That Tunisia Trip

Catamaran, Sailing, Tunisia

Mixed weather in Licata.

Back in Licata there was more boat work to do, but the weather was still unstable with regular rain showers, so exterior work wasn't happening much. I spent some time doing interior jobs instead, such as fixing the fridge yet again.

Panoramic view from the castle. You can see the entire harbour, the cappucin cemetery and in the corner, Elvyra with one of our guide dogs.

There were a few nice days though. On one we ventured up to the castle and were accompanied there by two nice stray dogs that showed us the way and kept the other less friendly strays away.

Catamaran sailing.

Our friends Rob and Leslie (and cat Viwitt) had a newish Nautitech 46 Open catamaran and needed to do a trip out of the EU for tax reasons. They asked if we wanted to tag along for a couple days in Tunisia. We said yes, as we thought it was a good way to get some catamaran sailing experience and also see a bit of Tunisia.

Figuring out another boat.

We left with a forecast of 15 knots on the beam and a hoisted Gennaker on a top-down furler at the ready. The boat made an easy 7-8 knots with comfortable motion and I was enjoying the catamaran sailing. Unfortunately after about half an hour of this, the wind turned further upwind than announced. We bore off a bit, but in the next few hours the wind slowly picked up and soon seas started to build to the familiar but unpleasant Mediterranean short chop. As often in this region, especially in winter, the forecast had been mostly useless.

The ship's cat wasn't too sure about this weather either.

We rolled away the Gennaker and switched to the jib, which let us sail at a better angle upwind, but as you may have heard, catamarans don't like going upwind too much (and this was a liveaboard cruising cat, not a sporty one with leeboards). The ride turned quite uncomfortable, every few waves one would slam into the bottom of the bridgedeck and lift us off our feet. Books fell over and the cooker became unusable until Rob fetched the clamps to hold the pots in place, at which point nobody was feeling much like food anymore anyways. It didn't help that the boat had an unresolved warranty claim with the sliding doors, which were crashing around worryingly with every roll (and yes, catamarans do roll - just not as far). On the upside, watchkeeping at night from inside the cabin was far more comfortable than sitting around in the open cockpit of our monohull, especially in cold weather.

Sunset at sea.

This went on for most of the two day trip until the last night when we got in the lee of the Tunisian headland and things calmed down considerably. Nearer Tunisia there were a lot of very small open fishing boats, surprisingly far out, often with nothing but a flashlight or a headlamp for illumination. We got to Port Yasmine near Hammamet in the morning and had to clear in with the coast guard, the police and the national guard as well as getting a berth in the marina office. The officers were polite, but one asked for a "gift" and after being offered alcohol and chocolate, he helpfully pointed out that he meant cash when he said gift. Despite giving in to this, clearing in took most of the day, with little progress made at times. Eventually we were allowed to depart from the customs quay and moor the boat at a berth in the marina.

Pirate boat.

After catching up on sleep, we explored a bit. The marina area was affected by the collapse of tourism after the 2011 revolution. Many restaurants and shops were closed, although enough remained open and even in February (2019 in case you didn't keep up) quite a few tourists were milling about. The area was bustling with falconers trying to make money with bird photos and people luring tourists into shops to sell them "local" goods (one carpet had a made in China label still attached) at rip-off prices.

The only camel we saw.
The beach was strewn with washed up winter clothing and the occasional toy and gave us much to think about.

There was a small winter liveaboard community here and after meeting some of them, we got told where to find the real local shops - a short and cheap taxi ride out of the beachfront area and into a nearby roadside town. There one could find a small supermarket, spice shop, bakery (with many French pastries and some interesting bread) and even a wine seller, which had some pretty good wine (perhaps another gift from the French days). We stocked up on spices, olive oil soap, surprisingly cheap canned tuna and other goodies.

Carthage land theme park.

The wind was unsuitable for a return and we had to stay a few days longer than anticipated, but eventually a reasonable looking forecast for a return trip with optional stop at Pantelleria appeared. We left the marina berth in the morning and motored over to the customs quay to fuel up and clear out. Fuel is very cheap in Tunisia, so of course we would take as much as the boat could fit. We filled the tanks and then every jerrycan we could muster. This took a while, as the fuel nozzle was too big for the cans and we had to slowly fill it through a funnel. Meanwhile, Rob (the skipper) was standing around the various offices and clearing us out of the country.

Nice breakfast in the marina.

