Sailing towards the desert
These cruisers crossed the Atlantic on their Hunter 410 sailboat and were not supposed to go to Morocco in north Africa, a country that wasn’t included for coverage in their boat insurance, but they are sure glad they did. The stop was unlike anything they had seen in their travels.
“We ended up sailing off the beaten path and we ended up going to Morocco,” says Isabelle Tremblay, who together with her husband, David Hayes, and daughters Rebecca and Demi, took time away from work to explore the Caribbean and cross the Atlantic.
Hayes, a chiropractor from Quebec and university professor and Tremblay, who previously worked for a cruising rally company, took 18 months away from their careers in late 2013 to go sailing with their growing family. They planned a trip to explore on their sailboat, and then it was back to the grind.
It was a first Atlantic crossing for Tremblay, but her husband had done an ocean crossing before. He grew up sailing dinghies and got his partner involved in sailing.
Together, they owned a progression of smaller yachts, including a 25 ft. trailerable sailboat and a Hunter 33. They eventually bought the larger sailboat and planned to go the Bahamas and see how things went. If the crew, including their two daughters then aged 9 and 12, wanted to keep going, they would.
And the girls did. So, it all worked out for this sailing family.
The family of four ended up doing an Atlantic circuit, sailing the traditional trade-winds route across the Atlantic and back again to the Caribbean, and home to Quebec.
The first leg of the trip was a simple one. “We wanted to go the Bahamas and spend the winter in the Caribbean. That was our initial plan,” says Isabelle. She added: “Sailing will take you to places that you never thought you would go.”
The Quebec couple took their sailboat Morning Haze south along Lake Champlain and the Hudson River into New York City. They travelled south and from the Chesapeake Bay they joined a sailboat rally, which for a fee will group boaters together and allow people to travel with others, for some camaraderie along the way and safety in numbers. The family headed for the Bahamas.
Skippers were watching for a weather window to cross the Gulf Stream, and the family and others left a day ahead of another rally, which left port on their own scheduled departure time. Some sailors in this later rally ended up in trouble, with a northerly bearing down on them as they crossed the Gulf Stream.
Hayes said the family experienced turbulent 15- to 18-ft. seas for the first three days of their offshore trip, and the winds topped out at 35 knots from the north, which opposed the north-flowing Gulf Stream. The wind-against-current conditions made for a very bumpy sea state. There eldest daughter was sick for four days.
Those who left a day later from the Chesapeake experienced very serious weather conditions. Hayes said he recalled telling his wife: “I wouldn’t want to be here (in these big seas) in 24 hours” and they sailed through a particularly rough patch of ocean water. Added Tremblay: “This was baptism by fire.”
Generally, to cross the Gulf Stream safely, sailors will wait for a passing cold front to travel past, and then leave the U.S. coast for exotic places and warmer climes. The timing for the other rally participants wasn’t good, and there were five mayday calls, one boat sank and one was dismasted.
On the fifth day out for the Hayes family, the winds subsided to 20 knots, which was more manageable for the family. Tremblay recalls sitting in the cockpit at night watching the stars with her daughter, who asked if they were going to go to Europe, even after suffering sea sickness during the passage.
All told, they spent about 80 days cruising the various islands in the Bahamas, and then headed for the Caribbean where they spent two winters. They visited Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, the British Virgin Islands (BVI), and the Spanish Virgins.
“The BVIs are beautiful, and they are cruiser friendly,” says Hayes. “The Spanish ones are really, really beautiful. The U.S. Virgins has some beautiful underwater sea life.”
The family collected large whelks and conch and made seafood salads. The lobsters they caught were up to 18 pounds and so big they wouldn’t fit in the pot and had to be broken up to be cooked.
Lobster was so plentiful, Hayes said he brought some back to the boat one day and Tremblay complained: “Really, lobster again.” They laugh about it now that they have returned to Canada and sold their yacht.
With some good times in the Caribbean, the family made plans to go across the Atlantic. It was a 21-day passage, their longest, and they sailed from Bermuda to Horta in the Azores, a series of islands in the Atlantic, and on to Lagos in Portugal that is part of the Algarve coast with beautiful beaches.
During the ocean crossing, the couple sailed along for a week without seeing another boat. Once, they discovered a Japanese commercial ship was heading towards them on a collision course. They tried to hail the commercial vessel by radio, but the bridge didn’t answer them back.
