The Narrow Staatenlos Escape From Mainland Spain To The Open Atlantic
The SY Staatenlos crew was enjoying touring Southern Spain after nearing completing a long first voyage from the Adriatic to the Atlantic. We had sailed all the way from Montenegro, overcoming stormy seas and a faux kidnapping along the way, and possibly seeing the tip of Atlantis as well.
But suddenly everything was at risk. We found ourselves just minutes away from being trapped in locked-down mainland Spain. Would we get stuck in lockdown for some time or would we escape European covidiocy and successfully sail away to safe passage to the Atlantic? Read on and find out about the daring end to our journey across the Mediterranean.
We left off from our last log at sea in Almeria, the capital of the Andalusia province in the south of Spain. We had dropped off all of our guests, had dinner in Almeria, and were ready to set sail again at around 10 p.m.
We planned to sail from Almeria to a town called Motril, but some unexpectedly good weather led us to a change of heart. It was a bit rainy but the waves were calm, so we decided to continue to the Benalmadena marina outside of Malaga instead.
It was quite beautiful all along the southern Spanish coastline. We enjoyed a dramatic backdrop of the towering Sierra Nevada mountain range, which we could see all the way from the boat.
The journey was almost 100 nautical miles that we intended to sail over the next 3 days. However, inspired by the idyllic weather, we decided to motor through instead. We made it in just 16 hours, arriving at the Benalmadena marina at 2 p.m. the following afternoon.
A ghost of the world’s best marina
Benalmadena has a large marina, which received the “Best Marina in the World” award twice in the 1990s. Today, it is visibly aged and feels like a spooky ghost town with no tourists because of the pandemic paranoia.
There were actually quite a few boats in the marina and about half of the restaurants remained open, but it was still not very lively. We decided to stay almost a week anyway because we had some work to do on the boat.
We finally got our new sails delivered, and we were able to fix our lazy bag, which is used to hold the mainsail. We had broken our lazy bag on the way to Almeria due to some heavy waves that broke the rope (called a snubber) attached to the bag. We also received and installed our new satellite phone/internet receiver before our upcoming crossing into the Atlantic.
We wanted to finally attach our bowsprit which we’d agonized over in Montenegro. Unbelievably, we came up against yet another barrier that prevented us from installing it on the boat.
It turned out that this former best marina in the world didn’t have the right pontoons for us to attach the bowsprit. A pontoon allows you to be on any side of the boat without being rocked by the motion of the waves. There was quite a bit of swell in that harbor, and without the right pontoons to hold us steady, we couldn’t successfully attach the equipment. 🤦
Despite that setback, it was a nice place just to hang out for a while. We stayed for 6 days and ended up leaving just 5 minutes before a new lockdown in Andalusia began that included a strict interregional travel ban. Luckily, our sails arrived that very same day. Had we left just a few minutes later, we might have been stuck in that marina for another two weeks. Instead of getting trapped there, we chose to leave and sail to the Canary Islands.
Topless in Andalusia
Rather than spending those long 6 days on the boat in Benalmadena, I stayed just the first Friday to do some work and then hired a car to see more the subsequent days.
I went to the airport in Malaga to pick up the convertible car I had reserved. I received an upgrade to a BMW420i, a model I’d driven in Germany in June. Even though you can’t drive as fast in Spain as in Germany, it was still perfect weather for cruising in a convertible. 😊
Andalusia was actually one of the first regions I had traveled to back in 2012. Back then, I’d taken a Spanish course in Granada for 3 weeks and then gone around Andalusia by bus.
Now, as someone who does not fancy public transport, I found it much more flexible to explore with my rented car instead of the bus.
Fear and fun in Ronda
The following day, I went to Ronda, a city famous for being one of the few in the world that is naturally split in half by a dramatic chasm. The chasm is called the El Tajo Gorge. I enjoyed the views driving along those beautiful mountainous roads.
I had wanted to see the famous viewpoint first when I arrived in Ronda, and I saw many people going up by car or bicycle. Many paths started at the bottom, but they all led up into one very narrow road.
It was so narrow that it was really only one lane, and if someone was coming from the opposite direction, there wasn’t enough space to pass. Instead, the driver could only go backward. And that’s what happened to me. 😨
I didn’t stop and park, I tried to just drive through it, but soon I was faced by traffic coming from both directions. I was almost 500 meters down this road, and I had to reverse all the way back out, very carefully. If I made any mistake at all, it would have either sent me crashing into the cars on my right, or careening down into rocks and falling off the cliff to my left.
