Features December 2001 Issue

Offshore Log: A Longing For Home

In early October, Calypso lay in Gibraltar, trapped by unfavorable weather systems and floating in raw sewage.

We were waiting out the unfavorable weather in the venerable confines of Gibraltar Harbour, before heading down to the Canary Islands, when we found ourselves afloat in a sea of sewage caused by a major collapse in Gibraltar's ancient sewer system. This resulted in a large portion of the city's untreated waste pouring into Queensway Quay Marina through an overflow pipe about 25 yards from our boat. 

Gibraltar overlooks one of the world's key strategic
chokepoints. The tiny peninsula, including the fa-
mous Rock, one of the ancient Pillars of Hercules,
has been under British control since 1704.

We retched, we gagged. We were trapped. The unspeakable filth coated our waterline and clotted the marina with a thick, greasy scum of human waste. Had we run the engine, the cooling system would almost certainly have clogged instantly with all the miscellaneous gunk that a modern society flushes down its toilet. This was the worst pollution we have seen anywhere in the world.

With gales closing in, there was no place to run, even if we could get out of the marina.

Then, of course, there was the world outside. Like other cruisers, we stayed glued to the radio and television, fearful of missing a single incident in the struggle against the world's madness.

Do not think that cruisers are one big happy family. We are as petty and greedy as people ashore. But after the terrorist attacks on the US, American cruisers in particular put aside their personal antipathies to try to sort out how the division of the world into "us" and "them" would come to bear on all of us.

We were particularly grateful to be on the edge of our last ocean crossing back to America. While none of us felt there was anything we could do to make things better at home, most of us felt an inexplicable longing to be there. Home was where we belonged. We ached for the many cruisers just starting out on the other side of the world, many of them good friends, who were now effectively trapped on the western edge of the Pacific. Just a year ago, we'd been in Indonesia, heading up through Southeast Asia, across the Indian Ocean, through the Middle East via the Red Sea. Few would even consider taking that route today. Instead, homeward-bound cruisers to the east of us must look at the long and difficult passage via the Cape of Good Hope and South Africa, a route previously taken by a fairly small percentage of circumnavigators.

Across the Med
We had spent the summer crossing the Mediterranean with no inkling of what was to come. It was probably just as well that we had no crystal ball.

We were cruising, but we did very little sailing. Cruising in the Med, the saying goes, consists of motoring from gale to gale. Another ditty has it that there are two kinds of boats in the Mediterranean: powerboats, and powerboats with masts.

There's a lot of truth in both those statements. We beat across the Aegean Sea in 25-knot headwinds, followed by motoring in glassy calms. The daily weather on the Mediterranean cruiser's radio net became our gospel. I'm not ashamed to say that we looked as much for calms that would let us motor as we did for winds that would allow us to sail. Our goal was to get across the Med intact, even if it meant motoring the entire way.

In fact, we motored or motorsailed about 80 percent of our 2,400 miles of Mediterranean cruising, putting some 400 engine hours on the clock.

Ours was, to some extent, a literary voyage. Calypso diverted to the Ionian island of Ithaca, ancient home of Odysseus, the wily Bronze Age warrior king who wandered the Med for a decade on his way home from the Trojan Wars. The Calypso of Greek legend, a sea nymph, kept the more or less unwilling Odysseus as a love slave for seven years on her island before letting him build a boat to continue his homeward voyage.

My own Calypso, a direct descendent of the ancient nymph, kept me as a working slave building her for a decade before letting me go to sea, and then only on the condition that I would take her—the boat, that is—along for the ride. It would have been a wet trip indeed without her.   

Our Calypso sat for a week in the shimmering heat and blinding light of Ithaca, while we re-read the portions of Homer's Odyssey that dealt with the island home of Odyssus. It was hard to imagine this tiny, sleepy speck of rock as a power of the Mediteranean world, but we could see the ancient olive groves and vineyards that left the old warrior so filled with a longing for home.

It was a longing that we, ourselves, were just beginning to feel, even before the world began to fall apart.   

Our literary voyage onward covered some 1,800 years in little more than a thousand miles when we crept into the harbor of Puerto Mahon in Menorca under the gunports of its vast 18th and 19th century fortifications. Patrick O'Brian's hero Jack Aubrey sailed into the same harbor in triumph, prizes in tow, in the early days of the Napoleanic wars. Years later, after Menorca had been given up by the British, Aubrey snuck into the harbor, disguised and under cover of darkness, to free the captured and tortured Stephen Maturin from the French.

