A telephone conversation with the hugely knowledgeable Barry has been very reassuring and once I have carried out a few precautionary adjustments, I feel that the next time I feel compelled to turn the engine off and experience the joys of silent sailing; I will have a better idea of how to address any ensuing problem.
The view from offshore of the coast of Campania and Calabria suggested a different Italy to the more northern regions. The coastal villages were small and the individual white dwellings were clustered together around the central church, all with terracotta roofs. The pilot book suggested that the villages were mostly charming and worth a visit. It is a shame that I have to speed past them and not explore ashore.
The wind continued to die away and at 16.30 there was not a breath and the sea had become glassy smooth. Just imagine if I had not managed to start the engine and had been wallowing around, going nowhere !
I had intended to take the direct route overnight from Capo Palinuro to Messina but there was a large fleet of 12 fishing boats showing on AIS clustered directly on the course. It seemed prudent therefore to skirt around the coast which should also retain the mobile signal. This seemed like a good plan until I spotted a line of small, semi submerged orange floats in the water across my course dead ahead. I thrust the controls astern and 15 tons went from 6knots to nil just as the floats and the now visible suspended net disappeared under the bow. They say that bad news comes in threes so I hope this is the third and final issue I will encounter on this cruise. The net emanated from a rusty fishing boat some way away which was not on AIS. As I approached to go round them, they seemed most grateful that I hadn’t crashed through their net but they could have done a lot to prevent the situation, they could have called me by name on the VHF had they been on AIS. This area must be alive with fish to justify this much fishing activity. Despite being inshore of the glut of the fishing fleet, there was a stream of vessels crossing my path throughout the night, presumably as they returned and left their home ports.
I have to confess that I slept through my alarm on one occasion in the night. I have replaced the battery and it now makes a more strident appeal for wakefulness.
At about 0915, 17 miles before the Strait, a menacing grey boat descended on Hejira at speed. The caption on the side was Guardia di Finenza – again. They ordered me to stop, which was difficult given that I had a full mainsail and was doing a few knots in the light wind even with the engine in neutral. They were busy deploying fenders and I dreaded them coming alongside from the way they were handling the vessel. They took exception when I brandished my camera intending to record the incident for the blog but were preoccupied trying to bring their boat alongside. We thankfully settled on shouted questions and answers across the gap between our boats, ‘where had I come from, where was I going – what – you have not stopped since Ostia?’ they asked with apparent incredulity and clearly not believing me. Their reaction to my reply to ‘next port of call?’ – ‘Venice’ suggested they had just realised that I was a mad Englishman – they may be right! When I explained I had a copy of a form filled out by their colleagues in Ostia they seemed visibly relieved and I stretched out and handed it to one of their crew, boy, was I glad I insisted they use their carbon paper in Ostia. They handed the form around amongst themselves and nodded to each other, handing it back seemingly satisfied and pleased no doubt that they didn’t actually have to ‘come alongside’ and board. They sped off from where they had come while I took another picture – sod their ‘National Security’, I’ve got a blog to illustrate.
The Strait of Messina separates Sicily from mainland Italy and is barely 1 ½ miles across between Capo Peloro and Torre Cavallo. Our (me and Hejira) passage passed inside the evocative volcanic islands of Stromboli, Lipari, Vulcano, Salina, Filicudi and Panarrea (not a bread intolerance) before reaching the shipping separation lanes. This is a volatile seismic area and as recently as 1980, 5000 people died in an earthquake in Reggio, the main harbour in the Strait. The Strait has been famous since ‘The Odyssey’ with two legendary whirlpools, Scilla and Charybdis. It is commonly thought that the Mediterranean is not tidal but in the Strait there is a tidal current of 4 knots at springs. The South going stream starts 4 hours after high tide at Gibraltar which was at 0732 so our arrival at 1300 was bang on. In the words of the redoubtable Admiralty Pilot: ‘The currents and whirlpools, famous from antiquity, are such as to necessitate some caution in the navigation of the Strait, moreover, in the vicinity of the high land, on either side, vessels are exposed to violent squalls which descend through the valleys with such strength as, at times, to inconvenience vessels.’
I chose to tackle the Strait on the eastern, mainland side outside of the shipping lanes. The approach commenced opposite the town of Scilla, named after the legendary whirlpool. It was here that I was fascinated by half a dozen of the most curious and unusual craft which were just circling and running up and down. They were clearly fishing vessels of about 60ft in length with a huge lattice mast with 3 people in a crow’s nest at the top. Wires from the mast supported a horizontal walkway nearly twice the length of the boat with someone sitting at the end. I am intrigued to know what this is all about as it must be profitable to support at least half a dozen of these unique and inevitably expensive craft, each with a crew of about 7. My guess is that the lookouts in the crow’s nest, spot the highly prized fish (large tuna maybe?) and the individual at the end of the huge bow sprit, harpoons the hapless fish, I await correction. The Strait is very busy with ferries of all shapes and sizes seemingly plying their trade from a number of locations on either side. The most striking feature of the passage though was the tide. We carried a favourable tide and while the log of speed through the water showed 5.5 knots, we were reading a speed over the ground in the gut of the Strait of 9.6knots which is a helpful current of over 4 knots. We also encountered a whirlpool which, but for timely intervention on the helm, could have spun us completely around.
Mount Etna on Sardinia, just to the south west of the Strait is a massive 3,350 metres in height. She is still smoking having erupted again in 2014. I remember it as where Professor Lidenbrock and his party returned to the surface in Jules Verne’s ‘Journey to the centre of the Earth’. Funny what you do remember when I struggle to recall people’s names that I have only just been introduced to. Unfortunately, it’s too hazy for a decent picture. Incredibly Etna has two ski resorts on its slopes – I bet you didn’t know that!
Having all but transited the Strait, it’s notoriously capricious nature didn’t let me off without reminding me not to be smug. The wind piped up along with a big sea and it was from directly behind. We were doing over 8 knots and I began to feel Hejira yawing and the auto beginning to struggle to react sufficiently quickly so, to stay the right side of the wind and a potential gybe, I had to take over for the next hour and a half until our course turned east and the gybe potential had passed. The early part of this transition was not helped by dozens of kite surfers off the turning point directly on the course that I would have ideally chosen to take. As a result I had to sail closer to the lee than I would have liked but it was either that or run the risk of a tangle of kite lines in the rigging. Having turned the corner and shaken out all plain sail, I flirted with the engine off button. Looking at the weather forecast, it would appear we will be able to sail into tomorrow so, yes, I turned the engine off. Unable to help myself, I started it again without a problem. Let’s hope this is still the case when next it is really needed.
So, it’s out of the Tyrrhenian Sea and into the Ionian Sea which is new to me. Having successfully negotiated the toenail of Italy, I have to negotiate the toe, past the ball of the foot and across the instep, and so it goes on.