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 Monday, 15th December, 2014

 According to maritime antiquity, the rocky gates at the furthest western point of the Mediterranean bear a sombre warning – ‘Non Plus Ultra’ (Nothing Further Beyond). The implication was that any sailor or navigator who dared to pass through entered the perilous Unknown from which there was no return. Of course, such warnings only served as a purple muleta to a toro for those with a penchant for adventure, and throughout the ages beginning with Hercules the daring and the dared have been sailing Plus Ultra.

 I have unwittingly become the latest of this venerable company of Jack Tars. I say unwittingly because I am not of the ilk. Yet, in order to expand my horizons as a traveller, and to truly access lands new, mysterious or untramelled, I thought it best to take to the water and learn to sail.

After a brief online research I discovered a sizeable flock of sailing schools established on the northern, and more renowned of the rocky exit portals. Each of the dozen or so schools made the point of expounding, in various words, the time-honoured maritime lore “If you can sail through ‘the gut’, you can sail almost anywhere”. It was their persuasive marketing cry and why I ditched the tranquil waters of the Cote d’Azur to find myself standing on a small quay nervously clutching a rucksack and staring up at the monolith they call Gibraltar.

I must admit Gibraltar is one of those places that I never contemplated visiting. I now have a reason not to again. Since it has been a long-established British strategic enclave in what really should be Spain, there is this dual sensation of schizophrenia and paranoia that sifts like a heavy pall among the discombobulated populace. Apart from the gibberish mixture of Spanish and English tongues, the ubiquitous cuisine of Spanish tapas bars disjoint abrasively with the fact that each dish is served with the obligatory plate of chips, always fried in rancid oil, while the tapas itself has been dumbed down to cater to the most pedestrian of British palettes. The disconnected pall of fried chips and vinegar mingles with another vaporous miasma. When Franco was in charge of Spain, he ordered the construction of a large oil refinery on the northern banks of the bay. It was designed specifically work with the prevailing westerlies so as to cover the British enclave with a poisonous smog that has long coated the building and lungs of Gibraltarians. Perhaps his scheme may have backfired had the British left, or perhaps the cantankerous old dictator believed, like Winston Churchill, that as long as Gib was occupied by its resident troops of Barbary Apes the Rock would remain British. From what I discovered, it’s unlikely the golden-haired primates will ever leave. After being persecuted to virtual non-existence in their native hills and crags in North Africa these macaques have nowhere left to go. They are thriving though, in a semi-tame existence on the upper slopes and are hand fed by the adoring citizens. The Gibraltarians revere them as other cultures revere gods.

Thankfully, the very nature of sailing provides an escape from the prosaic Rock and soon, along with three other landlubbers and our instructor from the applicably named training school, Rock Sailing, I set sail making a beeline for the innominate twin pillar on the African coastline just 13 nautical miles distant.

This was the first of a series of courses of a three month program they called the Yacht Master Fast-track course. As the name implies I was doing a sort of zero-to-hero course. The ultimate goal of obtaining one of the highest ratings of sailing but, as they kept telling me, it wasn’t going to be easy. I already was having a hard time facing the prospect of leaving my darling wife and three cats for 100 days, living at extremely close quarters with unfamiliar people. But it was another adventure, and what’s the point of adventures if there is not a good dose of the slog.

Hercules’ other pillar ostensibly is Ceuta. There is widespread disagreement about exactly which peak is Gibraltar’s Other. In terms of dominance, it’s the great buttress of Jebel Musa, a massif on the Moroccan coast that, like Gibraltar, is visible to sailors over 100 miles inside the Mediterranean. This ought to be the natural choice, and probably was for the sailors of antiquity. Together with Gibraltar, Jebel Musa creates that quintessential image of the Pillars of Hercules. The name Gibraltar is actually a derivation of the Arabic Jebal Tariq, so the great rocks even sound as if they are twins.

Looking south: The Rock of Gibraltar with the other of Hercules' pillar, Jebel Musa, in the background

Yet, unlike Gib, the African counter-part is not technically at the entrance to the Outside. The actual point where the Med ends, where Africa and Europe almost embrace, is a few miles further east, on a peninsula with a rounded hillock that eases its way above the town of Ceuta, an established enclave in Morocco that to the Spanish is what Gibraltar is to the British. Ceuta (pronounced Thé-uta by the Spanish and Soota by the British) is where we were headed.


