First Long Passage: Gibraltar to Rabat, Morocco

Newcomers to sailing, Rene, Joline and their two young daughters, embarked on their first long passage in Blue Pearl (a Beneteau 473) from Gibraltar to Rabat. Their report is an example of the benefits of good planning and research ensuring a safe passage through the straits and an orderly arrival in Rabat.

Published 6 years ago

Strait of Gibraltar

Planning and Research: Strait of Gibraltar

Sunday 12 August to Monday 13 August, 2018.

Every pilot book you read about the Strait of Gibraltar warns about the strong currents and the wind that blows from either the west or the east. When going through the strait they all recommend you take advantage of the current and when the possible wait for the right weather window to make the most of the wind as well. Researching the available current charts it seemed that leaving the bay of Gibraltar at HW+2 gave us favourable currents for at least 6 hours.

So when we left Almerimar on the 10th of August I had been keeping an eye on the weather and it looked like the most favourable winds would be either on Sunday morning or Monday morning, where the Sunday morning had good winds up to 15-20 kts. and the Monday light winds 5-10 kts.

We opted to stay 1 day in La Linea and went to Gib to do some tax-free booze and cigarette shopping. (Captain Morgen dark rum for £7 / €8 per litre is not something I can easily turn down!! so I “smuggled” 4 litres into Spain). We planned to leave the Sunday morning between 5:30 and 6:30 am, at which point we would hit the strait itself at exactly HW+2.

A Good Result

Expecting increasing winds going through the strait we put 2 reefs in the main, and when we hit the strait we turned to starboard and staying close to the Spanish mainland we had light winds and almost no current. We made good speed on the double reefed main only (6kts) so we left the main ‘as is’ and unfurled the genoa. As time progressed the current increased but the winds almost died and when we got closer to Tarifa the wind was so light that we furled the genoa again as it started to flap. After a brief but exciting interlude, we caught our first fish, a nice and very tasty good-sized Bonito. (see photo left).

We passed Tarifa and the wind started to pick up again and Blue Pearl slightly increased speed due to the increased current, but the winds were still light enough to make the genoa flap around. We spotted a buoy just outside Tarifa with a weird half-sunken plastic dome thingy just behind it, no idea what it was but it’s there, so keep an eye out for it and don’t hit it.

We crossed the strait just after the traffic separation section ended and turned to port, crossing from Tarifa to Morocco. At this point, the winds had increased from 15 to 25 kts with 30-32 kts peaks from 90° to 120°. With a double-reefed main and full genoa, this meant we were making very good speed (up to 10.5 kts. SOG) and had a very comfortable ride down. Blue Pearl performed beautifully and if these winds are any indication of what it feels like to sail the trade-winds I am looking forward to it!! We had favourable winds throughout the day and only at the start of the evening did the winds die down to where we had to turn on the engine to make any forward speed.

A Rewarding Run to Rabat

A recent post on noonsite mentioned a myriad of fishing nets close to the Moroccan mainland (12-15 miles offshore), so we made the decision to stay at least 25 miles from the Moroccan mainland. This is also where all the big cargo ships and container ships make their way north and south so any fishing nets would have been thoroughly mangled already. As it turns out this was a good decision, as we did not see a single net and very few fishing boats.

One of the skiffs we came across was curious and approached us. 3 fishermen in a small skiff 25 miles off the coast, and with only a 25hp outboard!  After that brief interlude, where the girls waved at them and I asked them how they were (in French) and a few farewell waves, they took off and disappeared in the distance further out to sea (pictured right). At the end of the night, at dawn, when we slightly altered our course towards Rabat we encountered more and larger fishing boats which meant Joline had to dodge quite a few of them during her watch.

When we got closer to Rabat we encountered another skiff, this time it seemed they had a good day fishing as their little boat was full! We could see a shark, half a dozen swordfish and after they motioned the universal sign of ‘food’ they closed in on us and dropped 3 good sized Bonito on deck!

I gave them one pack of cigarettes in return and off they went back to tending their nets. For the paranoid in the sailing community, skiff does not equally pirate along the Moroccan coast!! These are a fisherman and will happily trade/sell their catch with you. Just make sure to put a few fenders out if you let them approach as they get within touching distance and a plastic boat with gel coat is no match for their heavy steel skiffs. I cleaned the fish and stuck the fillets in the freezer, nice red meat and enough to give a few good meals!

Entering Rabat

As we were closing in on Rabat I went through what I read about entering the Rabat harbour and marina. “Enter the harbour as close to the high water as possible”, Do not try to enter the harbour with more than a 2-metre swell” and ‘Call the marina on channel 16 and 10 for the pilot to guide you in but do not expect an answer”.

The swell outside Rabat was about 1 metre so we had that covered and having timed our arrival at 30 minutes before HW I felt quite comfortable entering the outer harbour and I hailed the Marina Bouregreg on ch16 when we were about 30 minutes out.

We made the following calls on ch16 a ch10.

“Marina Bouregreg, Marina Bouregreg”.

“This is Sailing vessel Blue Pearl, Blue Pearl”.

“We’re about 30 minutes away from entering the outer harbour could you please send out the pilot to guide us in”.

After waiting a few minutes and, as expected, not getting a reply I repeated the call every 10 minutes on both channels stating how far away we were. The last time just as we entered between the outer breakwater (see photo left) and with very little swell due to entering at high water, I saw the channel well marked with yellow buoys so we steered Blue Pearl in the middle of the marked channel. This is when I had my first ‘proper’ look around as previously I was too busy steering, and what I saw was quite mind-blowing and overwhelming. Little skiffs everywhere, people swimming through the marked channel and towards Blue Pearl, jet skis flying by us in a setting of ancient walled cities and towers. Combined with more people shouting and waving their hello’s and welcomes, At this point, it occurred to me it would have been a good idea to think ‘Maybe I should have called them to make a reservation and let them know we were coming. There’s no chance in hell I can turn Blue Pearl around and make it out of here if I have to “.