We sat peacefully at anchor under the same high stone walls, re-reading O'Brian's masterful tales, walking the narrow, crowded maze of alleys and streets. It took little imagination to peel back 200 years of modernization from the old town.

To Gibraltar
Our literary voyage over, it was back to the real voyage at hand. Calypso's approach to Gibraltar was one of the hairiest bits of navigation I have endured in 30 years of sailing. It would have been impossible without a variety of electronic aids that we rely on heavily.

The radio forecast for Tarifa in the Strait of Gibraltar called for gale-force winds and zero visibility in fog. Just 40 miles to the east, we motored in hazy sunshine and oily calm. It was hard to reconcile the conditions we had with the forecast ahead, but we thought seriously about taking advantage of one of our bailout points along the Spanish coast.

A cellphone call to the marina in Gibraltar confirmed good visibility and 10-knot easterlies. We decided to carry on.

Just after dark, we realized we were gradually losing visibility when our deck-level running lights began to reflect back at us, totally destroying night vision.

Herein lies a dilemma. When motoring, the proper light configuration is deck-level running lights and the mast-mounted steaming light, rather than the masthead tri-color light we use when sailing. In the fog, our deck-level lights were a hazard to us, and probably invisible to shipping. We switched on the tri-color and switched off the deck lights. This at least left us with a shred of visibility, although true visibility—almost impossible to determine at night—was probably about 50 yards.

At this point, our most valuable tools were the Furuno 1831 radar, our Northstar 941XD GPS, and Nobeltec's Visual Navigation Suite running on the computer.

The Strait of Gibraltar is one of the busiest zones of ship traffic in the world. All the shipping coming in and out of the Mediterranean, including most of the traffic transiting the Suez Canal, must pass through this eight-mile-wide chokepoint between Europe and Africa. Traffic separation zones keep the main body of shipping separated like the lanes on a highway. Gibraltar, however, is an off-ramp for a lot of traffic: Imagine a busy four-lane highway with a major cross intersection—without stop lights—and you have a good picture of the shipping in the Strait.

The radar screen was alive with images. There appeared to be ships—underway, or anchored—in areas where no ships belonged. What should have been an orderly traffic scheme looked instead like chaos on the radar. Visibility was effectively zero.

We decided to sneak inshore of the main traffic lanes. The swirling currents, now three knots with us, now four knots against, made keeping a conventional compass course impossible, nor could I plot quickly enough on the paper chart to stay up with the course changes caused by the currents. Instead, we relied on the autopilot and the electronic charting. In this case, electronic charting was worth its weight in gold. Likewise, the radar allowed us to thread our way through the shipping, which was moving fairly slowly due to the limited visibility.

Maryann sat in the cockpit at the autopilot controls, bumping the course left and right as we snuck around ships we could not see. We were navigating purely by instruments, with absolutely no visual reference for backup. The radar screen, GPS, computer screen, and depth sounder were our reality.

Anchoring was impossible—we would have been sitting ducks—and turning around would not necessarily bring relief.

We tried to make course changes obvious enough that a ship seeing us on radar would realize what we were doing, although we suspected that they were so busy with big echoes that our own radar return would go unnoticed. As we passed within a quarter mile of unseen ships, their radar returns degenerated into splatter that virtually blocked the screen. Our VHF was a cacophony of shouting and swearing in various forms of English as ships worked to avoid each other.

They did not all succeed. Five miles from us a ferry and a ship collided, miraculously with no loss of life.

We crept around Europa point, with big radar returns coming from areas marked "no anchoring" on the chart. If these ships weren't at anchor, they must be underway.

I thought I could spot the harbor breakwater on the radar, but we weren’t out of the woods yet.

Suddenly, Maryann called out, "I can see it."

"See what?" I yelled frantically from the chart table.


Sure enough, we sailed out of the fog of the strait and into an almost-clear harbor. We were surrounded by anchored ships, but an anchored ship is easy to avoid. After the pea soup of the strait, the lights of town seemed unnaturally bright in the middle of the night.

At 0200, we tied up to the fuel dock at the marina, had a glass of wine, and fell into bed. The Mediterranean was behind us, and September 11 was still a month ahead.  We had one more ocean to cross.


Also With This Article
Click here to view "Supercharged Shorthanded Cruising."

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