That rock looks familiar

13 October to 1 November 2020

By the kind of twist of fate that only a sailing life could conjure up, these two photos were taken almost exactly 4 years apart. On 17 October 2016 we sailed the last leg of the first chapter of our voyage from Essex Marina into the Gibraltar Strait. Every single one of those 1586 nautical miles had felt like an epic adventure. And then seemingly suddenly there we were again, on 13 October 2020, with 8153 nautical miles notched up approaching the Rock of Gibraltar for a second time.

We were still too early to go in to our berth in Gibraltar and the weather was just too unpredictable to venture further afield with rumours flying of regional lockdowns in Spain so we went in to the marina at La Linea for a few nights. We’d done the same in 2016, spending a few days on the Spanish side of the border before re-entering British waters for the first time since crossing the Channel. A wander around this frontier town reminded us how La Linea seems to span a kind of no man’s land between Spain and Gibraltar and looks just as you would expect a frontier town to look.

It is the place where 15,000 of Gibraltar’s workers queue everyday to cross the border, the place where many of them live and it is also the place that started our love affair with tostadas con tomate. We revisited the unassuming cafe opposite the bus station and can report that it is still as good as we remembered. Our 2016 explorations of the frontier had unfathomably excluded the ruins of Fuerte de Santa Barbara which in the early 18th century marked the defensive line between Spain and the tiny British territory that gives La Linea its name.

With the infection rate rising in Spain we were anxious to get into our winter berth before any closure of the border as had happened in March. An email from Jackie, the manager at Queensway Quay Marina, brought good news on two counts. Not only could we go in early but we had been allocated a berth on Pontoon D. We were beside ourselves with excitement. Our last winter in Gibraltar had been somewhat wet and gloomy and, enclosed by buildings, our berth on Pontoon A never saw the low winter sun even when it did come out. It paid its toll on our moods and Pintail grew a green coat all over her deck. Pontoon D, however, positively basks in the sunshine and arriving on a hot, sunny day we knew immediately that this was a much better place to be. We were welcomed warmly too by our new neighbours especially our immediate neighbours, Sharman and Cliff and their dog, Peaches. We quickly developed a routine of socially distanced coffee breaks on our respective decks which extended into the afternoon as we listened to their tales of 22 years of sailing all over the world.

In 2016 we had found Gibraltar strangely compelling, a place with its very own identity despite the bright red phone boxes and fish and chips. We had found a happy winter home there. In our early walks this time it fast felt very familiar as we found our way around the huge defensive walls to favourite shops and restaurants. A walk through the Botanical Gardens brought an unexpected reunion with my fitness instructor from the gym, Lucia, who had kept me in shape in 2016 and more recently with her online classes during lockdown in Margate. I resolved to join her classes again live over the next four months.

Despite their proximity, the impact of the pandemic was very much less obvious when we got to Gibraltar from Spain. Although we’d had our temperatures taken on arrival we were immediately struck by the lack of restrictions. At the top of our pontoon a large wedding party was going on with the kind of hugging and kissing that now makes us wince. Unlike Spain, masks were not required in the streets and walking around without them felt strange to us. During our first week, the daily updates from the Gibraltar Government told of a very sudden rise in the number of infections and the Chief Minister took to his lectern to advise his people to refrain from hugging and kissing and to wear masks outdoors in the busy shopping areas. He also announced an earlier closure for bars and restaurants and restrictions on visiting people in the Elderly Residential Services. His words weren’t overwhelmingly heeded by many except for a pair of temporary residents for whom masks had become so normal. So only a week later he had to take to the lectern again to advise that this time he had legislated for the compulsory wearing of masks in the Main Street, Irish Town and Chatham Counterguard areas. And in an almost instant response the number of infections literally halved.

Gibraltar doesn’t just live under the cloud of the virus and it wasn’t long before we were reminded of the unique weather system the Rock creates. Some days we wake to find it has disappeared all together in thick cloud only to lift later and reveal the sun. Stefan’s first conquering of the summit on his bike was surrounded in fog.

On a much brighter day we made our second attempt to visit our monkey neighbours. Our first had been thwarted by an inflation busting rise in entry fee to the Upper Rock from 50p in 2016/17 to £13 each. One of our favourites walks would be very expensive indeed so we took advice and got ourselves an annual Gibraltar Heritage Pass for £25 for both of us which gives us unlimited entry to visit the monkeys and other attractions including the museum. Stefan is really looking forward to that!

The hike up to Jew’s Gate was steeper than we remembered and the monkeys were coming much further down the Rock. We were greeted by three just as we left the residential streets. But the majority were still happily living right at the top and the number of babies suggest the population is still more than healthy. They remain quite menacing and completely unfazed by human visitors to their patch.

The descent was as hard on our calves as the ascent had been on our lungs but the views back across to Spain from the Moorish castles crystal clear and, as we did last time, we resolved to climb the Rock regularly during our stay.

Being back in Gibraltar also meant a reunion with some familiar foodstuffs and we stocked up with our favourites to keep us going over the winter.

And just like that we settled ourselves in to life on the Rock, plenty of time to get all those winter jobs ticked off, get into a more regular exercise routine and reflect on the past four years of floating around the Med…

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