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Sunday, July 3, 2011, in Gibraltar

Hi everyone and a big happy 90th to the Poppa. We’re in Gibraltar, at the official entrance to the Mediterranean. It’s a tiny bit of United Kingdom in the midst of Spain, so we’re gorging ourselves on pub grub and shopping for boat parts in our native language. After this English-language interlude, we’ll be in Spain for months, and then France. Last week, we were in Chipiona, in Spain, and we left for El Puerto de Santa Maria.

The weather didn’t lend itself to an all-day sail, and the seas weren’t kind while we were motoring into the wind. In a few hours, we pulled into a harbor with walls splashed with lively drawings. Either we’d found delightful public art, or the place was riddled with graffiti. Luckily, the designs were cheerful and intentional.

We had arrived in Puerto Sherry, named, no doubt for the sherry producers in the nearby town of El Puerto de Santa Maria. For the record, the nearby city of Jerez de la Frontera is no doubt the namesake of the beverage. Jerez is, after all, the Spanish word for sherry. Sherry, it goes without saying, is the English word for sherry, and the English do like sherry. So this is like naming a marina on Cape Cod ���Port Bacalau,” just because the Portuguese eat a lot of cod. It’s just weird.

The marina itself sprawled through the harbor, surrounded by quarter-century-old, gutted concrete buildings under renovation by a team of contractors. This didnt look like the end of June, when you’d expect that families would be free for summer vacations, and hotels would have exterior walls. We walked around the marina until we reached the reception office inside the lighthouse at the breakwater.

I don’t remember whether all the marinas in the Mediterranean were paperwork fiends; maybe they were. But so far, we’ve nearly been interrogated in Spain at every stop. There are forms to fill out. We have to show our passports (luckily, everyone has been satisfied with a color photocopy rather than the actual booklet.) We have to prove that the boat is insured and that the documents are up-to-date. Then there is always the matter of the security key to the docks.

For the record, I like that marinas now prevent unauthorized people from wandering around on the docks. We’d been boarded in the middle of the night in Belfast, by kids who simply used the locking doors as a jungle gym. I didn’t like that, and I’m happy that most places have better security than that. Still, it seems like the key situation could be a little easier.

Every place we’ve been, we’ve had to give them a deposit for an electronic credit card to swipe on the locked gate. The deposit has ranged from fifteen to twenty-five euros, and we get it back at the end of our visit. There are several issues. First, there�����������s the actual documentation for the exchange of the card.

Art showed me a receipt for us to return the key card that unlocked the docks, for which he gave Chipiona Marina a substantial deposit. By the time we returned the card and they returned the money, Art had signed the receipt three times and there were two official stamps recognizing his signature.

Second, there’s a logistical problem. You have to return the card during the office hours of the dock staff. This precludes, for example, leaving at first light, because you have to sit and wait for the office to open, and then it might be low tide. Of course, you could return the card during office hours and not leave your boat for ice cream after dinner or for a trip to the onshore bathroom. Sometimes a security guard can buzz you in. If they speak English…

It’s funny to me, because so many places have disposable key cards. You get them in garages where you park your car. Most metro systems in Europe (and the one in Washington DC) let you buy an electronic ticket and use it, and they don’t want it back after you’re finished with it. If they can code onto it what dock you can visit, can’t they code when you are leaving?

The port we were visiting, El Puerto de Santa Maria (Port of Saint Mary), made a cameo appearance in Homer’s Odyssey as Menestheus's Port. It was renamed “Port of Salt” (actually Alcante) by the Moors, and finally named by Alfonso X of Castile in 1260 as Puerto de Santa Maria. He was so happy that the church there had cured his swollen legs that he wrote a song about it.

Christopher Columbus’ second expedition to the Americas began in El Puerto de Santa Maria, but you never hear about the second time anything happens. He lived in the castle in town for three years. His pilot did draw the first world map in history right in this town. So sometimes you never hear of the first time, either. And the Santa Maria was fitted out in this town, and named for it as well.

All of these maritime adventures gave the town the unlikely nickname of Captain Generalcy of the Ocean Sea. I hope that the two sets of redundancy are a quirk of translation. Everyone knows that you should never go to sea with two chronometers; take one or three. So I recommend Captain General Admiral of the Ocean Waters Sea.

El Puerto occupies one of the corners of the “sherry triangle”, the other corners being Jerez de la Frontera and Sanlúcar. So we decided to take the tour offered by a leader in sherry, Osborne. The tour began with a short film that describes the company, originally begun in Spain by an Englishman two centuries ago, and now an international conglomerate, now pronounced Osborne-ay, with a Spanish lilt. Most of our tour took place in rooms filled with barrels aging, a double entendre, as the wine in the barrels is aging, and the barrels themselves are aging. There are five thousand of them in the facility, and they’ve been using the same Virginia oak for a long time, mending barrels until they absolutely cannot be used anymore (at which time they’re reassigned to cognac, somewhere else in the Osborne empire.) Some parts of the process are pretty close to the way things were done two centuries ago, such as the oak barrels, and managing the temperature and humidity with a hose on the floor instead of air conditioning.

The main varieties of sherry are fino, the dry version, and oloroso (which means “scented”), both from the Palamino grape. There’s also a sweet dessert wine, forty percent sugar (think of that; this might be more sugar than ice cream). The fino wine looks like a white, and the oloroso varies from a pinkish zinfandel color to a burgundy. The dessert wine kind of looks like maple syrup.

