Leaving The Med
By Tom Morkin
36 31 N, 06 15 W
Just by looking at a map of the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, you might guess that the Strait of Gibraltar that separates the two would prove to be an interesting body of water for sailors negotiating its 30-mile length. You’d be right.
“The Strait of Gibraltar has always been somewhat daunting for mariners. I can well imagine the trepidation felt in ancient times by the master of a square-rigged vessel about to exit what for him was the western limit of the known world. To sail westward passing between the fabled Pillars of Hercules, the Rock of Gibraltar to the north and Jebel Musa in Morocco to the south, knowing that his vessel was probably not able to turn around and beat back to windward must have taken considerable courage.” (Colin Thomas)
Long before we got close to the Strait, we’d heard numerous tales of woe by those who’d transited it or tried to at the wrong time and bore the scars to prove it. Here are some facts about the Strait that grabbed our attention.
1. There’s a very high rate of evaporation on the Med side where there are few big rivers and low rainfall.
2. In fact, only one third of the water lost to evaporation is replaced by rain and river runoff. The rest comes from the Atlantic.
3. The sea level on the Atlantic side of the Strait is more than three feet higher than on the Med side.
4. The average width of the Strait is only 10 miles, 8 miles at its narrowest.
5. There is an average current of one knot flowing east to a depth of 500 feet and much stronger in some places (over 1,000,000 cubic yards per second).
6. The Strait waters are much shallower than those in most of the Med. Average depth in the Med is around 4,900 feet while the Strait is only 1,000 feet deep on average.
Tides in the Med are minimal because not much tidal flow from the Atlantic gets into the Med. However, tidal streams in the Strait can exceed 3 knots at springs.
Tarifa (small Spanish town on the Straits coast) is one of the windiest towns in Europe. Winds can hit 30 knots no less than 300 days a year, which is believed to cause the abnormally high suicide rate.
The winds blow either east (levante) or west (poniente) and are very predictable. The mountains in Spain and Morocco and the Strait direct the winds like a funnel. If the barometric pressure on the west side is high, then in the eastern side of the Med it blows westerly. If the pressures are reversed, so are the winds.
|A moist and warm easterly wind (levante) can instantly produce fog when it comes in contact with the cold waters of the Atlantic. A cap cloud is often seen over the Rock of Gibraltar with the easterly wind, as it was the day we arrived.|
When you look at the hydrology, tides, and weather together, you can understand how reports of six-knot currents, overfalls, whirlpools, and vicious standing waves become easily believable. Kiwi circumnavigators Tony and Liz of the boat Aethelwyn regaled us with the story of their early attempts to head west from Gibraltar. “After six hours of hard sailing we found our speed through the water of five to six knots was no match for the conditions in the Strait so we returned to Gibraltar. It took 20 minutes to cover the distance we had made in six hours!” On the other hand, many other cruisers who made the transit reported lovely sailing and a minimum of fuss. As usual, the devil is in the details.
To make sense of this body of water and to assist sailors transiting the Strait, a guidebook aptly named “The Straits Sailing Handbook” written by Colin Thomas (updated every year) became essential reading for us when we planned our exit strategy from the Med.
Cadiz, the historic port on the Atlantic coast of Spain and departure point for Christopher Columbus when he set out to find the Americas, was to be our last stop in Europe before heading south to Morocco. This meant we’d be transiting through the Strait rather than crossing it to Morocco.
We upped anchor at 1400 hours on a bright and breezy afternoon with winds in the Strait forecast to be 30 knots from the east and possibly more as we approached Tarifa. The good news was that the wind and tide were to be moving in the same direction, so sea conditions should be reasonable and on the stern.
After almost three weeks in Gibraltar/La Linea we had seen a couple of boats set off to go west and return, citing rough seas and hellacious winds, so it was not without a modicum of anxiety that we set out. This pre-trip anxiety is not uncommon aboard Feel Free, but happily it usually vanishes as we busily ready the boat for sea. This day was no exception.
We single reefed the main and poled the jib out on the starboard side. Once in the Strait, 20 knots of wind had us on our way – dead downwind. It was like tobogganing down a hill that gets progressively steeper as we got close to Tarifa and the most restricted part of the Strait; 20 knots became 30 knots and our toboggan slid faster and faster. We rolled up more and more jib until it was all gone but the toboggan continued at eight knots. All’s well and fine, we reassured each other, as long as the autopilot holds our course and the wind doesn’t continue to veer, as we were already sailing by the lee. To jibe in these conditions was a thought too ugly to contemplate.
Tarifa, the most southerly city of Europe and only eight miles from Africa, is famous for its strong winds. They say that if it’s blowing 15 in Gibraltar, count on 30-plus at Tarifa, and they were right.
With only five miles to Tarifa, we encountered a nasty bit of water complete with standing waves that set the boat rolling and yawing to the point where it was necessary to override the autopilot to prevent a jibe. Some five minutes later, we looked aft to see a sailboat that left Gibraltar when we did, jibe in that area of rough water. We helplessly watched as the boat lay beam on to the seas, sails flogging themselves to death as the crew seemed to be unsuccessfully trying to remove sail. Our hearts went out to them. The boat didn’t make it to Tarifa while we were there.
It was a huge relief to come around the castle on the tip of the Tarifa peninsula and be able to turn to starboard and bring the wind forward of the beam. The wind continued to blast at 30-plus knots, the seas were still white, but now less than a foot, and the holding for our soon-to-be dropped anchor was excellent in white sand.
The two-and-a-half-hour trip felt like eight hours but the worst of the Strait was behind us. We were now, after a little more than two years in the blue Mediterranean, in what looked like the green Atlantic.
We are now anchored in Cadiz, the oldest city in Europe, just two miles from where Christopher Columbus’ Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria anchored before setting off for the New World. Over sundowners Liz and I reflect on the fact that we have now sailed the length of the Mediterranean, more than 2,000 miles, and visited 10 countries over a two-year period. Now that the Med is behind us we find ourselves thinking back to 2007, to Thailand, when we debated going around South Africa or the Red Sea and the Med to get to the Atlantic. Do we have any regrets about our route? Not a one. Would we do it again? Well, probably not. If we were westbound from Asia to North America, we’d probably go round South Africa, but that’s got more to do with the increase in pirate activity in the Gulf of Aden than the lack of good cruising grounds in the Med.
We’re so happy with our choice. Our Med adventure started in Egypt, then took us to Israel, Cyprus, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Malta, Tunisia, Spain, and Gibraltar. We feel like we barely scratched the surface of these incredible countries, and we feel blessed to see such a diversity of cultures in such a small area. Thanks for being onboard with us through this part of our journey. Now, onward!