We sail from the border between Portugal and Spain via Gibraltar to Málaga, have a family reunion, and visit to a solar power plant in Andalusia.
Rio Guadiana (PRT) – Málaga (ESP)
Stuck in the sand
BAM! Luci’s keel hits the sand, we’re stuck. Behind us is the open Atlantic Ocean, in front of us the shallow entrance to the Rio Piedra. Our pilot book warned us about this shallow and potentially dangerous passage and in different circumstances it would have been a nightmare scenario. But today there is no swell, the offshore wind is light, it’s daylight and the high tide is two hours away.
Ivar puts the propeller in reverse and with a bit of help from the rising tide he gets Luci off the sandbar and floating again. The water is so clear, we can actually see where we hit the sand. While Floris keeps an eye on the bottom to alert Ivar of any other sandbars, Ivar gives it another try. He steers more towards the red buoy and continuously watches the instruments. This time we keep at least 0.5m underneath our keel and safely make it onto the river.
We drop the anchor a few miles upriver, near the lighthouse of the little town of El Rompido. Fishing boats are moored close to the beach, which is lined by small restaurants. We stay on board to enjoy the last rays of sunlight and the stunning surroundings. The long, sandy beaches and pine tree forests look very attractive and ready to be explored. We didn’t plan to be here when we left Rio Guadiana, the border river between Portugal and Spain, in the morning, but are now happy that the light winds forced us to stop at this picturesque place.
The following days are sunny and calm. We hike along the beaches and through lush nature reserves. We also collect dry firewood for our woodstove, as the evenings are still a bit chilly. The town is almost deserted and many restaurants are closed, so we also find time for researching Spanish solar energy, blogging and vlogging.
When a smooth NW breeze appears after five days, it’s time to leave. We wait until just before high tide and carefully retrace the route we took on our inbound journey. This time we stay clear of the sand. Relieved, we enjoy a sunny day of downwind sailing to Cádiz.
The downwind course in combination with light wind are difficult for our windvane “Herbie”. It does not get enough pressure to steer for us. So we must rely on the electric autopilot instead. It continuously moves the rudder and we soon notice a squeaky sound and some slack in the rudder…. Not good. We moor without any troubles in the marina of Cádiz, but worry about the state of our rudder.
The next morning Ivar takes our steering system apart to see what’s wrong. Loosening parts that haven’t been touched for some decades proves to be a difficult and time-consuming task. It takes him two days, but he finally manages to loosen each bolt, cogwheel, and bearing. After thoroughly cleaning them, we send pictures and videos to our friend Herbert for advice. Thanks to his great help we come to the conclusion that nothing is broken and no spare parts are needed. What a pleasant surprise for once!
Ivar proceeds to put all the cleaned parts back together and applies lots of grease, which takes another day. When he’s finished our rudder turns more smoothly than ever before. Made in the seventies, this solid rudder system was built to last. All it needed was some TLC (“tender love and care”).
While we wait for favourable winds, we explore Cádiz and its impressive history. It is said to be one the oldest continuously inhabited city in Western Europe. The Phoenicians founded the city some 3000 years ago. We climb the highest tower in the city, the “Torre Tavira”, to get a closer look. The tower not only provides great views from its rooftop, but also has a “camera obscura”. Movable mirrors project live views from the tower onto a curved surface. A guide gives us a virtual tour of the city, while he turns the mirrors for a 360 degree panorama. Not much later we visit one of the sights he pointed out, the fortress of San Sebastián. Getting there requires good timing, as crashing waves break heavily on the entrance road. We run between waves and manage to stay dry. Much of the site is derelict, only the lighthouse is still maintained, but the view on Cádiz makes it worth the effort.
A boat needs constant TLC, as we are constantly reminded. At home we know where to get spare parts and which professionals we can count on. Abroad it is a challenge to find the right person, in the right place, at the right time and at a reasonable price. Somewhere in Portugal we realized that our life raft needed to be serviced soon. The last time was three years ago, when Ivar’s father took it to a servicing station by car. How are we going to find a service company in Portugal or Spain, preferably not far from a harbour on our route?
This is where Britain’s nautical heritage proves to have its benefits. With some help from Google we find somebody in Gibraltar who can help us. No need to explain anything in Portuguese or Spanish or rent a car to drive somewhere. Off to the Rock!
