Call For a Tow

Out Of Africa


By Tom Morkin

“I want to go, but I don’t want to go” lamented Sarah of Djarrka, describing her feelings about taking leave of our lovely sanctuary in Sale, Morocco. “I know” said I, “my sentiments exactly”. We’d spent just over one month in Bouregerg Marina, meeting up with old friends we hadn’t seen in two or three years, taking inland trips to the Atlas Mountains to the south and the Rif Mountains to the north, and to some of the imperial cities- Marrakesh and Fez. Rabat, the capital, was right next door so it was easy to regularly explore her labyrinthin alleys and storied sights. But ‘all good things must come to an end’, we both knew. We’ve seen this movie before.

Conditions were not right for leaving the harbor though, not just yet. Seas had been building for several days causing waves to break clear across the narrow entrance, making an exit through the bar untenable. Surfers were taking advantage, riding the waves on both sides of the entrance. Tom bemoaned his broken surfboard left behind in Spain.

Unfortunately, one boat did enter during this period, with damage to boat and injuries to crew, but nothing fatal thankfully. The skipper had visited the harbor on a previous trip, thought he knew it, and didn’t bother to contact the harbor master upon arrival at the entrance. Otherwise he would have found out that the harbor was closed. Once inside, a swell picked up, broached and knocked down the boat and all four crew members went overboard. Three made it back onboard somehow, one made it to shore and walked to safety. Among the damages: stanchions and brackets broken or bent, steering wheel spokes of two wheels bent, bimini ripped off and frame bent, compass ripped out of the binnacle, boat filled with water, jerry jugs on deck knocked over the side, serious scratches to the hull. When we spoke to the crew members, they were licking their wounds, complaining of aches, pains, scratches and bruises but were otherwise healthy and enjoying a mountain of Moroccan cous cous sent over compliments of the thoughtful Marina staff. Many lessons learned there.

Back to Feel Free with a not too bad weather forecast on the horizon: swells down to one to two meters and light winds for several days. Although normally we prefer to leave port with stronger wind, in this case, we were just happy to be able to get through the bar in good conditions. If we were to wait, the seas might build again and then we’d be trapped inside for who knows how long. No thank you. Departure boat chores were ticked off the list, water and diesel tanks full, larder brimming, weather double checked, bills paid and clearance received. Surprisingly, we didn’t get the “sniffer” dog this time as we did on arrival. This we were glad of because the dog can make a bit of a mess.

Next day, at first light, the marina staff led us through the channel and we were away again, looking astern, saying ‘adieu’ to Africa and setting a course for the 470 mile journey to the Canary Islands. Since the Canary Islands are so close to the African coastline, it’s no surprise that refugee boats regularly head there too.

Actually, although we did check out of the country, winds were expected to be light so we decided to stay fairly close to the Moroccan coast in case there was no wind at all. “Il n’ya pas de probleme” (no problem at all) said the policeman during check out procedures, when asked if we could re-enter the country if fuel was needed or winds weren’t favorable. It was a relief to know that we could tuck in somewhere without worrying about being turfed out or worse, due to illegal entry. Sitting in a Moroccan clink was not high on my list of new experiences to look forward to!

The first day was lazy, characterized by clear skies and a light breeze from the southwest. About midday I was absentmindedly standing in the cockpit when suddenly a large cricket, no, a dragonfly, wait a minute, a tiny bird, came fluttering into my face, attempting to pass me and enter the boat.

My startled yelp caused the little hitchhiker to change direction and settle for the aft coach house where it tried to find a comfortable spot among some lines to take a rest.

“No bird, even the feral pigeon, is more closely associated with people than the house sparrow” stated our “World of Birds” book. That had to be our gregarious little visitor, a perching bird, I thought as it nestled into a coil of line, taking no heed of us at all. It must have been exhausted. We were many miles offshore and wondered how in the world it could have gotten so very lost. After only a few minutes though, it had had enough, hopped onto the lifeline, built up its nerve, and took flight, heading back toward the coast. Brave little creature.

