Call For a Tow

Sailing Spains Costa del Sol


By Tom Morkin

Our sailing in Spain could easily be classified into three parts: 1) Balearic Islands 2) Costa Blanca 3) Costa del Sol. The last, the Costa del Sol (aka “Costa del Plastico”), has been put behind us. In truth, our nine days on the southernmost coast of Spain were not that bad, especially if you didn’t mind open roadsteads for anchorages, rolling from gunnel to gunnel 50 percent of the time, knowing it would cost $150 a night for a marina berth, being trapped on your boat for fear of taking your dinghy near the surf pounded shore. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Costa del Sol is a cruising ground that scores 2 on a scale of 1 to 10 from the “Tom and Liz Show.”

For those with a taste for picturesque coastlines covered with mile after mile of plastic-covered greenhouses and almost uninterrupted resort development, coupled with tourist-lined beaches, enough of whom have jet skis that are apparently mandated to destroy any shred of tranquility that an anchored boat may briefly enjoy, well, this coast is for you.

The Mediterranean coast of Spain, from the French border to Gibraltar, is broken into five coasts. Beginning at the French border and working southwest to Gibraltar, they are Costa Brava, Costa Dorada, Costa del Azahar, Costa Blanca and, finally, Costa del Sol. The Costa del Sol begins at Cabo de Gata in the east and extends 200 miles in a more or less east-west direction.
Its coastline is less dramatic than the rocky and craggy coastlines of the Costa Blanca and Balearic Islands. It’s a coast of low shores and mile upon mile of sandy, sunny beaches, and of course, endless sugar cube-like structures that house the thousands (millions?) of sun seekers from all points of Europe. It’s a mecca no doubt for a northern European in need of a cheap and convenient sun fix, but for the cruising yachtie it’s not so attractive unless the weather chooses to be cooperative, which for the most part it was, for us. We rounded Cabo de Gata having bid adios to the Costa Blanca.

We arrived late at the marina entrance, the weather was benign, so we chose to anchor off the beach for the night and dinghy in the next day to check out the facilities before going in with Feel Free. We’re happy we did. It was like entering a ghost town. Like much of southern Spain, Almerimar was massively overdeveloped with condo resorts and restaurants surrounding the boat basin, then the money disappeared leaving unfinished skeletons of buildings and deep scars on the landscape for buildings that never got built.
We were told that because the harbor entrance had not been dredged this year, we’dlikely touch bottom entering and leaving. We elected to give it a miss.

It was an auspicious enough arrival to the Costa del Sol with the onshore sea breeze that kicked in on schedule at 1100 hours. We took the gentle gift on the port beam and ghosted along at a sedate 3 knots. Our destination was Almerimar, the biggest marina complex on the Costa del Sol and one of the biggest marinas in Spain. We’d been almost two months since our last marina stop in Tunisia and were ready for the luxuries of marina life for a couple of days at least. Incidentally, Almerimar is not only big, it’s also one of the few Spanish marinas that’s reasonably priced ­– only $45 per night for our boat, electricity extra.

“Hey, off the port beam,” Liz called out. “We’ve got a pod of six or more dolphins – really BIG dolphins! Hey, wait a minute, they’re black, very black, and they aren’t dolphins at all… They’re whales!” They were pilot whales and unbelievably, in all our years of cruising, this was a first. We’ve seen greys, humpbacks, orcas, minkes, even sperm whales, but never a pilot whale. Like dolphins, they were attracted to our slow-moving boat. As they got closer we could see they were much bigger than dolphins with bulbous heads and long but low dorsal fins.

The pilot whales behaved like dolphins on tranquilizers. They cavorted on the surface near the boat, communicating in high-pitched squeaks like they’d never seen a sailboat before.
From our whale book we learned that they’re highly social animals, sometimes found in groups of hundreds. They can dive to 2,000 feet hunting for squid, usually at night. They tend to be quiet, relaxed, and fairly slow swimmers and very social. Our little pod of about 12 bore testimony to the relaxed, slow-moving, and vocal characterizations. To us, they behaved like dolphins on tranquilizers, just enjoying hanging around the boat, squeaking away in communication. Unlike their dolphin cousins they didn’t show the slightest inclination to ride our bow wave. It seemed to require way too much work for these laid back critters.

