Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Dolphins at sunset

So far the wind has lived up-to the forecast's billing of light and variable. That said when the wind arrives it makes for dream sailing - smooth progress over a flat sea, with just the faint sound of the water lapping around the bow to break the silence.

The light winds are the result of a high sitting to my north, I was hoping the high pressure would impose a stronger easterly flow; each time the wind picks up I assume it's here to stay unfortunately it seems to vanish within an hour. I raised the spinnaker to try to make the most of the little wind there is. It's ideal spinnaker conditions, with no swell to unsettle the sail. In this configuration we sailed all afternoon making 1-3 knots, In the lulls I was reluctant to lower the spinnaker knowing the effort required to raise it again if the wind returned, however I finally gave in when the log read 0.0 knots.

Plenty of shipping about - there's normally at least one ship or fishing boat on the horizon - but no collision courses yet.

I set off without my usual frenzied dash around the markets for fresh provisions. Consequently I'm already having to ration onions. I've eaten the delicious peaches I bought, the fresh basil has died, but the rosemary I took from Isola Marettimo is lasting well - I think I'll survive though.

Despite being 50 miles off I can see the hills of Algeria to my south - be great if they could send some wind my way.

Plenty of wildlife today, with initially a couple of airborne visitors; a moth and a dragon-fly. The dragon-fly choose to perch itself preciously on top of the VHF aerial and the moth sunned itself on the corner of the spinnaker until I was forced to remove it before I dropped the sail. A couple more turtles floated close by and as the sun set, a school of dolphins joined me. I never tire of dolphin visits and this was especially memorable, with the calm clear water I could watch their antics far beneath the surface.

Some of them would swim briefly on their sides, seeming to watch me, watching them. As I stood at bow marvelling at their display, another school headed over, leaping out of the air as they rapidly converged. If they'd arrived five minutes later it wouldn't have been so spectacular as a slight wind rippled the surface, but as it was the timing was perfect. To add to the magic, a group of small tunas mocked my fishing attempts by jumping out of the water to the north, a turtle raised its head just in front of the boat and the reflection of the sun on the clouds covered the sea in gold leaf.

The dragon fly has moved its perch to a stanchion - but it still looks precarious. I've left some water out for it. I wonder if scientists in years to come will debate how the Algerian dragon-fly managed to the journey to the Azores?

Position @ 11.30 30th June: N37deg 40.3' Edeg52.7'

Monday, June 29, 2009

Westward from Sardinia

Firstly an apology for the lack of blog updates recently. The distractions inherent in coast and island hopping though Greece and Italy haven't lent themselves to establishing a regular blog writing routine. Also as the day rapidly approaches when I have to convince others to part with their money in exchange for my knowledge and skills, I'm spending time working out what those skills might be. /end-excuse.

I've been waiting for nearly a week in the Agate Islands off Sicily's west coast for the strong westerly winds to abate. Not that I'm complaining - any extra time in Italy is a bonus. The winds finally eased and after a quick dash to Sardinia, it was time to head on again especially with a benign forecast.

I left from an anchorage in the Gulf of Cagliari with a gentle northerly wind which rapidly morphed into a strong westerly. Not at all what the forecast had predicted, though given the changeable weather I've had so far in the Mediterranean it shouldn't have come as a surprise. Under doubly reefed main and genoa I tried to beat my way west as best I could, which turned out to be SW towards Algeria - not ideal but it felt great to be on my way again.

It's 715 miles to Gibraltar from my point of departure in Sardinia. My plan is to leave Gibraltar for the Azores on or before 13th July, which looks achievable, though a change in the weather could upset my timetable.

Unlike most trips, I set off not knowing exactly where my next landfall would be. I've the Balearic Islands to the north, and mainland Spain bordering the approaches to the Straits of Gibraltar. My initial unplanned SW journey makes a detour to the Balearic Islands unfeasible - besides which I don't have vast amounts of time left and I think I'd prefer to spend longer if possible in the Azores.

The strong westerly wind vanished after the first night at sea, so I've been motoring westwards with brief flurries of sailing activity. It's not going to be my fastest trip as I'm trying to sail as much as possible to preserve diesel even if it means I drift along barely making 2 knots. My latest plan is to make a landfall in Spain in Cabo de Grata - mainly to refuel and reprovision before pushing on to Gibraltar.

