Down the Moroccan Coast, December 2006
On our trip down the Moroccan coast from Mohammedia to Essaouira, we found ourselves re-learning a lesson we thought we'd thoroughly internalized years ago: fatigue can affect one's reasoning and the ability and willingness to do what has to be done for safety and comfort. Fortunately, there were no long-term consequences this time, but still, we were surprised, when we reviewed our passage, to see how many small miscalculations we made.

We left Mohammedia at about noon in very light air, thinking we would have a slow 200-mile trip, motoring most of the way and arriving in Essaouira early in the morning, two days later. The weather forecasts we had gotten over the internet were isobar charts that barely covered the Moroccan coast, but our reading of them was that we'd have light NNW winds for most of our SSW passage, with a front passing through during the second night.

As anticipated, we motored all afternoon, then all night long. There were big swells (20 feet high!) from the northwest, and we both had trouble sleeping when we were off watch. Finally, at 0545 the wind filled in from the south (where did that come from?!) at about 15 knots so it was all hands on deck to set sail, now close-hauled on port tack. We moved along quite comfortably at between 6 and 7 knots, but heeled over quite a bit. The wind came up a bit more, the clouds rolled in and it was downright chilly, but otherwise pretty boring. When we changed watches at 0900, Rob, going off watch, said he hadn't seen any shipping in over 2 hours. Andi took a quick look around, then ducked below to make coffee. She thought she heard a motor and popped back up to discover a fishing trawler passing us, going the opposite way, about 20 feet away. Yipes! The trawler had been hidden under the jib and while we had each gone down to leeward to lean out and look around the sail, we apparently hadn't accounted for the large swell, enough to hide a trawler in the troughs when our heads were only a few inches above the water.

Rain clouds gathered on the horizon and the rain finally reached us at about 1500 (3 PM), but it wasn't too heavy, and soon passed. Apparently the front we were expecting had arrived more than 12 hours early! With the passing front, the wind came around to the north, so we poled out the genoa to run before it, making about 8 knots. In retrospect, this made no sense, as there was no chance of making Essaouira before sunset and a fast pace would only make us arrive early, before dawn. Toward dusk the wind continued to build, so we furled the genoa, took 2 reefs in the main, and set the staysail. We congratulated ourselves on our prudence, shortening sail before any bad weather hit and slowing our progress so we wouldn't arrive at Essaouira in the wee hours. The wind and Akka, however, had other ideas, and we continued making over 7 knots in the gale. That was way too fast, but we decided to continue until we were close to Essaouira, then heave to and await the dawn.

Just then, the autopilot gave a mighty groan and gave up. The bolts holding its pump together had worked loose in the rolling seas. So now it was hand-steering in 20+ knots downwind. We took turns for 45 minutes to an hour apiece until 2200 (10 PM), when we found ourselves 12 miles west of Essaouira. We then hove to: we tacked in order to back the staysail, cranked in the reefed main and set the helm over hard to starboard. When we'd done this in the past, the boat made minimal (half-knot) headway, more or less upwind. This time, strangely, we seemed to be making over 2 knots, a bit below a beam reach. That's interesting, we thought, but in our fatigue, we didn't follow through the logic and consequences, except to note that we were headed away from the shore so there was no danger of running into Africa, and little danger of encountering fishing boats from Essaouira. We were pretty exhausted, so we turned in, but kept watch, with one of us only napping, looking out and at the radar every 15 minutes. When we traded off watches, however, we didn't do our usual fairly formal briefing about wind, position, etc. After all, we were hove-to and resting.

When dawn came, we discovered that we'd traveled almost 20 NM, and were now nearly 30 miles due west of Essaouira, with 25 knot winds from the NE. We would now have to claw back for over 5 hours! If we'd analyzed our position in the middle of the night, we could have started back hours earlier, or at least tacked and stayed hove-to while approaching the coast instead of going away from it. It was a glorious sunny day, but cold. Fortunately, since we were almost close-hauled, we were able to use our line and bungee-cord system of securing the helm, so we didn't have to hand steer because of the broken autopilot. We just nestled under the dodger and sailed in, mentally kicking ourselves for inadvertently adding a 5-hour beat to our 2-day trip.

The one thing we definitely did right was not to try to enter the Essaouira harbor at night. Even entering at noon was a bit heartstopping. The Moroccan coastline is shallow, as ocean coasts go, and quite a swell can build up. At Essaouira, there's a ridge running parallel to the beach just to seaward of the breakwater with only a meter of water over it. There's also a rocky island about half a mile from the breakwater, so we had to come in through the gap between the shoal and the island aiming for the middle of the beach, then turn 90 degrees toward the harbor. The water shallows from 40 meters to 13 at the gap, then to 6 meters at the turn toward the port. Because the swell was at least 3 meters, the waves were breaking on the shoal and rolling in impressively onto the beach. As we attempted the entrance, Rob steered while Andi navigated. We passed between the island and the breaking waves of the island OK, and just as Rob noticed that the wave in front of Akka was starting to curl into a great surfing wave, Andi said "Turn!" As we turned, the small pier extending from the shore and the breakwater revealed themselves with the harbor entry between them, just as the cruising guide promised! In the end, we never encountered water shallower than 4 meters (we draw 2), and made it into the inner harbor quite safely. We were directed to raft alongside Rionnag, the steel ketch from Scotland that had been with us in Mohammedia. She, in turn, was rafted outside of a scruffy excursion boat. Its captain along with various helpful (and some not so helpful, but insistent) Moroccan boatmen swarmed over Akka and Rionnag, tying us every which way. Andi got quite a reaction when she ordered one of them to return a line to her, to avoid having him run it the wrong way through the lifelines! Clearly "madame" wasn't supposed to do line handling. After the dust settled, we gave the excursion boat captain a beer and a slug of whiskey (at his "request": apparently Islam doesn't have such a strong hold to keep fishermen from enjoying some alcohol), then re-ran some of the lines to our satisfaction. Rionnag's crew told us that Akka surfing into the beach had been quite a sight.

Later, we walked to the ramparts of the town overlooking the sea and watched huge combers breaking on the rocks just north of the harbor entry and perfectly-formed, man-high breakers rolling onto the mile-long beach to the south. Essaouira has the reputation of being one of the great surfing sites in the world, and we could believe it! We were glad, though, that despite some errors in judgment on the trip down, we ended up in a safe refuge.