22 to 26 July 2022
Portimão to Farol, 36 58′ 75″ N 7 52′ 48″ W, 35nm, 6 hours
to Salé, Morocco, 34 1′ 83″N 6 49′ 30″ W 185nm, 32 hours
‘When you stay too long in a place, you forget just how big an expanse the world is. You get no sense of the length of those longitudes and latitudes.’ Matt Haig, The Midnight Library
We had definitely been in one place for way too long and needed to see somewhere different. A 200 mile trip to Africa seemed like a good way to pass a month or two over the summer and we might even catch up with SV Sancerre again.
At least it seemed like a good idea until we heard from Zoë and Martyn about their encounter with the orcas in the Gibraltar Strait. On route from the Guardiana to Tangier they were attacked not once but twice, losing half of their rudder. You can read Zoë’s terrifying account of their experience here and see film and photos of the damage.
Needless to say we had very serious second thoughts about a similar passage to Tangier. Instead we decided on a more offshore passage directly south to Rabat, Morocco’s capital city. Our logic was that we would have more sea room to share with any orcas and less chance of bumping into them than in the narrowing entrance to the Strait where they were very active. This did not stop us from feeling very anxious about heading out to sea and we went armed with as many hints and tips and tools to avoid an attack as we possibly could.
To ease ourselves into the long passage to Africa we chose to take the now familiar route along the coast to Culatra. We anchored for a couple of nights in our new favourite anchorage opposite the lighthouse in readiness for our longest passage in a very long time.
The alarm was set for 3.30am but we woke earlier, excited yet anxious about the passage ahead. Our departure from Farol went smoothly. The sails went up as soon as we passed the entrance in the pitch dark, just a slither of moon and the milky way lighting our way. And almost as soon we set a course to Rabat – 175° and probably about 32 hours.
I had only just gone down to bed for a couple of hours when Stefan came down to warn me he was putting the engine on. With Sue purring away, weirdly I found it easier to fall asleep. When I emerged two hours later we were surrounded by fishing boats. It was not reassuring to find ourselves in what must be prime orca food waters!!
By lunchtime we were preoccupied with the shipping lanes. We crossed the west going traffic without having to alter either speed or course. Stefan said ‘it’s kind of reassuring knowing they are here’. There is definitely a lot of comfort in knowing someone else is out there and relatively close just in case we needed them. However, we were soon confronted by a seemingly endless stream of east going vessels. It was hard to see how we were going to get between them. We altered course and held our breath. Then we slowed down for good measure, watching those monster ships pass at a safe distance one by one.
Our night passed without incident although pretty sleeplessly for me, fearing each bump of a wave was actually an orca. But we had no visitors and it was mid morning before we caught our first sight of the coast of Morocco. For a country known for its high Atlas Mountains the coastline is incredibly flat and was not visible until we were very close. Before we saw land we could see a mysterious solo skyscraper on the horizon. It seemed totally out of place and like nothing we had seen in our research about Rabat.
Approaching the entrance to the river we were very confused. There were no channel markers or lights. We had been in touch with the marina in advance of leaving Portugal and been told to call by VHF and a pilot boat would come to guide us in. Reports from other sailors suggested we might have to wait before they appeared. So we called on channel 10 as instructed. There were voices shouting in Arabic that didn’t seem to be talking to us. We waited. The swell was building. We called again on channel 16 and someone shouted at us in English not to use channel 16. We waited and called again and waited.
Having planned our arrival perfectly to coincide with high water, we were faced with a lowering tide in which to make our way up the river. We started to regret not having a plan B. It was 30 miles south to Mohammedia and 120 miles north to Tangier. Without a marked channel, a decent chart or local knowledge but knowing we still had enough depth Stefan decided we should start making our way in. If it got shallow we could come back out or drop the anchor! So we entered the outer harbour. It was hard to make out the entrance to the river but there were small motor boats coming in and out so we followed in their direction.
Entering the river, completely ignoring the spectacular Kasbah of Rabat towering above us, we could start to see why, apart from the depths, a pilot would be very helpful. Beaches on both sides of the narrow river were packed with people. There were swimmers and jetskis and small boats everywhere. A steady stream of wooden taxi boats rowed passengers from one bank to the other. No photos exist of our passage up the Bouregreg river because we were both preoccupied with avoiding them whilst also watching the depth and trying to work out where the entrance to the marina was.
Eventually we saw the pilot boat approaching and we followed close behind him as he shooed people and vessels out of the way for us all the way into the marina. With the bleary eyes of two people who had been at sea for 32 hours we set about dealing with Moroccan officialdom and I turned from navigator to translator as a large group of men in different uniforms or none resolutely addressed questions to Stefan. After a cursory visit below and the opening of some random cupboards and a long wait for the return of our documentation we were free to go to our berth.
Marina de Bouragreg sits on the opposite bank of the river to Rabat in the town of Sale and it quickly became apparent that it isn’t exactly set up for cruising yachts. The pontoon fingers were way too short for Pintail. Our neighbours were mainly small motor boats. However, being up the river and surrounded by buildings, it is well protected from any wind and swell and it’s not very often that we have a berth with a front row view of a city landmark. The 11th century Tour de Hasssan stands proudly but unfinished on the opposite bank of the river, across in Rabat.
Inadvertently we seemed to have chosen a summer spot with much cooler temperatures than inland Morocco. Our first week was about 25° and with a lovely daily sea breeze that kept us and Pintail coolish. There was even an occasional fog that drifted up the river obscuring our view of the tower.
In the absence of any other liveaboards on the pontoon, we became acquainted with the non human neighbours. We were familiar with the yellow footed Little Egret who live on our pontoon in Portimao but the apparently neck-less Night Heron was new to us.
The day after our long passage we needed to stretch our legs so we went in search of the shrine to Morocco’s equivalent to St Christopher and to get our bearings around town. We walked along the river and passed the crowded beach, wondering how we had picked our way safely up it the day before. We found the Seaman’s Cemetery and the shrine to Sidi Abdallah ben Hassoun, the patron saint of Salé and of boatmen and travellers. It seemed like a thoroughly appropriate place to start our explorations of Morocco.
And on entering the medina our immersion began. The narrow streets and dead-ends meant we lost any sense of our bearings almost immediately and we had to remind ourselves that getting lost is part of the fun!
Our Rabati guide Karim would later tell us that the people from the capital consider Salé dirty and dangerous. ‘I would never walk around the medina with my mobile phone and wallet’ he warned us. But we found Salé nothing less than very welcoming and that welcome seemed literally heartfelt. Everyone gave us a friendly bonjour or salaam, a greeting often accompanied by a palm pressed into the chest to accentuate it. We felt comfortable walking around the medina and its souks. My schoolgirl French came flooding back which meant we were able to communicate better than in most European countries and we picked up a few Arabic words to through in for good measure. The marina security guard took to teaching me a word or two on my way to the shower every day.
The small stalls of the souk were a real contrast to the shiny clinical counters and aisles of the supermarket 5 mins from the boat. The prices a little different too! We were going to be able to get everything we needed here.
We were excited to be somewhere completely different, somewhere new to be explored and somewhere just a little bit outside our comfort zone…
One thought on “To Morocco”
Hi you guys,
Great to see you on the move!
You did remarkably well stretching commentary on one or two locations for such a time. Thanks to the monkeys aye?!!
Safe sailing , looking forward to future installments.
I’m in NZ at present looking after my sisters farm near Mt Cook, whilst they are away. Hope to cycle Mexico later next year. Right now I have some serious dental work that needs attending to. Plus really looking forward to a full summer in Oz for years. Gardening, fly fishing, cycling and friends