The next four days along the Costa del Sol were spent anchoring and re-anchoring, trying to find a spot where we could safely leave the boat and dinghy ashore to visit the small coastal communities. It was frustrating as many of the anchorages were exposed to the southeast and southwest winds that prevailed. Those brief periods when we were confident we could leave the boat without fear of dragging in the onshore wind, we were put off by pounding surf on the beaches.

The headland at “Punta de la Concepcion o Mona” did offer some level of solace. The cape extends south about half a mile from the shore that runs nearly east-west on this part of the coast, providing protection from southwest winds on its east side and protection from easterlies on its west side.

What it didn’t do was prevent the swell from wrapping around into the anchorages and making life onboard a rolling hell. For a 48-hour period we lay on the east side of the cape, grateful for the barrier it provided against the 25-knot WSW winds, but criticized it because it couldn’t prevent the seas from wrapping around it and striking us on the beam, setting up a rolling cycle that would make Popeye seasick.

Feel Free lies at anchor inside Punta de la Concepcion o Mona. The picture belies the constant rolling from the wraparound swells. A close up at the cape shows a few of the luxurious monster homes and condo developments that line the coast.

It seems the weather gods weren’t happy enough watching our little floating home rolling from gunnel to gunnel. Oh no. Just 12 hours after the westerly abated, news from the radio reported that a 30-knot easterly was on the way at 0-dark-30 (sometime between dusk and dawn) the next day. No problem, just zip around the other side of the cape and voila – sanctuary from the easterlies, right? Well, sort of. The problem was the seas on the west side of the cape were still big from the two days of 25-knot westerly winds. The only thing to do was to wait until the easterly arrived, then move and hope that a) the seas on the west side of the cape were tolerable when we moved the two miles to the other anchorage, b) when the easterly arrived it didn’t arrive with a bang because we’d be anchored on a lee shore upon its arrival, and c) the easterly arrived sometime after 0-dark-30.
Well, as you can guess dear reader, the easterly did arrive with a bang at 0330. The winds in our snug but rolly anchorage went from 10 knots from the NW to zero, then 25 out of the east all in about 10 minutes. Within 20 minutes it was blowing 30-plus and we were busily extracting our beloved 65-pound Bruce anchor from the bottom and motoring around a very windy cape to its leeward side where the leftover westerly swell was alive and well. But everything is relative, right? So that very rolly but windless place looked pretty good compared to the lee shore we just left. There was added pleasure in the thought that the stronger the easterly blew, the sooner the seas would lay down in our new anchorage, or so we thought.
Sure enough, with the 25-knot easterly, the west side of the cape proved to be rolly. However, because the wind was blowing from the east and we were westbound to Gibraltar, it was like our train had arrived at the station. We reefed the main, set the whisker pole to run downwind, and off we went for the 90 miles to Gibraltar.

Dawn brought into view the unmistakable Rock with its cap cloud. Happily, the ‘big dogs’ are well out of the way of small cruising boats that tend to stay close to shore.

As we approached the Strait of Gibraltar, evidence of the Straits’ importance to world shipping emerged. Over 30,000 ships transit the Straits each year. Europa Point marks the eastern entrance to the Bay of Gibraltar and Jbel Musa in Morocco is only 10 miles south. This is one of the “Pillars of Hercules,” the Rock of Gibraltar being the other. Once round Europa Point, it was four miles up the Bay of Gibraltar past the Rock and its community of 30,000 Gibraltarians who owe their allegiance to Britain. The border with Spain is marked by the runway of Gibraltar airport. Finally, we were at the doorway, ready to step across to a new chapter of adventures.

The anchorage, off the Spanish town of La Linea, less than half a mile from the Gibraltar border was to be our home for almost three weeks.
The Rock of Gibraltar is known as one of the Pillars of Hercules who was the god of human toil. Here’s the big guy, seen later in a museum. Later we climbed the famous Rock; here we are at the top