So here we are, waiting for the ‘right’ weather to cross the dreaded Bay of Biscay – possibly the most notorious stretch of water of the entire voyage. We’re all ready to go – but the wind is blowing hard from the north. It’s a funny feeling – tantalisingly close, but not quite home.