Down the Moroccan Coast, December 2006
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 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.