Eventually we were all filled up, our passports stamped, the boat papers returned (after more Baksheesh), the marina paid and we were about to cast off. This is where the fun began. A few national guard officers appeared and demanded we gave them our jerrycans. Now, there is quite a language barrier here. The official language in Tunisia is Arabic, and most people speak some French too. Unfortunately none of us spoke much of either, so we mostly conversed in pieces of broken English and French. Misunderstandings were pre-programmed. We asked why they wanted our jerrycans and were again told to hand them over. After a while of back and forth, we determined that we were apparently not allowed to fill fuel into jerrycans, which was of course entirely new to us, or we would not have done so, certainly not on the customs quay in plain sight of every office and with an uniformed officer watching us for part of it and wishing us a good day whilst doing so.

Standing around the problematic fuel station. There was a lot of standing around between all this. A lot.

We gave in and handed over the cans of fuel, expecting they would be emptied and returned to us. Instead, they disappeared in the back of a Garde Nationale vehicle, which promptly drove off somewhere, with both our fuel and containers. Well, we thought, clearly that was a nice shake-down, but there wasn't a great lot we could do about it, so we resigned ourselves to the loss of fuel and (more annoyingly) jerrycans and having already cleared out, we grumpily cast off and headed out to sea, ready to get the hell out of this place.


We had motored away from the coast for a while, the wind was just picking up and we were in the middle of raising the main sail, when a small, fast RIB appeared to be heading directly towards us. Once near enough, the two armed national guard officers started shouting at us to stop the boat. We asked why, and their only response was "the boss wants to talk to you" and that was all we could get out of them. We deliberated briefly and concluded that they were armed, their boat faster than ours and we were still in their territorial waters, so we dropped the main again and turned around, concerned.


Back on the customs quay yet again, we were told we had a "meeting" tomorrow morning at 9 and thus would have to stay another night. This of course meant clearing into the country yet again, which posed quite a task for everyone involved. We got some extensions hand-scribbled over our passport stamps and the marina gave us our old berth back. Due to the great language barrier and also perhaps not everyone being totally straight with us, it wasn't clear what exactly had occurred, but from what we could gather, we had apparently violated a brand new law that forbade filling fuel into jerrycans, for whatever reason, maybe related to fuel smuggling from Libya or perhaps related to human trafficking across the Mediterranean?

Fuel smuggler.

Apparently this was usually tolerated for cruising boats, as we regularly carry fuel in jerrycans as both reserve and also for safety, as these can be easily transferred to other boats in an emergency or used to run one's own engine in case of contaminated fuel in the main tanks. One explanation given to us was that a newly trained national guard officer wasn't aware of this and had simply called the local judge, which opened a case against us. We received a lot of help from the Port Yasmine marina manager, who offered to accompany us and translate and also drive us around. Rob and I were thus driven to the local customs headquarters, where we spent a few hours being questioned and watching an officer type up a long report about our case. We were told to sign this, despite being unable to read any of it (it was all in Arabic except for the boat name). I asked if we were going to get a copy to translate later and was told no.

At least the sweets were good.

Eventually the marina manager returned and explained that everything was okay, we would simply have to pay a fine for our misdeeds and were then free to leave. The fine would be again the value of the fuel that had already been taken away from us, around €65 (in Tunisian Dinar). Unfortunately the fine had to be paid in the regional capital of Nabeul. We hastened there by car, during mad rush hour traffic, finding a cash machine and working card combination just in time before the "Hotel du Finance" was about to close, and got a receipt for the fine literally in the last second.

Sneaking away.

Finally our case was closed and we were free to go, and due to my pesky asking, we even got our (emptied) jerrycans back, which involved some interesting business with an envelope that I won't mention further here. We left the same day, clearing out much faster at the various offices this time, and the marina gave us the extra night for free.

Fishing rowboat. This one is retired, but we've seen others like it in active us, some far out to sea, with no engine.

When we left the sun was about to set and we had missed most of our weather window, but we were all quite eager to get out of Tunisia. This resulted in some motoring, but at least we still had the fuel in the boat tanks for that. The way back was a much calmer ride and we just had to dodge the unlit boats at night that were fishing with navigation lights and AIS turned off south of Pantelleria.

Time to rest.

Would we go back to Tunisia? Maybe, maybe not. Definitely not with any fuel cans in sight. There wasn't much wrong with the place, but a small change in local law or interpretation thereof caused us a lot of trouble. We had no way of knowing about this as we were apparently the first to fall afoul of this new regulation, and other cruisers have since been suitably warned about it, but you never know what could trip someone up next. We were definitely quite happy to return to Licata.