Learning to sail in the Strait of Gibraltar!

Posted by on Jul 28, 2015 in Europe, Featured, Spain, Travel | 6 comments

Learning to sail in the Strait of Gibraltar!

With less than 12 months to go in Beijing, Wayne and I have been talking about what we want our next adventure to be.

We had a brainstorm about what things make us the happiest, and our list looked something like this:

  • Being outside – we love the great outdoors, and our holidays usually centre around some kind of outdoor activity like skiing, scuba diving or hiking.  We’re also keen to be somewhere with fresh air and lots of sunshine!
  • Being near the ocean – we didn’t anticipate how much we would miss it, but moving from living beachside to a city not even on the coast has really affected us, and we constantly crave the salty smell and feeling of sand between our toes.
  • Being challenged – we want to keep pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zones so we can continue to learn and grow.
  • Travelling, obviously! – our passion is travelling and exploring new places, which is what got us started on this journey.

We’ve been tossing around a couple of ideas, but the one we keep coming back to is sailing!

One minor problem.  Until a few weeks ago we had never even stepped foot on a proper sailing yacht, and had no clue what was really involved.  As I said, minor problem 😉

So we decided to take two weeks to learn how to sail and get a real sense of what we would be in for.

Our sailing course was based out of Gibraltar, located at the southern tip of Spain.  We would be sailing around the Strait of Gibraltar which connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, and separates Europe from Africa.

Gibraltar’s main attraction is the ‘Rock of Gibraltar’, literally a really big rock that looms over the town which can walked up, or there’s a cable car.  At the top you’re greeted by cheeky monkeys who run rampant.

Although located at the bottom of Spain, Gibraltar is actually a British territory, which becomes glaringly obvious once you cross the border and see the plethora of pubs serving fish and chips!

An important strategical port, the Spanish don’t even try to hide their annoyance at the British presence.  However the Spaniards can’t get too up in arms about it as they have Ceuta, their own version of Gibraltar across the Strait on the north of Morocco!

During the two weeks we ended up sailing around Gibraltar, Spain, Ceuta and Morocco.

We booked to do a two week course through All Abroad Sailing Academy.  The first week would focus on teaching us the basics of a boat and sailing to certify us as “Competent Crew”.

The second week would be much more intense and if successful, would result in us being qualified “Day Skippers”.

Before arriving we completed our day skipper theory course online, but a lot of this didn’t really fall into place until we were out on the water.

Our first week was on ‘Meander K‘ a 40 foot Jeanneau Sun Odyssey led by Jeff, who runs his own business Sunset Offshore Sailing School.

Jeff matched the cliched image in my mind of what a salty sea dog should look like, with plenty of tattoos and addicted to tobacco.  He was laid back and easy going, but it quickly became apparent that he’d been around the block and really knew his stuff.

There were six of us living on the boat for the first week – Wayne and I, Jeff, and three other students.  The other students were also all new to sailing and we got along well.


Meander K

Meander K


Throughout the week we learned the proper nautical terms for the boat and everything on it (including getting into the habit of saying port and starboard, though to be honest I still don’t know why left and right can’t be used!)

We became experts at tying knots like the bowline, clove hitch, rolling hitch, sheet bend and reef knots.  We learned how to put the main sail up and bring it down, furl out the head sail, and put reefs into the main sail.

Out in the wind we practiced tacking and gybing (essentially changing direction to zig zag in order to get somewhere that you can’t sail directly in a given wind).  On one passage we also got to put out the spinnaker pole and run downwind.

One morning the weather forecast hadn’t predicted much wind, but as we came out of the bay the wind picked up and we got about 27 knots.  I was at the helm (the helmsman is in charge of steering the boat) and felt the boat suddenly heel over (lean to one side), as we hadn’t been expecting it and had our full main and head sail out.


After the wind picked up, we put our life jackets on which you can also use to clip onto the boat when it's rough as you move about so you don't fall off the edge!

When the wind picked up we put our life jackets on, which can also be used to clip onto the boat when it’s rough as you move about so you don’t fall off the edge!


It was actually really fun, and once we reefed in the main and furled in some of the head sail we were flying!  It’s so awesome to feel the boat pick up speed and the power that can be achieved by harnessing wind.

On the other hand, it was also really nice when we were sailing at a slower pace.  Not flying along, but gently making progress.  In those moments time slows down, and bobbing around in the ocean you appreciate how small you are and how beautiful the world is.

Something that really appeals to me about sailing is the notion of being self sustainable and working in harmony with your environment.  A lot of sail boats have solar panels for power, water makers to convert salt water into fresh, and eat fish they catch for dinner.

You can be the master of your destiny choosing when and where you want to go, but at the same time destiny is your master as you are so dependent on the weather!


