The Rock

Thursday 16th November. At last, we were on our way to Gibraltar. We slipped the lines at Marina Sifredi before sunrise and motored toward the reddening sky over Sardinia before being chased out of the harbour by the Carloforte ferry.

Bearing west around the southern cape of San Pietro, the waves were short in height and long in wavelength from the north-west giving us a gentle roll on our way.

When dusk faded into the night, I cooked up a Spanish Tortilla. Not a great choice with Pantelisa hard over on heal. I was sliding across the sloping floor. I took my socks off to help get some grip and leaned into the stove to get some balance. I got away without burning anything, including the dinner but it would be wiser to tailor dinner to the conditions.

I came on watch at midnight. If we are sailing, we hand steer to save power. The new compass lights were too dim to make out the bearings and I began to bear away to the south squinting into the globe for a clue. Pantelisa has two steering wheels. Over on the starboard side is the autopilot with its bright screen giving the bearing in digital format but that side is exposed to the stream of the cooling wind. I stayed there a while while I scanned the constellations in the sky and picked out a pattern of stars ahead and retreated to the leeward side of the boat and steered towards them. After a while, clouds formed ahead covering my astronomical beacons but I discovered if I looked abeam or astern, I could just as easily keep my course using those constellations. And so, Ursa Major, over my right shoulder, became my guide.

The next day, the wind shifted to the north-west pushing us further to the south so we adjusted away from the Balearics toward to Algerian coast. At 3am, the asthmatic wind quietly passed its last breath and the motor was brought to life again and we chugged our way on the edge of the shipping lanes.

I emerged from my cabin the next morning to the surreal sight of a mirror calm sea reflecting a soothing yellow sun. the mumble of the Perkins Diesel the only disturbance of the tranquillity. A turtle bobbed to the surface, startled by the arrival of humans over its domain. It reminded me of the carving I’d made that was left on Glee.

The afternoon gave birth to a light breeze: an opportunity to try out the gennaker with the spinnaker boom that holds the billowing sail out into the wind, a huge delicate sail designed to catch light airs. A useful exercise if not a convincing contribution to our progress. With the engine pushing Pantelisa along at 5 knots in a 5 knot tailwind, the sail hung limply in the resulting calm. We routed the sheet the wrong way around a line that acted as a stay for the boom. The result was an annoying squeak when the wind filled the sail and pulled on the boom rather than moving clearly through the block. Eventually, we hauled in the gennaker but left the boom out for later.

At sunset, the wind had faded leaving the wind vane at the top of the mast spinning like a windmill as we rocked from side to side. And, to the south, the lilac silhouette of the Atlas Mountains painted their rugged outline against the orange sky.

With the wind gone, we bore north toward the Spanish coast accompanied by the hum of the engine. When I came on the night watch, we were within mobile signal, which brought me in touch with the digital world and contact with friends and family. We were well north of the shipping channels but we still had to look out for hazards: especially fishing boats and cruise ships from the shore, so a look around every five minutes was still vital.

Mon 20th, We were motoring too much but, without wind, we had little choice. New crew were awaiting us in Gibraltar. The fuel gauge started to fall, which was a warning from last time that we were already short of diesel and I reduced the revs by 100 when I was at the helm. As soon as some wind presented itself, the Gennaker went up and bulged with healthy force adding over 2 knots to our speed and we cut the engine until the wind died at 2pm and we hauled in the sail.

Coming on watch at midnight, Dolphins were splashing in the green light of the starboard navigation light. They would escort us all the way to the rock of Gibraltar. I could make out the rock of Gibraltar in the distance against the hazy sky illuminated by the city lights of Tangier, over the straits. What was it 5 miles, 8 maybe? I checked the plotter. 14 miles. Still 3 hours away. It was time for Julien to come on watch but I was happy here and stayed on.

We had some wind from the south that brought out the Genoa, adding some speed and cutting back the revs to save some fuel. The gauge was at a half which indicates about 20 litres or 6 hours motoring. We were still about 3 hours away. Every breath of wind was a welcome help.

The wind switched to the north as we got closer to the rock and I trimmed the genoa to the starboard tack. The shipping traffic was busy to the south and the anchored vessels that we were approaching were weighing anchor and moving off out of our path with no need to adjust our course.

Europa point lighthouse was dead ahead, winking at me as it had been all night. We were lucky in catching the ebb tide which counteracts the inward current through the straits of Gibraltar. With the headsail up we were making 6 knots at little more than tickover.

Dawn broke as we approached Europa point, painting the sheer east face of the rock in a warm shade of peach. After a knock on the door from the skipper, Julien emerged at 7.30am just in time to catch the view as we rounded Europa point. The light at Europa point went out as we rounded into the bay around the anchored shipping and into the current. I checked the fuel gauge; little more than a quarter, and who knows how much that indicates.

Docking at the fuel station, we took on 241 litres of diesel in our 250 litre tank. The gauge shows just over a quarter. Pretty much useless as an indicator. We can estimate that we have 12 hours of cruising when the gauge starts to move off full, and that is not much considering the scale of the passages we are engaged in. We should use the engine hours indicator as our fuel indicator from now on.

Pulling into Alcaidesa marina, Herbert was already at the pontoon, cheerfully smiling and waving while Thomas delicately reversed Pantelisa into the berth and Julien and I were tending the warps and adjusting the fenders…

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