I've had an easy start. The autopilot has mainly worked - though there's still an intermittent problem, which has so far eluded detection. When activated the pilot only steers in one direction. After a while it "fixes itself" and in the meantime I've a work-around involving elastic.

The flat water has been perfect for spotting wildlife. I've seen a couple of turtles floating on the surface, had a brief dolphin visit and been through a field of small Portuguese man-of-war jelly fish, heading east with their sails up.

In an over enthusiastic bout of tidying-up I finally disposed of my rusty machete, which has provided coconut opening services throughout the Pacific islands. I guess I should exchange it for an olive de-stoner tool.

Another noteworthy change is that I'll be heading through the Greenwich meridian on this passage. I was confused for a while when my course to my Gibraltar didn't make any sense - I'd set the the waypoint as 2deg east rather than 2deg west.

Position on 29/6/2009 @ midnight: N38deg 17.1' E8deg 11.4'
Position on 30/6/2009 @ 2am: N37deg 52.8' E6deg 15.3'

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Messina to Milazzo in a gale

I awoke to strong southerly winds blowing through the marina and stirring up a confused sea in the strait. At last a favourable wind, though I wanted to ensure I timed my departure to avoid potentially nasty wind against tide conditions. I'd failed to predict the tidal direction the day before - I'd experienced 1.5 knots against me, though I'd anticipated that the tide would be with me. My Italian neighbours helpfully described the tidal regime - north until 2pm then south with a hour of slack water. I'd be going through 11.30-1 so all seemed good.

As the morning progressed, the wind increased. I can see why the marina insisted I berthed stern-to. Reversing out in the strong cross-wind would have been a challenge to the most experienced Mediterranean sailor, for me it would have been a disaster.
When I left the wind was a steady 25 knots with gusts to 30 knots. I arranged the the marina dinghy to keep my bow from falling off too soon and press-ganged a couple of other sailors to cast-off my lines. Thanks to the help my departure from the marina was without incident, almost professional.

I set off in search of the fuel pontoon I'd been assured I'd find along the shore a mile to the north. Sure enough I found it, but going alongside would be have been a disaster for the top-sides. I watched a pilot boat riding against the quay and decided that with the wind as it was, I'd manage without a refill. Instead I altered course for the northern entrance to the straits with nothing but a small genoa. I was making 7-8 knots over the water but only 4-5 knots over the ground, no wonder the sea was so confused. Not sure if I'd misunderstood my Italian neighbours, the tide certainly wasn't what I'd been led to expect, anyway I made it through though the tides in Messina Straits remain a mystery.

Once out of the strait I changed course to the NW expecting the wind to start easing the further I went from the funnel of the strait. How wrong can I be, with a tiny genoa on a reach Kika was heeling over as though we were fighting into the wind under full sail. The noise was incredible. Even though I was close to shore the fetch was enough to launch numerous waves over the side. It wouldn't have been pleasant further off shore. This wind wasn't predicted, though through-out the day, the radio broadcast updated forecasts each time increasing the strength.

I briefly considered heading downwind to one of the Aeolian islands rather than face a fine reach to Milazzo in the conditions. However I decided I'd press on and divert if I couldn't make my course. Fortunately the Kika took it in her stride and we made good time under a tiny genoa.

The Mediterranean weather is full of surprises, changing from a force 8+ to almost disappearing to a force 4 within 5 minutes. Then for the last hour it became highly temperamental, unpredictable and moody; dying and then returning with renewed vigor. Though it was hard work and at times deafening for me there's no contest between a tough sail and a long day's motoring.

I dropped anchor north of the main harbour in Milazzo, dried off and let my ears adjust to the evening sounds of the town.

6/6/09, Anchorage off Milazzo: N38deg 13.3' E15deg 14.7'

Friday, June 05, 2009

Rocella Ionica to Messina

I reluctantly dragged myself away from Rocella Ionica, even before the end of my free stay period, as I had friends joining me in a few days time in Sicily.

It was 67 miles from Rocella to Messina so as ever an early start was required, not helped by another night's liquor sampling with Luc. The little wind there was kept teasing me. Promising I'd be able to sail once I rounded the next headland only to shift and remain resolutely from ahead. Even with a favourable shift, it wouldn't have been strong enough to allow me to make Messina by night-fall. I resigned myself to a day of motoring.