I was very glad to spot the pilot boat (no longer a RIB as stated in the Imray North Africa Pilot guide but a dark blue Beneteau fishing boat with a white hardtop), to guide us in (see photo right). As he took the lead he pointed to his VHF and made us switch to channel 10. When I switched to channel 10 I wondered why channel 16 had been very quiet with no one talking but channel 10 was a cacophony of people shouting and talking. I had no idea if the pilot was talking to me or someone else, so I followed the pilot, just missing the inner breakwater on the port side that is unmarked and disappears underwater at high tide and dodging a dredge coming out of the channel. All the time the pilot was shouting at swimmers to get out of our way and telling the local sail club in their lasers and pirates to make space as they were in the middle of the channel as well.

Once we entered the main river it quietened down quite a bit and apart from a few dozen jet ski’s buzzing around at full speed, swimmers everywhere and local fishing boats and skiffs moored by the channel (pictured below) it was a quite easy approach going upriver with the current. What an experience after a few days at Sea!

Checking into Morocco

When we reached the marina entrance we were made to dock just outside the marina on a pontoon in the river. The very friendly and helpful pilot helped us tie Blue Pearl to the pontoon (put your fenders quite low as the pontoon is low), and we were told that Immigration and Customs would be with us shortly. When I inquired how ‘shortly’ (60 to 90 minutes maybe?) we were told ‘Ah mais non Captain, 10 minutes maximum!’

Joline used these minutes to clean up Blue Pearl so we could receive the officials on board! When the officialdom arrived, they sat down outside and kindly declined to step inside (sorry Joline! Blue Pearl looked immaculate!) After a few introductory questions, when Joline offered them some refreshing drinks and snacks, they came straight to business and their first question was “Do you have anything to declare”, to which I answered, “Yes I do. We have a drone and it is my understanding that these can’t be brought into the country”. The person that asked the question looked quite surprised and said ‘That is true, so no guns?” “No Sir, I have 2 young children on board and I do not carry any firearms”. This went over surprisingly well and he confirmed that drones were indeed not allowed into the country.

Now the officialdom and bureaucracy really start and the form filling begins, each form 4 times. Paperwork checked (make sure that the boat name matches exactly on all your paperwork (i.e. registration name must match insurance papers etc.) 4 times for immigration, 4 times for temporary import, 4 times for … and half a dozen more papers for who knows what. Then he asked how long we intended to stay? A few days or a week maybe? I told him we would like to see his beautiful country and would like to stay maybe a month he said ‘No problem Sir! We will leave the exit date empty so you can stay as long as you want’.

After all the paperwork is finished he asked to look inside the boat, which he briefly did (nothing was opened, nothing was checked and no sniffer dog to be seen!) He stepped out again and asked to see the drone. When I fetched the drone and opened the case he thanked me, zipped it up and Customs took it with them mentioning that I would get a receipt for it, they all left with all the paperwork and our passports, which he brought around later again, all stamped and all good.

Baksheesh? To be honest, we have not been asked for it yet, either openly or covertly, not by the officialdom, not by marina staff, not by anyone in the streets of Sale, no one really approached us in a pushy manner or in an uncomfortable way.

Rabat Marina

The Pilot came out again and showed us our berth in the quite empty Bouregreg marina, he helped us tie Blue Pearl between 2 short finger pontoons and we were all set. Somewhere in filling out all the paperwork the marina also got their info as for when I went to visit the marina office we were all set as well, nothing else was required and payment was due when we leave. “Please give us a 24-hour notice before you leave so we can prepare everything and get all the paperwork in order” Very friendly and very easy going.

The marina is nice, it seems to be quite new and all the surrounding buildings seems to be new as well, upscale lounges and restaurants everywhere and open to the public. There is (very) tight security blowing their whistles at everyone and everything that, in their eyes, steps out of line (i.e. sitting on the docks looking at the boats. A whistle blows then “please move on or sit on the benches”. It’s a little disappointing to find no other cruisers to exchange info, our only neighbours had left and we seem to be the only cruisers here, maybe we will see a few more in the next week(s)?

Prices are not ‘Moroccan cheap’ at 1.50 euro per metre (catamarans +25%), incl. water and electricity (WiFi inoperable as I type this) but still quite acceptable in my eyes and we feel comfortable leaving Blue Pearl here when we explore the country itself in the coming weeks.

The Alternative Way

Now, this is how we did it, and of course, it can be done in a slightly different manner as well as our (very experienced) German neighbours did. They left Gibraltar with current and winds against them doing less than 1kt. SOG through the strait and arrived at Bouregreg Marina at LW entering the outer harbour with 4-meter swell, breaking waves and not having called a pilot to guide them in, ask them how they experienced it! They were in one piece, but after listening to these very experienced sailors who made it from Gib to Rabat without reading a pilot. Using google maps to guide them into the harbour and upstream to the marina, I prefer our (overly cautious?) way and wish them all the best making their way to the Canaries, Cape Verdes and then Brazil.



Leave the bay of Gibraltar at HW +2hrs when going East through the strait.

Wait for easterlies or very (!!!) light winds from the west.

Stay 20-30 miles off the Moroccan coast.

Maybe call Bouregreg Marina before you leave Gib (or 24-36 hours prior to arrival).

Call Bouregreg Marina on Ch16 or Ch10, 30 minutes before entering the outer breakwater, don’t expect an answer.

Arrive at Rabat as close at HW as possible and with less than a 2-metre ocean swell.

Mentally prepare for the mayhem in the outer harbour and on the river.

Rene Kesting
SY Blue Pearl

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