Two backpacking Americans lost at sea as ferry sinks in the Strait of Gibraltar.
That was the headline we envisioned in USA Today as another passenger fainted beside us. Though we spent nearly the whole day waiting to cross the strait, within a matter of minutes, we wanted off the ferry.
Our morning had started off rather peacefully. After one last delicious breakfast at our guesthouse in Tangier, we set off to the ferry station to buy tickets for the 10:30am ferry ride to Tarifa, Spain.
Upon arrival, the ferry station was crowded and chaotic, but we chalked it up to typical foreign travel. That is, until we soon learned that all ferries had been cancelled for the day due to high winds.
The Levante is an easterly wind (also called cherqi/shergi) that funnels through the Strait of Gibraltar around the Rif Mountains. Gusts get so strong that it can make the waters extremely rough and unsafe for the 30-minute ferry crossing.
The cashier offered up tickets for another ferry leaving from a different location instead. Even though we didn’t understand how the same crossing from another port would be any different, we went ahead and purchased the tickets and jumped into a taxi heading to the other port.
After making it through security and customs though, we found out we had (literally) missed the boat.
We found ourselves back in line where another cashier told us we could apply our tickets to the next ferry ride. By then, however, all ferries had been temporarily suspended as the winds were much too strong.
So, we did what everyone else did. We found a place to sit and waited. And waited. And waited.
Hours passed. By 3:30pm, we were considering whether or not we should call our guesthouse host, Maggie, to see if we could spend another night. Just then, an announcement was made – the ferry would begin boarding.
Everyone quickly filed into a line – progress, finally! The ferry was nice and spacious with rows of seating, as well as a large lounge area with tables and chairs. We grabbed a table for two, sat down and once again, waited. And waited. And waited.
An hour later, the ferry had not moved. Well, except for our bobbing up and down in place which admittedly, was a bit rough. Surely, we wouldn’t feel the turbulence once we started moving… right? We looked out the window. The waters, indeed, looked choppy. And Tarifa seemed much farther away than a half hour.
After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, the ferry engine started up and we finally began to move.
The first swell we encountered was actually kind of fun. However, the second, third, and hundreds that followed afterwards were not. Passengers began to close their eyes – either to try and relax or to not see the horizon line consistently disappearing from the ferry windows.
One woman bent over, holding her head in her hands in agony. An older man’s eyes rolled up as he began to pass out. A little girl held her stomach before throwing up into her mom’s oversized purse.
We looked at one another, trying not to panic, and decided to play cards to distract ourselves.
As we toppled through the storm, minutes felt like hours. The ferry felt rudderless and like us, totally out of control.
We began shielding ourselves from looking at the other passengers. Many were groaning from seasickness. Every now and then, we’d glance out the windows to see if our destination was getting any closer. But we only saw the foreboding grey clouds above in the sky or the solid blue abyss below of the sea.
Just then, the ferry took a nose dive and all the loose tables and chairs began to slide forward. A few people fell to the ground, losing their balance. We held out our hands to catch the cards sliding off our table. Yet another passenger fainted.
That was it. The situation was no longer mildly amusing. We were terrified.
By now, any babies and kids on board were crying. Dialogue had gotten louder and more panicked. Those who remained quiet clutched their seats with white-knuckles and clenched jaws. Holding our belongings tightly, we tried to stay calm and clear headed.
We began to discuss logistics: if the ferry were to capsize, what was our plan of action?
We had seen where the life boats were – we’d just have to ensure we could dislodge them from the ferry. Then, we’d need to assess if it made sense to continue on to Spain or turn and head back to Morocco. We looked around to see which people seemed able-bodied to help us with a life boat.
As we prepared for a worst case scenario, the overhead speaker came on. While we couldn’t understand the Arabic, the relieved looks on people’s faces said it all. We were arriving.
Within a few minutes, the Port of Algeciras appeared. As the ferry slowed its engine, we looked around – everyone appeared somber and frankly, traumatized. When we finally docked, we silently gathered our belongings and walked off.
We nearly kissed the ground. But as the rain continue to pour down, we soon hailed a taxi to our guesthouse.
On our first evening in Spain, we each enjoyed many Cruz Campo beers at local restaurant, Meson Guijuelo 15. They tasted divine after our perilous journey – particularly after a month of not drinking alcohol in Morocco. We toasted to drowning in beer instead of in the sea – thankful that our families would never have to read about our demise in the newspaper.