A short hop from Europe, but presenting a totally different world, Morocco makes a fascinating winter cruising ground, says Rachael Sprot
And if that isn’t enough, a constant Atlantic swell creates breaking surf along much of its length. But as a destination for adventure sailing, it held huge appeal.
We set aside two weeks to make the 350-mile trip from Tangiers to Agadir, which is more or less the southernmost navigable port in Morocco. Melissa, the first mate, and I launched the boat after a Christmas haul-out in Algeciras and motored out through the Strait to pick up the crew in Tangiers. Check out some of the footage from the whole cruise below.
We’d had a brief introduction to Morocco when we’d visited the Mediterranean port of M’Diq the previous December. After a slog from Cadiz into an easterly we arrived in the dark, unsure of what to expect. It was a pleasant surprise to find an immaculate marina next to the fishing basin, which was totally empty. “We’ve struck lucky!” I yelled to the crew, “Lines and fenders port side to, we’ll go on that hammer head.”
Just as the crew were about to step ashore an official-looking van drew up on the quayside and four men jumped out, blowing their whistles and frantically gesturing at us to back off. It turned out that this was the king’s marina, and we certainly didn’t look like royalty. After attempting to find room in the crowded fishing basin, which was laced with mooring lines, we were given a temporary spot on the fuel berth instead.
So we had learned that all is not quite as it seems in Morocco. Even after our initiation to Moroccan berthing, Tangiers was not an easy first port of call. The pilot guide warns that navigation marks are routinely off station or missing, and sure enough the west cardinal off Cap Malabata was nowhere to be seen. However the entrance is easy to find from the constant flow of ferry traffic.
Our very own ‘boat guard’
Upon arrival it was clear that the limited berths for yachts were occupied by local boats. We were told to moor across the stern of a derelict ferry, where a self-appointed ‘boat guard’ took our lines. We tied up bows to the concrete quay, with a midships line to a mark on one side, and to the ferry on the other. The missing cardinal mark sat on the harbour wall, still blinking despite being high and dry.
Our guard explained that it was ten Euros a day for him to look after the boat (it didn’t seem to be optional). “I’m at your service,” he said, making a little bow. “Is there anything you need? Fuel? Moroccan flag?” “No, thank you,” I replied. “OK, can I take your charts? I need to make photocopies for other boats. And do you have any beer?”
I reluctantly handed over a cold beer and a couple of charts, insisting that I get them back that afternoon and wondering who was at whose service.
The eight crew arriving needed directions to find us, which went something like this: ‘Go to the fishing port, turn left at ‘smelly corner’, pass the barbecue shack to starboard, look for the old ferry, and you’ll see us astern.’ Remarkably they all found us and we set off to explore.
It was sensory overload as we wandered the labyrinth of the medina, passing barrows piled high with pomegranates, sacks of dates and counter tops groaning with olives. While the crew bartered for carpets, Melissa and I went off in search of a local SIM card. We found a kiosk and while queuing a friendly Berber man insisted on helping us out. Little did we know that an hour later we would be walking out of his brother’s shop having purchased traditional jalaba dresses and narrowly avoided buying beautiful, but utterly useless sequined slippers.
“Now you look like good Moroccan Fatimas!” he called down the street after us as we eventually made our escape, “No one will bother you or try to sell you things!” He seemed to miss the irony of this statement. The truth turned out to be quite the contrary; in our Moroccan guise we attracted far more attention from the street vendors, who now recognised us as easy targets.
In a state of mild hysteria, we returned to the boat and decided it was time to set sail. Rabat is the next major port of call, and has one of only two marinas on the Atlantic coast. But the Bou Regreg river silts badly and an onshore swell makes the entrance hazardous.
Despite the light airs there was still a north-westerly swell hitting the breakwaters when we arrived. The marina staff advised us to wait for high water, when they sent a RIB to pilot us in. It was a magical river ride, passing close by the stone walls of the Kasbah.
