I grew up on the water, from a long family tradition of “easy sailors.” Why “easy,” well because for those that had the opportunity to either own a boat or were members of the Tangier Yacht Club—as I was—were blessed with some of the best sailing conditions and surroundings that one could find anywhere in the world. Tangier bay offers a safe sailing experience filled with fun and peacefulness. The blue seas, the blue skies, and the calm warm waters were soothing. The Levanter, a most disruptive easterly wind that races down the straights of Gibraltar and engulfs the bay and the city, spoiled the idyllic lifestyle with persistent monotony. During the summer months, in particular, the Levanter was at its harshest and punishing—sometimes becoming obnoxious for days-on-end and even lasting weeks.
The summer ritual of guessing what the weather would be like on that day as we walked down towards the beach, turning the last corner before gazing at the sprawling beach was unchanged. The only question on my mind was whether it was the Poniente or the Levante. Nothing else mattered.
Poniente is the westerly wind that provides the best conditions for swimming and “bumming” around on the beach and, of course, for lazy sailing. It means calm, slightly cooler waters but generally very relaxing, unlike the Levanter which is a sticky warm wind that could deflate morale. It is capable of churning the sea into turmoil during the stronger windy days, changing its color from a translucent turquoise to opaque green, algae-ridden water. Because the Levanter blows directly onto the beach, all the floating debris and algae from the straights would naturally end up on the shore. On the sandy beach, the Levanter is no less disagreeable–it blows and lifts the sand, whipping the bare arms and legs.
The sand sticks to sweaty bodies.
Not precluding all that, sailing would as a matter of course take place even during a Levanter. Only a wind force of 20-25 knots would generally cancel the regatta.
I vividly remember one occasion, when my cousin Xavier and I registered for a regatta. We were sailing a “snipe”—a two-man one design racing dinghy with a rich history. The Snipe was a perfect light-wind boat, but it had a tendency to become a handful as the wind gathered strength. Well, that morning, as preparations for the race were taking place at the Yacht Club, there were murmurs amongst the “elders” that the wind was going to increase by mid-morning, and that it was already showing signs of gusts in the region of 15 knots. The tide was also coming in, which meant that the winds would more than likely increase with the tide. All in all, a bad sign for Xavier and I who were so looking forward to an opportunity to race the “Snipe.” Something we did not do very often in those days—we were still young teenagers, and we were gradually being weaned from the Sharpie (the “alma mater” of our sailing initiation). However, we made ourselves scarce and got on with the job of setting the sails on the boat without involving ourselves in the debate that was raging in the Club House. The “elders,” like Giancarlo, an older cousin, were issuing warnings and trying to build support for the race to be cancelled. Giancarlo had refused to sail, much to our disappointment. Of course, deep down, we knew that he was probably right. But we were not about to give in so easily.
Nevertheless, the “officer of the day” must have been either less conscious or did not see the implications of allowing the regatta to take place, because he elected to allow the race, with the proviso to cancel in any case, should the need arose.
Xavier and I did not need persuading. As soon as the boat was rigged, we set off down the inner harbor, towards the location where the race was to be run.
It became apparent to us, as soon as we turned in the open water away from the sheltered inner harbour, that the conditions were perhaps a little more than we had ourselves predicted or indeed anticipated. The boat was beginning to heel quite noticeably. We were still able to control the dinghy with our weight, mostly because the main jetty was maintaining the water reasonably flat. But ahead of us the surface conditions were clearly more turbulent and we could see rolling waves and “white horses” forming, and even the odd wave breaking due to the mounting heights. This gave us some concern.
As we approached the end of the jetty, it meant that we would have to behave a little more creatively, as the conditions turned considerably more challenging.
We also heard faint shouts, both carried and drowned by the wind, and we saw the stubby figure of Giancarlo standing at the end of the jetty, waving furiously at us. He was signaling that we should return immediately to the Club. However, we thought that he was still trying to have his way, and we naturally were not going to have any of it.
Another five more minutes elapsed, and we suddenly arrived in what can only be described as seriously concerning conditions, where the sea had become aggressive. We were being shown how arrogantly foolish and inexperienced youth can sometimes be. I turned back to look and I saw none of the other foolhardy boats that had been following us, as if we held the key to pacify the sea. They had all gone in, except us. Giancarlo, like a terrier with its prey, was still kicking hell at the end of the jetty. I was the skipper and Xavier was handling the jib. The sea had become unpredictable; the boat was permanently heeled to such an extent that our weight and size was no longer enough to maintain equilibrium. Bottom-line, we were no longer in control of the boat as we would have wished! The waves crushed the side of the boat, exercising increased pressure on the helm.
Xavier moaned that he was unable to keep the jib in check. I was clearly not able to either control the main sail and the helm. Although the main sheet was as slack as it could possibly go, the mainsail flapping and whipping with tremendous force, and because of the extreme heel, the boom was now plunging and dragging into the turbulent water, creating a braking force that had the effect of increasing the heeling moment of the boat.
These were difficult circumstances that neither of us had experienced before. My mind was wandering towards the rocks about a hundred meters away, and I thought that if we were to capsize, the waves and wind would quickly take us there. I did not rationalize about the implications of this–the boat would no doubt be badly damaged and we could be injured or indeed face a far worse predicament.
As this thought process went in my mind, a wave hit the flat under-belly of the boat, lifting the boat out of the water, and threw me out of the cockpit, as my feet disengaged from the foot straps that had kept me in place until then. Unable to react, I clumsily rolled back out of the boat and fell into the “boiling” sea. Xavier, who anxiously saying that he thought we ought to turn round and head back in, did not notice that I was no longer in charge of the boat, and that to all intent and purposes, he had been abandoned by the skipper. I heard him talk to me for a few brief seconds, blissfully unaware that I was no longer with him. Then he turned his head towards the back, and he realized that I was in the water. I detected from his expression a feeling of total helplessness, and the knowledge that there was little he could do to recover from a hopeless predicament. Xavier joined me in the water as the boat capsized.
At this point, the various safety procedures that had been instilled in us seemed to come alive. We were to hang on to the boat, until either some help would arrive or we would have to face the waves crashing on the approaching rocks. There was no question to attempt our own recovery procedure—the Snipe is not exactly the easiest boat to right! However, it would float thanks to its buoyancy tanks. The best course of action was to hang on to it, and hope for the best.
As luck had it, we did not have to wait too long, because within a matter a minutes, we saw the appearing and disappearing pitching and heaving motion of the Club’s safety boat driven by Rubio, one of the sailing hands. He probably had not seen us yet, as the profile of the capsized dinghy and its two-man crew was mostly hidden by the mountainous waves that mostly engulfed us and occasionally brought backup. But he seemed to be heading in the right direction, and we waived our arms and screamed to draw his attention. The adrenalin was flowing, we had forgotten our predicament really, as we finally realized that Rubio had seen us and was gingerly bringing the safety boat on the lee of our half sunk boat.
I knew it was not going to be easy to get on board. The motion of the old fishing boat was such that we could easily be hit as she heaved and rolled in the waves. But Rubio was not going to be deterred by this, and one at a time he grabbed us from the back of our life jackets, and pulled us up into the boat. We had been rescued, and we were thankful, if not a little ashamed for the boldness that we had displayed. We thought we would receive a negative reception at the Club. In fact, Giancarlo, who was standing on the disembarking floating pier as we pulled in, had a “told you so” grin on his face, but he was nevertheless pleased that everything had turned out well.
I am certain that on the day, Xavier and I learned the first lesson of the sea–be respectful of the forces of nature and avoid taking unnecessary chances.
But by all means enjoy!