Call For a Tow

Reaching The Rock Of Gibraltar Milestone


By Liz Tosoni

La Linea, Spain
36 09 N, 005 21 W

In just over two years, Feel Free and crew have sailed the wide expanse (more than 2,000 miles), of the Mediterranean, known to the Romans as Mare Nostrum (our sea), that almost tideless, salty, generally shallow sea the size of 30 Lake Superiors. The shores of the Med are populated by Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and hordes of tourists of course. It’s not one place, but many, diverse yet with many features of sameness too. Ours was not a grand tour of Europe. We didn’t venture inland much to take in the great ancient cities, palaces, and cathedrals. Nor did we delve deeply into its perplexities. Ours was a watery journey, concentrating on the edges, seeing much but missing much more.

The name Gibraltar originates from the name of the Moorish conqueror Tariq ibn Ziyad who captured Gibraltar in 711 AD. For 700 years the Arabs remained in control of not only Gibraltar but almost all of Spain (Iberian peninsula), and the name “Gabal-Al-Tariq” eventually evolved into “Gibraltar” and means Tariq’s Mountain. The Rock itself is one of the two “Pillars of Hercules.” The other one is the Moroccan mountain of Jbel Musa, just some 12 miles across the Straits, also clearly visible on this fine blue-sky day with the wind blowing from the west.

Only eight miles separate Europe from Africa at its narrowest point in the Straits of Gibraltar. The water at the western end of the 30-mile stretch is some 6-8 feef higher than at the eastern end, causing a constant surface flow into the Mediterranean.

To the Greeks, Hercules was the patron of human toil. According to the story, he supposedly pushed Africa and Spain apart, using Gibraltar and Jbel Musa as his handgrips on his journey to capture the Red Oxen of Geryones, the monster with three bodies.

A monument at the foot of the Rock reads: "To the ancient world Gibraltar was known as Mons Calpe, one of the legendary pillars created by Hercules as a religious shrine and entrance to Hades. To many it signified the Non Plus Ultra - the end of the then-known world."
The Greeks and Romans had a great fear of venturing beyond the two pillars and it wasn’t until the second century B.C. that the Romans actually mustered the courage to sail through. Euripides wrote: “The Ruler of Ocean no longer permits mariners to travel on the purple sea,” and from Polybius: “The channel at the Pillars of Herakles is seldom used, and by very few persons, owing to the lack of intercourse between the tribes inhabiting those remote parts… and to the scantiness of our knowledge of the outer ocean.”

 To the Phoenicians of Lebanon), the two rocks resembled the pillars at the temple to Melkarth in Tyre and so they called them the Pillars of Melkarth, Melkarth being the Lord of the Underworld, the god of darkness. Mediterranean means “middle of the earth” and the sea beyond was known as Mare Tenebrosum, the dark and dangerous sea.

Ancient mariners used to leave gifts for the gods to bribe the almighty before sailing into the unknown Atlantic, but thankfully we’ve come a long way since those days, and now some 30,000 ships transit the Strait going both east and west annually. For cruisers heading east, the Rocks are the gateway to the Med, but for those of us going the other way, they’re like giant tangible exclamation marks, punctuating the voyage, announcing to us as we make our way out, “Your time in the Med is over! You are entering the Atlantic. You are on your way to the New World.” Another milestone has been reached.

Gibraltar is a huge heap of limestone, just 2 ½ square miles; the border with Spain is less than a mile in length, yet belongs to the British (since 1704 when it was captured by Britain) and it’s remarkable to realize its bloody, violent history, and its strategic importance over the centuries and today.

Gibraltar sticks out of the Spanish peninsula like a sore thumb, yet belongs to the British, and feels like a living fort with bunkers and tunnels hewn into the rock, canons, castles and men in uniform at every turn.

It’s now being used by the military for crucial fighting training ahead of tours in Afghanistan. It’s no surprise there is tension between the two countries over this tiny enclave. History buffs have a heyday here.

From our point of view in the anchorage on the Spanish side, in La Linea, we see that Gibraltar has many aspects, personalities really, and moods, depending on the wind and the weather, the time of day and from which angle you view it. We arrived from the Costa del Sol of Spain with an easterly wind (“levante”) and as we rounded Europa Point, the tip of the peninsula, we got many perspectives and profiles, but what stood out was the cloud, hanging like a white veil over the top, shrouding it, just suspended there until the wind changed direction. Every three days or so, there’s a transition of a few hours with variable or no wind, and when the wind does change direction it’s from the west (“poniente”). Then the skies are awash in blue, and the Rock stands out in its full glory against the clear ceramic background.

We did the climb up the Rock twice, partly by bicycle and partly by foot and both times with Steve and Eva of Music. Here they are at Europa Point, the southern end of Gibraltar, before the hike.
While in the area, this levante-poniente pattern was pretty regular and predictable – east winds for a few days, then west winds for a few days. The east winds brought humidity, the decks dripped with heavy dew in the mornings, usually cloudy conditions, and sometimes morning fog. It can be dull, grey, listless, windless, and moist. Doing our laps around the boat Tom and I both noticed the water was cold compared to not too much further east, and also there were very definite cold and warm patches, as if the warm waters of the Mediterranean and those of the cold Atlantic were merging. With the west winds came clear skies and a drier atmosphere and the best time to climb the precipitous (1,400 feet above sea level at its highest point) Rock of Gibraltar.

You can take the Cable Car to the summit but we were in it for the exercise, the views along the way, and the winding paths called the “Mediterranean Steps.” The brochure says: “This climb isn’t for the faint-hearted, briskly soaring from the 180 metres of Jews’ Gate to the 410 metres above sea level of O’Hara’s Battery.” Well, that might be a bit of hyperbole, but it is a good workout.

Everyone who goes to Gibraltar wants to see the Barbary Apes and so we did. There are several packs of them living wild on the steep slopes (the only free living monkeys in Europe) and the amusing creatures, Macaca Sylvanus, are actually tailless monkeys.

The “Barbary Apes” seem sweet-natured and well mannered, preening themselves, vigilant of their young, happy to pose for pictures. They are natives of North Africa and the thinking is that they were originally imported to Gibraltar as pets or game. There’s a legend that claims that should the monkeys ever disappear from the Rock, the British will leave. During the second World War, their numbers had diminished so dramatically that Winston Churchill took a personal interest and imported more of them from Morocco. You can’t help but wonder if he subscribed to the superstition!

Gibraltar is one of those cruiser crossroads, a gathering place for networking and exchanging of information.

Those going east, like Steve and Nancy of Fairwyn who just arrived from the Azores, having spent the last few years in the Caribbean, are eager to touch bases with those who are exiting the Med, and of course we were keen to pick their brains too.

Here too, it’s time to take a good hard look at onboard supplies of charts and guide books, safety equipment, rigging and sails, engine, batteries, steering system, all the important things that make your life safe and comfortable. We had our ancient liferaft tested and sure enough, a seam exploded with a minimum of air pressure so we bit the bullet and bought a new one.

Now it’s time to figure out how to get out of this place! According to The Straits Sailing Handbook, “The unique weather patterns of the region and the complex tides combine to create a situation where very few transits whether east or west, can be considered easy.” Check in with the next log to see how we make out.

Scenes from La Linea and Gibraltar.