As the administrative capital and with a new tram service and wide boulevards, Rabat feels decidedly European. Lulled into this sense of familiarity, five of us decided to visit a Hammam steam bath. The marina secretary organised an appointment at her regular place, which was located in the bottom of a five-storey building and looked rather like a gym.
We put on bikinis, much to the attendants’ amusement, and went through into the steam room accompanied by the sound of drum beats as the attendants beat their buckets and danced around us. This wasn’t quite the peaceful spa I had envisaged, but it was too late now.
Adventures in a Rabat hammam
A pot of swamp green olive paste appeared, apparently to be rubbed all over, the only problem was that it would stain our swim wear. The bikinis were practically stripped off us.
Our hosts then disappeared and left us to contemplate our fate. Here we were, completely naked and covered in gunk, in a nondescript suburb of Rabat. Was this a sort of ritual humiliation reserved purely for Westerners? Were our clothes still in the changing room? How would I explain to Bruce, my business partner, that Hummingbird was now under the command of three Hammam ladies while I was stuck in the basement of a tower-block?
We were laid out on heated marble slabs and scrubbed with what can only be described as 40 grit sand paper. If this kind of energy was applied to Hummingbird’s decks at refit time we’d have her repainted in a day. The attendants chatted away and were intrigued to find that over half of us weren’t married.
Did Erika want a Moroccan husband? They knew plenty of eligible bachelors, she just had to say. By now all British prudishness had deserted us and we were resigned to our fate. Eventually we were pronounced clean and returned to the boat, unmarried, but considerably chastened.
The following day we left Rabat at the top of the tide and continued on past Casablanca. It seemed a shame to pass by such an iconic port, but we were warned that they didn’t have any room and didn’t want to risk being turned away. We made for the small port of El Jadida instead.
The swell was minimal and the approach is partially protected by a rocky outcrop to the north. Once inside the 100m contour line there was the usual cobweb of nets to negotiate, but there were also several strange objects in the water which were hard to make out from a distance. On closer inspection they were people, far out to sea in black rubber-rings. There was no evidence of a boat that had towed them out, but as we were making landfall there wasn’t time to investigate.
Clearing in to El Jadida
Fishing boats were rafted across the harbour, so we anchored in front of the old Portuguese fortifications, deploying the kedge astern to keep us clear of the traffic.
And then began the clearing in procedure. First, the port authority wanted the boat details and a crew list. I had copies of the crew list, but they wanted the information on their own forms. Next was immigration, where the official was standing outside a Portacabin having a cigarette. We went inside and he took a swipe at the fluorescent light with a broom handle. It flickered on.
“Welcome to Morocco,” he beamed at me, “Please have a seat, and a date.” He popped a couple into his mouth. “They’re from the garden of my mother-in-law. Best in Morocco. Take…” he gestured, and spat out a couple of stones. He was clearly in no hurry.
He produced a sheaf of yellowing immigration papers from an otherwise empty desk and we filled them out. It was dark now, and I was missing dinner. “Finished?” I asked hopefully. “Oui, oui,” he replied, “Now you go to Customs.” Customs wanted all the same information, written out twice. This place had better be worth it, I thought.
It was. The fortress of Mazagan is a UNESCO world heritage site and its dusty walls feel as though you’ve stepped straight into the 16th Century. The beautiful cistern has been the backdrop to many a film, including Orson Welles’s Othello. Out of season and off the beaten track, we had the place to ourselves.
The sea and its spoils are a precious resource in Morocco where many of the population struggle to survive. As we left El Jadida this came sharply into focus. The rubber-ringed paddlers weren’t out there for leisure, they were fishing. Sporting a tractor tyre inner tube and flippers they worked in pairs with a net strung between them. We felt privileged to be on the water for pleasure.
There were two possibilities for the penultimate port of call: Safi, a large phosphate terminal and Essaouira, the picturesque fishing port and much-loved surf town further down the coast. We would have loved to go to Essaouira, but there’s a reason it’s a surfer’s paradise, and there was still some winter swell about despite the benign conditions. Safi it was.
