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Thursday, 23rd October

arrive in Gibraltar, meet advance party in Blanca's Bar (Skipper John “Taff” Pearce, 1st Mate, Ian Chidgey, and fellow crew member, Mike Gibbon)

Friday, 24th

Clean and prepare the boat “Bardeau”, a Jeanneau 452. Two other crew members, David Jones and Peter Gowers arrive. Lunch in Gibraltar main square – must be good, 10 million flies can't all be wrong!

Saturday, 25th

Heavy rain (and overnight). Last crew member, Angela Beckram arrives. Receive Sunday's (due day of departure) forecast, F7/8, squalls, massive spring tides. Put back departure to Monday. Walk around marina, some 15 boats all heading to Canaries together, some to do the ARC, some from Blue Water Cruising Ass'n off around the World. Most are 45' plus, and a variety of Hallberg Rassey's, Contests, Farrs, Swans etc, all heavy weather boats. Talk of F10 winds in Madeira, so most looking now to Tuesday departure

Sunday, 26th.

rain has stopped

rain has started again. Go for shakedown sail in Gibraltar Bay – marina staff chase us in RIB, think we've done a runner without paying the bill!! Spirits still high but want to get going.

Monday, 27th

still raining. Pinned in Gib by big tides, strong SW winds, big seas and poor visibility in the Straits shipping lanes. Will we ever get out of here? Gib is OK, but after 4 days, bored with all (?) it has to offer. Low pressure is firmly anchored off SW corner of Portugal, causing all the problems.

11.00: discussion. Do we go to Casablanca (36 hr sail from Gib) or direct to Lanzarote? Rumours of anti-western riots, 4 hour immigration procedures in and out, (and our Skipper's rumour mongering that we would each have to a full medical) - his donning of the marigolds to demonstrate some of the procedure finally makes up our minds….. straight to Lanzarote!! (But little do we know what the future holds for us!)

12.00: Skipper returns with Tuesday's forecast - SW 3/4, totally the wrong direction, but who cares, let's get out of here – leaving tomorrow, spirits, and the barometer are rising in equal measures!

19.00: last meal in Blanca's, now our second home.

Tuesday, 28th

07.30: still raining, but wind now up to F6/7, still in the SW – why can't the bloody forecasters get it right?

10.00: forecast arrives, no change in either wind direction or strength due, so we, and all the other boats decide to leave it yet another day – this is very frustrating!! 1st Mate plans the first part of the trip - to stay North of the Straits to catch a West going tidal eddy as far as Tarifa, then cut across the (very busy)

shipping lanes, and out into the Atlantic. 11.15: heavy squally rain hits again.

18.30: final meal in Blanca's (again!!)

Wednesday, 29th

Reveille!! We're finally off!!

don silly hats (pirates, parrots etc), and cast off along with several others. Leave with the resounding “Great escape” music blaring from our cockpit speakers, to the amusement of onlookers. Change music track to the “Dam Busters” as we pass a German flagged boat: they acknowledge with suitable gesticulations and smiles!! A great departure!!

on watch with David, (3 hours during the day, 2 hours at night). Winds now up to F7, smack on the nose, so we are motoring. An Oyster 47, well inshore, is getting a battering from big seas, but creaming along having found the elusive back eddy. We haven't found it and are battling against 3 knots of tide. Heavy rain is stinging our faces.

progress is slow, only 3 knots or so over the ground. Passing Tarifa, we turn Southwest. Heavy squalls continuing, cutting visibility in the shipping channel – great!! A Hallberg Rassey 36 is close to us and is often displaying his keel!!

winds now gusting to F8, seas are really building, up to 8 metres, steep sided and breaking. Quite a concern really, the Solent doesn't dish out this sort of thing. We now have approaching 4000 metres of water under the keel – immaterial I suppose, but notable nonetheless! Our very experienced 1st Mate has taken the helm (thank God), but from his grim expression we can see he's not happy about the situation.

the boat drops off the back of one massive, steep wave with an huge crash – solid green water, some one metre deep, rushes over the hull and under the sprayhood, just as the Skipper pops his head above the companionway – he takes a few gallons down the neck, (which puts him in a bad mood for the rest of the day!!) How much more of this can the boat take?

