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Fog in the Gibraltar Straits

During May, June & July Bob & I had enjoyed our sedate progress along the Costa Blanca and Costa del Sol. We spent ten days in Gibraltar which included the obligatory trip up the rock to see the monkeys. Making the most of the duty free diesel price and good supermarkets Gee Bee Jay was now fully stocked and ready for our next leg of the journey across to North Africa and into Morocco. Smir was our destination, a small modern marina ten miles south of Ceuta on the Mediterranean coastline. We made a fast passage with wind & tide in our favour & enjoyed a couple of pleasant days in what was up to now our most southerly point of our travels. Smir marina is part of a holiday complex and we felt very safe there with lots of security staff in and around the grounds. Restaurants line the waterfront and I decided to eat out that evening, but after ordering the meal and asking for a beer I was politely informed of the alcohol restrictions so had to be content with a non-alcoholic beer (Yuk).

The next leg of the journey was back up to the Straits then out to the Atlantic & up the South West coast of Spain. This is a lot harder than it sounds and although we had had an easy passage southbound to Morocco our next task to exit the Mediterranean out into the Atlantic was going to be an uphill battle against the incoming current. I had been spoilt in the Med and my tide tables had been kept unused in the chart table, but now a very complex table of tidal flow and sea currents were being studied very carefully. The problem is that the Med is some three metres lower than the Atlantic due to the evaporation rate in the Med. Therefore there is always an incoming flow. Secondly add to this the ebb and flow of the Atlantic tide and you get an interesting set of calculations. Another factor is the wind which is funnelled and concentrated within the Straits by the high mountains of Africa and the Spanish headland. An interesting note from the pilot book refers to the wind at Tarifa blowing in excess of 30 knots for 300 days of the year (I’m looking to pick one of the other 65 days !!!!)

Fell Foul of Formalities.

Our day of F words starts shortly after we depart our berth at the unearthly hour of 3am. Shouting and whistling could be heard from the quayside of the harbour masters office. I gingerly eased Gee Bee Jay closer in the darkness and asked who they were and what did they want? “We are police and you are forbidden to leave the harbour”, came the reply and I was ordered to secure the vessel to the quayside. One chap then immediately boarded me and started searching around down below. I was then asked to take all my ships papers and passport to the office where I was informed I must not depart in the hours of darkness especially as I had not had my passport stamped for exit out of Morocco. He then added that failure to have stopped for him would have meant them sending a patrol boat out to arrest me. At which point he then gestured at the patrol boat which put a lump in my throat, as I could clearly see the gun emplacement on the bow. I explained my tidal window plans but I’m not sure they understood. However, my passport was duly stamped and any suspicion that I was a drug or illegal immigrant trafficker subsided.

Fishing Buoys - Floating nets and Fishing boats.

On our way into Smir I had noticed a lot of unlit fishing buoys and floating nets marked only by a marker at each end. There was no chance of seeing these in the dark so my only choice was to follow my inbound track on the chart plotter and hope they had not been moved in the last 36 hours. All was going well until about four miles offshore when dead ahead on my track were the sardine fishing fleet complete with the biggest array of searchlights you have ever seen! It was difficult to work out how many there were but I estimated it at around 20 vessels. My only choice was to go round them with fingers crossed that we would not come across any nets. The next 6 miles up the coast to Ceuta point was uneventful, and as we approached the headland the GPS was showing an improvement in speed as we were being pushed along by the back eddy tidal flow. Timing to Ceuta was important because if we got it wrong the next weather window was over another week away which meant we would have had to stay in the port of Ceuta which was not a pleasant thought.

