The Agony And Ecstasy Of The Tunisian Coast

7/15/2009

By Tom Morkin

Food poisoned again! It was the “cous cous poulet” in Tunis. Both Liz and I had all the symptoms (which I don’t need to describe). They struck us immediately upon our return to Feel Free from our trip to Tunis. It could’ve been worse, much worse – it could’ve hit us in the train or bus or shared taxi, or just about anywhere in this toilet-deprived country. Or we could’ve been on passage – thoughts too awful to contemplate. Throughout our 36-hour ordeal, we couldn’t stop thinking about our waiter’s comment as he delivered our rather tasty meal: “We made this meal very special for you.” They sure did!
Since our travels began many years ago, I’ve been poisoned seven times in six countries. I’ve had: Tunis Tummy in Tunisia, Sphinx Jinx in Egypt, Red Sea Revenge in Eritrea, Korean Can Can in Pusan Korea, Fijian Foxtrot in Suva Fiji, Mazatlan Madness and Nogales Nuisance in Mexico. The weird thing is that with the exception of the latest bout, it’s been only me who has succumbed to the bugs. Although we can’t resist eating street food where hygiene can be questionable at best, my bad experiences have always been in restaurants, not at street food vendors.

Here’s Liz, who almost never gets food poisoning, scarfing down crickets and grasshoppers with impunity at a Bangkok food stall.

Much to our surprise, we did recuperate and made plans to start our cruise north along the low-lying east coast and then west along the more mountainous north coast to the small city of Tabarka, only 20 miles east of the Algerian border. Reasonable anchorages exist along the route but none could be described as an all-weather anchorage; fortunately, we could rely on fishing and commercial harbors at Kelibia, Bizerte, and Tabarka, which meant 70-mile hops to go from harbor to harbor.

Our cruise took us from Monastir on the east coast to Tabarka on the north coast, with few all weather anchorages in between.

The long-range weather forecast from UGRIB was almost too good to be true, calling for the very uncharacteristic southeast winds to persist for almost a week. A high-pressure system over Sicily and a small low over France would result in 15- to 20-knot south and southeasterlies as long as those systems stayed put.
Our departure chores were done by 2 p.m. Thursday and our departure time was dawn the next morning; but, the great weather forecast coupled with the full moon that night compelled us to check out at 4 p.m. and set off at 5 p.m. for an overnighter to Kelibia.

Our sails were re-stitched and refurbished by Hedi in Monastir and we were ready to set sail again.

Even sailing port to port within Tunisia, the police insist you check in and out of port. We suspect they are concerned we’ll be carrying refugees to the nearby Italian islands of Lampedusa and Pantelleria. So concerned are the authorities that cruisers could be people smugglers, they take a very dim view of locals being entertained on yachts. Our Canadian friends David and Barbara on Calabar reported that two Tunisian women they invited aboard for dinner were denied permission to board the boat until they collected passes at the police station. They then had to return the passes to the police following their evening aboard. Can you say police state?
One of the two policemen who came to our boat for our check out appeared rather suspicious of the Canadian flag on our stern. The two officers spoke between themselves and the word marijuana could be clearly heard. He then looked to us and in a serious manner asked in French what was the symbol on our flag. Did they actually believe Canadians put a marijuana leaf on our national flag?
The strange and slightly bizarre transactions with bureaucracy were quickly put out of mind once the main was raised, jib unfurled, and engine shut off as we broad reached at five to six knots under blue skies awaiting the arrival of the full moon. The idyllic conditions lasted until 11 p.m. when the full moon was overhead and apparently insisted that the wind go to sleep and our 70-horse Isuzu diesel wake up and take us the last 40 miles into Kelibia as dawn broke.
We had no trouble believing that the fishing industry based in Kelibia was the biggest in Tunisia. Tuna boats, sardine boats, long liners, and rowing dories filled the boat basin to beyond capacity. Hundreds of people lined the shore buying freshly caught fish, fishing boats came alongside the dock long enough to offload their harvest and then were gone. The action was frenetic and we would have loved to join the action but had to check in with the Police, National Guard, Customs and the Port Captain! Going through the bureaucratic maze is a drag at the best of times, but after a night passage when the crew is sleep deprived, is worse. Thankfully, all concerned were friendly and courteous and went out of their way to help us whenever we asked.

