Jessie Zevalkink and Luke Yeates cast aside their doubts to cruise Morocco’s Atlas Coast. This is their story of their African sailing adventure...
Air is chopped in the distance. Our ears swell as an ill-defined dot appears, growing larger in diameter. The helicopter flies hastily in our direction as if ready to fire. The pilot comes to a hover just overhead, unnervingly close to our mast.
The pressure differential around the main rotor blades is deafening, the soft sea around us now turbulent. Our precisely trimmed sails slam from side to side. I am stone scared. My breath is held, as I raise my hands to protect my eyes from the sand dislodged from Desirée’s creases. What do they want? What did we do wrong?
Ten miles off the coast of northern Morocco, the helicopter tilts to circumnavigate Desirée. The men aboard hang out of the open fuselage, and cheerfully wave and smile. I release my breath. They take out their mobile phones and take photos of us. We raise our arms and wave back, and off they go.
Our details are relayed to a nearby Moroccan Navy ship. We have them in sight but they are not on the AIS. As they approach we can see each other on deck with binoculars. We study one another, holding our course. After determining we are not a threat, the ship alters its course. That is our first welcome to Morocco.
Mohammedia is on the bow. A port city placed between Rabat and Casablanca, it is the centre of Morocco’s petroleum industry and a well established point of entry. We chose it because we wanted to explore Casablanca, 16 miles further south.
There is a marina being developed in Casablanca. Some say it is open to the public, some say it’s not. The internet makes this unclear but we are not in the mood for guessing as we approach a lee shore and so we settle on Mohammedia.
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Head versus heart
Six months after an incredibly rude wave put our mast – and myself – into the sea off the coast of Portugal, we returned to Desirée, our 1962 Pearson Invicta, in the Algarve for some gruelling boatyard work.
The repercussions of a single breaking wave were extensive and included having to build a new rudder from scratch, re-bed all the stanchions, refit the Hydrovane and solar panels, remake our dodger and repair sails and electronics. It required two months of full-time work to have Desirée ready for the ocean again.
By January this year we were ready to sail but our passage plan remained indecisive. We flipped a coin: Morocco vs. Madeira. Our hearts were silently set on Morocco, although logic dictated Madeira. We knew we wanted an experience, not a vacation. The Queen’s head landed face up: Morocco. Our hearts had won; we were sailing to Africa.
Despite a lack of reliable information, we read as much as we could about Morocco, most of it negative, incomplete, vague and often contradictory. I remained unsure about our Moroccan yearnings: unsure about the unwanted attention we could attract, unsure about the language barrier, about our lack of boat insurance, about safety. Unsure about arriving there as a female captain.
One thing was very clear, my mother would prefer if we went to Madeira. Regardless of our apprehensions, we choose the southerly course.
After a grim sail from Newfoundland to England across the North Atlantic two years ago, and an early spring passage from England to Portugal the following year, my expectations of the actual sailing were fairly low. The entirety of my deep-water sailing experience has been cold, wet, foggy, iceberg-strewn, in gales or becalmed, and for the most part physically miserable.
The forecast was in our favour for the passage to Morocco, in fact it couldn’t possibly have looked better. However, I hold close the belief that forecasts aren’t always right. In reality, it’s categorically perfect.
The whole darn 200 miles across the Strait of Gibraltar feels like a make-believe voyage. It’s the kind of sail where you could bring your whole family aboard, even your seasick sister, and open a bottle of red wine.
We have soft, horizontal seas, 12-17 knots of tailwind on a broad reach. The Milky Way looks like it was pulled from a screensaver and glued to the night sky. Dolphins leave neon contrails in their wake as we sail through pancakes of glowing jellyfish. Not a glass of red wine is spilled.
Mohammedia is basic. I am so enthused to be here that basic is more than enough. No one responds on the VHF, but our mast is spotted and we are guided in by a man with deep wrinkles and baggy clothes. He speaks to us politely in French and I follow him to the office with our paperwork.
We nod at one another, not properly able to communicate. I fill out repetitive forms as he calls customs and immigration. He writes down numbers in front of me. There’s a €26 port entry fee, a €40 dockage fee. I hand him cash, he nods, and waves me back towards the boat.
Customs and immigration arrive within the hour. In well-spoken English two men ask permission to come aboard. They are very curious about our emergency flare gun but don’t care about our cat. They advise us to be extremely cautious with no insurance and graciously welcome us into their country.
Days later, halfway down the Moroccan coast; we wait for first light just shy of Essaouira, our next port of entry some 250 miles south-west. It’s an inviting fishing village where fisherman over-load skiffs and smash their way out towards deep water, eager to work.
We motor over a lifeless sea under the blood orange sky. Soon there is a single mast in the harbour: ours. We are so visible, as the village comes alive and keen to greet us. Two local men gesture us in the right direction, over to a tall, slimy cement wall behind the coastguard vessel.
Before we can finish properly tying up the boat they ask for the captain. Promptly. I begin to climb up an old ladder, the cat meowing in the now blinding sunlight. I hear the words “No,” and “Captain.” I point to myself, and present the paperwork. “Me. Captain.” There are questions in their pupils, but they smile. “Come.”
I follow them into a corridor of enclosed walls exposed to the sky. The harbourmaster speaks no English but politely moves some French forms in my direction. I fill out three sheets of paperwork to the best of my best ability and pay him in Euros even though their currency is dirham.
The harbourmaster sends me to the coastguard station next door, and I fill out three more sheets of the same paper. I ask him about the helicopter that approached us. He smiles: “They had nothing better to do”.
