Sailing Long Distances

Vaseline and the Strait of Gibraltar

Before I sat down and wrote about the well-known Strait of Gibraltar, I asked myself what I knew or believed to know. Two continents, Europe and Africa, almost kissing each other, are uniquely close by as the distances are short. Africa is well visible on a halfway clear day from Gibraltar. Busy shipping is a topic, legal with giant containerships and tankers running east-west and illegal by drug smugglers crossing the Strait in the north-south direction. 
The authentic story that captured me already forty years ago was a German antiwar movie called ‘Das Boot’. A crew of a German submarine had to master the difficult passage of Gibraltar approaching from the Atlantic Ocean. Crew members with experience in earlier missions were pissed off by the order from Berlin to sail the Mediterranean. A rookie asked what the trouble was and got this answer: the passage is very tight. It’s like a virgin. We should rub our hooker with vaseline and slip through.
So why all the fuss about crossing the narrow passage between Europe and Africa? Here are a few data to give you an idea of the dimensions. The Strait is 30 nautical miles (58 km) long and narrows to 7 miles (13 km) between Point Marroquí (Spain) and Point Cires (Morocco). In between is a gap, on average 365 meters deep. That’s the space available for the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean, with a massive water exchange on two depth layers. The surface current flows up to four knots eastward through the center of the channel. A sailing vessel’s cruising speed might be six or seven knots. With four knots on the ‘nose,’ only two or two and a half are left. That’s what I observed online, data transmitted by sailing yachts making their passages west. The second layer, below a depth of about one hundred and twenty meters, triggers a westward flow of heavier, colder, and more saline water. 
This westward flow in the depths of the Strait was a hazard for the former German submarine crew as they had to face a strong current in the wrong direction, simply put.
The submarines still operate in these waters. On November 2nd, a nuclear-capable U.S. submarine, the USS Rhode Island, surfaced for a rare public appearance at the Strait of Gibraltar, according to the magazine American Military News. The arrival came amid growing concerns surrounding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats of nuclear war. The submarine would explain why the British forces had blocked the entrance to the military harbor with a hostile-looking installment on the water that got any intruder into trouble – a chain of yellow buoys and God knows what was underneath. We had passed the harbor days before and were happy not to witness any navy activities.
Back to the Strait. A sailor also has to consider the wind in strength and direction, which tends to be either easterly or westerly. And like in all narrow passages, the airstream picks up in speed and creates high-speed easterly winds, known locally as a levanter. 
Eighty years ago, vaseline wasn’t a suitable option, just an outdated comparison, and so it was in November 2022 in La Linea for us. Neither our smart guys nor I were keen on rubbing vaseline on the boat. Yet, things have changed for the better, as the Brits in Gibraltar didn’t shoot at us as they did in 1942; on the contrary, they provided help for the best passage via the internet.
One bloke instantly got my full attention when I read the first lines of his post on this topic. He wrote: I studied the currents in the Strait, the tides, the winds, and the waves as ingredients when I finally realized it’s best to forget all the chitchat, set sail and go.
A day later, I spoke with our Austrian neighbor who had sailed this area several times. He said there are a lot of lovely advisers online and in books, but at the end of the day, this information is theory. I think it’s best to watch out for very low waves; that’s the # 1 key to success. Next, make sure no headwind or very light. This statement was in line with the advice of the British ‘studied’ sailor – no headwind at all costs. And third, don’t overthink the currents. Our boats are too slow. You will benefit from the flow for a couple of hours, and later it will turn against you. You can only choose which one you prefer first.
We planned to sail the Strait on a Saturday or Sunday since the Navy didn’t do any exercises on weekends – one more issue. Most sailors I have spoken to ignore the announcements of gunnery exercises via Navtex. They may be right, but it’s not my cup of tea. We’re not keen on hearing those deep thuds of big guns, neither on the open water nor ashore.
I set the alarm clock for six o’clock, but we couldn’t sleep well, got up at four in a pitch-black morning, had a copious breakfast – who knows, it might have been the last one, considering the Orcas – and cast off. We noticed three boats leaving the marina at four o’clock in the morning. Not too bad for us, having some ‘scouts’ in front of us, checking out how they were doing. It was easy to ‘see’ by the radio signals they transmitted, the AIS.

Standing at the helm on a pitch-black night right in the middle of Gibraltar bay captured me. For a moment, those pictures of the antiwar movie arose when the submarine crew kept a sharp lookout with binoculars. The moon wasn’t visible, yet the illuminations of the bay by all the towns and industrial sites around provided some light. The radar drew its red points on the screen and marked all vessels in the vicinity. I choose a range of 1 mile only, ensuring we get all the details, like a small fishing boat in between. Sailing the bay of Gibraltar in the dark was pretty challenging as there was a constant movement of commercial traffic, and we constantly watched out for course altering. We dogged some vessels and had a clear bow at half past seven when a spectacular sunrise awaited us. It was extraordinary to maneuver at the southernmost point of Europe in the early hours of a new day between large ships. The view of the African coast of Morocco, whose mountains lay in the mist in the middle, added magic. 
On the navigational side, it was here when theory and reality collided. A prediction indicated up to two knots current running east, meaning retarding us. The truth was the opposite; we had 0.5 knots on our side.
Based on prior experience in currents, we sailed close to the shoreline, got rewarded, and made 6,5 knots constantly to Tarifa lighthouse. The other three sailors had opted for the middle of the Strait. I checked possibilities, double-checked, and couldn’t figure out why. About nine o’clock, they were in sight; at ten, we overtook them. A catamaran sailor noticed our bold undertaking, followed suit, and benefited as well. Tarifa lighthouse greeted us on a flat Ocean. All stations I checked had forecasted 0.5 m waves, and they were utterly right.
We enjoyed the calm sea, made good speed, and had a second breakfast in the cockpit. I was exuberant and made rough calculations for estimated arrival times in Cadiz. We passed Barbate after 35 nm when nature told me otherwise. The current changed and enjoyed us with 1,5 knots in the wrong direction. So much for sophisticated forecasts; this should not have happened! Damm it !!!
We crept to Cadiz at 4.5 knots, and I had the pleasure of practicing relaxation for a miserably four long, longer and longest hours. Beate thought my thinking funny, as we had a perfect passage. The Orcas didn’t bother us, and the water remained as smooth as today’s journalist writing.
After thirteen hours, we moored safely in Cadiz, Puerto America.
Days later, in a beach restaurant in Cadiz, we witnessed audible military exercises: those deep thuds of big guns that made the air tremble. No change of my attitude; I don’t sail into gunnery fire.