The fortress overlooking the harbor was built by the Carthaginians in the 5th Century B.C. and attests to the strategic importance of Kelibia. From here, Romans and later Byzantines could maintain a commanding presence after finally defeating the Carthaginians in the Punic wars, all the while being a short distance from Sicily and Rome itself.

It appeared we weren’t alone in taking advantage of the good weather. Throughout the day, yachts sailed in. No fewer than six boats crammed into the harbor that day and Feel Free found herself number two boat in a six boat raft-up.

Sailboats from Switzerland, Germany, France, England, America, and Canada were shoe-horned into the boat basin of Kelibia.

After two days of exploring Tunisia’s northeast Cape Bon area by foot and shared taxi, we just couldn’t let that southeast wind go to waste so at first light on the third day from Monastir, we were underway again, this time with a reef in the main. Over the years, we’ve learned to respect capes and Cape Bon would be no exception. It is a high, bold promontory that very clearly marks the end of the east coast and the beginning of the north coast.
As expected, the dramatic landscape was matched by a dramatic weather development as the wind ramped up to 30 and 35 knots, the water got whiter and whiter and the boat responded to the higher octane wind, jumping up to nine knots.  There was very little fetch so the seas topped out at three feet and it was swift, smooth sailing as we bid adieu to eastern Tunisia and bonjour to the north.

The north coast of Tunisia is hilly and verdant, unlike the east coast.

Once two miles west of the cape, the wind died and would reappear from various points of the compass long enough to make us think that maybe we could start sailing again only to find it was just a “sucker breeze  funnin’ with ya.” On and off went the engine, in and out went the jib, back and forth went the main. Hopes raised, hopes dashed. Some days, sailing sucks! Eventually the wind did straighten and start to fly right enabling us a pleasant final three-hour sail into the port of Bizerte.
We had heard less than flattering remarks about the “yacht marina” in Bizerte, so we dropped the anchor in the large outer harbor of this commercial port and hoped the harbor police would leave us alone. They did. How pleased we were to be swinging free at anchor after weeks of living cheek by jowl in marinas. Give us the open space of an anchorage with unobstructed views that are gently changing as the boat swings around her anchor, any day.
We walked the streets of Bizerte, the grand and wide seaside boulevards lined with royal palms and stately white government buildings and hotels, as well as the narrow cobbled lanes of the medina where vendors plied their wares much the way they did 600 years ago.

In the picturesque old fishing port of Bizerte you can get a sense of Bizerte’s pre-colonial identity. Kids in Bizerte have fun diving off a bridge.

Our plans to linger in Bizerte were changed by the weather – nothing new there. Winds of 15 knots from the southeast promised a glorious reach for our 65-mile day. After hearing about our friends’ two-day slog to Tabarka from Bizerte in strong northwesterlies, we couldn’t look this gift horse in the mouth, and were off at dawn the next day. After two hours of motoring in calm seas, images of motoring for 13 hours came to mind. Just as we were coming to terms with that reality, faint signs of the southeaster appeared: ripples on the water, tell tails fashioned from plastic ribbons showed signs of life, the mainsail stopped luffing and began to fill, the main sheet got taut, boat speed increased and the boat gently heeled to starboard – all those glorious indicators that it wasn’t going to be such a bad day after all. Sure enough, the day developed splendidly within 15 minutes of the first evidence of a breeze, we turned the engine off and were broad reaching at five and six knots in flat seas.

It was perhaps our best day of sailing in the Med yet, no more than a mile offshore, passing mile after mile of pure white sand beaches backed by undulating hills of different shades of green conjuring images of the Scottish Highlands not North Africa.

We saw little evidence of human life, only one or two small fishing boats and a couple of settlements; in fact, we saw more dolphins than people as the shoreline passed by our port side until we raised the town of Tabarka off the bow well before dusk. Our Tunisian sojourn was coming to an end.