As we quickly tidied up the boat to get ready to sail from Gibraltar to Rabat, Morocco, I examined the charts closely to understand the route we would be taking across the busy traffic channels in the Strait of Gibraltar. There were so many frighteningly large ships moving across the screen on AIS that our chart plotter looked like an arcade game of Frogger with red-outlined vehicles moving in two organized streams, threatening to squash me as I tried to move across the strait.
If you were a child of the ’80s and ’90s, you might remember the game Frogger.
We would have to pull in with the traffic flow going west, then nudge ourselves slowly south until an opening appeared wide enough for us to make a 90-degree bee-line across the hectic traffic separation scheme (TSS) to the north side of Africa. But I’d been watching the cargo ships moving quickly across the screen for the last half hour and there didn’t seem to be many opportunities for our small cruising ship to cut safely from one side to the other.
There are few places in the world where you can find commercial traffic as heavy as it is in the Strait of Gibraltar, a narrow conveyor belt running ships between Europe and Africa. But New York Harbor, where I first learned to sail, is one of those busy ports, so I wasn’t overly concerned about the traffic we’d be encountering. After years of sailing in and around New York City, we were used to being constantly vigilant, tacking and weaving between cargo ships and ferries as we made our way out to Sandy Hook to anchor for the weekend or headed up the Hudson River for the day.
Ryan, keeping a lookout for oncoming traffic to avoid.
When we first started sailing, we conversed with every experienced sailor we met, collecting tips on weather, navigation, engine trouble and sailing to faraway places. And we were surprised at the number of times we were told “never sail at night if you can help it; it’s very dangerous.” We laughed because night sailing in New York Harbor was one of our favorite pastimes. With the famous Manhattan skyline lit up along the Hudson River, our boat was always blanketed in the glow of the city as though we were sailing under a hundred moons. What was everyone talking about – “sailing at night is dangerous”? Sailing in the busy traffic of New York was all we knew at that time, so it hardly seemed dangerous to us.
It wasn’t until we sailed out of New York to the Bahamas and the Caribbean in 2012 that we realized how little boating traffic exists out there when you move away from New York Harbor. If you jump out on the ocean, you see less than a handful of boats a day. If you stay inside the Intracoastal Waterway, you might spot a few more boats, but between ports, traffic is scarce compared to the areas around New York City.
As I nudged the bow of Cheeky Monkey out into the Strait of Gibraltar, however, I was reminded how heavily surrounded with traffic I once was and how blissfully spacious the seas have been since we left New York. Pulling into oncoming cargo ship traffic in the strait was suddenly foreign and stressful and required being vigilant to the movements of hundreds of ships who all had right-of-way over our slow-moving vessel.
These ships may look heavy and slow-moving, but they bear down quickly.
Kristi and I sat at the helm, examining the AIS information of oncoming vessels and ships who approached quickly from all directions, trying our best to navigate a path that would be the least nuisance to the priority commercial traffic surrounding us.
As we traveled west along the south coast of Spain with the flow, it seemed like there was never going to be a break in the shipping lanes to get us cleanly from one side of the purple TSS band, which was marked clearly on the chart plotter, to the other. So we took the first small opening we had to turn Cheeky Monkey at a 90-degree angle to the TSS.
To me, the TSS on my chart plotter looked narrow and easy enough to cross, though the traffic on either side of the purple band seemed to still be speeding densely at us in both directions. TSS traffic flows like a highway – the north line of traffic moves from east to west and the south line of traffic moves from west to east. My challenge was to get across the traffic moving west to east at speeds three times faster than Cheeky Monkey so that I could continue moving southwest along the coast of Africa without getting in the way of anyone.
So once Cheeky Monkey’s little ship icon reached the other side of the purple band on my on-screen game of cargo-ship Frogger, I breathed a sigh of relief and turned the boat to head southwest again. Which is when a loud, stern voice came over VHF channel 16 saying, “Cheeky Monkey, Cheeky Monkey, Cheeky Monkey, you are to maintain a 90-degree angle until you cross the TSS!”
Bird’s eye view of the Strait of Gibraltar from a scenic point in Gibraltar.
I looked at Kristi, confused. “We crossed it, didn’t we?” We zoomed in on the chart and looked again at the purple band marking the traffic zone. I was pointing to a purple line running across the screen when Kristi zoomed out and pointed to a second purple line running across the bottom of the screen just north of the coast of Africa.
“Whoa! I thought that purple band there was the TSS! It goes from that band to the other band?” I said, with my hand moving up and down the length of the screen. “Shit!”
I had suddenly realized my mistake when the radio piped up again, “Cheeky Monkey, Cheeky Monkey, Cheeky Monkey, what are your intentions?”
“Um, we want to go to Morocco?” I responded into the radio, flustered, as Kristi laughed hysterically at the ridiculousness of my answer. Put on the spot, I had no idea what the yelling man meant by my “intentions,” but it probably wasn’t a diary of my day’s plans, or what I was craving for lunch.
Having realized I had not, in fact, crossed the traffic separation scheme, I turned Cheeky Monkey back to a 90-degree angle and continued on a hair-raising path cutting between cargo ships, putting both engines on full throttle and speeding towards the North African coast as fast as I could go to avoid being hailed on the radio again.
Cheeky Monkey, pulling into the harbor in Rabat, well away from the TSS traffic.
99% of the time we are out sailing, regardless of the waters we are in, there is ample room to maneuver, deal with mishaps, change course and relax, allowing the direction of the wind to dictate the course towards our next destination. It’s often a peaceful, slow-moving process with our boat sailing along comfortably at a humble 6-7 knots with no one else on the horizon.
But the traffic separation scheme in the Strait of Gibraltar jarred me out of that peaceful reverie and reminded me that vigilance and precision are paramount where traffic is dense and strict rules govern a safe crossing. We’d been sailing in empty waters for so long that I didn’t properly anticipate how heavy the traffic would be getting from Spain to Morocco.
If sailing in the New York Harbor was like getting to Level 3 of Frogger, then the Strait of Gibraltar was Level 10. And I didn’t have enough practice in this game to remember how not to get smashed by an oncoming vehicle. Luckily, we got safely across the TSS and pulled into Rabat with no harm done. But next time I might just review my book of navigational rules before diving into the shipping lanes again.