Overall it was quite annoying, stressful, and it ended up taking a lot of my time. It took maybe half an hour of driving the car in reverse in very tight conditions before I was able to leave that place and just have some fun driving around Ronda.
I just had a look around Ronda, which is also famous as one of the primary places in Spain to see bullfights in a huge white arena. Obviously, no bullfights were happening in corona-times, but there were still plenty of local tourists.
It was pleasant to look around for a while before going farther down the coast to Marbella.
Marbella is one of the fancier tourist resort towns in Costa Del Sol. I went to a marina called Puerto Banus, which is pretty much the high-life-millionaire marina of Costa Del Sol. 😎
There are many big yachts in the harbor there, plenty of Ferraris scattered in the streets, and the sidewalks are lined with high-profile shops and restaurants.
I had a lovely afternoon there, ate some ice cream, and took some photographs of all the Ferraris and yachts. From there, I went back to the Benalmadena marina to sleep.
Almost alone at the Alhambra
The next day I went to the Alhambra of Granada, one of the most visited tourist attractions in Europe. I didn’t know it yet, but that turned out to be the last day anyone could have gone to the Alhambra. The day after that, Granada would be completely locked down to outside visitors, and I would feel it personally.
Anyway, at the moment, I was still blissfully ignorant of the impending lockdown. I took the motorway through Granada, straight to the Alhambra.
I walked all around, especially at Generalife’s Palace, the Palace of Nazaries, and the Alcazaba of Alhambra.
I won’t go into too much detail because it was basically your typical tourist visit except for how incredibly empty it was. There were still a handful of tourists there, but really nothing compared to how it would usually look.
Because of all of the crazy coronavirus restrictions, I had the opportunity to take great photos of the Alhambra with perfect weather and few other tourists.
Living the high life
After leaving the Alhambra, I took the car up the Sierra Nevada, a high coastal mountain-range that peaks at an impressive 3400 meters. I visited a ski resort at 2700 meters altitude, where there was some snow on top.
There I saw amazing views of Pico del Veleta, the 3rd highest mountain in Spain at almost 3400 meters. I hiked around a bit, but mostly I took advantage of my convertible ride all around those curvy steep streets.
I went back down again through the mountain roads to my overnight destination. That night I stayed in La Corrala, positioned near a little-used mountain pass that would take me back down to the south coast again.
I stayed at a fine hotel there just opposite a castle. I had some pretty tasty lamb for dinner there, got a restful night’s sleep, and in the morning took the mountain pass back to the coast by way of the Sierra Nevada.
The Rebellion of the Alpujarras
The region along the southern slope of the Sierra Nevada range is called Alpujarras. Historically, the area was developed under Moorish leadership in Spain. The Moors followed the Islamic faith, and as you may know, Muslim and Jewish people were expelled from Spain in 1492.
Despite the expulsion, there were still many Moorish Muslims living in the Alpujarras region because it was relatively inaccessible to the majority of Spain, and therefore difficult to control.
The situation came to a head during a 16th-century rebellion that pinned Muslims against Christians and ended with the death of the last Moorish leader in 1571.
I cruised around Alpujarras in my convertible just long enough to enjoy the beautiful mountain views and feel the wind in my hair. With good weather on my side, I was going to make the most of my day.
Held-up by the police
On the way from Alpujarras to the next town, I was stopped and questioned by a whopping 6 police officers. They were controlling people who wished to enter or exit Granada, due to the new restrictions. As I learned later, the lockdown effectively started on this day, which meant that basically no inhabitant of the Granada province was permitted to leave.
Luckily, the police let me pass after I explained that I was just on a short trip away from my boat, which sat in the marina near Malaga. After explaining my situation, they looked at my passport, saw that I’m a tourist, and decided to let me go.
I was scared I might encounter more police as I continued driving, but they were only at the end of the province, so I didn’t have any other issues after that.
I drove on to Trevelez, the highest village in Spain sitting 2200 meters tall. I had traveled there once before, but I had only visited briefly by bus. It felt good to be back in Trevelez again, this time higher up in the mountains, where I took some pictures of the town.