The barrels are aged using a solera system, in piles, three stories high. The bottom barrel contains the oldest brew, and occasionally, nearly half of the contents of a barrel are removed and replaced with younger sherry from the next level up, and then that’s replaced with the newest sherry in the top barrel. This way, the sherry is blended before it’s aged. Sherry doesn’t show a year on its label, because nobody knows how old the oldest part of it might be.

The fino sherry is the driest and the lightest in color. It ages under an insulating layer of yeast. The absence of yeast in the sweeter wines allows the brew to oxidize and darken.

Sherry, though beloved by the British, is considered “underappreciated.” I think that’s code for “people don’t really like it.”

Ferdinand Magellan set out in 1519 to sail around the world, and he spent more money on sherry than on weapons. If he had known that he’d meet his end in a battle in the Philippines just shy of completing that voyage, I think he might have reconsidered that decision.

The British developed an appreciation for sherry when Sir Francis Drake sacked Cadiz (the city in this area) in 1587. In his defense, the Spanish Armada was there planning an invasion of England. He brought back 2,900 barrels of sherry that he “found” in the port. That’s about two-thirds of the size of Osborne’s factory.

Our next voyage was a long one, so we left very early in the morning. I could barely see the fenders and lines in the dark as I was putting everything away, and the swell in the harbor sucked the life out of me for a few hours. But the remainder of the trip to Gibraltar was dead-calm winds and flat seas. We motored by a rock cape called Trafalgar, where Lord Nelson’s navy proved that the British fleet could defeat the enemy’s massive armada, although Nelson himself didn’t make it back to England.

The next place of concern was another Spanish cape, Tarifa, where 300 days a year there are winds of more than thirty knots. When we passed, the winds were about five knots, which made me very happy.

We found our way to a marina in Gibraltar, where we’d spend some time at the northern entrance to the Mediterranean. Tiny but strategically critical Gibraltar was transferred to the sovereignty of the United Kingdom from Spain in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, and has been a point of contention ever since. The territory has a special sort of tax status and independence, somewhat like the Channel Islands, or the Isle of Man. So the first thing we did was fill up our diesel tanks. While we were motoring across the enormous harbor to the fuel dock (with a Spanish marina in view at the other side), we caught the sight of a motor yacht called Eclipse.

Now the reason that this boat is called Eclipse is probably because it blocks out the sun anywhere it is. It’s the largest private yacht in the world, 163.5 meters (536 feet) long, owned by Russian magnate Roman Abramovich. The boat has two helicopter pads, 24 guest cabins, two swimming pools, several hot tubs, a disco hall, and a mini-submarine. It requires a crew of seventy to run it and reportedly is protected by a missile defense system. While we were motoring around, we saw two or three other megayachts in the harbor, their owners probably feeling poor in their 200-foot boats.

Gibraltar is the northern “pillar” of the legendary Pillars of Hercules. In his twelve Labors, Hercules is said to have stood with one foot on Gibraltar and one on an unnamed (and now debated) bastion on the Moroccan landscape, creating a bridge between them. It was long believed that this strait was the end of the world.

In 711, Tariq ibn Ziyad, the Muslim governor of nearby Tangier, Morocco, landed at Gibraltar to kick off his invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. The rock got its name from Tariq’s Mountain, or Jebel Tariq (you have to be kind of drunk to get the pronunciation right). The mountain returned from Mohammed in 1462, and remained with Spain until the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht that ceded the territory to the British.

You get used to seeing fortifications everywhere. From the marina side of the walled city (reclaimed land from the wall to the sea), there are only a smattering of entrances into the town through the wall. In fact, the entrance just across from the marina is closed for renovation, so every trip to town requires a calculation about which direction to go. You also have to get used to cannons alongside restaurants, in squares, and generally pointed at you wherever you walk.

Right across from the marina, but a longer-than-necessary distance, is the King’s Bastion, a rampart that’s been redeveloped into an entertainment center. It’s always interesting to be in a place where English is the language, because movies become an entertainment option. The only problem is that it’s summertime, so everything is a remake of a recent film that we wouldn’t have wanted to see, an action film where everything that stands in the beginning of the movie is decimated by the end, or a teen film with a plot that has a neurotic focus on body emissions. This entertainment center, nearly invisible from the street, also boasts a gaming salon, a bowling alley, and an ice rink, yes, ice, in summer, in Gibraltar.

Gibraltar was also our selected location for the ceremonial transition from cold, ocean cruising to Mediterranean balminess. I was keeping a list. For example, we needed to take down our precious “Karen’s cover”, the cover that closed in the back of the dodger so that we could keep some warmth in the cockpit. Instead, we installed our heretofore-unused bimini cover, a sun shield over the cockpit and some of the coachroof. From the Pillars of Hercules on, we no longer need to wear life jackets every moment that we are on deck; falling off into the water is no longer frigidly life-threatening. We gathered up our tiny summer clothes from their exile in the side cabin, and relegated most of our long-sleeved warm clothing homeward bound. We’d already been wearing straw hats rather than the billed caps of the north, but we made it official by pulling all of our sun hats from storage. Soon, we’ll pull out the spray bottle and the small fan and set them up in the cockpit for hot sailing days. And this was the official moment to relegate the Atlantic cruising guide to the bookshelf and pull out the first Mediterranean pilot book.

We spent the first few days here on boat-related tasks, because the tiny place doesn’t take that long to tour, and because we’re stretching out our visit over the better part of a week.

It’s Independence Day weekend for you guys. Naturally, the folks here aren’t celebrating with fireworks, unless it’s to say “good riddance” to us, with all of our tea dumping and muskets and all. But we hope that your weekend is full of festivity.

Love, Karen (and Art)