Call For a Tow

Tales From North Africa


By Tom Morkin

It’s 0900 and I’m nestled under a comforter as it’s only 60 degrees Fahrenheit and the sky looks like it belongs more in western Washington than in North Africa. It’s raining common varieties of house pets and blowing 30 knots out of the northeast. It would all be grounds for complaint except that it gives Liz and me a chance to do something that gives us a strangely satisfying pleasure especially when we’re only a couple hundred miles from the Sahara desert. We’re filling our almost empty water tank with newly minted, certainly fresh, clean and rather cool rain water recently manufactured over the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Talk about a gift from the heavens. Almost absolutely pure and definitely absolutely free, catching it is a nice way to start the day.
Many North Americans and especially Canadians take the wet stuff for granted as we certainly did in our early cruising days until we had to pay for it, schlep it, purify it, or all of the above. Water became a very important consideration. I’ve never had the inclination to install a water maker, so we directed our attention to catching the stuff rather than making it. Over the years we fashioned all kinds of rain-catchment systems from a bucket hung from the base of the gooseneck while sailing, to funnels tied into awnings and weighted, later refined to plastic through-hull fittings inserted into the awning and a hose securely attached to the through-hull fitting’s barbed end.

A hose is attached to the deck scupper which leads to jugs or directly to the water tank.

But without question, our present system is the best yet. We use virtually the entire deck surface of the boat as a rain-catchment area. Here’s how it works. Our boat’s deck is drained by six scuppers. We dam all but two of them and the hoses from those two are removed and replaced by hoses that can be led into buckets or directly into the boat’s water tank.

The normal protocol is to clean the deck thoroughly before the anticipated rain, even if that involves using salt water. Usually, the first 40 gallons are collected in pails and jugs for laundry, showering and dishwashing, as it could be a little salty and contain some sediment. After 40 gallons has been collected the water is clean enough for drinking and directed into the water tank.

The hoses from two deck scuppers lead directly into Feel Free’s water tank.

In the two weeks since we’ve been in Marina Monastir we’ve caught rain twice for a total of over 100 gallons. This has saved us the $3 US a day the marina charges for water. That’s close to $100 a month and by the way, the four solar panels on our stern allow us to be self sufficient for electricity, which frees us of another $3 US a day charged for power. In this particular marina, power and water charges boost the monthly marina charge by more than 60 percent; in our case, from $266 to $446.

Our first week in Monastir was spent cruising the town of 75,000, by bicycle and foot. The need to find an internet café and buy groceries or widgets for the boat provide the excuse for long trips around this new and very foreign place. Walking past the 1,200-year-old fortress, through the walled medina, surrounded by the loud and colorful, seemingly chaotic aisles of the town market make a day of errands into a day of sensory adventure.

It’s easy to get a head in Tunisia.

Food shopping, normally not one of my favorite activities, has become a joy. Fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish are abundant, excellent in quality, and cheap. In addition to the central market, twice a week vendors set up their wares in the outskirts of town. Five-ton trucks overflowing with artichokes, carrots, fennel, potatoes, radishes, and countless unrecognizable foods attest to the rich agricultural nature of Tunisia.

The twice-weekly market on the outskirts of Monastir provides an abundance of produce and wares. Fennel (shown here) has become one of our favorite vegetables

During that first week in Monastir we were “treated” by a visit of the Tunisian President Ben Ali. Ben Ali who has been President since 1987 is a relative newbie compared to his predecessor who served from 1956, when Tunisia gained independence from France, until 1987. Five days before the visit, streets normally strewn with litter were cleaned, drab paint-chipped buildings got new coats of paint, bright and crisp Tunisian flags and bunting sprung up like spring flowers, and police and military personnel appeared at every street corner and roundabout. Clearly, these folks take the President’s security very seriously.

In fact, security is something not taken for granted here. With Libya to the south and east and Algeria to the west, Tunisia doesn’t have a history of peaceful borders. Libya has long tried to claim Tunisian territory and Algeria continues to try to destabilize the political environment of what it considers a liberal pro western regime. The way it does that is by taking a page out of the Egyptian fundamentalist group and targeting their tourists. In view of this reality, the increased police and military presence is rather comforting.