we hear on the VHF that three boats have been damaged, and are battling their way back to Gibraltar – others have taken shelter in Tarifa, but it's too late to turn back now. A crew member reports that something's amiss in the forward cabin. The bed assembly has been damaged by the constant slamming, with the base cracking and the bonding pulling away from the hull. We'll have to fix it later, but there's no apparent structural damage. The crew's gone very quiet, all deep in our own thoughts, I guess. 14.00:
the slamming continues, with the waves literally as big as houses. The Skipper, a veteran of 9 Atlantic crossings, says he's only seen waves this big once before, and that was also in the Atlantic, in 68 knots of wind!!

a beautiful yacht of around 100' steams close to our port side, then suddenly veers sharp right across our bows. It's crew gesticulate to indicate that it has a steering problem - then why come so bloody close?

the battering continues – the boat's an untidy mess, the crew's a mess, three of them are seasick, and whilst I've never suffered from 'mal de mer' in my life, surely I will do soon?

getting dark now, but can it be that the winds are finally subsiding? Yep! They're down to F6, and whilst there's still a big 6 metre swell, the actual wave size on top seems to be diminishing. Other crew members are not so well now, with their heads bobbing up and down over the boat's side at regular intervals. Some go below to the heads to call up God on the great white telephone (“Oh Goooooood”).

Thursday, 30th

back on watch. Seas now moderating, and winds easing to F4.

off watch, and to bed in the forward cabin. Whilst it's now much quieter, the seas are still big and the motion forward is quite violent, and there is still some slamming going on. I'm sliding around the bed quite a bit, and spending some time in the air. At least I'm warm and dry!

wake for next watch, but Skipper takes pity and sends me back for another couple of hours of rest (rest? - I have not a cat in hells chance of that!)

on watch, only four more days to go!! The whole boat feels damp and is full of wet clothing, towels etc. We hear on the VHF that we were one of only 6 boats to make it out into the Atlantic, the rest turning back to seek shelter. Our 'old girl' got us through safely however, and we're very proud of her. The Atlantic is a truly awesome place!!

the sun is out, and it's quite warm!! The seas are moderating even more, though the swell remains quite high, it's down to about 3 metres now.

off watch.

the engine suddenly slows and stops!! It's eerily quiet, and the wind has dropped to around 8 knots. 1st Mate goes to work, and discovers the water separator is full of….yes, water!!

the system is drained and bled, and we're off again.

only 150 miles on the log. Our very slow start has killed our overall average. The wind has dropped to 4 knots, so we are still motor sailing. Looking forward to some pleasant weather ahead.

Oh dear!! Just received the forecast for next 24/36 hours. Winds back up to force 8, and up to 8 metre waves in 'very rough' seas. We are in the middle of the Casablanca Sea, so there is a chance that we could outrun it. A large containership looms up behind us, so I hail it to see if he has more details. He confirms that a nasty situation is developing, and that it extends a long way ahead. We would not get ahead of it in time. Do we really want another battering or should we divert into Casablanca? I call on the VHF for “any yachts on the ARC or Blue Water Cruise” to get their perspective. “Moonshadow”, the Oyster 47 that creamed past us in the Straits, replies to say they have the same information and have diverted towards Casablanca already

“Steer 160” calls the Skipper, Casablanca it is then, some 40 miles distant. 1st Mate stops engine to drain off yet more water from the separators, (obviously we picked up some wet fuel in Gib).

seems odd somehow, we are running for shelter in 24 degrees of sunshine and no sign of anything nasty in the sky. One or two crew members (not me!!) are a little bolder than others, and want to carry on. They are put firmly in their place by the Skipper!! We are all looking forward to a pleasant night in a marina with hot showers.

all is not well with the engine – it sounds laboured, and there is now quite a lot of smoke from the exhaust.

approaching Casablanca, “Moonshadow” calls as agreed, to let us know the score. He's just been refused entry, and chased out by what he describes as a gun boat!! What's going on??? He's going to have another go. He slips past the gun toting police, and goes up to where the marina is shown on the charts. It's not there!! In fact, there's nothing there at all for visiting yachts.

