A Passion(ate) African affair

8 to 14 October 2020

Puerta de la Duquesa to Ceuta, 35° 53′ 84″N 05° 20′ 11″W, 27nm, 5 hours 30

to La Linea, 36° 09′ 05″N 05° 22′ 02W, 16nm, 3 hours 30

After our unexpected few days in Puerta de la Duquesa we were ready to attempt another crossing of the Gibraltar Strait. This time we hoped that wind and waves would be on our side and we would make it to Africa.

Jebel Musa, that other pillar of Hercules on the African side of the Gibraltar Strait has been fought over for its strategic position since the Phoenicians established a base there in the first millennium BC. More latterly, Spain has clung on to it as a military outcrop since 1668. The narrow gap that squeezes between the two pillars remains one of the world’s busiest trade routes and one that we had to cross like a hedgehog crossing the M25.

In far better conditions than those we had on our aborted crossing we had a great day at sea. Successfully dodging the constant stream of shipping required only one very friendly conversation with an enormous cargo ship bearing down on us. “I will alter my course to go to your stern” were the words we wanted to hear.

Approaching Ceuta, picking our way through the huge tankers anchored off, there did not seem like much to inspire. It didn’t look much like Africa. In fact it was difficult to place it architecturally. We spent the afternoon in the anchorage, just outside the seawall under the huge silos, intending to stay there the night and go in to the marina the following day. As we cooked dinner the wind dropped and a slowly increasing roll made us start to regret our decision. With the sun setting fast we re-anchored closer to the wall, hoping, in vain as it turned out, for more protection. As the sun was just about disappearing we decided to go into the marina. Going in to somewhere new in the dark is not something we like to do, especially not harbours as big and busy as Ceuta with fast ferries that take you unawares. The close blast of a horn as we turned into the harbour certainly woke us up if we weren’t already! But we got safely in and tied up and ate our dinner just a couple of hours later than planned. And we had familiar company.

In Estepona we had met and very much enjoyed the company of the crew of SV Passion – Maxine and Paul, their son Finn and Maxine’s lifelong friend Carol. Still very much at the beginning of their voyage into the Mediterranean they had made the familiar hops down the Portuguese coast and through the Gibraltar Strait. As we had waved them goodbye we were sad not to have spent more time with them and just ever so slightly envious that the wonders of the Med still awaited them.

So we were delighted to see them again, unexpectedly, moored up on the pontoon at Ceuta. Would they, however, be quite so pleased to see us when they got up in the morning!?

We had been to Ceuta before on our sailing course in 2012 but I barely remember even getting off the boat. Stefan remembered some interesting buildings but wasn’t quite sure if it was the same place! “We’ve been to so many, I can’t be sure” he said to manage my expectations. Even if we had been before, we had definitely not been with Pintail and it felt good to be somewhere new to explore. And as it turned out the SV Passion crew were not too disappointed to see us again and it was even better to have new friends to explore it with.

After some repairs to SV Passion’s outboard (which caused a freak injury to Stefan’s toe, the liability for which was hotly debated)

we were able to explore the city’s unique fortifications. This is one of those times when having a dinghy instead of a car comes into its own, giving us unique access to places others can only look down into. The sea filled moat between the Royal Walls gave us an invader’s eye view of the seemingly impregnable defences.

In Paul I found a very much more willing partner in a walk through Ceuta’s history. In what felt like a revision lesson in the ancient history the Med has taught us, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Vandals, the Byzantines and the Moors had all been here and those walls had weathered many an attack and a fair few sieges. Ceuta was Portuguese for a couple of hundred years before it was ceded to Spain in the 17th century.

The changing rulers of Ceuta have left their mark on the architecture of the city. In the Plaza de Africa the buildings that would not have looked out of place in Portugal and a more Moroccan influence was apparent at the Arab baths. The House of Dragons was just, well, eccentric! Over the four days we were in Ceuta we made four attempts to visit the Basílica Tardorromana, the recently uncovered ruins of an early Christian burial place. Four times we were greeted by firmly locked red gates despite a timetable indicating they would be open. It was not meant to be.

There is nothing like a trip to the market to get to know a place and Ceuta’s central market couldn’t have been closer to the boats. After picking up some groceries and fresh fish we joined the locals in the busiest and noisiest cafe inside the market for coffee and churros. My attempts at ordering in Spanish saw everyone receive decaffeinated coffee (sorry about that!) and when our enormous plate of curly doughnut appeared we seriously doubted we would ever get through it all. Yet somehow we managed it!

Perhaps the highlight of our time in Ceuta was a hike around the fortified peninsula at its tip. We walked from the marina along the shore and passed the fishermen’s quarter.

Up through the trees we stopped to catch our breath and look down at the views of the harbour.

At the top of the steep hill the Fortaleza del Monte Hache is still very much occupied by the Spanish military and a rather stern guard with a big gun didn’t seem too welcoming of a happy gang of British tourists. I thought it best not to take any photos within his sight!

So instead we walked down towards the lighthouse at the very tip and down to sea level again where we found families gathered for a big BBQ on the small beach. It was another steep walk back up and around the western side of the city where we enjoyed drinks and tapas on the beach.

And there it was again – one of those short but intense bursts of friendship with people we might never see again but wish we could. Thank you to the SV Passion for making our time in Ceuta so special – for sharing your hike, your cockpit sunsets, your card games and your spaghetti bolognese. Fair winds for your onward adventures in the Med. You are in for a treat. And who knows where we might pop up next to you again!

Having waved SV Passion off on their way up to Gibraltar in some feisty conditions we decided to stay an extra day. In case you are wondering I did persuade Stefan to take a short history walk before we left Ceuta. A circuit of the the main sights was enough to jog his memory of that previous visit.

We couldn’t resist a last minute trip to the market for all our favourite ingredients – pomegranate, chillies, parsley, tomatoes, olives, pickles and bread – and having eaten so much of it during our time in the Med we also thought we should have a go at cooking squid for ourselves.  It would be our first attempt at preparing and cooking it on board and the results weren’t half bad.

With the weather turning more and more unreliable and with our winter home in sight we decided that this was as good an end to our short, strange sailing season. It was definitely not what we’d had planned but it was perhaps all the more special for that. Unexpected reunions, new friends, new places and probably some of our best sailing ever. We were ready to get in to Gibraltar, reflect on four incredible years at sea and to let the world heal a bit before we work out what to do next.

And to wrap up our 2020 season Neptune served up the perfect sail up across the Strait, the kind of day on the water that made us not want to stop.

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