From the Tagus to Rabat

A European winter base and a Moroccan trip to reset the EU clock

Upon departing North America and Greenland, our future plans saw our 52-foot aluminum sloop Kiwi Roa based around Europe and the North Atlantic, with ventures to the likes of Iceland and Svalbard possible. For the northern winters, a southern base was desirable — and one that would provide for our New Zealand yacht to spend years in and around the EU. The result was that from Cape Farewell, the compass heading was southeast.

We intended to stop at the Azores, but by the middle of December we were too late and weather depressions had begun tracking across the route. After five days of struggling with contrary winds, Peter got the message and reshaped our course directly for the Iberian Peninsula. The winds gave us five days of fast reaching, after which a high expanded out as far as the English Channel and sat over the Atlantic for a week. After 600 nautical miles of calm, we found the Portuguese trade winds and again reached the final miles to the Portuguese coast.

We made landfall under a poled yankee at the mouth of the Tagus River, where the headland of Cascais forms its northern coastline. Here, there is safe anchorage for any winds except southerlies, and also a marina that can provide respite for sleep and timing of tides before pushing on toward Lisbon. Ashore, the area is developed for tourism, or at least the facade of the seafront. More interesting are the historic buildings, particularly five centuries’ worth of fortifications that the modern additions cluster around. The squat walls of the Citadel of Cascais border the beachline from a view at anchor: At one end, a foreboding complex of pentagonal fort towers; at the opposite defensive position, a cyan swimming pool has been installed.
 

The Monument to the Discoveries in Lisbon.

This southern European mixture continues along the coast. After recovering from the trans-Atlantic, we first made for Doca de Alcântara marina near central Lisbon, the likeliest to accept transient visitors and provide a good starting base. We sailed under the imposing steel suspension bridge named Ponte 25 de Abril for the bloodless “Carnation Revolution” of 1974 that ended the Estado Novo regime.

Predating 20th-century drama is Portugal’s more marketable history: Walking distance from Doca de Alcântara is the enormous Monument to the Discoveries, celebrating the Age of Exploration. In the form of a ship’s prow, this is a tall slab of concrete and limestone, lined on either side by historical figures headed by Prince Henry the Navigator holding a carrack. They stare out to the harbor, at their feet a small boat marina berthing dozens of the modern Portuguese sailor’s more modest affairs.

The Alcântara marina was our home for a few weeks and a good base for various Lisbon-centric tourist activities. It is a municipally operated marina berthing mostly permanent boats, so there are no seasonal rates — they use a sliding scale based on days stayed.

Kiwi Roa anchored at Olhão in southern Portugal.

The Tagus River widens into a large estuary, many miles across, before it continues into the continent. While the Lisbon coast is fairly uniform, the southern banks are broken by a complex of inlets formed by tributaries and sub-estuaries. On a peninsula south of Lisbon proper is the town of Seixal, a river and fishing center once known for its dockyards and shipbuilding. Kiwi Roa anchored here among small local boats bobbing at moorings, waiting in a holding pattern before progressing to our final destination. 

Across another small estuary is the neighboring town of Amora, where we found the deciding factor in our original selection of Portugal: Tagus Yacht Center, a haul-out boatyard. At its dock, Kiwi Roa squelched in mud at all tides but high, and was surrounded by an assortment of depressing derelict vessels. But, Rafael and Sergio — sons of the founders — have a 70-ton travel lift and reputed good value for money. They are DIY-friendly and accepting of live-aboards, and shops and other support are nearby. Peter particularly liked this yard; the price was right and it included power, water, Wi-Fi and basic ablutions. There are boatbuilding and basic machine shop facilities available to those who are practical. Recommended to us by a reliable friend, it was to be Kiwi Roa’s home for the next 10 months.

Kiwi Roa hauled out for work on the keel.

A major refit
This was in the pursuit of a major refit for Kiwi Roa. She had carried us safely for many thousands of ocean miles through some of the world’s hardest conditions and had endured two major sailing accidents: one a knockdown in the Furious Fifties between New Zealand and Chile, and the other a half-roll between the Falklands and South Africa. The rig and all systems had survived intact but with some damage, including a broken boom gooseneck, broken strands in the aft lower stays, and doubtless more unseen.

Peter disconnected the boom from the mast before unstepping it while still afloat, an easier job against the dock. Kiwi Roa’s mast is 65 feet high and with all shrouds, attachment and furler, it weighs one ton. With the boat cradled on the hard, it was time to get to work — a mast refit, spreaders repainted, and preparations made for the yankee to be replaced and a roller furler added. The old hanked system had been starting to test the aging skipper’s limits.