The couple found that they were forced to take evasive action to avoid a collision. They say that watches are important on a boat, and skippers and crew need to be focused on what is out there, including oncoming commercial boat traffic that can be travelling very fast and be on top of you in no time.
“You have to be aware and check and be vigilant,” says Hayes.
While exploring the Dover coastline in Europe, the couple met another cruiser who suggested they go to Morocco. “He told us to go visit Morocco because it was very different. That’s when he planted the seed.” They traded this other sailor for some marine charts of that area, and made some plans to sail south.
They knew they didn’t want to go into the Mediterranean because of the currents and the wind funnels, and their time window was closing quickly. They had to return across the Atlantic and back to work.
But the family decided to point their yacht towards the African coast and Morocco, where they spent three weeks exploring the coastline on the boat and jumped off to explore inland on different treks.
It was a 30-hour sail from Gibraltar to Rabat in Morocco, which has a rugged coastline and only three marinas to choose from. They radioed that they were coming and a pilot was sent out from the marina to get them up the Bou Regreg River and get them safely tucked into a marina.
“It’s very scary going into the river and surfing the waves,” says Hayes. There is a depth of only about seven feet and there were small fishing boats everywhere. They found these plentiful fishing boats upwards of 10-to-15 miles offshore.
Upon arrival in Morocco, the cruising family was visited by customs officials and a dog which was brought onboard to sniff for any illegal drugs. There was even a local navy official who was part of their welcoming committee.
They had to file travel plans while they were in Morocco, and officials knew where they were at all times, and they sailed along the coast. Marina staff would expect them ahead of their arrival.
“They knew where you are every day. They are waiting for you. You have to tell them where you are going,” says Hayes. “From port to port, every movement we had to let them know about,” adds Tremblay.
It was customary onboard for Hayes to celebrate a new place with a safe-arrival drink, and says he cracked open a beer at the marina after first tying off.
He was told that they arrived during Ramadan – a Muslim holiday and a month of fasting – and that drinking alcoholic beverages was frowned upon by some in the country, and not allowed during this special holiday time. They ended up eating below deck out of respect for the local customs and religious beliefs.
After exploring Rabat, they sailed towards Casablanca, which features one of the biggest mosques in the world and the tallest minuet in the world at 689 ft. (210 m.). The city has no marinas, although there have been plans to build one for the past 25 years, says Hayes.
While sailing in the area, the family had a couple of close-calls with fishing boats, just missing these other vessels that use small black flags that float on the water and mark locations of nets. Hayes says these floating flags are very hard to spot.
The sailing family took a slip at Essaouira, a marina for fishermen which had only two other sailboats. By 7 a.m., all the fishing boats left as the skippers plied their haul on the ocean to their daily catches. When the fleet returned later in the day, fresh fish was sold right on the street near the marina.
They sailed on to Agadir, which has a new marina and the city is more oriented towards tourists. The horizon here looks hazy but it’s because of the sand from the nearby Sahara Desert, blown around by the prevailing winds. “It creeps everywhere, so you have to clean off the boat,” Hayes says of the sand.
The couple searched out a local guide, who happened to be a camel driver, to explore the area. They saw large decorative signs made along the mountains which praised Allah, and wild camels roamed around the entire area. The temperatures there were scorching, reaching highs of 48 degrees C.
They visited the Draa Valley, named after that country’s longest river. The valley is famous for its ancient cities, and the family took in the Zagora Kasbah, the largest underground marketplace in Morocco.
They bought a set of famed berber pottery, which is beautiful but not too practical on a sailboat, especially during an ocean passage. Needless to say, the pottery didn’t last in the sailboat. They also ventured into the desert and stayed in tents with guides.
“All you could see were mountains of sand,” says Tremblay. It was so hot the family ended up dragging their mattresses outside the tents to sleep under the stars in the desert.
“You can wander in the dunes but you can’t go far or you will get lost,” says Hayes, who enjoyed stretching his legs with some longer hikes with one of his daughters whenever they got off the boat.
Their sailboat performed well during the trip, although there was the odd mishap. In Martinique, Hayes tried defrosting the freezer with a screwdriver and ended up poking a hole in a steel plate.
“It was an amazing boat. We didn’t have any breakages,” adds Tremblay.