The coastguard sends me to the police station. I fill out three more sheets of the same paper and, finally, curious officials stamp our passports. As odd as this sounds, this is an absolute dream come true. We are sailing Morocco.
Oceans of sand
Arriving somewhere exotic and electrifying by sailboat usually compels me to next head to places a yacht can’t take me. In Morocco, that’s the mountains and the desert, the sand ocean. I ask several men in what appear to be uniforms if it would be safe to leave our boat here unattended.
It’s the same tactic as looking up three weather forecasts and choosing to trust the one you like the most. Three completely separate ‘officials’ tell me that, as long as we lock the boat, that the boat is perfectly safe. (Don’t Google this question. It says someone must remain on board at all time.)
I later find out that the coastguard told my husband not to worry because he would “shoot anyone who tried to get on board”. We choose to trust, and we go.
Desirée is left unattended for two days and two nights, in an area that’s completely unsecured, where the homeless beg and children play, cats lounge, locals and tourists are free to wander right up to our vessel. Given the dividing pulls between my responsibilities as skipper and innate desire to explore, many would consider this to be a poor choice.
But we drive, far away from the coast, over the Atlas Mountains and down into the desert valleys. Euros turn to dirham, broken English turns into French, then French to Arabic and Arabic to Berber. The occasional flushing toilet turns to all sorts of different holes in the ground.
The landscape is indescribable, the colour palette captivating, the people beautiful. We are defenseless against the sun and stifling heat or shivering in the shade. Here, we cannot hide. This is the first time I’ve ever longed deeply to fit in.
A donkey crosses the motorway, goats balance high up in tree branches, cats patrol their territory and skinny dogs bake in the sun. We wander among rusty blue doors and brightly patterned rugs, past flatbed trucks stacked with tangerines and djellaba-cloaked locals under pointy hoods. Everywhere we go we attract long looks, and each and every observer smiles at us. Curiosity received, curiosity returned.
Thirty miles outside of Marrakech, the Atlas Mountains provide scale. We go up, up, and up some more. And then down and down until there is nothing left but old date branches on the side of the road and the occasional camel.
After we’ve driven over the Atlas mountains, into the Sahara and back, we are tired, have had our cultural fill, and anxious to return to our unattended boat. Untouched and awaiting us, Desirée rests beautifully in the harbour.
We have one full day before departing for the Canary Islands with an ambitious list to check off: water; provisions; laundry; engine service etc. But Essaouria’s entire population seems to know of our presence after our return from the desert, and I cannot complete a single task without interruption.
We awake to a weathered man trying to sell us a puppy. I’ll admit, it is difficult to deny a puppy. The next man tries to sell us a fishing line wrapped around half a flipflop, with a rock tied to the end. Luke buys it for €5.
A woman lingers alongside quietly. She waits until no one else is around and cups her palms and holds them out towards me. She wants money, and I gave her spare change. A gigantic cat tiptoes over and lays on the edge of the cement wall, purring like a train and preforming yoga until we give him food. When satiated, the cat leaves.
Then a fit middle-aged man arrives and asks for clothes. It’s his lucky day – I have a bag of clothes I was trying to get rid of. I pass it over and he pulls out sweatpants and cowboy boots.
The harbourmaster arrives and tells me I must come with him. He needs all new paperwork filled out because by now it has been one day longer than we said we would stay. By late afternoon, I have accomplished nothing and I’m ready for a beer.
But that we are lucky to be here is an understatement. In Morocco, we are associated with wealth, and looked upon like unicorns, living in a 37ft sea castle. Everywhere else we have sailed, we are an average young sailing couple on a tight budget, choosing to evenly weigh personal experiences and professional careers. Trying to work out this lifestyle just like everyone else.
It’s easy to lose track of the places we have been and the people we have met. I sail for the experience of the next port and the people I meet when I get there. They’re the reward for working hard in the boatyard, the slow passages and the building anticipation at a stubborn 5 knots.
It is possible to have a flawless passage, just don’t expect it. It is possible to sail Morocco untroubled. Just don’t believe wholeheartedly whatever you might read in advance.
The young girl in a fleece burka who couldn’t take her eyes off me. The boy who guided us on camels and, out of nowhere, would throw his arms up in the air to shout “New York City!” The smell of fish in the harbour. The sound of camels spitting. The elite display the sky would put on every morning, and every evening. The hot days, and freezing nights.
We will never forget this experience. Their faces will never go missing in the crowds of people we’ve met. Morocco will never get lost in the sea of places we’ve sailed.
Morocco sailing advice
- Mohammedia is safe to approach in heavy weather. It’s a well-secured harbour and they provide you with a shore pass to get in and out of the marina gate to access town.
- Essaouira is more rocky and shallow. We waited for sunlight to enter. The harbour itself is bustling with people and unsecured. Anyone is free to come and go.
- You must check in, and back out, of every port in Morocco – your information is not passed along to the next port of call. Immigration and customs is repetitive and you are required to visit multiple different offices. Officials were polite and welcoming. Around a third spoke good English.
- All port fees must be paid in advance. If you overstay what you have paid for, they will come and find you, and you are required to fill out all the same paperwork – again.
- €1 roughly equals 4 dirham. Most areas accepted euros, but no credit cards.
- You need to ask permission to anchor, but officials are more than happy to let you do so.
- The entire coast is dotted with fishing boats and buoys, most of them unlit.
About the author
Michigan-born Jessie Zevalkink is a freelance photographer and writer. She sailed double-handed from her home to Britain with Luke Yeates, whom she then married. They plan to sail Desirée to further destinations. You can follow their adventures at www.onaboat.net
First published in the October 2019 edition of Yachting World.