“The remainder of the day was uneventful except for one highlight- fish! Not one but two, so it was sashimi for starters, then mixed grill of mahi mahi and bonito for dinner and more for the next day. We had sailed the breadth of the Mediterranean without catching a single fish so the savory, delectable, freshly caught morsels simply melted in our mouths. Smiles all around, we could not have been more pleased to be back in fish catching territory again.

The big surprise of the night came in the form of fog, which stayed with us, off and on throughout the night and well into the next day and the following day. It was a strange and almost eerie feeling to be enveloped by a veil of sea mist, and to observe, only on the radar screen, a large ship passing us within a quarter of a mile. We hadn’t experienced this kind of fog since the west coast of North America some 15 years earlier and were not used to it at all.

Fish nets were also a concern as they weren’t visible until you were practically on top of them, so a sharp lookout was needed. Notice the toque and warm ups- it was cold!

At 0230, I was on watch, motoring in no wind conditions through a glassy sea, when the fog lifted briefly. The night was transformed. A half moon shone like a beacon, sparkling stars sprinkled the sky and, darting toward Feel Free off the port beam, was an astonishing sight - dolphins, but dolphins with a difference. They were totally lit up by bioluminescence! Sadly, they arrived, swam under the boat and were gone in a matter of seconds.

It was a short but sweet dolphin show and reminded me of another night watch, more than ten years ago, in the Sea of Cortez off the coast of Mexico. It was a brilliant, full moon, a peaceful night and we were sailing along in calm seas when off in the distance appeared a giant shape, an orb, completely luminous like a flying saucer moving sedately through the water, heading directly for us.

Liz: “Tom, I think you’d better come up here, quick!”

Tom: (Sleeping, slow to respond) “What’s going on?”

Liz: “Hurry up, you’ve really got to see this!”

Up the companionway he shot and the two of us had one of the most memorable sights of our sailing lives. We realized it had to be a whale, moving so slowly he might have been half asleep, but decidedly aiming directly for our boat. Was he as fascinated by us as we were by him? Mesmerized by the sight, we were frozen in the cockpit, just staring, but at the same time almost panic stricken that Feel Free might be overturned, capsized by the grand behemoth, and/or that the whale would be injured by the encounter, a bloody mess staining the azure sea. Just as with the glittering dolphins though, our mammoth friend was gone as quickly as he arrived, deftly sounding under our keel with not so much as a ripple.

This passage to the Canary Islands was one we’d been looking forward to immensely. Not only does this little stretch of ocean mark a big step in Feel Free’s slow but steady circling of the globe, but many friends had reported dream sailing conditions and we’d been hoping for the same. Alas, it was not meant to be. Winds were ephemeral, fickle and downright annoying! During the four days it took to cover the 470 miles, we burned more fuel than we had since leaving the Red Sea two years earlier. In fact, worry about running out of diesel was a real issue. A one to two knot contrary current for a long spell added to the frustration. Then, the main clew shackle parted with a loud bang; it could have been a disaster but luckily wasn’t in the no wind conditions. After the moon set, nights were ink black. There was rain. Up and down, up and down went the winds. “It’s like being in the doldrums” grumbled Tom.

But, skyscapes were sensational and seas comfortable, though large and seeming to breathe, rising and falling like the chest of a giant.

At dawn on day four, land was sighted. Graciosa and Lanzarote Islands appeared on the horizon under pastel puffer clouds. I have to mention that just as we were dropping the hook, a nice wind picked up from the north and lasted for a week.

For me, a new landfall is always a thrill and this one was no exception. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of them. Despite the lack of wind, we’d made it to the Canary Islands with fuel to spare, everything working and only a couple of minor mishaps.

Friends were there to greet us in a picturesque anchorage. We were five degrees of latitude further south so the water was warm for swimming. There were hills to explore and sights to see, a new culture, new foods. What more could a pair of cruisers ask for?