Cadiz to Gibraltar via barbate – a trip down Orca alley

It is with some trepidation that we start the journey down the coast towards Gibraltar. Over the last few years there have been a large number of documented attacks, the authorities prefer them referred to as interactions, where sailing boats have been badly damaged by Orca or killer whales a more familiar name for them.

No one seems to have an idea as to why this is happening although there are several theories including playfulness, an understanding that these boats are in the same space as their beloved food, tuna, and may be competition or they are training the youngsters with slow moving vessels that don’t bite back.

The authorities’ response to this has been pitiful although, to be fair, there are well documented attacks but no one knows what proportion of craft this is happening to and some believe the whole problem is overstated. The authorities also give advice on what to do in the event of an interaction. Switch everything off and let them do what they want, once they are bored, and have smashed up your pride and joy, they will move on. Needless to say this hasn’t gone down well with the sailing community. A number of approaches have been suggested including certain courses through the tuna nets that are common on this coast or going way off shore away from the tuna. Some people suggest “going dark”, with no electronics running or engine to reduce the sound of the boat, this includes switching off the autohelm, not a problem for us obviously. Finally, in the event of an attack, it has been suggested that using a dolphin deterrent used by fisherman on their nets my keep them away. These are called pingers. The other action that has been suggested is to go gently astern since the theory is that a killer whale won’t want to swim backwards and won’t like the look of the propeller spinning towards him. This is not suggesting aiming at the orca at all just showing what will happen if they removed the safety of the rudder blocking the propeller. This later two actions are prohibited by the Spanish authorities who believe that any action interferes with the orca doing its thing should be prohibited. So clearly any such actions would have to be taken more than 12 hours off shore in international waters. I suspect that some people when fighting for survival may just adopt the tactics and take the punishment later rather than potentially losing their home.

Still we have just left Cadiz, it’s a lovely day and Maria has provided instructions that no one is to get too much rest today since we need to be on the look out for Orca. Incidentally, this is a request that is mostly ignored with the boys listening to music, reading or resting in their room but Maria and I are taking it seriously. There is also the last remnants of the military exercise with warships, aircraft and helicopters just out to sea of us.

The route down to barbate which is a small village a long way down the coast is covered with nets to catch the tuna as they race down the coast. These are well marked on the chart and so we have agreed to take a shallow route of 20M and tiptoe either side of all of the nets. We are also going to trust the chart, since the nets may be partially submerged, so we will go around them even if it appears that they aren’t there.

Most of the trip down is uneventful but at about 3pm, maria and I spot a lone Orca crossing our bow approximately 100m ahead. We are on tenterhooks as the Orca just keeps swimming towards land oblivious or uninterested in us.

Apart from the one siting it is an easy passage all of the way to the outskirts of Barbate. Here there genuinely is a large net with lots of buoys and markers. You have to round this to get into the marina. As we are nearing the turn, across the radio comes the call we are dreading. Fortunately, it is not a May Day but a pan pan so an urgent message. The person reports that they have just been attacked by a pod of orca and gives his position. He is three miles away from us. He says they did not cause significant damage but it was a vicious and vigorous attack. They have no moved on. If I am honest, I am not an expert on the swimming speeds of various marine creatures but I bet an orca is a lot faster than a sailing boat. We tip toe as quickly as we can into Barbate and are grateful for its safety.

We feel a little silly as we negotiate the locations of the nets with no obvious signs that they are actually there but we fell safer for doing it even if it does look weird when we do a couple of 90 degree turns, almost like a crazy Ivan from hunt for red october.

As has been usual in Spain, the staff at the marina are really helpful and give us a hand mooring up as maria brings mariadz into the berth expertly. We tie up and tomorrow we will truly run the gauntlet down to Gibraltar where a lot of the attacks have happened.

The next day we check the weather and it isn’t great until late afternoon but that causes us problems with negotiating the Gibraltar straight at a good state of tide and hopefully making it to Gibraltar before refuelling place closes. The wind for most of the trip will also be south easterly which isn’t great for the straights but hopefully enough of an angle for us to make progress and then take advantage on the route up to Gibraltar from the tip where it should be on the beam. This is also the scariest part of the trip for Orca.

The attacks are being plotted on a chart and it makes sobering reading. It seems that they wait outside Barbate like a cat outside a mouse hole, waiting. There are a lot of attacks here including the one the previous day that we heard about. So we will be running the gauntlet.

By 2pm, we have prepared everything we can and hopefully the weather will be kind to us as we leave the marina. Maria is nervous and on the look out for Orca especially after our siting and the attack. The crew are not so worried it seems, staying down below when not on watch.

