Friday, December 12th, 2008
The name Gibraltar comes from Arabic, meaning Fortress of Tarik. Interesting spot, Gibraltar. First of all, sailing in from sea it is quite an astounding sight just in size and shape. It really is a huge rock rising out of the mists and sea with a geology that seems different from the land nearby. Then you quickly see that it is crowded around with ships. My guess is that most of them put into Gibraltar for the cheap low-tax fuel which, at their rate of consumption, would make a big difference – makes a big enough difference to this small ship. 95% of the world’s goods get around by ships like these. When their fuel bill goes up so does the cost of those goods.
While we were there, over 100 ships were at anchor or manoeuvring nearby at any given time on either side of the Rock, shifting, coming and going all the time. Bunker boats come out and moor alongside to fuel these ocean behemoths up. These bunker boats are all sea-going 5,000 to10,000 ton tankers in their own right. They look pretty small alongside these huge bulk-carriers, freighters and tankers. I don’t see much other reason for all these big ships to be here, not so much commerce needed at little Gibraltar. Big ships steaming in and out all the time – VHF radio chatter regarding pilots, anchorages, permission to proceed or shift is constant. We even had to report in when we were running our little skiff into shore. Like a really big truck stop with cheap fuel, trucker grub and shops to fetch something homeward. We also went in alongside a fuel dock inside the breakwaters to tank up on 14,000 litres of diesel fuel – hope to make this last the rest of this voyage. It might.
For aficionados of the British Empire there is much to do and see here in Gibraltar. Captured from Spain in 1705 Gibraltar has mostly been a massive Royal Navy base until fairly recently. For a long time Spain was pretty cranky about the British flag flying over the place for so long, but when Tony Blair said something like “sure, we can talk about giving it back…”, the citizens of Gibraltar got even more cranky. They were Brits, had been Brits for 300 hundred years and did not see why they should stop being Brits, at least not without a little discussion among themselves first. For many years and until recently, there was a closed border between Gibraltar and Spain proper but now there is none and you can just drive back and forth without even someone to wave at you. The heat seems to have died down on the subject of which flag flies where. Walking along or in shops you hear a mixture of Spanish and English and it seems a great many folks here are bilingual.
An ancient stone and mortar Moorish castle overlooks the town, its last rebuild dates from the 1300s. It was first built considerably before that. The Rock is riddled with tunnels, many of which were dug out in the late 1700’s when the place was under siege. Then there are WWII tunnels for much the same purpose. Old and not so old gun emplacements sprout up all over the place. There is a remarkable old naval graveyard right in town called the Trafalgar Cemetery which holds the remains of many Royal Navy sailors, including some who died of wounds received at Nelson’s famous Battle of Trafalgar. It is a pretty and serene spot, very much like a tropical rock garden. Lovely botanical gardens to visit, too. The main drag here is converted to a walking street leading to a large square about which the guide book almost gleefully comments “here was once the spot for public executions but today a lovely shopping plaza…”
In Gibraltar we saw our old crew member, Billy Campbell, in his recently released movie “Ghost Town” – romantic comedy, good fun, a lot of nice touches – felt a little like an old Jimmy Stewart movie. The whole crew went to check it out. Made a double feature of it with the latest James Bond flick.
Gibraltar is a curious remnant of empire. Nice enough, still a big shipping town. Lots of shops selling useless stuff to sailors with money burning in the pocket. We all had to go to the top of the Rock to meet the monkeys who live there; Barbary Macaques, they look like a cross between our ship’s cat Chibley and a human, furry and smart, no tails. The story is not quite straight how they got here. These keen eyed simians hail originally from North Africa – some say they were imported by a certain British officer in the mid 1700s so those stationed at Gibraltar could have something to hunt during idle hours. Others say these monkeys came over much earlier with the Moors. About 250 of them scramble around the Rock, they sit around where they feel like. They seem as if they can read your mind.
Heaps of British pubs. And as a bastion of old England the food here is genuinely, well, what can I say, maybe nostalgic for historic traditional English fare – unlike back in old Blighty where the cuisine has actually become quite excellent and cosmopolitan over the last twenty or thirty years. Or you can go to the local Moroccan or Indian restaurants hidden down some narrow alley. These are always reliably tasty. All hands got two days ashore to wander about this Rock.
Onboard, the crew end for ended braces and worked on getting a new spanker finished. We faced strong westerlies, making departure out into the Atlantic difficult for a bit but then when they laid down we got the Picton Castle‘s anchor up and got underway under sail out of Gibraltar Bay bound for Morocco. It was curious to thread our way under sail through all these huge anchored ships. It is exciting to be sailing bound for Africa.