Looking north: The statue of Hercules in Ceuta with Gibraltar now as background

Getting there highlights why would-be sailors need to cut their teeth in these parts. A beeline by yacht between the pillars simply is never possible thanks to the colossal flow of water passing through the narrow gut. I wondered how Hannibal and his elephants, or the regular armies of Vandals, Goths and Moors in their antiquated vessels ever managed to get across this raging stream. Not only is the flow of water treacherous to little sailing vessels but also almost always, when the wind blows from the west, a tempest howls. Like the water, the air funnels between the two continents at frightening speeds. And then, when the wind switches to the east, it is far more calmer but exponentially more sinister. The fishermen in these parts state that if they wake up in the morning and the locks of their sleeping wives have curled, they prudently stay in bed because this easterly breeze which they call the Levante brings forth moisture and the densest of sea-fogs that refuses to budge even if the breeze picks up to a stiff Force 5 on the Beaufort Scale.

Our collective crew of sailors extraordinarily experienced both on consecutive days – gale force breezes that almost capsized us and shredded our foresail on the way there; and pea-soup fog on the way back. To really add to the hazardous nature of the crossing, the funnelling of water, wind and fog is combined with the two-way flow of one of the busiest shipping lanes on the planet. Sure the rules of the road state that power vessels give way to sail, at least on paper, but how can anybody expect a half-kilometre oil-tanker to give way to a tiny white speck on their radars, especially since it takes several kilometres to make just the slightest adjustment. Thus, in a thumping gale our sailing and navigational skills had to be honed to perfection, which they weren’t and we almost came to grief a few times. As for the fog, it was like crawling across a busy six-lane freeway blindfolded. There was a very real possibility that a harbourmaster somewhere in either Marseilles, Genoa or some distant Mediterranean port may be surprised to find the remnants of our rigging dangling on the bow of a docking super-tanker. 

Ceuta, though, has a better feel to it than Gibraltar. I think it because the Spanish have a finer approach to living. The atmosphere is festive, the architecture more stylish and the bustling cafes and restaurants made me feel more at home. We ate a meal in a Moroccan restaurant high up on the hill with a commanding view of both sides of the little peninsula. The food, as with all Moroccan food, was divine and perfectly suited to my vegan sensibilities, plus I could practice my French, the lingua franca of most Moroccans. I would visit Ceuta a number of times over the next three months. Once we even made the treacherous crossing twice in a single day.

The reason for that was because we responded one day to a Pan-Pan call over the VHF radio. A Pan-Pan is a grade down from a Mayday call, not life threatening but serious nonetheless. This one was one of the Rock Sailing’s other boats whose skipper announced they were taking in water and required immediate assistance. At that stage they were four miles north of Ceuta. We were four miles from Gibraltar having already sailed to Ceuta in the morning. I was with a different crew, slightly more experienced, and a new skipper. We could see the sails of the boat in distress far to the south and since we were the nearest vessel, we responded to the call and made haste toward the beleaguered ship and escorted them into the safe waters of Ceuta’s marina before sailing back to Gib in near gale conditions.

The new crew of four, who like me were fast-trackers, were a hodgepodge of different nationalities, and personalities. There was a callow rotund Romanian from London, a broody Lithuanian from Ireland, a happy-go-lucky drifter from no-where in particular but with a Saffa background, and of course me. The combined cultural, linguistic and individual quirks created a strange and potentially flammable environment that could be set off by the slightest inconsequentiality. And boy, did those sparks fly.

The Romanian in particular was highly emotive, to the point his disposition should be classified a disorder. This was a big problem because the difficult and dangerous nature of sailing the straits means that orders and directives are vociferously barked, and need to rapidly be obeyed to the letter. There can be no time to take offence, or to skulk away to sulk. Sailors like soldiers in a field of battle have to commit and focus whole-heartedly to the task at hand. The lack of maritime compliance by the Romanian, who unfortunately had the added problem of resembling a hairy wookie, rankled the other crew including the otherwise jovial series of skippers tasked of turning us into able seafarers. The constant exchange of jibes, insults, yells and once even blows among the crew and him rivalled the great tidal flow of the Atlantic feeding a perpetually thirsty Mediterranean.

