Call For a Tow

Into Africa


By Tom Morkin

This time one year ago, Liz and I were sailing from Turkey through Greece, Sicily, and on to Malta. The spring sailing conditions in the Med were terrible, depression after depression tracked from west to east bringing gale after gale. “Never again will we sail in the Med until May” was the mantra. And there we were in late March in Malta, provisioning, paying the marina bill, clearing with Customs, checking weather websites, saying goodbye to friends we’d made over our five months in Malta. Spring was in the air and we were off to Monastir, Tunisia, 190 miles west. Some never learn.
Departures after long stays in a country are for me one of the worst things about cruising. All the goodbyes are tough enough, but some cases, such as this departure, when weather windows open and close with shocking rapidity, you don’t have the luxury to say your goodbyes over planned farewell gatherings. In this case, the GRIB files (our weather forecasting website) promised a 72-hour period of southerly (favorable) winds, something of a rarity at this time of year. Opportunity was knocking, but not for long.

We use GRIB files for our weather forecasting whenever we have access to the internet.

Leaving the familiar for the unfamiliar, leaving a place where you have friends, to go to a place where you must make friends again, wondering how the boat and engine will perform after a long hiatus… and of course, those often fork-tongued weather forecasters; can they really be trusted?  After all, 12 hours before our departure it was still blowing at 20-25 knots out of the west, the direction we wanted to go.
Will we be visited by mal de mer (seasickness) because we haven’t been to sea for such a long time? Will Customs or Immigration have any nasty surprises for us when we check out? (In fact, they nearly did.) In addition to these anxiety-raising issues, there are always way too many things to check off the departure checklist:

  • Stowing dinghy and outboard
  • Lashing deck items
  • Readying staysail
  • Bringing bicycles inside
  • Returning DVDs and marina bathroom keys
  • Checking weather again
  • Buying fresh produce
  • Preparing meals for at sea
  • Setting up safety jack lines on deck (lines that run the full length of the deck to which safety harnesses are clipped)

In the midst of the departure chaos, you must say your goodbyes, knowing that these are real goodbyes. Even though we say we hope we’ll cross paths again, we know that almost all our Malta friends are committed to cruising the Med and we’re committed to crossing the Atlantic for the Caribbean. We’ll probably never see any of them again. These are just some of the hallmarks of departure. Departures are hard to enjoy, few if any of the aforementioned tasks are enjoyable. They’re simply the price cruisers pay to cruise. 

Monastir, Tunisia, lies 190 nautical miles west of Malta. The Italian islands of Lampedusa and Pantelleria are in between, popular stopovers, and are good places to stock up on Italian wine.

On the other side of the equation, though, is the arrival euphoria. Arriving in a new country or port has always been one of the best parts of the cruising lifestyle for Liz and me. What a great cluster of feelings presents itself upon arrival at a new destination. The feeling of accomplishment, that you did what you set out to do; the feeling of relief that the level of vigilance demanded by the voyage can be dramatically reduced. You’ve arrived, you can relax, forget the weather forecast, watch system, looking out for other traffic, and possible gear failures. You’ve made it and you’re going to get a full night’s sleep again.
And finally, there’s the anticipation: of exploring a new culture, landscapes, sights, sounds, tastes, and possibly making new friends among the local population or perhaps fellow cruisers. Liz and I always feel like a couple of kids at the door of a candy store about to open. You can think of it as the yin and yang of cruising. You can’t have one without the other. There is no arrival gain without departure pain.
We finished our departure chores, checked out, said our goodbyes, and miraculously the 25-knot westerly dropped to a five-knot westerly and by 0700 the next morning we were off. As expected, the first part of the trip was spent motoring into leftovers, that is, moderately sized waves left over from four days of strong westerlies. Eventually the weather people made good on their promise for southerlies, light in the beginning then increasing to 15 knots.

We motored away from Malta and viewed the inter-island ferry for the last time.

We knew whatever fuel we used on our 190-mile passage could be replaced in Tunisia at $3 a gallon (a bargain by European standards) and that the Med in spring is fickle at best, and potentially treacherous at worst, so we instituted a “six-knot rule,” that is, the engine is turned on whenever boat speed drops below six knots. That purist instinct to use the motor only when departing and entering port is not part of our Mediterranean policy. Completely different weather conditions exist short distances apart.

