Going Strait – Miles Kendall heads for sunny Gibraltar to swot up on his sailing skills as Britain shivers.

We looked hard at the red and green masthead lights. They were off the starboard bow, but how far? They had to belong to a yacht, but that would mean they were 200 yards away and closing.

My mind raced, trying to solve the riddle. We were in the middle of the Strait of Gibraltar at 23.30. I was Skipper and seemed to be on a collision course. The other boat was on a port tack, we were on starboard. Surely they had seen us..I grabbed the torch and shone it against the main. There was a shout form the other yacht as she emerged from the night. She changed course and passed 50 yards away. The crew gave us a wave and slightly slurred greeting in Spanish and they were gone.

An hour later we were in a Spanish bar on the Costa Del Sol. It had been my first night passage as Skipper and beer had rarely tasted so good.

Africa bound

I was halfway through my RYA Coastal Skipper course onboard Trafalgar Sailings Gib’Sea 402 Tarik Lady, with Skipper Peter O’Hanlon who has sailed the Western Med for 15 years, 10 of which as an Instructor. Trafalgar operates out of Gibraltar, the promise of October sunshine had also attracted Rex , recently retired and after his Day Skipper ticket, and David, a barrister who had never sailed before. Tarik Lady is kept at Marina Bay, a 10 min walk from the airport. That’s one of the joys of Gibraltar, nothing is very far away on a peninsular less than 3 miles long and a mile wide.

Day one of the weeks course had begun with a safety briefing and boat handling practice. “You see that little basin there” Peter asked. I nodded and he told me to take the boat in, turn her and bring her out. I could see that Peter was not going to make this easy for me but, having to use the prop-walk and short sharp bursts of throttle to push water over the rudder and shrink the turning circle, we emerged unscathed.

Next morning there was a light breeze and we sailed around the bay, getting to grips with the slab-reefing main and roller furling Genoa headsail. Then it was time for my blind pilotage exercise. Peter told me that an imaginary fog bank was about to descend. I had two minutes to establish my position by taking compass bearings before visibility disappeared. My time was quickly up and I was sent down below. From now on, I was not allowed on deck and had to use the chart, log and echo sounder to get us to the given destination.

We eventually arrived, but made every mistake in the book en-route. A couple of times I was about to admit defeat, but Peter pointed out a few possibilities and left me to work out the rest. Next time the fog comes I’ll be better prepared.”OK Miles you have 20 mins to sort out a passage plan to Morocco” said Peter. Our destination was Marina Smir 26 miles south of Gibraltar.

The Easterly levanter wind was freshening, pushing moist air over the Rock, forming a thick cloud which surrounded Gibraltar. I consulted the tidal stream atlas and checked the pilot books. If the wind didn’t shift we should make it on one tack.

I instructed the crew, which now included Peter’s daughter Cathy, to put in a couple of reefs and sorted out a watch rota. On the helm I swung Tarik Ladys bow towards Africa. The seakindly Gib’Sea handled the force 5 easily doing her best to top 7 knots while remaining totally dry in the cockpit. Dolphins escorted us through the Pillars of Hercules: Jebel Musa, the highest peak of the Rif Mountains at the Northern tip of Africa and the Rock of Gibraltar. My fix puts us where we were meant to be, so far so good.

The wind eased and we shook out the reefs as we headed South along the Moroccan coast. The Day had been overcast but now the sun broke through. The danger of shipping lanes were behind us and under full sail we were bowling along. It was bliss.

Marina Smir felt like a Moorish version of “The prisoner” set, with palm trees and intricate iron work. We were the only yacht there that night and, apart from a couple of resident motorboats, the place was empty. It is busier mid-season, but the peace made a nice change from the Solent.

Back in time

After a beer ashore we ate on the boat, as we had done alternate nights, with superb home-cooked meals prepared by Peters wife. After supper I took a walk along the beach while others watched a video onboard. Feeling the sand between my toes it was hard to imagine the chill winds of home. Next morning, a taxi took us to the local town of Tetuan.

A half hour drive and we travelled 700 years back in time. A guide steered us through a labyrinth of alleyways, rich with the smell of bread baking in wood ovens. There was the inevitable carpet shop tour with skilful sales patter, and a visit to a spice shop with potions that promised miracles for malady. The food market was the highlight with piles of vegetables, mountains of olives and towers of colourful fruit. Then, through the crowds came a Sheppard driving his flock of sheep before him. You just don’t get that at Tescos.

After a good lunch onboard we headed north, 12 miles back up the coast to Ceuta, the Spanish enclave on the tip of Northern Africa. Suddenly dolphins appeared again, with seven or eight diving around the boat. I lay on the foredeck mesmerised by the grey-blue shapes weaving through the bow wave just inches beneath me.

Night sail

We dropped anchor behind the sea walls in Ceuta for an evening meal. The Spanish held on to the port when Morocco won independence in 1956, and today there is a lot of fast ferry traffic from Spain. Peter often takes the crew ashore to explore, but we had no time: there was a night sail ahead of us. Setting off at dusk we headed north, back across the Strait for Sotogrande, 23 miles up the Eastern Spanish Coast.

As the sun was setting, a pilot whale surfaced briefly before vanishing under our bow. Then as night fell the dolphins returned, luminous shadows in the water streaking up on the boat, leaving trails of phosphorescent sparks before slipping away. Our passage across the Strait took seven hours in a good sailing breeze. It’s one of the busiest sea areas in the world and you can’t get much better light recognition practice. After my mid-passage brush with the Spanish yacht, it was a relief to pick out the lights of Sotogrande. I avoided mistaking the green pharmacy light for a starboard mark and guided us into the plush marina.

Friday was spent practicing our man over-boards and sailing skills as we headed north to La Duquesa, a marina development with a real Costa del Sol feel and no shortage of fish and chip restaurants. The final day was a glorious six hour beat back to Gibraltar with a good breeze and flat seas. A debrief followed and Peter gave David and Rex their respective Competent crew and Day Skipper tickets. The Yachtmaster Coastal Skipper qualification can only be awarded by an independent RYA examiner, I was given a Certificate of Coastal Skipper Course Completion which is awarded if the Instructor believes you have reached the Yachtmaster Coastal standard and are ready to take the exam.

If you want to gain sailing experience and sea miles in the sunshine with good winds and all the advantages of escaping chilly Britain, then this course could be for you. Tarik Lady is also available for Skippered charter allowing tailor made tuition or just a relaxing holiday. The dolphins are included in the price.