To make matters worse, we, like the superstitious mariners of yore, began to believe the Romanian was the bringer of bad luck. On our fifth week, the true test of sailing mettle came in what the sailing school termed unremarkably as a ‘mile-builder’. To take the final Yacht Master one needs a minimum of 2,500 logged nautical miles. Essentially, it meant going to sea, and spending time at sea to rapidly log miles, which in our case meant sailing through the gates. We were going Plus Ultra.

 The Gates. Where the Med ends and the Atlantic (bottom left) begins

Tasked with the odious task was a New Zealand skipper, a knowledgeable sailor except like most sailors his wont when ashore was to exist in a perpetually hazy and hedonistic pursuit of everything narcotic. We met him on the evening we before our departure and were instantly press-ganged into joining this age-old sailor’s custom. The net result we got no sleep and faced the day of departure nursing heads of wounded grizzly bears. The process would repeat itself each time we put ashore, which thankfully would not be too frequent. The real worry, however, was that while at sea I wondered whether our captain could stand up to the rigours of commanding an inexperienced crew surviving on the barest amount of sleep. He did, but I suspect with a little help from a private stash of magic bullets.

Furthermore, on the day of departure, the heads (that’s nautical for ‘toilet’) broke on account of someone forgetting that yacht’s plumbing is not partial to anything but bodily sullage been thrown in them. There was an irritating and fetid delay waiting for the replacement part. Then it was discovered just before we set sail that the transmission oil in the engine was taking in seawater. It’s not a problem when under sail but a working engine is necessary for mooring, berthing and dodging oil tankers in the fog. Undaunted the twangy austral accent of the skipper gave the command to set sail. Things were not looking up.

The crew issues got worse. It was not just the Romanian and his protracted juvenile outbursts. The young drifter, being young and carefree, did not mind letting the confined space of the yacht become uninhabitable with all sorts of detritus from rotting food to piles of unwashed dishes. There’s a reason the term ‘ship-shape’ came into the English vernacular, the lad certainly highlighted the mantra of not doing so. Nevertheless, he was a delightfully amicable fellow and an excellent sailor, which made it easier for me to forgive his blatant amnesia when it came to washing the dishes. As for the Lithuanian, who looked like an extra on a movie about Nazis, he had pathological dietary issues that involved the exclusive consumption of anything protein.  

Planning for weeks of near constant sailing meant we had to collectively agree on the kinds of meals we were to serve on board. What we achieved was something like a hung-parliament. Nobody could agree. The skipper and myself were committed foodies, lovers of taste and flair and exquisite cuisine from simple ingredients. The Romanian just bought sweets and chocolates - hardly the stuff to sustain a body at sea. The Lithuanian, on the other hand, viewed food as some sort of coded formula. Food had nothing to do with taste only nutritious benefit to the body measured by precise mathematical workings, which is fine but in his case it involved the maximum injection of protein at the expense of pleasure – both his and ours. The Lithuanian’s preferred daily consumption was: eggs for breakfast; a half-dozen boiled eggs for lunch with a extra-large can of tuna followed by another extra-large can of tuna and more eggs for dinner. We would not have minded so much, since we made our own fare anyway, but the diet caused the man to discharge noxious fumes by the minute. Not only were we all choking and gagging on the foul vapours that not even a gale could blow away but I believe it was a fire hazard too, and I secretly prayed to the sea-gods every time the slipshod young lad, who was a chain-smoker, lit up on deck. It seemed unlikely our motley crew would be able to make it into the Atlantic.

Somehow though we managed to get through the straits in to the land beyond. Like the Spanish conquistadors during the Age of Discovery we discovered the new and wonderful which made it all worthwhile and reminded me why I travel. We passed the broiling water’s of Cape Trafalgar under the stars with a new moon rising. Moon-glow on water for me is one of life’s little apotheoses. The silver light reflects and dances to the rhythm of the sea and occasionally, as if it was Nelson’s ghost, the dark curved form of a dolphin broke the surface with an audible puff. These experiences on midnight watches made me realise that living on board even with the eclectic and bizarre was priceless. I had oddly come to like the quirks and habits of the others. It added more colour to an already harlequined maritime way of life.