A Strait with a Reputation
As we prepare for our trip, we are reminded that the Gibraltar Strait is a notorious sea area. The narrow passage between Europe and Africa is only 8 nautical miles wide and connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. The constant flow of waters can, in combination with the tide, result in currents of up to 5 knots. In addition the wind is often funnelled through the Strait by mountain ranges on both continents. We look at each other and conclude we need to time this passage carefully.
We leave Cádiz with very light wind and a bit of westerly swell. On our way we pass historic Cape Trafalgar and the harbour of Barbate, a potential stopover. We skip it, as conditions and timing are ideal to continue towards the Strait. It doesn’t take long before we pick up a current of around 3 knots, which takes us through the Strait without encountering significant overfalls. So far so good. We are the only sailboat, but by no means alone. Large commercial ships, one after the other, leave the Mediterranean and sail towards us. They are impressive. We make sure to stay out of the shipping lane to keep them at a safe distance. It means that we sail close to the Spanish shore, yet Africa with its mountains towering over the southern side of the Strait, seems within reach.
It is almost midnight when we finally reach the Bay of Gibraltar. Large commercial ships move in an out of the Bay and are anchored here. Their lights are difficult to distinguish against the bright lights of Gibraltar, so we closely watch the AIS-monitor for moving tankers as we slalom our way towards the marina.
We have a choice of two marinas, both attractively priced, but it turns out that the marina at Queensway Quay closes off its entrance with a chain at night. Not just unusual, but also dangerous for those sailors who don’t study their pilot books or check by VHF before entering. We call Marina Bay, the alternative choice, and learn that we can moor there. It is late at night, but the harbourmaster kindly shows us the way with a flashlight, takes our mooring lines and welcomes us in polite British fashion. Perhaps our British guest flag ensured this warm reception. We read that leaving the Spanish guest flag in the rigging was not a good idea.
Marina Bay proves to be a good choice. We are moored at an excellent berth on a floating hammerhead pontoon. The distance between Gibraltar airport’s landing strip and us is only 50m, but with only a few flights a day the landings and take-offs are more an attraction than a nuisance.
“I was stationed here while being in the navy for five years, and decided to stay” Steve tells us over a cup of coffee in our cockpit. He is the owner of the life raft service company. “This disputed piece of land has been British since 1703. It always played a strategic military role, although today much less so” Steve continues. That explains the many fences, old fortifications, and “Keep Out – Ministry of Defense” signs. Nowadays Gibraltar is a tax haven, which not only attracts shopping tourists, but also quite a few company offices. It is densely populated, and, unfortunately, there are cars everywhere. Cycling would seem a much easier and sensible way to get around.
When we explore the town, we’re reminded of England. In Main Street the buildings, stores, waste bins and pubs all look very British. Even the policemen remind us of bobbies. Only the weather is very unlike Britain.
We decide to make good use of the sunny weather and hike Gibraltar’s famous Rock. Although less than 500 meters high, its steepness is impressive. Soon after we start our ascend we spot the first monkeys. These Barbary macaques form the only wild monkey population on the European continent. As excited as we are to see them, as unimpressed they are by our presence. They seem very much at ease with humans. Later we learn why; they’re being fed for the tourists and the taxi drivers play with them.
When we reach the top, we marvel at the view. To the West we see the Gibraltar Strait, which we just passed. To the South we see Morocco and the Rif mountains. And to the East the Mediterranean that stretches out as far as the eye can see. We can’t wait to explore that deep blue sea this year.
Concentrated solar power
Did you know that in one hour the earth receives enough solar energy to power our global civilization for an entire year? To create a sustainable energy supply we have to learn to harness the energy from the sun! Since Andalusia is one of the sunniest regions in Europe, it doesn’t surprise us that Spain leads in putting all that sun to good use. We rent a car just across the border in Spain to explore solar energy. Destination: the Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) plant in Palma del Rio, between Seville and Córdoba. One of their engineers tours us around the facility and explains how it works. Thousands of large, curved mirrors concentrate sunlight onto tubes containing synthetic oil. The hot oil heats water to produce steam and the steam drives turbines that generate electricity. When heated oil is stored in tanks, the electricity production can even continue after sunset. Smart, impressive and sustainable. Stay tuned for more details on this exciting energy story in our separate Sustainable Solution article and video.