A critical keel repair
The hull presented more major work: the routine antifouling recoat, as well as the re-polishing of Kiwi Roa’s unpainted aluminum hull, which Peter likes to perform every five years or thereabouts. More critical was the keel, which we had badly damaged back in Greenland by slamming into a rock shelf at 5 knots. This tested the hull (and rig) beyond reasonable limits, and now the damage could be properly assessed. The keel on Kiwi Roa is a low-aspect-ratio fin filled with 7 tons of lead, contained in a keel box of 10-millimeter alloy plate, which is welded directly to the equally thick hull plate chines. Kiwi Roa’s fuel tanks’ top and bottom plates provide second and third skins, which never got tested even though the keel’s side plates were split away from the round leading edge by the collision. That solid bar of alloy had been bent back into the lead ballast, bulging the plate up to the fuel tank. The whole keel box had been shunted out of alignment with the hull, and the stress could be seen in circular cracks radiating through the underwater epoxy on the hull itself. It was an impact that would have ripped the keel or bottom out of most boats.

Kiwi Roa's keel, damaged by a collision with a rock shelf in Greenland.

After the refit and repairs were completed, Kiwi Roa was relaunched. We first stopped at the Seixal dock, a floating pontoon for local small boats, to clean the boat up after the winter’s work and take delivery of a new HydraNet genoa. The local sailmakers were not quite up to the task, so this was an expensive shipment from Cape Town. With a little nervousness, Peter hoisted it at the dock — a perfect fit. Then it was back to Doca de Alcântara to complete fitting the new rollers and tune the rig, and Kiwi Roa was ready to return to the winds and waves.

Kiwi Roa would depart and return to Lisbon several times over the course of several years. One can venture back out of the Tagus to Cascais to wait for a weather window at the marina there. We also filled with diesel and had some work done at the on-site North Sails loft. The Atlantic swell surge can penetrate the marina at times, meaning much dock movement, surging vessels and chafe problems with shore lines. We waited out an early winter storm; every now and then, a big wave would spend itself against the marina breakwater, sending sheets of green water and spray 50 feet into the air.

To the Algarve
Our first trip was to get the boat out of the EU for the paperwork clock reset, and southward lay the answer. En route was the Portuguese Algarve region, the holiday and retirement destination of choice for many Europeans. It’s 165 nm from Cascais to the waters near Faro at the southern extremity of Portugal, well along the coast toward the Spanish border and the Straits of Gibraltar. Here is a large, protected inlet surrounded by a barrier of low-lying sandy islands with names like Ilha Deserta, running some 10 miles along the coast, sheltering the beautiful Rio Formosa web of marshy wetlands and channels that form perfect anchorages. We dropped the hook off the beaches of Ilha do Farol, a small fishing village clustered around a picturesque lighthouse. The islands are pleasant, but the right southwesterly conditions can make navigation dangerous. A substantial breakwater guards the entrance between the islands, and the tide can run at 7 knots through it.

Confusingly, this island is also called Ilha da Culatra, and features a second village by that name on the northern side. Both house local fishermen, whom we found somewhat reticent — perhaps understandably annoyed with tourists and jaded by the hundreds of yachts that swamp the perfect anchorages in summer. Many buildings are abandoned, including houses and churches; the reality is that seasonal tourist money keeps these places propped up. Culatra has a few small shops and cafes catering to tourists. The locals use their fast, small, open boats to nip across to the mainland towns.

For our own resupply, we managed to find anchorage off the town of Olhão. This was our last mainland stop before departure.

From Cape Farewell, Kiwi Roa sailed southeast to Portugal and later to Rabat in Morocco.

South to Morocco
By that December we had finished the boat work, and come summer would head back toward Arctic adventures. But with time to kill and EU regulatory limits pressing on a non-EU yacht, the opportunity arose to visit somewhere a bit different: a new culture, in Arab northwest Africa. The Moroccan coast is only a short passage across the Gulf of Cádiz, south past the Straits of Gibraltar, to where the cities of Rabat and Salé sprawl next to the ancient Bou Regreg river.

Tangier, at first impression a closer option, we rejected in consideration of a poorer marina and harbor. Furthermore, Rabat’s relatively higher status as the capital and residence of the king makes for a more modern, secure and stable city a little removed from the chaotic effects of loose EU immigration policies on the African Mediterranean coast. After visiting Tangier and Spanish Ceuta briefly by land, we didn’t regret this choice.

Salé Medina from across the bar at Rabat.

Rabat and its twin city of Salé are obvious river settlements and have been since antiquity, when the Phoenicians founded their colony a few kilometers inland. Up and down the coast there are several small, modern ports formed by breakwaters but their utility is limited. The awkward part of the sail from Europe is not the passage but navigating the river entrance, which nowadays features a dual-stage breakwater system that attempts to buffer the Atlantic swell but nevertheless leaves a dangerous bar to contend with. Entry requires timing, and Kiwi Roa with its 7-foot, 2-inch draft needed a high tide, ocean swell less than 6 feet, and daylight. This was complicated by the beginning of Atlantic winter storms and resulting ripples emanating from the north that ended their own passage in seafoam against African beaches.

Later, Peter revisited the bar from the riverside and photographed what an extra few feet of swell looked like at half-tide on a quiet day. The picture is a rather terrifying emphasis on why conditions and timing are critical for a safe entrance. In the event, our weather window coincided with tide and sun. The city is built out along the coast, a flat mix of medieval and modern buildings in a pale tan color scheme. Finally, with the reassurance of a local pilot boat, we made an uneventful entrance into the river.