We reached the cliffs of the Algarve a few days later and sailed up a river at Portimao. I knew the place from previous travels. There is an unassuming restaurant there that is famous the world over for its plump sardines, which are grilled on an open fire on a working dockside. Unfortunately, as a recently committed vegetarian, I no longer could indulge but it did not stop me from talking up the fare to the others. To get there though we had to tack upriver against the tide. We had run our batteries down and no longer had a working engine. It was a tricky manoeuvre but it proved that we had discovered the fine art of sailing, able to dodge the oncoming traffic of commercial fishing vessels on just the power of a breeze, then mooring up safely under sail. But after stepping ashore with the skipper to partake in the culinary indulgence with a crisp glass of vinho-verde (the others went shopping and sightseeing), I discovered that the man, although he had trawled a fishing line since we had left Gibraltar, did not eat fish, well, sardines to be precise.

Apparently, he was scared he might swallow the bones.

The announcement only came after he had ordered a plate of the poor beasts and after they were presented chargrilled and richly salted on the table. Incredulous, I asked why he ordered them in the first place.

“They are for you”, he told me, “you said how delicious they were.”

 Somehow he had forgotten, after spending weeks at close quarters, that I was a vegetarian. I could not bear the fact that the lives of these sardines were needlessly wasted. So I ate them.

But life was getting better. In fact it was great. The Algarve is a spectacular coastline, even better from the sea. The red, crumbly cliffs separated by some Europe’s most beautiful beaches are seen in their entirety viewed from a fisheye view, as opposed to the oblique from behind vistas’ from ashore.

The Moroccan coast too was terrific. Rugged, mysterious and remote, much of the coastline is accessible only to us yotties in spite of the close attention of the coastguard when we strayed too close to shore. I was worried the gun-toting guards would come aboard for a spot-search and discover the skipper’s secret stash of stimulants, but they were polite and kindly informed us in French to move a further 2000m offshore to which I, the resident ship’s Francophile, responded with equal civility. Our skipper, I noticed, was unusually lugubrious on this occasion.

 Spain too had an interesting coastline both east and west of Gibraltar. The Mediterranean side is the famed Costa do Sol and we regularly anchored in the festive marinas of Estepona and Duquesa. They were nice, save for the thongs of British tourists. The Atlantic side was much better. There are no cheesy resorts catering exclusively to the common British tourist but rather genuine fishing villages and so-called backwaters like Sancti Petri that attract only locals or, as is the case with Spain’s southern most town, Terifa, dedicated wind seekers with their kite boards and windsurfers.

 With the spinnaker flying

After the mile-builders the sailing got serious. We had to work on our skills so it was weeks of tacking and gybing in various strengths of wind, pontoon-bashing to hone our berthing ability, man-over-board drills, navigation exercises and general yacht maintenance. Then there was theory – meteorology, chart-work, tidal interpolations, diesel engine maintenance, radar and VHF coursework, safety briefs and collision regulations which involved committing to memory hundreds of light, sound and flag signals.

I was scheduled to do my final practical exam at the beginning of November but I decided at this stage to take a little hiatus from sailing. I needed a break from the close quarter living that is best equated to living in a trailer park with banjo-playing misfits. Thankfully, Rock Sailing's Principal threw the inflammatory Romanian off the course but he was replaced by an imperious young woman, who at once disrupted our living arrangements beyond the pale. She also gained the lascivious eye of the Kiwi skipper who, at the expense of the rest of our training, clung to her like she was bitch on heat, which fundamentally she was. I was glad for the break.

When I returned in the first week of December, well-rested and my state of mind recovered, I joined a new group of fast-trackers. They had arrived while I was still in Gibraltar a month or so after me, so I knew them fairly well but had not sailed with them, although we had done the sea-survival module of the course together. They were a nice trio – an affable young Gibraltarian guy, a lass from the UK and an Italian dude who barely spoke English.


Multinational co-operation. Sea survival course with my fellow final examinees

I had three days prep to clear any rustiness before the gruelling 2-day exam, which was overseen by an independent examiner whom I had met before. He was a 6 foot 8 inch no-nonsense ex-Navy commander who expected only the very highest standards from his chargers. Needless, to say we were a bundle of nerves on exam day, and as first-up skipper I almost fluffed my mooring tasks. But my instructor-self of old kicked in timeously. By the end of the 24-hour exam I was hitting my straps. I passed with flying colours, top-of the class and became the world’s newest Yacht Master.

I'm on top of the world!

I had done it! To sail Plus Ultra one has to work for it. I successfully completed one of the world’s most challenging sea-passages, not once but many times and with a variety of fractious and incompatible crews. Like the ancient mariners who discovered strange new lands long ago, I too found a new world. My life of travel now has a whole new dimension added to it.