the small gunboat appears again and orders him back out of the harbour, but after repeated verbal exchanges, “Moonshadow's” skipper gets permission to anchor in the containership dock!! We are fed instructions how to get there.

first effort at entering the harbour, which has the fairway buoy and the leading lights missing (!), is aborted when a large merchant ship appears out of the entrance. The second attempt is more successful, but as we reach the middle of the entrance, the engine stops again!! There's no wind, and a large cruise liner is bearing down on our position, as it too leaves the harbour. Frantic activity from 1st Mate sees the Yanmar splutter into life in time to get out of the way. However, it's in a bad way, smoking furiously, and refusing to tick over.

trying to lay anchor is proving difficult, with the engine seemingly unable to run astern long enough to dig it in.

the anchor chain, half deployed has become solidly jammed in the windless (close inspection shows it to be a poor design which is bound to jam). More vivid expletives from the Skipper, as he wields a hefty screwdriver in an effort to unscramble the ball of chain.

anchor is finally set!! However, we are marooned in the middle of a rather run down port, with no clearance to go ashore, rather as if we have been put into quarantine! Now for the engine…..

Friday, 31st.

1st Mate, and crew member Mike Gibbon (who used to work for a plant hire company, and is the nearest thing to a diesel engineer we can find) are still in the engine bay, and are both asking for compensation. Everything has been changed, but it flatly refuses to start.

04.30: give up efforts to coax the Yanmar into life, for some much needed sleep. All of us very tired.

I wake to check we are OK- (I never sleep well at anchor, especially with no engine). Rest of crew snoring contentedly

I wake again - all OK, but forecast wind is indeed picking up.

awake yet again – all OK, wind quite strong now, but obviously we are holding OK.

wake with a start – look out of port window, which is full of harbour wall!! No, surely not! We've dragged and are now only 1 metre off the wall, which is made of very large rocks. Bloody hell!! “Wake up” I shout, “we're on the rocks” The Skipper digs deep for some of his very best expletives! All hands on deck to try to fend off the 12 ton boat. “Start the engine,” someone shouts, who has obviously forgotten it no longer works.

I dive below to radio “Moonshadow”, still secure some 200 metres away. No good, they're switched off, so I go back on deck and holler at the top of my voice over and over. Eventually, someone pops his head out. “Channel 72” I scream - a thumbs up acknowledges he's understood. I explain our predicament to him, and he rouses his crew to up anchor, and take a line to pull us off. By now we are firmly pinned against the wall, the rudder takes a knock and the twin wheels slam hard over (to port, I seem to remember!).

line is attached and the Oyster's engine roars – but we're not moving. “Moonshadow” is being pulled towards the wall itself, and the copious amounts of bowthruster finally overheat the unit, which trips. Now he's in danger too. The crew are trying to get our anchor up, but its caught on an obstruction below. Nothing for it, the Skipper orders our anchor to be cut, and the chain disappears below the water. Gradually, with one final effort, “Moonshadow” pulls us clear. Cheering all round!!

back in the centre of the basin, we raft alongside and deploy our kedge anchor. The dinghy is deployed to check for any damage but, apart from a couple of scratches in the gelcoat and some chips out of the rudder, all seems well. It is decided we should stay rafted, so that our close neighbours' engine can be used if we drag again.

much welcome breakfast. Now to try to resurrect the engine. Much muttering from the engine bay “Try it now”…. nothing, “Try it again”…. still won't start.