The south easterly is right in our faces and not for the first time this trip, Mariadz is knocked out of her stride by the strong winds and swell. Unfortunately the next few hours of progress is so slow that, arriving before 8pm at Gibraltar, when the fuel pontoon closes, seems unlikely. However, we will continue to give it our best shot. Another boat has left at the same time and is motoring. Now there are two routes south, the first goes inside or over the tuna nets, if they are there and the second goes outside, as close to the 20m line as possible. The other boat has taken the former and we have taken the later. They are going faster than us with no sail up and are on a shorter route so it will be interesting to see how this works out. We can only imagine they are hammering their engine since we have some sail up and are motoring at reasonable revs but they are still going faster.

They seem to have made a good call as they are getting ahead of us and for the moment there have been no sightings of orca so we seem to be doing ok. In fact we pretty much get down to the turn at tarife without maria worrying too much that we are in the place of the most attacks. The south easterly is strengthening though and generally for the Gibraltar straits they say never try and go through on an easterly. My view was that the south element of this gave us enough of an angle to sail through the straights and then as you head north east to Gibraltar you will get a cracking sail.

Firstly you have to negotiate the straights. The main advantage of our departure time even with the slow progress so far is that the tide is on our side, however the wind is decidedly not which means wind against tide and a bumpy ride. This is exacerbated at this point where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean Sea in a heavyweight contest where you seem to be in the middle with them. We have cut in close to tarife but this seems to be a mistake since the seas are especially turbulent here. I turn away to try and find some smoother water for us all and, as I do, two huge waves crash together and a huge plume of water comes out from between them. My language was colourful but something along the lines of “by Jove, that’s a bit of a surprise”. it’s a whale ten metres from our bow at the surface. I steer hard to port to avoid hitting him and the pilot whale slides down our starboard side before jumping out of the water just behind us. Wow. We are still heading out on this tack towards the shipping channel so I can get away from the turbulent water. As I start to tack back to head up to Gibraltar, we get called by name by a passing ship who want to know if we are intending to go across the shipping channel. So my apologies for worrying them but as we completed our turn the answer was clear and we start to accelerate up towards Gibraltar.

Mariadz is in full sail and eating up the miles, the other boat was a mile in front at this stage but is being hauled in as we sail up the coast. We have pretty much caught up as we get to the turn into the bay where Gibraltar sits. Martin Hubbard, when he taught us, always instilled upon us a safety first mantra and although we laugh about touching the east coast mud on a rising tide, we are incredibly safe and never take risks with mariadz. So I am taking the turn to Gibraltar quite wide and outside of the shallower areas whereas the other boat takes an inside route close to shore. The wind is also dying but Mariadz is clinging on to the last of it, gaining every ounce of speed she can. I suspect she knows there is a good drink for her at the end of it and she has definitely got the thirst to get to the pub before it closes. Maria rings ahead to the fuel pontoon to say that we are running a few minutes late, it looks like 15 at the moment and they agree to stay open for us. This is brilliant news and means we can continue to Almerimar non-stop and arrive a day early.

The approach to Gibraltar is littered with large ships anchored and as we get through all of these, we finally go past the other boat that left Barbate with us. It’s all about winning at the end….

We are in good spirits as we approach the fuel pontoon opposite Marina Bay and the Gibraltar ship hotel. However, the fuel area seems a bit quiet and as we tie up, we can see there is nobody there. So we are stuck for the night. We investigate and the entire fuel area is fenced off and bolted so if we stay here overnight, we will only see Gibraltar at a distance.

I call across to Marina Bay who clearly have a berth or two available and they say we can pop over there. Maria is still having confidence issues, particularly about going astern, Plymouth has shaken her and Maria wants me, the less experienced helm to do it. We come off the fuel pontoon sideways, steering into the dock and bow thrusting off – I always love how cool that looks like you have bow and stern thrusters. From the middle of the fairway, I start to go astern towards the berth but firstly have to skirt around a moored vessel before then lining back up with the finger pontoon. It all goes quite well and we are safely in our berth and going through our registration with the marina. If we are stuck in Gibraltar we are going to go out and enjoy ourselves especially since Marina may have been working here last year if philips had won a contract. We wander round the bay and it is as if we are in little England. It’s weird because it probably isn’t really what Marina or I wanted. In the end we settle on the Thi Vietnamese restaurant and had some lovely food and a lovely chat with the staff who were very welcoming. On the way back, and despite being in shorts and t-shirts, we wander into the casino. Yep, Maria wants to play roulette again! She plays her normal system, I have only given her twenty pounds to play with and doubles her money. Giving half her winnings to the croupier, we leave and get ready for the last leg of the first part of our journey.

One thought on “Cadiz to Gibraltar via barbate – a trip down Orca alley”

  1. A bit scary with the Orcas but safely through. I am enjoying your progress and the description’s are very good, not to good at some of the sailing terms but then I’m not a sailor. Keep safe.

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