Unfortunately the autopilot had its own ideas; only steering in one direction, which forced me to hand-steer. One benefit of being stuck at the wheel all day is there's more chance of seeing wildlife, such as the large jumping dolphins that I spied close to shore as I rounded the toe of Italy. Also as I rounded the "toe", I caught my first glimpse of the impressive snow covered peak of Mount Etna, floating above the haze.

My knowledge of Sicily was based mainly on the rural scenes in "The Godfather", which in no way prepared me for the sheer scale of Messina, nor the quantity of ferry traffic plying the strait or the large number of cruise ships in port.

The marina was a little north of the main port, and despite having a marina boat to help position Kika for stern-to berthing, the cross wind proved too much and required some deft fending off from myself and fellow sailors before I was securely moored. I say securely, but I wouldn't trust the marina in a storm. I was moored on the outer floating pontoon which undulates with the wash from passing ferries and large waves kicked up by the strong tides in the strait. It looked like the cracks in the concrete had been filled with epoxy, almost like taping over the problem.

I'd arrived on a Friday which turned out to be party night in the marina. It was an invitation only launch party for a new car. I felt slightly out of place as I wove between the chic party goers on the way to a much needed shower. I should have realised that such a glamorous event would come at a cost, but was still shocked at the price - 60 euros for one night's berthing.

5/6/09: Messina: N38deg 12.0' E15deg 33.6'

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Rocella Ionica

As my first taste of Italy, Rocella Ionica wasn't a bad introduction. The marina was free for the first week, after the first day the staff greeted you like a long lost friend, the shops in the nearby town were well stocked and there was a excellent pizzeria close-by, who sold their pizzas by the half metre. I celebrated my birthday with my French neighbour Luc, half-metre of pizza and completed the evening with Luc insisting I help him work through his impressive liquor collection.

The wind had shifted to the south so I happily spent a few days exploring the town on my trusty folding bike and generally acclimatising myself to the fantastic produce and Italian way of life.

4/6/09: Rocella Ionica: N38deg 19.6' E16deg 26.0'

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

To Italy

I left Meganisi sorry to leave Blue Marlin, but looking forward to the passage ahead and particularly my arrival in Italy.

As I set sail off the north of the island, the wind steering refused to steer a straight course. I'd reassembled the steering gear incorrectly. Fault finding is easy when you've made the same mistake before; the same thing happened leaving Panama. Half later after a detour into an anchorage and some spanner work and I was off again with the wind steering pointing me towards Italy.

As I headed away from the islands I left the large Ionian charter fleet behind and barely saw another boat until close to the Italian shore.

For a change the wind was initially from behind. It had been such a long time since I'd had a following wind that it took me a while to eliminate all the crashes from the lockers as Kika rolled from side to side. Later the wind shifted to the north giving a fantastic beam reach. What a joy to experience the bow crashing through the waves as Kika speeds across the sea without the drone of the engine.

The forecast reported favourable winds until the following day when they'd shift more to the west. Ho hum, can't have everything especially when I was sailing in a forecast area stretching to the southern Italian shore named by the Greeks as "boot"
Sure enough the following day the wind shifted to the west. First thing in the morning I had 111 miles to go to Rocella Ionica. By midday I still had 111 miles left to go. I was tacking to the north but as fast as I was making westing so I was heading north. The promised northerly shift,failed to materialise so by late afternoon, as the prospect of making landfall early for my birthday started to diminish, I decided it was time to take action - engine and electronic steering.
That night the radar kept me awake with its alarm, being unable to distinguish between approaching squalls and ships. I had impressive lightening storms to the south and very dark clouds overhead, plus the occasional fishing boat to contend with.

As night morphed into day, I left the dark clouds behind me, the shipping stopped, the sea calmed down and I could finally make an effortless 6 knots under sail on a direct course to Rocella Ionica.

I'd received a warning about the entrance to the port from Jasper on Antares - the approach had silted up and he advised giving the outer breakwater a wide berth - still it wasn't an easy entrance with the depth dropping rapidly and being unsure whether I should steer to port or starboard to find deeper water. Finally I made it in without the indignity of a grounding that Antares suffered.

3/6/09: Rocella Ionica: N38deg 19.6' E16deg 26.0'