A short hop from Europe, but presenting a totally different world, Morocco makes a fascinating winter cruising ground, says Rachael Sprot

Sandy, straight and with few deep water ports, the Atlantic coast of Morocco stretches for almost 1,000 miles down the coast of Africa from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Sahara. It’s not the most hospitable of cruising grounds: there are long distances between ports of refuge and inside the 100m contour swathes of fishing nets await the unwary sailor.

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.

Tangiers fishing basin is crowded and laced with mooring lines. Pic by Deirdre Pontbrian

Tangiers fishing basin is crowded and laced with mooring lines. Pic by Deirdre Pontbrian

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.

Moroccan Fatimas

“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.

Rachel and Mel sweating the main halyard in their julabas. Photo by Sally Golden Photography

Rachel and Mel sweating the main halyard in their julabas. Photo by Sally Golden Photography

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.

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Adventures in a Rabat hammam
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