For President Ben Ali’s visit, his picture was pasted everywhere, streets were cleaned, and flags and streamers fluttered in every street.

In view of this highly visible police and military presence, Presidential visits notwithstanding, I was shocked out of my wits the other day when in broad daylight near the ribat (fort), a major tourist attraction, I witnessed four men leap out of an old car and proceed to violently assault two pedestrians with sticks. This display of violence took place in full view of scores of people, Tunisians and tourists alike, but strangely, no police. A day later at the market, Liz witnessed a stall vendor pummeling a young man even while the young man vomited profusely. Was this a case of petty thievery being dealt with by Tunisian street justice? We choose to believe these were freak occurrences and in fact, travel in Tunisia is safe.

The arrival from Abu Dhabi of our niece Kelly marked the beginning of some serious sight seeing. Kelly, a small-town Canadian girl, had grown up and become a high school teacher when I wasn’t looking. Although we’d spent many Christmases together over her 27 years, our visits were fleeting at best, so Liz and I were delighted that she would stay with us for five days of her spring break.

We chatted with Kelly about travel for hours, poring over atlases and charts.

What a treat it was to travel with someone who is so easily awestruck by things foreign, different, and unusual. Her enthusiasm and excitement were infectious. Here was a small-town girl who was out to see the big world. In the course of one school year, Kelly will have visited Jordan, Oman, Tunisia, Dubai, England, the Netherlands, Canada, and a few countries in Eastern Europe. Not bad for a young woman who didn’t get out of North America until she was 25.

Her first morning aboard Feel Free, we were treated to an intense low of 994 mb that zeroed in on Monastir with the accuracy of a cruise missile. The squalls of 40-50 knots that persisted through much of the day gave us the strongest winds we’d experienced this past winter in the Med. Black skies, driving rain, rolling boat, halyards clanging against masts, a nearby boat with an improperly furled jib unfurled itself and died a very loud and violent end as the wind pummeled it to death, but not before four men put themselves at risk by trying to save the sail.

The remaining days were good weather wise and were spent on day trips. For me, Kairouan and El Jem were the highlights. Kairouan, the oldest Arabic city in Tunisia, is also its holiest; in fact, it is the 4th holiest place in the Islamic world after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Word on the street is that if you can’t make the pilgrimage to Mecca, seven trips to Kairouan equals one to Mecca, so you can imagine what a busy place it is during the Haj.

Kelly got to experience some pretty nasty weather during her visit aboard Feel Free. Plus, our sails were being re-stitched so we couldn’t take her out on the water. So Kelly, how do you like boat life so far? As it turned out, she liked it just fine.

We were extraordinarily lucky to be in town when the famous once-a-week Kairouan carpet auction was in session. In the long alley of the Medina the colorfully dressed women who were the weavers of the carpets lined one side of the alley while the carpet buyers (mostly retailers) lined the other side. Highly energized and highly vocal independent auctioneers raced up and down the alley carrying the beautiful, heavy carpets from one prospective buyer to another. We were allowed to watch, but we pinned ourselves to the walls, out of the way of the auctioneers. God help any tourist who got in the way of the auctioneers. To the untrained observer, the scene was pandemonium. We felt privileged to be three flies on the wall while watching such a bizarre spectacle that has replayed basically unchanged in the same location since 700 AD.

These three ladies are carpet weavers in Kairouan.

El Jem, a nondescript town, has the distinction of having the single most impressive Roman monument in Africa. It is an amphitheater like the Coliseum in Rome, marginally smaller (capacity for 30,000 spectators in the old days) but much better preserved. We could actually walk under the floor of the center of the arena to see where gladiators and the animals they fought were contained. Sophisticated cages and elevators using pulleys were to safely bring the animals to ground level.  As we walked through the dark tunnels we could easily imagine the sheer terror of the gladiators and their victims as they awaited their turn to perform and or die. 
After four days of sightseeing it was Kelly’s time to head back to Abu Dhabi and Liz and I to recuperate for a few days before heading out to explore further south toward the desert.



The amphitheater in El Jem is a little smaller than the Coliseum in Rome but in much better condition.
Extra pictures