Into the Mediterranean

Wednesday 15 – Saturday 18 January

Feeling refreshed from our extended stay in Gibraltar, we were keen to begin this season’s cruising as soon as possible.  Second Mate flew into Gib in the afternoon of Tuesday 14 January, and after the briefest of forays around the town before dark (she didn’t even get acquainted with the monkeys!) was ready the following morning to crew out into the bay and onto the fuel dock to top up the diesel tanks.  We were given a rousing send-off on the ships’ horns of Svala and Tendrel-Aurelie, which was a lovely farewell gesture from our new friends.  They also dashed down to Europa Point to take photos of our passing, with Africa in the background, but with no wind to fly sails and a heavy haze, it was doubtful whether there would be any good results.

We were able to hug the coast around the Rock to enjoy close-up views of Gorham’s Cave, with its discoveries of evidence of habitation by Neanderthal man, and visits by Phoenician traders, as well as the very different landscape of the Great East-side Sand Slopes and former Water Catchment project.  As we cleared the runway into Spanish territory, the courtesy flags were changed and we motored on, pausing briefly to puzzle over a large creature drifting past nearby: possibly a ray?

Sunset in Sotogrande

After a tedious four hours, we arrived in Sotogrande, and tied up near the stone tower that houses the reception office of the marina, without power or water.  Having completed the usual formalities, we decided not to move berth, but to go for a walk to discover the town.  We failed miserably, finding only a tiny chapel with a congregation preparing for mass, and a tower on the hilltop that looked like the base of a windmill.  The marina is part of a currently almost deserted holiday resort of golf course and children’s entertainment areas.  To add insult to injury, we were charged 42€, even on Winter rates, and when Skipper and Mate arrived at the facilities around 2300 for showers, the door was firmly locked.  Not an auspicious beginning to the season, but the sunset was pretty, and after dark the floodlit North face of the Rock of Gibraltar was clearly visible to the South.

Thursday morning was another calm day of motoring, 26 Miles further Northeast to Marbella.  Apart from Gibraltar itself, this was our baptism of fire regarding ‘Med mooring’.  In short, this manoeuvre is hell for boat crews, and an endless source of entertainment for the onlookers.  The theory sounds simple: line up with bows or stern pointing at the quay, drop an anchor from the end furthest from said quay, motor in gently until crew can step off with lines and secure them.  In reality, there are as many variations as there are brands of vessel filling up marinas, and any number of things to go wrong.  Any tide/current or crosswind hinders the helmsman’s ability to steer straight at slow speed; there are often lazylines to avoid a litter of anchors on the seabed of the harbour – which inevitably get tangled – but these are only reachable from the quay; if harbour staff are on hand it is not always easy to understand their instructions, guidance or actions in trying to help; and when the boat is finally safely tied up, stepping ashore is a whole other challenge.

L’escale has a beautifully-designed stern bathing platform, wide and broad, but it is fairly close to water level, and too low from which to step up to the quay.  The step into the cockpit is too far inboard to be a launch point from which to stretch across to the quay, and in the middle is the base mounting for the wind vane.  The solution, as seen on most yachts that cruise the Mediterranean, is a passerelle: a horizontal ladder that creates a drawbridge from vessel to land…but we hadn’t yet organised the installation of this essential piece of kit.  So, as usual, we improvised, with a folding lightweight plastic two-step, and a 1.8m x 4”x 2” plank, usually a barge board to protect the hull in canal locks.  This worked, to a degree, as long as one remembered to duck to avoid banging the head on the arch as one stepped up to cross the bridge.  Next time you’re bored, recreate this party trick for yourself: stretch both arms above your head, to steady yourself on the arch above, and bend over almost double, at the same time raising one leg to above the height of your other knee, whilst extending the standing leg at least a metre forward to minimise the number of steps needed to gain dry land – and do send us the photos!

The inside of Marbella’s harbour wall is decorated with paintings of the signal flags, in alphabetical order, which we followed around until we reached the line of waterside restaurants, most of which were empty out of season.  The exception sounded like it was hosting a stag party, or perhaps a rugby post-match knees-up.  The facilities were opened especially for us by the night watchman, and were most pleasant.

