From Almeria to Tunis was our longest passage through the Mediterranean. We readied our boat, Breath, for anything, mindful of the old sea’s reputation for changeability and sudden violent extremes; but all began gently in a glassy early morning calm as we pulled out of the stone-bordered harbor works. The walls and turrets of the Moorish fortress—old dark stone climbing above the pastel town—grew smaller as a sw breeze ruffled the mirror surface, just filled our sails and sent us broad-reaching over smooth seas towards Cabo Gato, where the SE tip of Spain falls in rocky coils into the sea.
It was an exceptionally clear day. By late in the afternoon we were far enough offshore to see behind us the high white cliffs and broad sweeping bays of Costa del Sol. Little, white-washed villages, tiny in the distance, were tucked onto green swards atop the high, bold promontories. At the most prominent capes the white tower of a
coastal lighthouse pierced upwards. The visibility went on and on down the coast as though we were seeing a part of the world’s arc from space. The air was balmy with late spring, fresh with salt tang, and clear as the sea beneath our keel, where shafts of sunlight wavered down to converge at some point far below.
The sun set, the stars began to glow, and the lights of the little seaside towns and hilltop villages came on, giving definition to the night geography. The clusters and strings of lights showed where people lived, how many, whether by the sea in fishing towns or in shepherds’ aeries. Land lights give comfort to the seafarer—that humanity is still there, carrying on its accustomed routines, cooking supper, chinking crockery and silver, snoozing beside a fire, turning back the covers—all of it there and waiting for one’s return.
The night grew a little chilly as it wore on and when Dorothy came on for her pre-dawn watch she dressed in thick trousers, wool jacket, and the Russian-style head muff she’d put together from old hotpads and some quilt material. She looked like a cheerful refugee when I saw her sitting very still and quiet as I came up for my watch, late—she
hadn’t called me. A little bird sat on her lap, in the lee of her jacket, sheltering from the wind, needing a rest on its Europe to Africa migration. It wobbled a little on its high black stilt legs, balancing its rotund yellow breast and looking around inquisitively.
Dorothy had a pleased, tender look on her face as she watched the little animal hop around exploring. Nothing seemed to be wrong with it and later in the day it flew off. It must have picked up a vibe from Dorothy that attracted it into her lap. It had the whole boat to rest on and it chose her as the best spot. No wonder my wife was charmed. She’d sat still there in the chill dawn for an hour past her watch.
As the day wore on more of the little birds dropped out of the sky and took refuge on our deck and we wondered that so many of them should need a rest—what did they do in the millennia before boats traversed the seas? After awhile, though, it became apparent that they hadn’t stopped to rest so much as to eat. The little birds hopped all over the deck and flew up into the rigging and snapped up a bug we hadn’t even seen. It was clean and harmless, related to a walking stick bug, like a piece of bark, brown and shaggy, long and slender. They were all over the boat in nooks and crannies, in folds of the sails, in coils of rope, invisible to us until the birds pecked them up. Maybe the birds had pursued a traveling cloud of these insects, also migrating, and fed on them like bonito slashing into a cloud of fry…and had stopped on our vessel to cull strays and stragglers from our deck.
The wind continued fair and steady out of the SW for another full day and we thanked our luck for the prosperous breeze. Towards nightfall of our third day out, we were approaching the African coast in the vicinity of Bone, Algeria. Twenty miles off the shore we saw a lot of traffic and, as dark came on, lights popped up all about. We were in the thick of the shipping lane that follows the North African coast about 12 to 25 miles offshore going between the Suez Canal and the Straits of Gibraltar. Ships were in sight at all times and the procession of tankers and container ships and bulk freighters and the rest of them, flying all sorts of flags and manned by polyglot crew, kept our attention keenly attuned.
The wind freshened and came around slowly to the Northeast and we closed with the coast, riding a lift that sent us working at a tangent to the shoreline, doing almost due east. Having left the shipping lane further offshore we turned our attention to the dry bony coast and gazed with fascination at old hills and headlands that had been coasted by so many sailors time out of mind. There was a light that started to blink at dusk—its characteristics were wrong for where I supposed we were, but my charts were old—we had no intention of visiting fundamentalist Algeria which was supposed to have a militant Muslim take on visiting yachts.
So we tacked, not wanting to get too close and run afoul of local authorities. And this time the easy breeze decided to give us a taste of Mediterranean medicine. Within minutes it stepped up from 15 knots to 30, then slowly increased to 35. It didn’t take the sea long to follow suit and within half an hour we were thrashing to windward in a force seven. I took a reef in the main and kept on going, charging to windward, throwing up sheets of spray into the dark night, feeling solid water come washing down the decks and burst against the cabin, surely flooding through the portholes and soaking whatever had been left beneath them. Dorothy appeared in the companionway hatch, asking if every thing was alright. I sent her back to bed and went forward to reef the main again. Our rate of speed was awesome, the boat going full tilt, with reckless abandon.
We had run into a quick building storm. The sky darkened overhead as low thick clouds slid over the stars and moon cutting off the light like a heavy steel bank vault sliding shut. I began to wonder about dropping the working jib. I figured the wind was now edging up to 40 knots and the sea would build to suit it till we would be unable to go to windward at all. Just as I was debating, wondering if this sudden gale would last, as the boat thrashed exhilaratingly on its ear smothered in foam, I looked around and saw we had entered the thick of the shipping lane again and bearing down on us were the bright lights of a freighter. Its range lights—the lower one at the bow and the higher one at the bridge—were lined up one directly above the other, the warning that the ship was pointed for us. To confirm this I detected the red and green side lights simultaneously—another signal of head on collision. The ship closed steadily going due east while we tacked north east across its projected course. Did he see us?
The clouds were low overhead, the night dark. I slipped the loop of rope over one of the spokes of the wheel to hold its course and went below to flick on the strobe light. The light, at the top of the mainmast, flashed brilliantly, illuminating everything on the boat for a fraction of a second and kept flashing every two seconds. That had to be visible. I called over channel 16 to the ship steaming east at approximately our latitude and longitude and asked if he saw the flashing strobe at our masthead.
Immediately came back the reply in a strong Danish accent that, yes, he saw us clearly and made us out well on radar. That was a relief. Through the next hour as we plunged along heavily, sending up huge washes of spray, ship after ship approached and each time I turned on the strobe and called the master and eased our apprehensions. A great addition to a vessel’s safety at night in crowded waters.
Then, as it blew up, the gale of wind settled down quickly and within an hour we were wallowing in sloppy seas without enough wind to steady the sails. We flopped about intolerably until I put on the engine and gave us enough forward momentum. Typical of the Mediterranean summer, the blow was followed by prolonged calms and light airs. We motored till the swell died away and then raised our biggest, lightest sails for the remainder of the passage which was so relaxed we actually managed to paint the deck and the dinghy before we arrived at Rheggio de Calabria, in the Straits of Messina, where we were to meet our son Raff who had just finished a term as an exchange student at the University of Moscow.