Being so close to Seville, we treat ourselves to a couple of days in this amazing city. On our way to our AirBnB host we get a first glimpse of the enormous cathedral. Although the way the church’s wealth was obtained is without a doubt in fundamental conflict with Catholic principles, we decide to go on a tour of the roof. It proves to be a great way to learn more about the history, architecture and construction of this impressive landmark. It is only rivalled by the Royal Castle, which we visit the next day and where we learn that after the Catholic Kings re-conquered Seville from the Moors, Muslims and Catholics lived in peace side by side for some 200 years. Muslim architecture was admired and incorporated in the design of parts of the castle.
As we drive back to Gibraltar, we pass more solar energy plants. What a pity that the Spanish are not yet using their renewable energy to power electric cars like the Norwegians do. Instead, we need to fill up our rental with diesel before returning it. Back on the boat, we find our serviced life raft back in its place. Great service, and it’s approved for another 3 years. Hopefully we’ll never need it.
Costa del Sol surprises
When we planned our route we originally intended to sail past the entire Costa del Sol, dismissing it as “touristy, urbanized and expensive”. Being close to it now, we think again. Our gas bottle is empty. Although we primarily use electricity and only use cooking gas as a back up, after 10 months it’s empty. We learn that refilling stations are rare and there is a refill opportunity in Marbella. So we abandon our prejudice and get ready to explore this renowned coast.
We set sail in a sunny Gibraltar bay with 20-25 knots westerly wind. We’re excited to enter the Mediterranean Sea. After we gybe around the Rock we’re glad we reefed our sails. The wind gets very gusty in the lee of the Rock. As we slalom between the anchored commercial ships, the wind is anywhere between 5 and 40 knots. Also further out at sea, we experience an effect that the mountains have on the wind. Tunnelled by the >1500 meter high Sierra Blanca mountains, the wind increases to a sustained >30 knots. With a beam-reach course, Luci sails at 8-9 knots, we love the speed! When we close in on Marbella, we slowly get in the lee of the mountains and the strong winds abate somewhat. We moor up and enjoy the 20 degrees temperature in our cockpit. That was both a sunny and windy first trip into the Med!
The next day Dirk picks up our empty gas bottle, refills it and returns within an hour. Thanks to his great service, we have plenty of time to explore Marbella on this windless day. The mountains are not far away and we go for a hike. Soon we leave the residential developments behind us. The road becomes a path, with plenty of helpful signs along the way. We walk for hours in this dry but green environment and don’t see another soul. Just as our water bottles are empty, we come across a mountain stream. Such delicious cool water, that also tastes a lot better than the chlorinated tap water that we’ve become more or less used to by now. We drink as much as we can and enjoy the spectacular view. In the distance Gibraltar’s Rock is clearly visible, as is a mountain range on the Moroccan side. The narrow sea straight between those two looks just like a gateway. Now we better understand the “Pillars of Hercules” story, which we read about in Gibraltar. According to the myth, these two rocks marked the end of the known world and formed a symbolic gateway to the unknown.
Back in Marbella we stumble upon the charming old town centre hidden between all the modern concrete. What a pleasant surprise! The historic buildings around a square are well maintained. Various tapas bars and restaurants have extended their terraces onto the square. While enjoying a cold drink under an orange tree, we agree that Marbella clearly has a lot more to offer than the façade of concrete seems to suggest. And the low season seems to be the perfect time to visit.
Mixed feelings in Málaga
Floris’ mother Marianne and her partner Wim are visiting us. They arrive in Málaga the day we leave Marbella. The wind is fair and we’re able to sail from Marbella to Málaga in a daytrip. Our cheerful mood of having achieved this pinnacle of travel planning abruptly changes when we check in at the marina. It is by far the most expensive stay so far, and the facilities are not even that good. Perhaps that explains the absence of prices on the marina website.
When we meet up with Marianne and Wim in town, we quickly forget the excessive marina fee. How great to see them again after eight months. They departed from cold and icy Netherlands, so they’re amazed to be able to sit outside in the evening. Welcome to sunny Spain, long live the wine and tapas.
We spend the next day together in Málaga, walking around the historic town. In the basement of the Picasso museum, we learn that the city is almost 3,000 years old! Like Cádiz it was founded by the Phoenicians, conquered by the Romans and later by the Moors. Finally the Catholic Kings of Spain took control in the 15th century. Traces of all these civilizations are still visible today in historic buildings. Impressive. Yes, there is culture too, here at the Costa del Sol!