Berthing alongside a cadet training vessel, we were right in the heart of the industrial area on the appropriately named Quai des Phosphates. “It’s one of those places you wouldn’t discover unless you’re sailing and apparently it has a very nice potters’ quarter,” I weakly tried to convince the crew of its merits. “Boy, you sure know how to pick your spots,” Andrew muttered as he stared bleakly at a pile of fertiliser gleaming on the dock.
The immigration officers arrived and were blissfully efficient. Once we’d finished they couldn’t help but enquire where my husband was, to which I replied: “I don’t have one!” “Why not?” They sounded rather like a couple of great aunts I know. Getting a little fed up with this question, I said: “I’m married to the sea.” Smiles broke out between us. “Ah very good, much better husband,” one chuckled. The other looked wistfully beyond the breakwater towards the Atlantic. Some things are universal, including the sailor’s dilemma of whether to answer the call of the sea or the pull of the heart!
We had caught two tuna on the way down the coast from El Jadida, so we had them for lunch before we headed off. The pottery quarter sounded very like a tourist trap and I vowed not be bullied into buying anything, but it is also Safi’s main attraction (unless you like fertiliser) so it had to be done.
A long row of shop fronts stretched colourfully down the street, and soon we were rummaging through acres of hand-painted wares. “Ever heard the phrase ‘Bull in a china shop’?” Veronica quipped as we navigated around the precariously over-stocked shelves.
Putting my foot in it
We were given a tour of the co-operative, from the piles of fresh clay and stacks of firewood, to the painters, glazers and kilns. It was a fascinating insight into a local industry, but disaster struck in the dimly lit basement of the potters’ turning area. I trod on a tarpaulin which turned out to be covering a row of soft, new jugs.
Embarrassed, I tried to pay for the damage, but they wouldn’t accept anything. Needless to say I did some serious purchasing in the shops! “How about the phrase ‘Putting your foot in it’?” Veronica joked.
Against the odds, Safi had been full of interest, but it was time to head for Agadir. The prevailing north-easterlies gave us a lovely spinnaker run down the coast. By now we were right on the edge of the Sahara, and the heat and dust were palpable. It felt as though the true continuation of our journey through Morocco would have to be by camel, and not by sea.
Upon arrival we found ourselves in a huge marina, surrounded by restaurants and hotels. For the first time in weeks the quayside wasn’t coated in fish scales and the air smelt clean. There are plans to develop marinas in several of the Atlantic ports: in Tangiers construction is well under way. This will allow more yachts to make interesting diversions en-route to the Canaries and perhaps help identify Morocco as a cruising ground in its own right.
Navigationally it’s a fairly straightforward coastline, the tidal streams are weak and the hazards are mainly those of fishing gear and swell, both of which can be avoided by choosing your weather and waiting for daylight.
And the rewards are great: Morocco is only a stone’s throw from the Med, but you’ll feel as though you’re a world away. For those of us who like its lack of development, now is the time to visit: catch it while you can, while it’s still smelly.
Planning a Moroccan cruise
- A working knowledge of French helps.
- Prepare to be creative when tying up!
- Take jerrycans to fill up with fresh water and sterilisation tablets just in case.
- Fitting a rope cutter gives some peace of mind when negotiating the coastal fishing zone.
- Summer is the best time to go, but winter cruising is possible if you respect the swell.
- The gift of a packet of cigarettes can ease proceedings, but it is not always appropriate to offer ‘baksheesh’ (small bribes) to officials.
- Terrorism was a concern for many of our crew. Currently, the Foreign Office says that the threat of terrorism is high, but this is the case for many European countries too. The ports generally have excellent security and we didn’t feel threatened at any point in our travels. We were warmly welcomed everywhere, apart from in the king’s marina!
Take a look at this short compilation put together by a guest on board Hummingbird.
Qualified to instruct RYA Yachtmaster Ocean and an MCA Master 200, Rachael Sprot grew up on yachts and, apart from completing an English degree at Cambridge, has spent her professional life at sea. She is skipper of Rubicon3’s exploration yacht Hummingbird.