“One more try, and just keep the starter cranking.” After an eternity, it seems, there is some small sign of life, and a few splutters. The starter motor, (which should not be used for more than one minute) is smoking furiously after working continuously for over three minutes, when suddenly the engine bursts into life. Much smoke etc, but the boat has it's heart pumping again.

much waving and pointing from a fisherman on the now infamous harbour wall, “Moonshadow's” dinghy has come adrift, and is on the rocks below him. Our dinghy is despatched to recover it, and the fisherman in rewarded with 40 Benson & Hedges! He goes home a happy man.

the projected storm has arrived in full force. 8 metre waves are breaking over the harbour wall, and exploding into the air with a huge roar. Our anchorage is only just inside the harbour entrance, and one metre swell is reaching us. Our two boats are swinging wildly in the turbulent water, and are bumping each other. A watch is put in place to ensure this combined unit does not drag again.

the storm shows no sign of abating, it's going to be a long night, fending each other off. Saturday, 1st November

a bigger than usual swell reaches us, and the two boats collide quite violently - there's a huge bang as the two masts collide, luckily it seems with no damage, though our TV aerial falls into the Oysters cockpit. Never mind, we can't get Eastenders here anyway! However, two fenders have burst, and have to be replaced rather quickly.

on watch with David looking at the massive waves outside the harbour entrance, when to our astonishment we see a yacht mast appearing out of the gloom, rocking violently from side to side as it surfs down the massive waves before being spat into the harbour entrance. “Poor buggers”, said Dave, “you can feel the relief from here. They've been very lucky to get away with that”. The yacht passes by our precarious anchorage and heads towards the inner harbour. We expect him to return any minute, having been sent packing by the same gun toting police.

no sign of the yacht yet, he must have found somewhere to moor. “Permission to radio the yacht skipper, to see if he's found somewhere more comfortable?” I ask. Permission given. Rather unconventionally I call the “Yacht recently entering Casablanca Harbour”. “Go to Channel 14” came a reply. It's not the yacht, but the Harbour Authorities. I explain our position, and that our anchorage is untenable. The official seems surprised to discover where we were lying (!), and tells us to go up to the fish dock at the far end of the harbour, where we could moor alongside the harbour wall. Why on earth could we not have been allowed to do so before?

we decide to have breakfast first, then someone spots a derelict, 50 metre or so long, barge that has broken from it's moorings and is heading our way, no more than 600/700 metres distant. Once again we leap into action. “Make sure our engine starts before we release our lines from “Moonshadow”, barks the Skipper. It won't, the battery's flat, thoroughly cooked by the marathon starting session the previous day. Some quick swapping of battery switches, sees the engine reluctantly fire into life. Now we have a further problem, with the boats pirouetting all night, our anchors have become firmly entwined. The rogue barge is now only about 300 metres away, so the lines to our final anchor, and the Oysters main anchor are simultaneously cut. Freed, we get the hell out of there!

we arrive in fish dock, having had to avoid masses of debris floating out of the storm struck harbour, and one worrying moment when a large plastic bag wrapped itself around the prop – luckily it cleared with a burst of astern. We are invited to raft against the yacht that made its precarious entrance some one hour earlier.

we chat to the German skipper of the yacht, a Beneteau 50. He has a scary story to tell. Off Casablanca, in the middle of the storm, they took a massive wave over the bow. Tons of green water swept over the deck, tearing the liferaft off its deck mounting, ripping off the sprayhood, and wrecking the dinghy – all said items are lost overboard. Huge amounts of water poured down the companionway, soaking the whole interior, before being gradually drawn out by the bilge pumps. Heading to Casablanca, they found it too dangerous to enter the harbour, so stood off for 6 hours. However, that also became too dangerous, so they decided to make a run for it. Surfing down the huge waves at God knows what speed, they really thought they were doomed to a knockdown and probable sinking, but somehow they had made it through. To the crew, their skipper, Fritz, is a total hero. He's obviously pretty good!!

Skipper visits Customs, and comes back with passes to go ashore “but only after you've had your medical, including, a full internal inspection – I had mine there, it's not too bad really!!” We all laugh, 'cos he is only joking really….. Isn't he??

go into Casablanca town. What a manic place, full of horn blowing, fume belching, old diesel cars, causing a smog to fill the streets. We are obviously “different” (something to do with the tee shirts and shorts), and the local men stare at Angies' blonde hair with leering fascination. It's a bit intimidating at first, but they turn out to be a friendly lot on the whole. We go into a rather run down chandlery (type) shop and start up the sign language to indicate we would like to buy two new fenders. “It's OK,” says the smiling Moroccan,” I live on the Portobello Road in London, I'm just visiting my brother on holiday – he owns the shop!!”

back at the fish dock (the smell is atrocious by the way) a man arrives on an old moped. “You want diesel?” We do, 300 litres, between the three boats. An amazing sequence of bartering starts, and after much hand waving, shrugging of shoulders and shaking of heads, a deal is done. 1 euro per litre, plus a backhander for the vendor. A police officer arrives, leads our supplier off to one side, and is obviously negotiating his own cut to allow the transaction to go ahead. An unknown deal sorted.

