Dick Durham: Yachties like us may be glad to leave the Atlantic behind, but just how welcome would British sailors be in Gibraltar?
The Rock loomed through a Levanter-driven haze, a brooding rampart behind which lay a cornucopia of
Mediterranean promise. We wanted it astern, we were sick of the Atlantic, or more accurately, sick of the easterly winds which had dogged us ever since rounding Cape St. Vincent.
The trouble was, we had been forced to motor Snatch, the Swan 48 we were delivering from the Solent to Gibraltar, ever since leaving Portugal’s west coast because the boat’s massive racing mainsail had only two reefing points and, devoid of a third, was being overpowered in strong headwinds.
Since dropping her co-owner, Adrian Lower, a gynaecologist and rear-commodore of RORC, at Sagres, on the tip of Portugal, so he could fly home for work, we were short-handed, too. The only element in our favour was the conveyor belt of current as the rapidly evaporating Mediterranean Sea was being topped up by the equally rapidly inflowing Atlantic Ocean.
Close inshore, earlier, we had managed to find flatter water and we rounded a dirty sand dune called Cape Trafalgar which, but for Nelson, would have remained just a dirty sand dune. Next up was Tarifa, sought out by dilettante sailors on kite boards, because it is reputed to be the windiest place in Europe. The deep blue seas piled up in front of the isthmus of Tarifa and broke into dazzling white crests as we approached in winds gusting 40 knots.
Tarifa itself, which we later discovered, had been closed to ferries for the 48 hours prior to our approach, was a cluster of sun-scorched, white, cube-shaped houses nestling behind a breakwater connecting the hump of the cape to the land. We rounded it and headed for the Pillars of Hercules. Against the distant desert haze of Africa, container ships, cruise liners and hull-down tankers slipped past as though on strings, made toy-like by the Atlas Mountains.
Beneath The Rock itself the sinister black silhouette of the nuclear submarine HMS Ambush was being slowly escorted in, her crew lined up on her surfaced deck like condemned men. Her captain was presumably facing court martial for the dent in the conning tower, the result of a collision with a merchant ship.
A speeding black RIB closed with us and heavily-armed sailors waved us clear. I turned
the wheel 20° to port, away from the stricken sub, and a rating gave me a friendly thumbs up which might simply have been the fact that we weren’t Spanish, hungry to reclaim Gibraltar after the vote to leave Europe.
John Green, third crewmember, aka Glum because he isn’t, had read on online that the port enforced a curfew to prevent the entry of illegal immigrants. Nobody had challenged us but then not many migrant ships fly blue ensigns, defaced or otherwise. In any case it was to La Linea, where Spain nudges Gibraltar, that we were headed and we docked there at dusk.
Ashore we learned that it is not just the Spanish who are twitchy about the disembodied British presence at the Rock. In a dockside cafe we met my old RYA Yachtmaster instructor, the legendary Vic Punch and his wife Lynn. They told us how, on leaving Tangier, a Moroccan coastguard cutter had chased them out into the Strait. Ranging alongside, her skipper, bristling with semi-automatic weapons, said he was going to board them. At this Vic, a no-nonsense Scouser, told him he must remove his combat boots: ‘I wasn’t having those marking my deck,’ he said. Crestfallen the coastguard removed his boots, a loss of face he brazened out. He then made his inspection in holed socks, a loss of face his crew could not pretend to ignore.
But whatever else may have changed beneath the Rock, one thing has not: a candle lit in the nearest church for safe passage. Sailors of old made supplication before entering the Atlantic; this one struck a match to thank the Gods for leaving it.