Trevelez is famous for its jamon serrano, which translates to “mountain ham” in English. Jamon serrano is a delicious Spanish ham aged 7-16 months at a very high altitude.
Of course, I couldn’t resist buying a big leg of ham there. As you may remember, we had also picked up a huge leg of ham in Croatia that was almost 10 kilos. Now, we had another 10 kilos of ham to eat along the way to the Canary Islands.
The Balcony of Europe
From Trevelez, I continued a bit farther down the slopes of the Sierra Nevada to Capileira, the tallest and northernmost village of the Alpujarras district.
After that, I drove down to Nerja, a coastal city not far from Malaga. Nerja is a famous destination for tourists to see “the Balcony of Europe,” an attractive promenade in the cliffs that features panoramic views of the mountains and Costa del Sol.
I snapped some pictures and had an ice cream before driving all the way back to the Malaga marina, where we would stay another 3 days to finish preparing the boat.
Clever new crewmates
While we waited for our new sails to arrive, we were happy to welcome two new crew members aboard, both women from Ukraine. Despite not being from an E.U. country, they maneuvered their way into Spain by thinking outside of the box.
We had first started talking when they were in Turkey. They wanted to join us, and we wanted them to come as well, but there were heavy travel restrictions for non-E.U. citizens to enter E.U. (and especially Schengen) countries during this pointless pandemic.
Apparently, there’s a trick that these ladies used to get around the restrictions. You can travel overland from Turkey to Bulgaria, which is an E.U. country, but not in the Schengen zone. Because they are both within the European Union, it’s easy to buy a ticket to travel from Bulgaria to Spain without any problem.
So, they couldn’t have traveled directly from Turkey to Spain, but they could go from Turkey to Bulgaria to Spain, and they did. In Spain, they were issued regular visas, and they made it just in time to meet us in Malaga before the lockdown began.
Preparing for departure
The girls and I went on a big shopping trip in preparation for the lockdown coming up that Tuesday. I returned my rental car to the Malaga airport that evening, which I found to be eerily devoid of people. It felt so surreal to see that normally very busy airport almost completely empty.
I took an Uber back from the airport and had a nice dinner afterward. I had mentioned earlier in this post that there were still some restaurants open around the Benalmadena marina. Luckily for us, plenty of these restaurants remained open, although now a 10 p.m. closing time was imposed upon them. We could still have a good dinner in the evening, but it had to be early.
On Wednesday, our sails finally arrived! We had ordered a G2 gennaker for sailing downwind, and a G Zero for upwind conditions, from the company North Sails. Unfortunately, we still couldn’t put them to use. We’d wanted to sail with those on the way to the Canary Islands but couldn’t because the bowsprit still wasn’t attached. Despite this inconvenience, at least now we had obtained all of the materials we needed, and we hoped to finally install them in the Canary Islands.
We decided not to attempt to do these final installments at a different marina in mainland Spain, first because of the lockdowns, and secondly, because the weather looked perfect to start sailing.
The nick of time
Thursday was our last day in the Benalmadena marina. We had planned to leave at midnight to go to Gibraltar, where we wanted to explore a bit and spend the day.
Just by chance, when I went out for dinner that evening, I saw that a full lockdown of Andalusia was being planned that would prohibit interregional travel. If we got stuck on the wrong side of that travel ban, it would mean two more weeks confined to Andalusia before we could go to the Canary Islands.
With the lockdown imminent, we set sail just ten minutes before the law went into effect on Friday at 12 a.m. We exited the marina at 11:55 p.m., just before they could have prohibited us from leaving.
As planned, we sailed all through the night to Gibraltar. We arrived there at sunrise, just in time to take some beautiful photos of the rock. We filled up many fuel canisters there, which would be enough to motor through to the Canary Islands.
Finally, we set anchor right near La Linea harbor on the Spanish side of Gibraltar and waited to embark toward the Atlantic Ocean.
The Strait of Gibraltar is the waterway that connects the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. It also separates Spain from Morocco and Europe from Africa. We went through the Strait of Gibraltar that night with fair weather conditions after the wind let up.
As our 4 month journey across the Mediterranean came to an end, we looked forward to 4 days of sailing the Atlantic Ocean to the Canary Islands. We were lucky to get out just at the last minute and leave the coronoia hellscape that had become mainland Europe.