Marina upriver
Upriver, the Bouregreg Marina is a modern facility cut into the north bank and framed by geometric concrete development, upscale suites and apartments on one side, and parks, open-air swimming pools and the wide bridge that carries multiple lanes of traffic, trams and pedestrians across to the Rabat side. The marina appeared to have an oversupply of berths at the time of our visit but has been set up to encourage foreign yachts; local regulations have even been tweaked to align with and take advantage of EU regulations applicable to overseas vessels just like Kiwi Roa, which find themselves having to leave EU waters. They can sail down to Rabat-Salé and stay in safety — with crew either flying home or wintering over on board — then return to the EU for the following summer with little effort and the paperwork clock reset.

A kasbah fortification on the Bou Regreg River in Rabat.

Living aboard for such a layover is well catered for by the marina, and is quite pleasant in the winter climate with warm days and temperate nights. Security is well implemented, if perhaps a little overzealous by most standards. Local visitors to the marina must register with customs before being permitted down the docks. Marina staff with essential service roles all speak some English.

Immigration is handled at a dedicated customs dock outside the marina, where the authorities have offices situated within the marina complex and handle matters on site. If flying out of the country, permission to leave the vessel is required along with relevant paperwork, which airport staff may demand to see. Importing mail and parcels is also relatively straightforward, with the post office only a few tram stops away in Salé. Taxis are cheap and ubiquitous: Stand on the roadside and flag down a yellow one for the Salé side, or a black one to cross the bridge to Rabat. While some knowledge of French or Arabic is helpful here, the marina office will underwrite the plight of monolinguals with a written note.

Local professional services in Rabat seem to be up to modern standards. Peter had some urgent dental work performed and found the dentists well trained (usually in Europe), and working with good facilities and equipment; crowns were made on site within a few hours.

The Bou Regreg River looking across from Rabat to Salé.

Large areas of the cities are occupied by medinas (old town quarters), kasbahs (fortified keeps) and souqs (marketplaces). Salé Medina offers all supplies the cruiser may desire: fresh chicken (killed and processed while the customer waits and spectates), beef, fish, and vegetables of every variety brought to market daily, most probably as organic as it gets. Trays present mounds of nuts, spices, dates of all types, couscous, rice and flour. Bakers operate from tiny little spaces selling fresh breads, near street restaurants where the bread is used in place of a spoon for all meals, all included for very low prices by Western standards. 

Mirrored on the opposite riverbank is Rabat Medina, and with it being a slightly intimidating complex maze of alleys and lanes, we indulged in a guided tour.

Morocco claims the title for the largest mosque in Africa. It is located in Casablanca, some 80 kilometers southwest down the coast, and a fast train makes for an easy day trip. The Hassan II Mosque was a prestige project for the country in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Now, its minaret is the second highest religious structure of any: 60 stories, 690 feet, and the top fitted with a laser beam. Outside of prayer time, the mosque is very obviously geared as a tourist attraction, with a ticket kiosk, guided tours, women permitted in all quarters and shoed feet tolerated.

Internally, the prayer hall can accommodate 25,000 worshippers, with many more outside. The roof is retractable, while the main space is an immense hall of granite and marble dwarfed by towering columns and topped with cedar carvings. 

Ruins of a Roman bath house at Chellah.

Roman ruins nearby
Back near the boat, and further back in time, the old Roman ruins at Chellah were a highlight. “Salé” traces its etymology back to Punic Shalat — the earliest dating of ruins suggests 8th century B.C. — which the Romans took over and turned into Sala Colonia, a far-flung frontier town established in the first century. Scant parts of the Roman town remain here and there: crumbling brick and tile, foundations of a bathhouse, a few pillars and arches, a nymphaeum water tower that once distributed water from an aqueduct. A forum, grass growing between weathered paving stones, lies near the capitol temple where the original room and space layout is clearly distinguishable, complete with interior altar.

In our own time, we ended up staying in Morocco for five months, a great contrast from the high latitudes that have been our habitat for most recent years. The Rabat-Salé area has much to offer the visiting sailor, whether amusing tourist distractions or the more rewarding returns made on acquainting oneself with an unfamiliar foreign culture and those that preceded it in history. And, with reset EU allowances, Kiwi Roa could return to Europe and further plans in the north. With that said, we do not claim this visit to do justice to the region, and perhaps will return to both Portugal and Morocco in the future.

Peter Smith is a New Zealand boatbuilder, offshore sailor turned long-distance cruiser, and designer of the Rocna anchor. He currently is living on board his custom-designed, self-built, aluminum expedition yacht.

Craig Smith is Peter’s son — and biographer — who was brought up in the cruising lifestyle. He now lives in Auckland, New Zealand, while trying to keep track of Kiwi Roa’s whereabouts. Read more about Peter and Kiwi Roa’s voyaging, including lots more photos from recent voyages, at www.petersmith.net.nz.