Harbour official arrives, all smiles, but he wants his harbour dues. We all try to ignore him, but he refuses to go away.

14.45: we eventually relent and have to pay up – the fee? 20 Benson & Hedges!!!

after an afternoon of relative relaxation, (the doctor never arrived) Peter cooks us corned beef hash. However, it turns out more like semolina, and no amount of frying will solidify it.

Peter goes into denial that he ever had anything to do with the creation, and walks away from the stove. Pub owning Mike takes over, and declares it's resurrection is “mission impossible” Nevertheless the ravenous crew summon up enough courage to eat it, offering Peter some rather unconvincing praise. The Skipper says he's too full for a pudding - “Too much 'hash' in Casablanca has ruined his appetite,” someone pipes up….!.

Sunday, 2nd

due to all the delays, I've run out of time to complete the trip to Gran Canaria, so reluctantly have to leave by air. Say my sad farewells to a great bunch of crew mates, and depart with my bags through a deserted port to try to find immigration for clearance to leave.

impossible to find the Gare Maritime office to complete formalities.

urgent call to boat for assistance, and three crew members join me (including Peter who, due to his French linguistic skills, went there yesterday to check us in).

found the necessary office, but it's deserted – we shout, and eventually an official (who was obviously asleep in the back) appears. He assures us all is OK for me to leave, so we head for the exit gate.

the gate police will have nothing of it, and refuse me the OK to go. More telephone calls are made, and eventually the immigration official arrives in his car, coincidentally going off duty. He convinces the gate “jobsworth” that I can leave. “Where can I get a taxi to the airport” I enquire from our immigration friend. “You can't, it's Ramadan, and no taxis are running today”. The airport is twenty miles from town; will I never get out of this place? The official spots the chance for a bit of “moonlighting” and agrees to take me to the airport himself for 700 Dirhams (around £35 quid). It's probably more than his weeks' wages, but it's fine by me. His old Peugeot has lost 4th gear and can only, it seems, travel at 40 mph, but who cares? At least, the way he's driving, when the inevitable accident happens, it should not hurt too much! There are road blocks everywhere, with police checking cars, ID cards and goodness knows what else, but my friend's elevated status gets us through with no problems.

at the airport, nearly home and dry, but there's still the airport immigration guys to deal with. “How did you get here?”, “By boat”, “Ferry, where from?”, “No, by yacht from Gibraltar”, “Why did you come to Casablanca?”, “Because of a storm at sea, it was too dangerous to continue”, “Where is the yacht?”, “In the fish dock”, “Why in the fish dock?”, “Because that's where we were told to go”, “Why are you not leaving on the yacht”, “Because I have to get home”, “Why now?”, “Because of family problems”, “What do you mean by family problems?” (I'm getting desperate now), “My wife has run away with our next door neighbour!”. How long is this going to go on? Luckily, there's a big queue behind me, which seems to put the guy under pressure “OK Monsieur, you can go!!”

plane takes off – we fly over the town, and I can see the port – no sign of our three boats, so trust they have got away safely (without their full internal examinations!!).

God speed them to their final destination, with no further dramas. We've shared a lot of emotions together over the past few days. Intense anticipation, tedium, frustration, anxiety, fear (two or three times anyway), elation and extreme fatigue. I had anticipated a lovely sail South, in a steady Force 5, in 25 degrees of sunshine, followed by a week of. sailing around the Canaries, before finally flying home from Tenerife. I got something rather different, but strangely, something rather better. Thanks everyone, I had a ball!!

Mike Nicholson