Tuesday, December 16th, 2008
Passage from Gibraltar to Morocco was a bit rough towards the end. We hove-to a couple times in small gales and large seas piled up, but we had a fine Thanksgiving Day feast while hove-to. Soon enough wind and seas laid down and we carried on our way.
Essaouira is one remarkable and exotic port of call, more in keeping with a traditional Picton Castle port than we have had all the last six months sailing around Europe. But first, why Essaouira? What brought us here? We did a bunch or research; Casablanca seemed interesting but very much the big city. We talked to some other mariners, particularly the master of the Bark Gunilla, a fine Swedish school ship we met up with in Portsmouth, England. Then of course we looked at lots of charts. It seemed as if Essaouria would be a real window into Morocco and North Africa. We were far from disappointed. And the place actually has an anchorage, something pretty rare along the north western African coast. Mostly one long beach hereabouts in this part of the world. A lot of swell in the bay but good holding at Essaouira and pretty well protected from most quarters.
The chart and pilots books made us believe that GPS might be a little off here. This is true in many parts of the world where there has not been recent upgrades to the charts due to these areas not being of much great commercial or military value – these, of course, are the places worth visiting for us. Doubtful GPS coordinates not a problem either, we steered in on fixed ranges. These were of ancient stone towers, one near the shore and one on the crest of a Sahara sand dune. These ranges have probably been guiding ships in for centuries. As the prevailing winds here are northerly and the approach is west-east, it means that this is a true sailing ship port which sailing ships can reliably plan to both sail in and out of.
Due to recent gales all along the coast of Europe all the way from northern Scotland to the approaches to Gibraltar we had a big northerly swell running and piling up as the long shore shelved closer to the beach. 10-15 and 20 foot swell at times as we closed with the coast. We made our way towards the bay entrance slowly as I was not completely sure that we could even safely get in to this bay due to the swell. We were ready to turn around at any time. But as we got closer and closer the swell laid down and once past a natural formation jutting out into the sea we rounded up not too far from an ancient breakwater just fine in only modest swell.
The Mate let go the heavy port anchor and three shots of chain and it took well. Astern of the Picton Castle in this lonely desolate desert bay was a small rocky island with a couple of ancient stone towers jutting up improbably as sea broke heavily on the windward side. This island was apparently the source for the colour purple in ancient times. This colouring came from shells somehow and was worth twenty times its weight in gold. So we are told.
While the crew were furling sail and getting yards braced and trimmed, a heavy blue wooden work boat came out the ship with a fellow in a snappy uniform – he asked us to follow him in with our skiff to look after all the formalities. This we did but it took longer than we thought. Launching our fine Lunenburg Dory-built skiff and motoring into this small packed harbour we could see we might be in another world. Over 50 wooden built fishing boats between 60-80 feet long were rafted up inside this ancient harbour with castle towers looming over. And over 250 twenty foot heavy built plank on frame wooden work boats all painted dark blue or yellow. These boats were all rafted up and jammed together in this tiny man-made harbour. Half a dozen large fishing vessels were hauled up on a slipway being scraped, caulked, painted, welded and generally being worked on. Plenty of fish being unloaded too. The air was redolent of salt, low tide, bottom paint, fish and the hard to describe heady brew of a working seaport. Seagulls wheeling about overhead, screeching and calling.
Clearing in was special – after months in Europe where interest in spending much time on such formalities have dissolved down to a bare minimum, now we were at an obscure outpost of weathered vestigial bureaucracy where great and friendly interest was taken in each passport, each home address, each profession of each crewmember, each signature, each purpose for visiting Morocco. Clearing in took 5 hours. But it was done. When we left the office of the Douanes/Gendarmerie night had fallen. Over the towers of the ancient Moorish castle framed by a couple tall date-palms a thin sliver of a sharp silver moon against an inky sky was accompanied by two piercingly bright planets looking as close to a symbol of desert Islam as one could hope for.