Of an evening we would be off exploring, this is the beach at Ceuta, Africa

Of an evening we would be off exploring, this is the beach at Ceuta, Africa


Jeff has been an instructor for years, before sailing teaching kite surfing.  His demeanour reminded me of the way my dad taught me how to drive a car, plenty of words of encouragement while still giving constructive criticism and imparting wisdom.  We learnt a lot from Jeff in the first week that we carried through into our second week.

Some of my favourite memories were when pods of dolphins would come and swim along with the boat, leaping in and out of the water at the bow.  I would sit at the bow and watch them playing, so beautiful, strong and graceful.  It feels so special that they have chosen to engage with us of their own accord.


Marina silhouette sunset


However the most memorable experience by far was our night passage.  We set off at about 9.30pm as the sun was going down, with a four hour sail ahead of us.  There was a light fog at the time, but visibility was still decent.  This soon changed and the fog became a dense blanket that enveloped us.

It was a strange mix of calmness and eeriness, the silky smooth waters lapping at the boat with fog so thick we could only see the bow of our boat from the port and starboard lights.

Staring into the nothingness I half expected the Black Pearl to emerge from the darkness!

Luckily we had the combination of Jeff and radar onboard, which made us feel pretty confident that we would be ok.  Earlier in the week Jeff had told us that if he had the choice between crew or radar, he’d choose radar.  Now I know why, and would have to agree.

Gibraltar is a busy port constantly full of large cargo ships.  As we came into the bay the radar was showing massive vessels only a few hundred metres away from us, yet we could see nothing.

I was at the helm as we came into the bay and headed for our marina.  Jeff would check the radar and tell me to change course slightly, and I made sure if he said 5 degrees I changed exactly 5 degrees!

Around 1.30am we finally made it safely into the marina, to a small crowd that had gathered awaiting our return (providing a bit of pressure for my parking of the boat!)

The next morning the fog had cleared and as we left the marina I looked around at all the giant ships dotted across the route we had come in.  “Yep” said Jeff smiling,  “they were all there last night!

It was a pretty cool experience, but I’d be happy to never be out in fog like that again!


Looking down into Gibraltar Bay, you can see the cargo ships dotted around

Looking down into Gibraltar Bay, you can see cargo ships dotted around


We stayed overnight in marinas at Estepona in Spain, Smir in Morocco and Ceuta.  There is a phenomenal tapas restaurant in Ceuta that served the best seared tuna and avocado, I could not stop raving about this place!  Located up the hill on the main street, the menu is scribbled on a blackboard with everything in Spanish, and we were surrounded by locals (always a good sign!)

We discovered each marina had varying standards of comfort, particularly when it came to the bathrooms.  It occurred to me that marinas are basically caravan parks on the water.  If we do get a boat I think we will anchor most of the time and only come into marinas if we really need to (they can also be really expensive!)

At the marina we would hose down the boat with freshwater, top up the water tanks, and hook up to shore power to charge up everything.


Smir Marina, Morocco

Smir Marina, Morocco


Our second week we had a change of boat, instructor and different students.  Our next boat was ‘Pretty Woman‘, a slightly smaller 37 foot Jeanneau (although you notice the three foot difference when there’s six people living on board!)

Our instructor was Ian who works in the navy full time and instructs sailing courses five weeks of the year.  It’s a definite change of pace for us as Ian runs a tight ship (pun intended) making sure we all have allocated jobs to do each day and with a precise timetable for the day’s activities.

During the second week we have to plan all our passages (which must be done manually using paper charts – no GPS allowed!) and make sure we stay on course throughout the journey.

We each have a day of being skipper where we are responsible for instructing the crew and making decisions.

We also take two exams to check we know the theory behind what we are doing.


Heading out on Pretty Woman

Heading out on Pretty Woman


We sail to Ceuta again, but this time cough up the 3.70 EUR for entrance into a large pool area with bars (and clean bathrooms!)  I order a gin and tonic and am given a glass half full of gin with a small can of tonic.  I used to work in a bar and would estimate they poured about four standard drinks worth of gin.  Certainly took the edge off after a long day out on the water!

The two weeks obviously had a huge impact on my (previously non-existent) sailing abilities, and I am now happy to say I’m a qualified day skipper!

I got a glimpse into the life of sailing and I’ve got to say, it seems pretty damn good.

My freckles came out and the sun bleached my hair, I inhaled salty air and relished the ocean breeze on my skin.

Feeling the warmth of the sun and hearing nothing but the sounds of nature as we peacefully sailed along I couldn’t help but think, sailing is a simple and pure way of life.


Emma sitting at bow in Marina


  1. Loved this post! Sailing looks fun 🙂 seeing the dolphins would be amazing! It made me think of a blog i recently read and one i think u should check out…. might help u get into sailing life… http://mjsailing.com/ keep on enjoying xxx

    • Thanks Kat! Just checked out the blog you recommended, looks great! Loving following your adventures as well 🙂 xx

  2. So proud of you guys. Xx

    • Thanks Jane!

  3. I love the way you write Em. It is magic.

    • You are too kind, but thank you!! 🙂

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