Only 100 miles from Malta as Feel Free was dancing along with 15 knots of southeast breeze, Malta was experiencing gale-force southeast winds. Far more shocking was to hear that off the coast of Libya, some 180 from us, between 300 and 500 refugees lost their lives as two boats capsized in storm-tossed seas. These boats were part of a regular procession of boats that depart Libya for the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa some 180 miles from Libya and 130 miles from Sicily.  Once on Lampedusa these North African refugees claim refugee status throughout Europe. (See the sidebar below.)

As it turned out, our trip was uneventful. We made our six knots most of the time with the aid of our 70-horse Isuzu diesel engine, a third of the time we had 15 knots off the port beam, flat seas, clear skies, minimal freighter and fishing traffic. All boat systems behaved themselves and we arrived without breaking anything and even enjoyed a 20-dolphin escort as we approached Monastir, Tunisia.

A pod of dolphins escorted us into Monastir, our first Tunisian port. Liz raises the Tunisian courtesy flag and the Q flag as we prepare to enter port.

During check-in we were asked for baksheesh by the Immigration and Customs officers. We were not surprised by the requests, in fact we were amused by their delivery, which was pleasantly low key, almost cute. From the Immigration officer, “Maybe you have a gift for my colleagues? Maybe some chocolate from Canada?” The Customs officer, not having the sweet tooth of his Immigration counterpart was more interested in cash. “You can give me two dinar (US $1.50) now.” When we explained we had no dinar yet he said we could bring it to him tomorrow, “But if you don’t want to, you don’t have to.” Not exactly high-pressure tactics. The Customs man did get his two dinar but the Immigration officer is still waiting for his chocolates.

The hammock, a truly essential piece of boat gear, is a favorite spot to take in my new surroundings

We’re now safely Med moored in Monastir, a town of some 75,000 on the east coast of Tunisia, North Africa. The town was named after the monastery/fort that lies a quarter of a mile off our port bow. Tunisia was a French colony until 1956 when it received independence and almost everyone speaks French, which explains why the 400-berth marina is a popular wintering over base for French cruisers in the Med. We just heard from an English cruiser who wintered here that he was one of only four English speakers in the marina for the winter. “Honey, get the French dictionary out.”

Over 95 percent of Tunisians are of the Muslim faith and evidence of Islam is everywhere. We hear the call to prayer from the boat five times daily and mosques are located throughout Monastir. Many women wear headscarves, but few are veiled and many girls dress like they live in any American town. It is considered one of the most liberal Islamic countries in the world and few restrictions are placed on tourists. 

We have an entire month set aside to explore Tunisia. Roman ruins, subterranean towns, Saharan desert landscapes, verdant mountains, miles of white sandy beaches, and the clear waters of the southern Mediterranean all await us.

Merchandising Tunisian style The 1,200-year-old fort/monastery looks like it won’t have any problem lasting another 1,200 years
Francesco, Stephanie, Maceo, and Ysalis, our neighbors and friends in Monastir. After only a few days beside us, they sailed back to the south of France to work for the summer Our short-term friend and flower child


The Refugee Trade

Last year more than 33,000 African refugees arrived on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa. At present, the locals on the island number approximately 4,000 while the refugees number approximately 1,200, and the military around 1,200. Lampedusa has the dubious distinction of being the closest piece of the European Union from Libya, and as such receives a highly disproportionate number of African refugees. Strangely, 80 percent of the refugees coming from Libya are Tunisians, not Libyans. This phenomenon is partially explained by the fact that Italy donates patrol boats to the Tunisian government, which cooperates with the EU to stem the flow of would-be Tunisian refugees. Apparently, no such cooperation exists with the Libyans.
Cruisers sailing from Europe to Africa are advised not to approach any vessel suspected of carrying refugees, but to contact authorities on channel 16 to report the position of the vessel. EU Coast Guard boats will respond by intercepting the vessel, taking the refugees on board and delivering them to detention camps on Lampedusa, Malta, or Sicily.
In a bizarre and perverse manner, the situation has evolved to the point that the operators of boats smuggling the refugees now don’t even deliver their human cargo to EC shores. They need only put out a Mayday while at sea and the Coast Guard will come and finish the delivery of the refugees, saving them the trouble and expense of doing the whole trip. Of course, they are paid up front.

- Tom Morkin
After they’ve rescued the refugees, police discard the boats in macabre boat graveyards such as this.