Yesterday we transited the Strait of Gibraltar eastbound, passing between the Pillars of Hercules into the Mediterranean Sea. The Pillars, of course, represent the high peaks of the Spanish coast on the northern side of the Strait and the amazing, rugged highlands on the Moroccan coast to the South. Gibraltar itself dominates the transit, becoming visible as you complete a long turn northeast and head into the Alboran. Always an impressive sight, looming through the mists and rain that always seem to be the local weather (at least in my experience).
Geography lesson aside, let me venture a few personal observations and perhaps pedantic thoughts. To me this waterway has long been symbolic of my travels and adventures over the past thirty years, and of the thousands of years of sea-faring history that made Europe what it is. The Minoans, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, etc…all made voyages of trade and exploration on these waters, and empires rose and fell on the outcomes of the many naval battles that shattered ships and men. Trafalgar, Cape St. Vincent, the Malta Convoys, Operation Torch, all echo across time as we cruise into the Strait. I hear the crash of broadsides, imagine the “feathers” of U-Boat periscopes in the dark waters of the Approaches, and feel the trepidation and fear of Columbus’ crews as his small fleet began it’s momentous, world-altering voyage.
I first made this passage in late 1981 as a fresh Seaman Apprentice aboard a small, under-armed frigate; I remember standing my station as lookout and wondering what the big deal was, why this particular piece of water was any more significant than any other. Over the years and cruises that followed I became familiar with names like Nelson and Cunningham, places such as Casablanca and Rota, and my appreciation for this busy waterway increased. By the time I actually visited Gibraltar in 1988 (on my fourth deployment) and climbed the famous Rock, the arrival at the Bay of Cadiz and the Strait had become an important personal event. Today I cannot even count the number of times I’ve transited the safety fairway, east- and westbound, but the total must be in the hundreds.
So, after a bit of nattering-on, a few hours of close-quarters sailing amongst the many merchantmen steaming through with us, and the thrill, once more, of seeing the stark beauty of the peaks of Morocco, the lofty heights of Fortress Gibraltar, moving from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and all the adventures that lie ahead, I close this entry with an image in my mind of a tremendous fleet of phantom ships, manned by ghostly mariners from across the millenia. Not a Flying Dutchman, not sailors condemned for sins real or imagined, but the souls of thousands upon thousands of Sailors whose joy in the doing, and dreams of the voyage ahead, match mine as we sail together into the future as kindred spirits of the sea.
USNS ArcticMediterranean Sea