Fog – Freighters & Ferries

Our timing to Ceuta point was spot on but something was wrong!! The rocky headland to our port with the twinkling lights high in the hills was disappearing rapidly into a thick fog bank. GPS was now showing a greater speed over the ground as we were now being swept forward into the Straits. It was still dark and the thick fog had obliterated any chance of seeing shipping. This next quotation is from the Straits Sailing Handbook “According to Lloyds Signal Station, more than 30,000 ships transit the Strait of Gibraltar annually”. This is an average in excess of 80 vessels per day not including local ferry traffic crossing the Strait between Algeciras and Tangiers and Ceuta. “What better place to learn how to deal with other shipping’’, un-quote. Ovisiouly the author has a sense of humour! I instantly turned on the automatic foghorn, but unfortunately the loudhailer is fitted to the Solar panel gantry (just above the cockpit) so it is deafening when it goes off and was scaring the wits out of poor old Bob. Having nothing to see on deck I left the autopilot on and went below to study the chart plotter but more importantly the AIS radar screen. I was not yet in the main shipping lanes, but still, I was in the inshore shipping lane where the screen was showing traffic going in all directions. I was stuck well and truly in the tidal stream so there was no turning back. I did not want to cross the shipping lanes until I was further west towards Tangiers but this meant I had to pass the port of Ceuta with all the comings & goings of this busy port. My westerly course was now blocked by three ships abreast coming directly towards me on an easterly heading. With rocks to my port and the shipping lane to my starboard things were happening fast! With my present ground speed I did not want to make any erratic moves in the hope that they were tracking me on their radar. Then on the screen, a gap between two of them was opening up which I assumed was an indication I had been seen. My heart was beating fast as I heard on the VHF one of the ships ahead requesting the one in the middle to pass across his stern. This was not good news for me as it then put me in danger, but too late for that, as I watched his trace on the screen approach me. I rushed on deck to shine my powerful 1,000,000 candle power searchlight in his direction. Then suddenly he loomed out of the thick fog towering above me where I caught a fleeting glance of his port side light which crossed my stern by 50 yds. There must have been panic on the bridge as I heard “TOO CLOSE, TOO CLOSE!!!” on the VHF. He then disappeared in the fog in a matter of seconds. Flipping hell I said!!! not quite true but if you want the correct wording go to www.thefwordinthestraits.com With my heart beating faster than it has ever done it its life I returned down below & to the AIS screen. To my relief all shipping was now clear of me. Perhaps they were picking up my heartbeat on their sonar. A little further on I could see two ferries passing my track but they were some distance away thankfully.

Fouled prop

I continued along the North African coastline in thick fog and at last the dawn broke but the visibility was still zero. I was approaching Tangiers in a few miles and there was sure to be an increase in shipping activity there, so I started to make my way north toward the main shipping lane and with the wind now on my starboard beam I hoisted full sail. When I got to within one mile of the main shipping lanes I called Tarifa Traffico on there working channel (they control all shipping movements in the Strait) I gave them my position and intention to cross the lanes at a right angle to a given waypoint on the north of the lanes. I also gave my anticipated speed of vessel and proposal to commence my crossing behind the stern of the bulk carrier (name etc.) The controller acknowledged my intentions and said to beware of thick fog banks in the south of the Straits. The other reason for my broadcast was to inform all other shipping of my presence as they would have been on that channel. Not wanting to be another hedgehog on the motorway I tightened in the sails and increased the engine revs. The AIS was showing vessels around me but none of any concern. Just then there was a horrible knocking noise coming from the prop. At once I knew what it was. The rope cutter was chopping away at something but what was it? and how much was there? I looked over the stern and could see nothing trailing behind and slowly the chopping was getting less but there was still something hitting the underside of the hull. So I took the engine out of gear and then tried reverse. More banging and cutting sounds. I again looked over the stern and then saw a few pieces of chopped blue nylon rope floating in the sea. Finally, I engaged forward gear and the noise gradually diminished and we were making way again, but I knew I had to beach the boat at the earliest opportunity to check out the prop. I was now in the separation zone and gradually the fog cleared to a clear blue sky and showing a long line of ships approaching from my starboard side. Gaps were plentiful and I soon crossed the lane and over to the Spanish coastline. I reported my position to Tarifa Traffico who confirmed he now had me on visual from his tower and wished me a safe onward passage.

Gee Bee Jay has always had a radar reflector fitted at the mast head, but its size and effectiveness I was unsure of. So as soon as I found a Chandler’s I purchased the biggest and latest model he had. He loaned me a large pop rivet gun and that same day I went up the mast and fitted the new 24sq mtr reflector together with the old one.

I have been sailing for thirty years and have always felt in control of any situation whatever it was. On that night a series of events in quick succession unfolded in such a way I was helpless. So I thank lady luck for saving my skin and I hope never to call on her again in such a way.

Moral of the story

Never assume someone on the bridge has seen you on radar.

Never assume that the person even knows how to read a radar correctly.

I am now convinced big ships are not bothering to keep an accurate radar watch and are relying on AIS signals only. Even though there can be anything up to a 20 second delay update, so positions can change dramatically at close quarters!

Which means we should all now fit an AIS transponder to be seen!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

All the best from Les & Bob who are now safe & well in the Algarve

Date Published 18th Sep 2012