On Friday morning the high pressure and lovely weather continued, but with just enough wind to unroll the gennaker and sail gently along enjoying the view.  The coastal strip is very developed, but the backdrop of high, rugged mountains remains unscarred and spectacular.  Knowing yachts are unwelcome in Málaga itself, we had decided to head for Benalmádena as the nearest port for the city and airport.  In a now familiar routine, we tied up alongside the waiting pontoon that doubles as the fuel pontoon, and Skipper was invited immediately into the office to present the ship’s papers and be allocated a berth.  As the pilot book warned, he was told the only berth available was 18 metres in length, and that we would be charged accordingly, not (as is usual elsewhere) by the size of our boat.  He asked several times for a 15-metre berth, but to no avail.  Meanwhile, Mate and Second Mate prepared the remaining lines for the anticipated Med mooring, and began ‘happy hour’, tidying the decks of the paraphernalia of the day’s passage, and organising supper.

We motored a little further into the marina to our allocated spot, and being another high quay wall, Skipper opted for a bows-to mooring this time.  A marinero was waiting to take our lines and indicate the lazyline we were to use, and soon left us to it.  Unfortunately, going in forwards was to prove equally difficult, as we have a ‘dolphin’ configuration at the bow, a sturdy aluminium extension that supports the anchor (and could be said to look vaguely like a dolphin’s nose).  This is safe to stand on, whilst hanging on to the gennaker halyard or furled genoa, but it is still a leap of faith to step across onto the quay, and requires us to be much closer in than is safe in any wind, as we were to be reminded that night.  Having gained the shore, facilities are a bit of a walk, but acceptable once you get there.

Meanwhile, Skipper had been given an extension for our power cable, as the tower at this berth had been fitted with a 32-amp five pin three phase connection, appropriate for the size of yacht for which the berth was designated, but far too large for our modest 16-amp three pin requirement.  Instead of this being ready to plug in, however, he was also given a diagram, and expected to rewire our connector himself.  Of course, this was perfectly possible, and as it happened, Second Mate is also an experienced electrician, from her work in technical theatre and stage management – but that really wasn’t the point, and Mate, for whom anything electrical is something of black magic, was most perturbed that many yachties would be singularly unqualified for such a task, with potentially serious consequences.

Anyway, with power connected and dinner ready, we settled down for the evening.  During the night, the wind blew up from the Northwest, and we were being pushed hard sideways, away from our neighbour but slewing in the gusts until, inevitably, the anchor up front smashed into the quay wall for a rude awakening for the residents of the master cabin, mere centimetres from the action.  In no time outdoor layers were donned and the engine was stirred from his slumber to pull us further from the quay so we could ease the bow lines and tighten up the lazyline on the stern.  Only half noted at the time, but a further point of concern on reflection, Mate (at the bow) noticed the night security man drive along the quay ahead of us, pause to see what was going on at half past three in the morning on a boat in his care, and drive off as quickly as he’d arrived without leaving the shelter of his van.

On Saturday morning a protracted conversation ensued between Skipper and the weekend staff in the office, where it transpired that plenty of 15-metre berths were available, along the far wall of the marina – a longer walk to the facilities, but we were not given the choice, and always enjoy a stroll  to stretch our legs at the end of a passage at sea.  Furthermore, the person Skipper spoke to on arrival, who gave him the connector and instructions for wiring, was supposed to have come and wired it in for us.  Despite Skipper’s best efforts, she remained unable to offer any gesture of refund, and suggested we write to the owners of the marina – which we did, at some length.

Stained glass window in the market hall

Eventually we trudged up the hill in the damp and cold to find the bus stop for a trip into Málaga – cheap enough at 1.70€ each one way, but not particularly comfortable or scenic.  The architecture in the old city is attractive, and we enjoyed the atmosphere, but stayed only long enough for a lunch of paella, grilled vegetables and hot chocolate with churros.  Feeling revived enough for a brief sojourn along the smart shopping street on the way back to the bus station, we resolved to return – in better weather.

Not prepared to spend around 40€ a night for our intended 10-day stay in Málaga, Second Mate was delighted with the unexpected chance of an extra passage when we sailed an extra ten miles back to Fuengirola on Sunday.  At last the wind was sufficient to set the main and genoa, NW 3-5, but shifty in the gusts which made for a challenging session on the helm for her, as she did a brilliant job of keeping us moving, if not always in the desired direction.  It’s delightful to watch her enjoy it so much, and see that she hasn’t lost her touch and has such natural instinct.  She was thrilled that the sun and wind brought out her freckles, so she returned home looking surprisingly healthy from sailing a total of 80 Miles in January!

On arrival in Fuengirola, we were directed to the waiting pontoon until the weekday staff could allocate us a berth the following morning, and we settled happily to a delicious brunch, accompanied by proper English fat chips from one of the restaurants on the harbourside.  We then enjoyed a leisurely stroll to the train station for a much more pleasant ride than the bus to deliver Second Mate to the airport for her flight home.